Opinion

Jancis Robinson on Why Americans Lead on Sustainability

According to the British wine author and critic, it’s U.S. producers—not European—who are truly progressive when it comes to sustainable viticulture

Spottswoode winery’s organic chickens, Napa Valley. Photo by Yianni Stoner.

Wine farmers generally are ahead of the sustainability curveand American farmers seem to be even further ahead.

This was the overarching takeaway from the 2020 JancisRobinson.com writing competition. We’ve been organizing this popular contest annually since 2012, and over the years we’ve unearthed more than a few talented wine writers. 

Sustainability was our theme this year. We invited writers to profile wine producers who go the extra mile in their efforts to ensure that their enterprise adapts thoughtfully to our changing world. It was heartening to see how many aspiring wine writers from all over the world submitted such well-researched and detailed articles. 

What was particularly interesting to me was that the biggest geographical group of sustainable producers profiled were American. And in our shortlist of the best submissions, eight out of 18 were American. In the end, we judges (the JancisRobinson.com team plus two external specialists in sustainability, from Australia and the UK respectively) decided that there were two winning profiles, both American: Brooks Wine of Oregon and Spottswoode Winery  of Napa Valley. 

The winning writers, by the way, were all American too. Pascal Brooks wrote so movingly of the ethos of the winery he inherited at the age of eight that we couldn’t fail to award him, and two Masters of Wine, Ashley Hausman and Martin Reyes, did a superbly thorough job of profiling Spottswoode.

I’m afraid the image that many Europeans have of Americans is that they are gas-guzzling, air-conditioned, fast-food-bingers who couldn’t care less about the environmenta stereotype only reinforced by President Trump’s exit from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. But the results of our sustainability writing competition suggest we are very wrong, I’m delighted to say. 

“Is it perhaps because the modern California and Oregon wine industries are relatively young and independent, often inspired by passion more than profit, whereas most European wine producers operate within a centuries-old wine culture ruled by commercial expediency and tradition?”

From left, Brooks Winery Pascal Brooks, Janie Brooks-Heuck, Chris Williams. Photo by Andrew Johnson Photography.

Why might American wine producers seem so much more conscious of sustainability issues than their European counterparts? (We received relatively few entries focused on European wine producers and there was just one French and one Italian producer on our shortlist of 18.) 

Is it perhaps because the modern California and Oregon wine industries are relatively young and independent, and therefore more inclined towards well-informed thinking? Hardly any California or Oregon wine producers are older than second-generation enterprises, often inspired by passion more than profit, whereas most European wine producers operate within a centuries-old wine culture ruled by commercial expediency and tradition. 

Topflight Burgundy producers such as Lalou Bize-Leroy and the late Anne-Claude Leflaive may have led the way towards organic and biodynamic viticulture but such practices are still surprisingly rare considering France’s massive area under vine. The all-too-obvious effects of climate change are slowly increasing awareness and changing French vignerons’ minds, although vineyards are still France’s biggest consumers of fungicides, insecticides, and herbicides. 

I was thrilled, however, when I asked my Financial Times colleague Emiko Terazono, the paper’s commodities specialist, to compare the sustainability performance of wine growers in general with farmers of other crops. She commented, “I think what’s interesting about wine production is that while other agricultural productsgrains, palm oil, livestock are finally addressing sustainability as a result of a lot of pressure from environmental activists and campaigners, viticulturalists have gone on the path to sustainability in a more ‘organic’ way, for want of a better description.”

Brooks Estate vineyard, Eola-Amity Hills AVA, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Photo by Andrea Johnson Photography.

Organic farming is certainly the most obvious first step towards sustainability. Oregon, despite its often-damp climate, has been a hotspot for organic viticulture,with adoption perhaps fueled by the relatively limited size and deeply communal nature of its wine industry. Californians, in a climate much freer than Oregon’s of the fungal diseases to which vines are so susceptible, are going along the same path, encouraged by some pretty strong ordinances and strict local laws. 

But of course true sustainability is about so much more than forswearing agrochemicals and applying sensitive farming methods. As the entries in our writing competition brought home so forcefully, to be really sustainable over the long term, wine producers need to nurture their environment as a whole. 

Biodiversity, for example, is hugely important as the planet digests the ramifications of the dramatic shrinkage in the number of extant species. I know Jill and Steve Matthiasson, some of the Napa Valley’s least glitzy wine producers, are keenly conscious of this issue. I always feel cheered when I see a bird box in a vineyard, a sign that this is a pesticide-free zone. And of course I admire all those like the Fords at Illahe Vineyards in Oregon who are exploring ways of generating energy that don’t involve fossil fuelsin their case cycle-, horse-, and canoe-power. 

Really planet-friendly packaging is one of the most outward-facing signs of sustainability in a wine producer. How I hate those heavy bottles and all the carbon emitted while making and transporting them. 

But for any business to be sustainable it has to survive, and so make a profit. It was great to see that our two winning wine producers, Brooks and Spottswoode, are aware of this but also to see that both are members of 1% for the Planet, whereby they donate one percent of their gross revenues (not profits) to environmental causes. 

Another sometimes-overlooked aspect of sustainability is the human dimension. This means genuine concern for the welfare of the entire workforce as well as the local community. John and Rory Williams at Frog’s Leap, an organic pioneer in Napa Valley, are particularly proud of the fact that they employ people year-round and provide a career rather than hiring itinerant workers which is the norm throughout the world’s vineyards. And it’s a blinkered employer nowadays who, with even half an eye on the future, is not aware of the need to be both diverse and inclusive.  

November 2020 marks the 20th anniversary of JancisRobinson.com, and instead of holding a great, big sociable wine tasting in London to celebrate, we have published a whole load of short videos which can be viewed by any visitor to our site. We kicked off with my overview of the changes I’ve seen in the wine world over the last 20 years and followed that up with three-minute videos from each of our 15 contributors

But the series I am most proud of are the 18 three-minute videos from our shortlisted sustainable wine producers. I hope you will listen to their inspiring stories and that other wine producers will take note of what they have to say. 

And they all make damned good wine, by the way.

Jancis Robinson, OBE, MW, is a UK-based wine writer and founder of JancisRobinson.com. She writes weekly for the Financial Times and is the founder-editor of The Oxford Companion to Wineco-author with Hugh Johnson of The World Atlas of Wine and co-author of Wine Grapes. In 1984 she was the first person outside the wine trade to pass the rigorous Master of Wine exams and in 2003 she was awarded an Order of the British Empire by Her Majesty the Queen.

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