There are many charitable beverage brands hoping to serve more than just flavor and buzz. From wineries and breweries with animal-focused initiatives, to brands fundraising for food banks, myriad drink makers give back to their communities in creative ways. In response to the climate crisis and to disparities within our neighborhoods — both of which have been magnified by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic — many beverage companies have continued to donate to worthy causes.
But there are companies within the beverage sector that prefer to take a more hands-on approach, spearheading efforts to make breweries, wineries, and distilleries the agents of change. From brands looking out for their employees to those protecting the planet, here are the innovative ways that the drinks community is bettering the world with social and environmental missions in mind.
Caring for Workers
In Los Olivos, Calif., in the 1990s, Tom Stolpman opened Stolpman Vineyards. He noticed a problem for vineyard laborers on the West Coast: Many migrant workers would spend a few weeks at his vineyard, pruning the vines and harvesting the grapes, and then be forced to move on, repeating this process every fortnight or so.
“It created a social problem for the families,” said Peter Stolpman, Tom’s son and managing partner of Stolpman Vineyards. Either the workers’ children were not able to go to school because they’d be traveling from vineyard to vineyard with their families, or they’d be left at home without a parent present in their lives. “He wanted to go to sleep at night knowing the families had stability and the kids were getting an education,” Peter Stolpman says of his father.
To create full-time employment for his workers and offer much-needed stability, Tom Stolpman brought on Ruben Solorzano to work as his vintner and vineyard manager, and to help start La Cuadrilla vineyard training program. The program gave 15 workers their own block, or cuadra in Spanish, where they could experiment with new cultivation techniques and learn the life cycle of the vine. When the employees had improved their techniques, Stolpman Vineyards started bottling and selling their wines, calling the end result La Cuadrilla. All profits from La Cuadrilla went to the workers — paid out as a bonus on top of their hourly wages — affording them enough money to stay in one place with their families.
Today, Stolpman Vineyards dedicates a minimum of 10 percent of its estate to growing La Cuadrilla wine. The program allows 30 full-time farmers to share in the profits and create security for their families.
In Italy, on the island of Gorgona, another vineyard is used to improve the lives of a different group. In a prison yard that overlooks the sea, inmates tend to some of Frescobaldi’s vines. In 2012, Frescobaldi, which has produced wine in Tuscany for 700 years, partnered with the Gorgona Penal Institute to teach inmates at the ends of their sentences how to care for the vines on the island, which yield a red and a white coveted by wine aficionados and Michelin-star restaurants.
The company reports that all profits from the sale of Gorgona wines are put back into the program, and that the inmates are paid a living wage equivalent to that of a free Italian citizen working the same job.
From Frescobaldi’s agronomists and oenologists, inmates learn how to make wine, how to manage the cellar, and how to work in the industry upon release. Once their sentences are completed, they have the option to work on the Frescobaldi estate for one year. According to Marchese Lamberto Frescobaldi, the 30th-generation winemaker and head of Frescobaldi, of the 100 inmates who have gone through the program, none have recidivated.
A decade ago, Alejandro Champion noticed that many farmers of agave — mezcal’s key ingredient — hadn’t the funds nor resources to properly farm their lands and produce the drink. Because these small-scale operations were running without profit, the children of many farmers were forced to migrate to the United States for work.
To industrialize mezcal would kill the culture around it, as many Oaxacans believed that the drink connected a person with their spirit and the gods. But not acting would lead to the collapse of these small farms and producers.
Instead, Champion and his co-founders founded Mezcal Unión in order to champion the agave farmers. The business model was simple: The farmers had the land and the knowledge, and Mezcal Unión would provide the investment and manage the risk. By combining their resources and operating a fair-trade business model, Mezcal Unión runs a profitable distribution company, while the once-struggling small producers and farmers now earn more than the industry norm.
“We wanted to be part of a project,” says Champion, that “positively impacts the people we collaborate with.”
Sometimes, Mezcal Unión provides farmers and producers with the funds to purchase agave and farming tools. Other times, the money is used to upscale production. In some instances, Mezcal Unión provides business support and financial mentorship to small businesses.
“Our agreements are based on how they want to work with us,” Champion says.
But the farmers and producers are not employees of Mezcal Unión. For instance, if Mezcal Unión provides agave seeds to a farmer, Mezcal Unión owns only half of that seed, while the farmer owns the other 50 percent. This allows farmers the choice to sell their yield of agave to Mezcal Unión or to another distributor.
(Note: In August 2021, Diageo purchased Mezcal Unión. However, Champion and his co-founders recently told VinePair that they are still running the company and their relationships with farmers and producers are unchanged.)
Caring for the Planet
With concerns over climate change, many beer makers are building LEED-certified breweries and attempting to reduce their carbon footprints. But New Belgium has always been at the helm of such initiatives.
New Belgium has donated nearly $17 million to combating climate change, invests in renewable energies to run its facilities, works with industry partners to reduce beer’s carbon footprint up and down the supply chain, advocates for better climate policies, and has pledged to make the entire company carbon neutral by 2030.
This month, New Belgium released its Carbon Neutral Toolkit for free so that other breweries can take advantage of its investments into research, and replicate the company’s methods to measure their carbon footprints and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the brewing process. “Rather than keeping the rewards of our carbon-neutral investments to ourselves, we’re giving away our Toolkit as an invite to other brewers to join us,” CEO Steve Fechheimer announced in a recent press release. The 26-page toolkit comprises actionable tips, affordable suggestions, and useful resources that allow other breweries to properly account for their greenhouse gas emissions.
Focusing on caring for a whole planet can feel overwhelming for a small company. That’s why Claire Marin, who owns Catskill Provisions — a small distillery in upstate New York — instead zoomed in to focus on tinier worlds: beehives.
Before Marin opened Catskill Provisions last year, she was a nomadic distiller, buzzing from distillery to distillery, much like the creatures that inspire her creations. From her Pollinator Vodka, which uses honey during fermentation, to her rye whiskey, which she finishes in honey barrels, everything Marin produces is “an ode to the bee and pollinators,” she says.
Not only does Catskill Provisions donate profits to bee-focused organizations, but Marin spends a great deal of time helping the bees in her region, dedicating a lot of her efforts to the logistics of keeping them healthy. Marin has placed 300 beehives around the Catskills, making sure to space them out enough to avoid competition between colonies. She ensures that her bees are on farms that avoid pesticides, which are responsible for colony collapse. And she harvests honey from her 18 million bees slowly to make sure that her bees have what they need to survive.