Beer & Wine Wine

These Winemakers Are Going Far Beyond Organic

Eschewing chemicals is merely a first step for these wine pros.

Wildflowers spring up among the rows of vines at Chene Bleu in the Southern Rhône.

Chêne Bleu

Organic wine used to be a niche category, but like yoga pants, it eventually came to be considered normal and then almost an expected presence. About 729 million bottles of organic wine were consumed in 2018, and that number is expected to rise by 34% to 976 million by 2023, according to a study conducted by research group IWSR. 

That forecast was made in December 2019, before the pandemic arrived. In a more recent forecast of 2021 wine trends, IWSR notes that “the importance of sustainability has been reinforced in the minds of consumers,” likely driving the organic, biodynamic and low-intervention wine movement with a greater sense of urgency. 

Winemakers have been feeling this sense of urgency for some time; grapes are extraordinarily delicate, and even subtle changes in climate can drastically impact their flavor in the glass. Winemakers have noted that they harvest grapes earlier every year, as wine regions around the world experience violent hail storms, droughts and wildfires. Terroirs once unsuitable for vitis vinifera, such as England and Vermont, now produce critically acclaimed wines. Producers in well-known regions such as Barolo, Champagne, the Douro and the Yarra Valley, meanwhile, are transforming their vineyards to accommodate hotter conditions. 

Several winemakers are no longer “just” farming organically or biodynamically; they’re farming as if their lives, and not just their livelihoods, depend on the choices they make in the fields and cellar. Many are also changing the way they do business and looking at sustainability through a holistic lens that encompasses social and economic issues, as well. 

Winged and Hoofed Helpers 

For decades, most things with wings and four feet were viewed as foes of agriculture that must be vanquished with a toxic array of chemical bombs. In recent years, though, it has become increasingly clear that these chemicals don’t just kill bugs and other pests; they kill humans, too (for example, Bayer’s $10 billion payout to people with cancer linked to its herbicide Roundup, just one of dozens of lawsuits linking agricultural chemicals to deadly human diseases). 

Farmers, including grape growers, now recruit members of the insect and animal world to do a much greener version of dirty work for them. Vineyard managers have placed owl boxes all over Fess Parker Home Ranch in Santa Ynez Valley, California, knowing that the raptors hunt the gophers and ground squirrels that menace the vineyard’s vines by eating their roots. “It’s a family-owned business, so sustainability is personal,” says Tim Snider, Fess Parker’s president. 

Birds are also deployed at Vranken Pommery in Reims, France, where hungry starlings have been known to decimate grape crops. Wine growers have introduced boxes and nesting stations for falcons and Harris hawks, who settle in and frighten the smaller birds away. The winery has set aside 50 acres for winged creatures of all kinds, including nesting migratory species of birds and pollinators, bees in particular. 

Sarah Cahn Bennett, the founder and proprietor of Pennyroyal Farm in Mendocino, California, grew up on her parents’ winery, Navarro Vineyards, witnessing how the land and wine improved when they stopped using synthetic herbicides and insecticides in 1979 and 1980, respectively. As an adult, she talked them into grazing miniature Babydoll Southdown sheep to reduce the need for weed management via hand and tractor and imported their united vision and philosophy to her own winery, which she launched on 23 acres in 2008. “I try to have a holistic vision for the winery, vineyard and ranch,” she says. “We have 180 sheep and 180 Babydolls to help with weed management, plus 100 milking does [goats] and 20 milking sheep.” 

Bennett makes raw-milk cheeses from the dairy sheep and goats and uses their recycled hay bedding to make the 400 tons of compost that end up in their vineyard each year. “Working with animals in the vineyard makes sense environmentally and economically, because you reduce outside inputs and the carbon footprint,” says Bennett, adding that constantly running tractors and bringing in compost from outside pollutes the environment and is also very expensive.

At Napa’s Hoopes Vineyard, which practices regenerative farming, the vibe has become decidedly Old MacDonald, thanks to its owners’ decision to rescue 30 animals that were destined for the slaughterhouse. Now, pigs, chickens, goats, a donkey and two rescue dogs snort, peck, bleat, bray and bark their way around the vineyard, improving the health of the soil with their footwork and “input,” while also managing weeds and pests. "Hoopes' goal is to give back more than we take from the land and community," says second-generation proprietor Lindsay Hoopes. "We do that through regenerative farming practices but also with partnerships in the community."

The conservation effort extends far beyond the vineyard at Graham Beck in South Africa. For every acre it uses for growing and production activities, it conserves eight acres of natural vegetation in the Central Breede Valley of the Western Cape. This vegetation type is critically endangered, but in the past 18 years, the winery’s efforts have stabilized thousands of acres. One native species in particular—the Esterhuizenia Grahameckii, which exists only on their property, makes the winery workers smile, says marketing manager Lisa Keulder. Graham Beck has also teamed up with 27 neighboring farms to protect 39,000 acres of the Cape Floral Kingdom, which has been designated the smallest of six floral kingdoms in existence on the planet, with 8,500 primarily endemic plant species, dozens of which are deemed critically endangered or vulnerable. Iconic species like the Cape leopard, riverine rabbit, brown hyena and honey badger, some of which are endangered, also exist on the land.

Sheep reduce the need for weed management via hand and tractor.
Sheep reduce the need for weed management via hand and tractor.

Chêne Bleu

Paying It Forward

In addition to taking measures to avoid chemicals in their vineyards, winemakers have launched complex research projects that they hope will help not just their own vineyards but the wine world at large reach a healthier and more economically viable place. 

High in the Alps of the Southern Rhône, part of a UNESCO-designated biosphere that boasts 1200 species of flora, 1,400 species of butterflies and more than 120 species of nesting birds, the 75-acre Chêne Bleu uses strict organic and biodynamic practices to grow grapes and make wine, harvesting, planting and treating the soil according to the phases of the moon. 

“It’s no longer enough to simply make wine that will tick all of the boxes for critics,” says Nicole Rolet, the principal and CEO of Chêne Bleu. “You have to make it in a way that’s responsible for both the people who will consume it and the planet. That means no chemicals and giving back more than you take from the land.”

For Rolet and her husband, founder and resident eco-warrior Xavier, and their family team, that means investing in a project that she believes will provide a template for wineries who want to stop using chemicals but don’t know where to begin and are afraid of the expense. 

“Vines are self-pollinating, so people think that bees aren’t important to the life and health of the vine,” says Rolet. “But in fact, research shows that bees in a vineyard do in fact turbocharge the self-pollination with their activity. They also are essential to transmitting wild yeast around the vineyard, which helps strengthen the vines naturally and helps in the winemaking process in the cellar. 

“They also are essential for cover crops,” adds Rolet. “They pollinate the flowers and boost biodiversity, which in turn creates a strong and vital environment that can naturally combat pests and disease, without chemicals. Propolis [a resinlike material made by bees] also acts as a natural disinfectant.”

Rolet and Xavier are hosting a cohort of scientists, including bee expert Dave Goulson, a professor at the University of Sussex, and Yves Le Conte, a professor and the head of research on bees at INRAE, the French National Research Institute for Agriculture and the Environment, who use their vineyards to quantify how much bees improve the health of the vineyard and the quality of the wine. The research, which is guided by the scientists, will also delve into costs of converting a vineyard (the Rolets converted their vineyard, purchased in 1994, toward Demeter certification over several years) and the money that can be saved by making bees a central part of a vineyard’s pest-busting effort. 

They launched a crowdfunding campaign last year and cut it off after it raised 150% of its goal, about $27,000. As of now, they have 17 beehives, 10 of which are recent additions; seven more are going in over the coming months.

Evan Martin, the winemaker at Martin Woods, nested in the oak-forested foothills of the McMinnville AVA in Oregon, makes wines from organic grapes gathered all over the Willamette Valley and the Rocks District of northeastern Oregon. On his land, about 20 acres of primarily woodland, he’s nurturing a grand experiment.

“Only about 3% of the Oregon White Oaks, or Quercus garryana, remain in the Willamette Valley because it was treated like a junk species by developers,” says Martin. “I happen to be in one of the zones where the oaks thrive, and they are central to the fragile ecosystem here that makes the Willamette Valley such a special place and such a great terroir for wine.” 

Martin is going about saving the trees in a counterintuitive way: by using them to barrel-age his wine. “I’m of the mindset that for a true sense of terroir, everything that goes into making a wine should come from that place,” he says. “French oak has been the standard-bearer for aging wine across the world for hundreds of years. I don’t think I can change that overnight. But since 2014, I’ve been aging my wine, at least partially, in oak barrels made by a master cooper at Oregon Barrel Works. We’ve been experimenting with toasts and seasoning and with drying regimens.”

Martin believes that Oregon oak, when dried and aged properly, provides an “aromatically transparent and deeply complex textural influence that’s completely distinct from French,” he says. “It doesn’t make it easier to drink younger, because it’s denser than French and oxygen doesn’t hit the wine as quickly. But the impact, especially on our chardonnay, is unique and wonderful and electric. There’s tension and freshness, like in Chablis, but not as lean.” That sense of distinction, Martin hopes, could change the perception of the oak’s value, which is guarded by an informal accord but has no official legal protection. 

Other winemakers, like Sauternes’ Château Guiraud, the first Grand Cru Classé to receive organic certification, are setting out to protect rare species of grapes. “We created a conservatory in 2001 to preserve genetic biodiversity, study plant material and test the clone phenotype without the influence of terroir to ascertain its quality,” says Luc Planty, the chateau’s general manager. The program will not only improve the quality of the chateau’s wine but will enable it to share the species with other winemakers, who can choose them based on disease-fighting potential and aromatic flavor qualities studied and evaluated over decades at the conservatory.

Portugal’s Herdade do Esporao has a similar program, with 189 varieties planted in a designated ampelographic field. “All of the varieties are from the Alentejo or Douro region or have potential to thrive there,” says Esporao’s winemaking director, Sandra Alves. “The main goal is to preserve Portuguese varieties while evaluating their winemaking potential amid climate change, water stress, thermal stress and various pests and diseases.”

New netting to assess the effect of pollinators at Chêne Bleu
New netting to assess the effect of pollinators at Chêne Bleu.

Chêne Bleu

A Smaller Carbon Footprint

The carbon footprint of serving, packaging and shipping wine is notoriously large, prompting many to zero in on sustainability initiatives in those arenas. 

One of the easiest ways to make packaging more sustainable is to switch from glass to cans. Aluminum is lighter to ship than glass and less prone to breaking. Cans also don’t require cardboard or Styrofoam padding, as glass bottles do, and take up less volume on trucks, boats and planes. Aluminum cans are also, according to a study by Resource Recycling, more likely to be recycled than glass

Sans Wine Co., which makes terroir-driven wines from organically farmed vineyards in the Napa Valley and Mendocino, focuses on cans for all of those reasons. “Our cases of cans, about nine liters worth of wine, weigh 22 pounds, whereas the average case of wine bottles weighs 42 to 45 pounds,” says Jake Stover, the co-founder and winemaker at Sans. “We can ship 90 cases to a pallet, instead of 56 cases for glass. And for shipping to customers, we require a lot less packaging or bulky inserts.”

For Jacksonville, Oregon’s Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden, with 22 acres of biodynamically grown grapes under vine, the winery and hospitality space had to be as green as the vineyards. “Everything we do, from our insect, bird and wildlife corridors to our polycultural approach to growing lavender, hazelnut trees and asparagus, has created a Disneyland of biodiversity,” says Bill Steele, the co-founder and winemaker. “We had a group of bird watchers come out for a tasting, and they said they’d never seen so many species in such a short time. We have five types of hawks, four types of owls, two types of eagles and dozens of others migrating in and out. We do everything we can to extend our approach to not harming and in fact benefiting the earth beyond the vineyard.”

In 2017, the vineyard earned recognition from the Living Building Challenge, the world’s strictest standard for green buildings, beyond LEED certification. Cowhorn was the 20th building in the world to earn the distinction and the first tasting room. The buildings are net-positive for energy and completely free of toxins.

“There is no bad juju on our estate,” says Steele. “And that’s a technical term, by the way. I’m joking, but think about the way people built things in the 1970s, with asbestos and lead paint. They thought they were saving money, but think of the trickle-down economic and social effect. Every nail that went into this building was examined and approved, and every cork and bottle gets recycled. We don’t use chemicals here, even to clean.”

Cultural Considerations

An increasing number of producers believe that true sustainability needs to go beyond pure environmental efforts. In Chile, a country rendered remote by its geography—it’s hemmed in by the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean—has long been protected from much of the industrialization that has plagued other major wine-growing regions. Wines of Chile became the first wine region to sign onto a United Nations-supported energy initiative to be completely carbon-free by 2050. It also has a stringent sustainability code, with 346 rules, 151 of which address social rules. 

One of the rising social initiatives in Chile is an effort on winemakers’ part to work with the indigenous Mapuche community, who reside in the Central Valley of Chile. “The Mapuche are a traditional community who practice agriculture but also blend various traditional rites, dances and prayers into their farming,” says Julio Alonso, the director of Wines of Chile USA. “Vina San Pedro became the first winemaker to collaborate with a Mapuche community in Malleco, constructing a vineyard there and teaching them to grow grapes, while allowing them to farm them in their traditional ways.”

The project gave the Mapuche community much-needed economic opportunities, while allowing them to maintain and preserve their cultural and social traditions, he says. Vina San Pedro was recognized by the United Nations for the effort, and now at least five other major wineries have followed in their footsteps. 

Other producers who helped lay the groundwork for sustainability in their areas also work to boost its cultural health. Mary Ann McGuire helped found the Napa Valley Ag Preserve in 1968, paving the way for Napa’s ability to preserve its pristine vineyards, while saving room for wildlife and clean rivers. McGuire also worked to stop the cementing over of Napa’s riverbanks, a movement that drew attention to the dire state of the Napa River and kicked off its restoration. Currently, only 9% of Napa’s 500,000 acres is planted with vineyards, with much of the rest existing as protected watershed. 

“The story of Napa goes back 10,000 years, when the land was cared for by the first inhabitants, including the Onastis (Wappo) Peoples, who saw everything as sacred: the plants, the animals, the soil, the sky, themselves,” says McGuire. “When we began farming here, we felt we had the moral imperative to preserve the Napa Valley and their legacy.”

While working as an advocate for the Agricultural Preserve, McGuire noted that there were not many cultural amenities. “Until the early 1970s, to even get a really fine meal, you had to drive to San Francisco,” she says. “We believed that to sustain the Ag Preserve we had to make Napa a world-class wine region, with other cultural amenities.”

McGuire helped open Summer Theater, and she invited the Oakland Symphony to perform at Inglenook and the San Francisco Western Opera Co. to perform at Veteran’s Home in Yountville. 

“We created a connection between the nearby cities and the rural area, which is a part of sustainability,” says McGuire. “What happens in the South Pole is happening to us; what happens in the rain forest happens to us. It cannot be us and them; we are interrelated and interdependent, and we are one.” 

What Wine Drinkers Can Do 

The pandemic has transformed the way drinkers purchase and consume wine. Trips to the wine country and the store are out; clicking for wine is in. Americans ordered approximately 8.39 million cases of wine, worth $3.7 billion, in 2020, a 27% increase year-over-year, according to a 2021 report by Sovos ShipCompliant. 

That trend is expected to continue, and sustainably minded businesses like Wine + Peace are attempting to meet that need by delivering greener alternatives, from vineyard to shipping insert. “We actually began putting the company together in 2018, reaching out to winemakers about creating an Etsy-style marketplace of responsibly produced American wines,” says founder Sam Decker. “We had a dream team on board, including David Adelsheim, Cathy Corion, Steve Matthiasson, Sashi Moorman and Martha Stoumen, all small-scale makers of incredible, sustainably made wine from socially progressive makers. It allows customers to buy wine that reflects their values, without leaving their houses or having to research individual labels.”

Then, just as the company was getting ready to do a soft launch, the pandemic hit. It proceeded with a soft launch and by mid-December 2020 went full-tilt. Wine + Peace is partnering with Wineshipping, and Decker says the “vast majority of packaging is composed of 100% recycled materials—no Styrofoam, period. Their warehouses for storing wine are also eco-friendly, with low-consumption lighting and passive cooling. They offset the carbon footprint of all shipping through a range of renewable energy and carbon reduction projects.” 

There’s no easy solution for climate change. But being progressively greener is getting easier every day, and starting with the decisions you make about wine is an important piece of the puzzle.