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A new guard of industry leaders is emerging to prove that the term sustainability––so often employed to appeal to the conscious consumer––can have real meaning, and that real change is not only possible, but essential in order to preserve the wine industry in the face of escalating climate change.
“If the wine industry is going to exist in any shape or form in another 35 years, we have to really work on sustainability,” said Louisa Rose, the head of winemaking at Yalumba in Barossa, South Australia. “Fundamentally, we’ve got to make sure that we actually look after our planet and our assets so that we’ve actually got something to pass on to future generations.”
Rose was speaking on a panel at a recent webinar presented by Winebow Imports and SevenFifty, along with winemakers from Chile’s Root:1 and New Zealand’s Villa Maria, which explored sustainability in an industry on the frontline of the climate crisis, as wineries are increasingly plagued by climatic extremes like heat waves, drought, fires, and excessive rain.
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Most industry veterans agree there is no one-size-fits-all sustainability model, but the prototype for success that is thriving today involves taking a multifaceted approach. The sustainability initiatives moving the wine industry toward net-zero emissions share key elements: A focus on conscientious, low-intervention farming; efficient energy and waste management; and significant investment in human capital. Today, those who practice these nuanced approaches are evaluating how everything, from time-honored agricultural practices to high-tech advancements, can better serve the planet––and the industry.
“Maybe [sustainability] happened by accident or by luck in the past,” said Rose. “But we’ve got to absolutely make sure that it happens for the future.”
Building “Resilient Terroir”
At Yalumba, ensuring the estate legacy means acting on the belief that healthier vines create better wines. To do so, Rose and her team focus on creating “resilient terroir” by encouraging diverse ecosystems that include a range of plant species rather than a grapevine monoculture.
“Twenty-five years ago, we decided that we would aim to have the same area under native vegetation, within and surrounding our vineyards, as we have under grapevines,” said Rose, who has led Yalumba to 43 awards for its sustainability initiatives since the 1990s. “The biodiversity that this creates results in better natural balance, so we, as farmers, don’t need to go in and use as many chemicals or spray.”
In the dry, arid expanses of Chile, the team at Root:1—the first winery in Chile to be certified sustainable––operates in a similar fashion; a key element of their five-pillar sustainability philosophy is reducing water consumption.
“Worldwide drought is an issue, but in Chile it is especially complex,” said Sergio Hormazábal, the senior winemaker at Root:1. Chile is in the grip of a 12-year-drought, with the government implementing unprecedented measures to ration water. This year, Hormazábal plans to expand Root:1’s dry-farming operations from 11 to 25 hectares of vineyards.
“We are a little bit crazy because we are pushing the limits, but we now realize it is possible to grow vineyards this way,” he said. The winery has reduced its water use by 50 to 80 percent in the last 10 years, with the cultivation of varieties and rootstocks that adapt to drought and the reuse of 100 percent of the process water from the winery for irrigation.
Villa Maria, one of New Zealand’s pioneering wine estates, is leading a decidedly high-tech approach to sustainability. The team employs organic farming methods and cultivates worms, bees, and wildflowers to promote biodiversity above-ground, but their underground advancements are among their most notable achievements.
“Sub-surface irrigation is an interesting technique we’ve rolled out when we’re developing new vineyards,” said David Roper, Villa Maria’s senior winemaker in Auckland. “Instead of positioning your irrigation above the soil, you’re digging a trench and putting your irrigation closer to the roots of the vines.”
Underground irrigation lines reduce water loss due to evaporation and ensure precious water goes directly to the vines, rather than feeding weeds or other undesirable plants.
A focus on modern innovations led Villa Maria to evaluate its winery structures in an effort to utilize all spaces to support long-term sustainability goals. “Our wineries are built to utilize natural light, so we can reduce our reliance on electricity,” said Roper. “We recover a lot of heat that’s normally lost to the environment that comes from our compressors and our fridge plants. And we recycle that heat back into the winemaking process via heat exchangers.”
Engaging All Partners
Yet the most critical—and unifying—factor among climate-focused wineries doesn’t lie in the vineyard or winery. “Our people and local communities are key in long-term projects,” explained Hormazábal. “We realized that social sustainability is really important, and it makes everything else we do make sense. If you are just looking for biodiversity or becoming carbon neutral, but you are not in a relationship with your community, it means nothing.”
At Root:1, putting people first means the winery hires 100 percent of its workforce from the local community. In addition, the team engages with its neighbors actively by spearheading projects like rebuilding local schools following Chile’s 2010 earthquake and paying its partner growers an above-market rate for grapes to ensure Fair Trade practices are adopted in Chile.
Increasingly, wineries are adopting all-inclusive sustainability programs like those at Root:1 that ensure green initiatives aren’t occasional practices, but rather are ingrained in the winery’s efforts––and its community.
“Sustainability is not just about your environment—it is about your society and your workforce and the community that you’re part of,” said Rose. At Yalumba, taking care of people falls under the “Thriving Workforce” and “Prosperous Community” pillars of their sustainability program, and extends from hosting art shows to providing career training for their staff . “It’s really important to make sure our workforce is healthy.”
Villa Maria is following similar steps, hosting local students at its wineries and relying on suppliers located within 14 miles of their bottling facility to support the local economy while reducing carbon emissions from transportation.
As leaders across the industry are showing, evaluating and improving green initiatives is crucial to ensuring the long-term health of the wine industry.
“Sustainability is a continuous improvement program,” said Rose. “It is about doing the right thing, but also working out what is the right thing to do tomorrow and getting better and better.”
For Yalumba, that means tracking its steps toward carbon neutrality as part of the International Wineries for Climate Action. This international body requires not only a commitment to reaching carbon neutrality by 2050, but members are encouraged to collaborate and chart their progress across continents. Similar benchmarks are underway at Root:1 and Villa Maria. By tracking and evaluating the efficacy of sustainability programs constantly, these wineries can prove that phenomenal advances are possible across the industry.
The Villa Maria motto is, aptly, “Tread Lightly.” Roper added: “One of our key messages is that no matter how great our progress, we always strive to do better.
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