On this week’s episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” Adam Teeter and Zach Geballe prepare listeners for VinePair’s Sustainability Week. The weeklong event is a celebration devoted to the importance of going green in the drinks world. Listeners will get the opportunity to hear in-depth conversations with winemakers about sustainable food and wine pairings and attend some one-on-one classes.

In this episode, Teeter and Geballe discuss the importance of sustainability and why its definition should go beyond agricultural practices — encompassing issues such as equity, access, and mental health in addition to healthy agricultural practices. Adam and Zach urge listeners, as well as themselves, to not only understand the holistic importance of sustainability, but to also practice it moving forward.

Don’t forget to join us for Sustainability Week!

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Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.

Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.

A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.” I can’t believe I said New York City headquarters. I’m actually still in Brooklyn.

Z: I was just like, “Oh my God. Are you back?

A: No, we’re in the process. We’re definitely reopening the office in the next few months, but I’m still in Brooklyn.

Z: That’s OK. It sounded good. It’s aspirational, let’s put it that way.

A: You’re moving, huh?

Z: Yeah. I was surrounded by partially full wine boxes. It turns out that the single biggest component of this move so far has been moving drinks. I unsurprisingly own a shitload of wine and booze. The boxes of wine are heavy. I knew this, but after a year out of restaurants, I forgot just how much it sucks moving boxes all day.

A: Where do you keep your wine? Do you have a big cooler? Is it in the basement? What’s your method?

Z: Well, definitely one of the considerations, when my wife and I were house hunting, was that there had to be space for the wine because we had been keeping it in our garage.

A: No!

Z: Fortunately, the garage was actually very stable temperature-wise because of how it was built. It wasn’t underground, but it was totally shaded, which is really unusual. So it worked reasonably well, and we made do. Now, in the house we bought, we have a basement, which is where the vast majority of the wine will live. Also, because I’m this kind of person, I also rented a storage space at a wine storage facility actually very close to where we live now where the stuff that we’re really collecting lives. The stuff that has real potential. Theoretically, if we were going to sell any of that stuff, it is all in a temperature-controlled warehouse and the other 500 bottles of wine are just here in our basement now.

A: 500 bottles of wine in the basement? I thought I had a lot of wine.

Z: Well, out here in the West, we got lots of space.

A: That is insane, man.

Z: It really is. I definitely said to myself, “Why do I own all this wine?” Much of it, I’m not sure if I’ll ever get to drink, although that feeling is starting to fade because maybe over the summer we can actually have people over and open more than one bottle of wine at a time. It feels like a novel concept after a year of opening a bottle of wine, at most, per day.

A: So what have you been drinking, then? Is it all the wine you’re packing?

Z: Oh, I was joking, actually. It’s very funny. My wife and I had dinner last night, and we ordered some fried chicken from a place near us. We both asked, “What are we going to drink?” I said, “We’ll have some Champagne. Oh wait, that’s all over at the new house.” We ended up drinking some Chardonnay that I had lying around and because I didn’t really care for it, I’m not going to say who made it. This is going to be the worst moment of this podcast. I said to myself, “This is what it must feel like to not be a wine professional.” I have 11 random bottles of wine in the house, and none of them go with what I’m eating.

A: Oh, geez, I’m so sorry, Zach.

Z: I know I’m suffering. How about you?

A: What have I been drinking lately? I’m never prepared for this part of the podcast.

Z: I know. Well, it’s the first time we’ve done it, so that’s cool.

A: Seriously, who thought about this idea? I think it was your idea. Anyways, this past weekend, we did a really fun thing. We did a raid of the office because we had some old stuff in the office such as spirits that have been sampled and we needed to get rid of them as we’re getting ready to move back in. So I had some samples of some spirits we had tasted a few years ago. That was fun, but nothing crazy in that regard. The night before, on Friday night, I had a really good orange wine, but I forgot the name of the producer. Again, I was at a restaurant outside with two friends and my wife and the wine was great. I cannot remember the producer to save my life. I didn’t take a picture of it. I was in deep conversation, but it was great.

Z: I’m going to have to get Naomi on this. I’ll make her take pictures.

A: You got to take pictures of the wine. That was the most recent, but on Saturday night, I went to a brewery near my house and had a beer with Naomi. We had a pizza, but the beer wasn’t very good. As you did as well, I’m not going to name the producer.

Z: I have a question for you, Adam. Listeners will perhaps already have the chance to listen when it comes out. We just ran on Friday your interview with the founders of Firefly Distillery, talking about the sweet tea vodka. In talking about it on Slack with some of the VinePair staff, some of whom are younger than us. I think they were taken back at just how big of a deal that was. In Seattle, not in the South, I said that for probably two solid years, one of our absolute best-selling cocktails at the restaurant I was working at was sweet tea vodka and lemonade. It was so all-consuming. I wanted to say I really enjoyed listening to that episode and hopefully you all have listened to it. If not, go listen. Also, when did that cross your radar, and what was your initial response to it when you were trying it?

A: I think it crossed my radar right after I graduated college. I think it was someone still who lived in the South who was like, “Oh, my God, have you had this? Everyone’s drinking it.” I said, “No, what is this thing everyone’s drinking?” Then, I started seeing it all over New York. I remember thinking, “Wow, sweet tea vodka?” Everyone was obsessed. It was just the hot thing. I remember I would see it at parties where people were mixing it with lemonade, mixing it with more tea, all this stuff. It was the rage. Then, the rage moved on to something else. For a while, it was the new Fireball, but not Fireball. Obviously, it wasn’t this “hot” thing you just take shots of, but it was just this behemoth of a product. It’s interesting to realize now that they distill it in partnership with Sazerac, which I never knew. That was really interesting. Also, never knew it was from Charleston, to be honest.

Z: We missed the opportunity to go to the distillery.

A: I know, but it really was fun to do an oral history with them for this episode. It’s one of these products that everyone knew. I was in my early 20s. If you were of a certain drinking age at the time, that thing hit. You definitely drank it. It definitely was at parties you were at. It was definitely at the restaurants you were going to. It’s funny because the portion of our staff now in their early 20s, they were not aware of it because they were in their early teens, if not younger, at the time that this hit. That’s why they wouldn’t know Firefly. But, yeah, it was a lot of fun to do.

Z: Well, maybe we’ll investigate. There’s got to be some other cool stories like that. Some of the other things that become big sensations in beverage alcohol are the products of massive research, development, and investment. It was fun because they said, “Let’s just give it a try and have some Muscadine-based wines.” I would say sweet tea vodka is probably a better use of your time.

A: Totally. So today’s episode is devoted to sustainability and Sustainability Week. This is the first day of Sustainability Week. We are doing an online festival about what sustainability means and all those good things. One of the events of Sustainability Week, if you have not registered, is going to be a live podcast recording tomorrow night if you listen to this on Monday, so Tuesday night. VinePair’s Sustainability Week is having conversations with winemakers about sustainability, food and wine pairings, some one-on-one classes, etc. Tonight, if you’re listening to this podcast on a Monday, again, is a one-on-one on Pais, which is a sustainably made wine in Chile. Now, I thought we could take this opportunity to talk about sustainability in general. Why should consumers care about sustainability? Understanding what it means and when you became aware of sustainability, as a thing that wineries and wine regions were broadcasting to trade especially.

Z: I think you got to that last point where I wanted to start. One of the most important things in this conversation is understanding that the conversation around sustainability is an incredibly important one. One that I’m glad to see has become a bigger part of the broader conversation around beverage alcohol. Part of the reason for that is I think a few years ago, it was very popular for wineries, breweries, potentially even distilleries, etc., to focus on only one portion of what I would consider sustainability, which was the environmental impacts of what they were doing. Obviously, that’s an important element. I think it’s wonderful to be conscious and supporting organic agriculture in all its forms. However, sustainability goes beyond that. It encompasses those things I mentioned, but also looks at other elements that the beverage alcohol industry has been forced to look at over the last couple of years in terms of equality and access, living wages and benefits for employees, and the ways in which consumers, producers, the trade, and media interact with one another. In that sense, I think it’s a pretty new conversation. Wineries and breweries have been broadcasting information about their green practices for a while now. It’s still not common for them to talk about labor practices, in part because some of them have shitty labor practices, even if they are organic or biodynamic. I think it’s important for us in the media, and on the trade side as well as consumers, to push this industry to consider all of these things and more. I’m sure I’ve forgotten important things to bring this conversation to a level where we’re not just talking about one facet of sustainability.

A: Yeah, I agree. I think it’s a lot more. I’m glad we’re having the conversation about sustainability, but I’m also even happier that we’re starting to have a conversation about what it actually means, right? We have this group of people who talk about it a lot now, and by a group I mean wine professionals, regions, etc., but I think the idea of what it is, is much more impactful than I think people realize. When I first started coming into wine, and I promise you, this is what I used to hear from certain people. “Oh, well, sustainability just means that you don’t want to bother getting the certification to farm organically.” Actually, when you start talking to people that really believe in sustainability, it has so much more to do with everything about wine, on top of farming. It has to do with the people, how you treat them, how you pay them, and how you take care of them. It has to do with the products you’re using in the winery, right? The machinery you’re using, how much waste you’re producing, how heavy your glass is. All of that is what sustainability really is. That’s so much more impactful than just organics. Organics doesn’t regulate any of that. For example, it would say, “The fruit has to be farmed according to these specific requirements, and then, only these things are allowed to be used in the winery.” That’s it. It doesn’t mandate what machinery is better for electrical usage or not. It doesn’t mandate what sustainability takes organics into account. It also adds all these other layers, which I think is so interesting.

Z: I think talking about sustainability allows you to find differing equilibrium points for different producers in different places. As an example, in Washington State where I live, most of the growing region for wine is very dry. There isn’t much need for pest control as in other parts of the world where moisture is a bigger issue. I think it can be tempting when you’re in one of those regions to say, “Oh, well, we’re superior because we don’t have to use pesticide or use as much pesticide.” The reality is there are other considerations at play here, including in Washington State, much of the grape growing happens at a removal from the location of the winery, so grapes are being trucked across the state in refrigerated trucks to get to wineries to be made. This means that if you’re going to take sustainability seriously, you have to consider, as you were mentioning, every element from beginning to end of the life cycle of your product and the people who help produce it and get it to market. You mentioned one piece of this I think is really important. You talked about bottles, and I think this is an area where we’re starting to see some really interesting conversation around wine in particular. Packaging is a big piece of this. It’s a big piece of how most people interact with the product. I think we’re well past the days where we should be just OK with a ridiculously heavy wine bottle because it’s a sign of prestige. You need a heavy wine bottle for sparkling wine. You don’t need it for anything else. It’s just wasteful. It’s wasteful of material. It’s heavier and therefore it requires more energy to ship and move around. Looking at all these facets of the industry and saying, “Hey, how can we be better? How can we improve it?” That’s to me what sustainability is about. It’s not about using a few products in the vineyard because they’re forbidden and everything else is greenwashed by that organic label.

A: Yeah, I completely agree with you. I think the biggest issue is that sustainability causes us to have these conversations about why we don’t need these kinds of bottles anymore. It also allows us to have a conversation about — and I’m going to go there — cork. Why does every single bottle need to be under cork closure, especially at certain price points? Cork is extremely wasteful. You are literally taking from a tree so we’re slowly hurting a tree, but it’s extremely wasteful. It’s extremely easy to recycle a screw cap. It’s aluminum. There are lots of studies that prove that many wines do much better under screw cap than under cork. We’re risking so much less taint. And at a price point of under 25 or 30 bucks, why shouldn’t we just have the wines on our screw cap? Also, it’s way more convenient for me. The corkscrew mafia is going to be like, “You’re killing our sales.” But seriously, there are just so many benefits to screw cap, and I know that this is probably something we’re going to talk about in many of the sessions this week, but that’s something we don’t think about, and that is sustainability. Also, when we think about how are you getting your wines to market, right? Is there a more sustainable way to get them there? Is there a way that you can get them to a market that is more carbon neutral so that we are actually trying to figure out a way that we’re burning fewer fossil fuels in order to get these wines to a certain place. Those are conversations that are really important to have, and I think more people care about it. Look, climate change is a real thing. We’re all talking about this more and more. Climate change is impacted by all the ways that we go to bring wine to market, not just the way we farmed.

Z: Yeah, for sure. To me, there’s a couple of points here that are worth making. One of them is not even just talking about closures but again, I’ve become a big proponent of a lot of canned wine. Again, I think there’s no compelling reason to me why a lot of the wine that people drink day to day couldn’t be in a can, Tetra Pak, or couldn’t be in a bag and box. We have to destigmatize those formats. They’re perfectly fine for a lot of wines, unless you are a lunatic like me with a real wine collection, you don’t really need a bunch of bottles. They’re just a pain in the ass to move individually, let alone millions of them across the world. I think another thing to think about in this context is for a long time, for very good reason with wine in particular, the product was shipped around the world and was not put in the bottle until it reached the destination, because bottles are heavy and it’s finicky to fill them. The wine is quite fragile in that setting. I think you’re seeing some of this happening, but I think it could stand to be even more so, where we lose some of the preciousness around wine, putting wine in tanks and things like that is fine. It’s not damaging the wine. Again, for most of the wine that people consume, it would be much more efficient and much less wasteful to bottle locally as opposed to bottling at the winery half a world away and shipping those cases of wine bottles around the world. That’s a lot of packaging that’s being shipped just to get it to your door or to your store. I understand why pushing back against some of these really entrenched things in the industry is hard. For producers, and I don’t blame them, don’t see the benefit to them. It’s a capitalist society for the most part, and people have to make those decisions for their business. Again, sustainability has to also include a business that’s viable in most cases. But it’s incumbent on us, and listeners if you share some of the sensibilities, to think about these things and say, “Hey, I can destigmatize wine that’s shipped to the United States and bottled here or wine that shipped to wherever and bottled wherever.” I think that could be a step in the right direction.

A: I agree. I really love canned wine, but I’m going to go there. What’s really important about why sustainability is so important is because it does take into account all of these other issues. There’s a movement of wine that is telling us right now it’s the cool kid movement.

Z: What could you ever be talking about?

A: Natural? My question to a lot of these winemakers is, what are you actually doing that is sustainable? OK, I get that you’re doing a minimal intervention in the vineyard and you’re doing a minimal intervention in the cellar. But for you to be a real movement that I can get behind, how do you treat workers? How are you getting your wine to market? A lot of people are still shipping over in glass. There are a few natural winemakers going into canned now, but why aren’t more? If these natural wines are marketed to young people, as most natural winemakers say, then why aren’t they just going straight to canned? There have been scandals about how natural winemakers have treated their workers. I think all natural wineries, to be natural, should also be sustainable. If we’re going to use that large term “natural,” if this is the purest form of wine, then it’s also the purest form of taking care of the environment and the people that work for you. Again, I would challenge people to think that way. I also challenge all of us to think about the wines that we’re consuming and the ways that those wines impact every bit of an economy. I think we should celebrate the wineries that are doing things to try to empower populations, to give people jobs and purpose. Because that actually is what’s the most important. At the end of the day, wine is an economic product. It can be an economic driver. If you can figure out a way to be that economic driver sustainably, that’s a really good thing.

Z: Absolutely. And it goes beyond the direct impact. We talk about the environmental impact of a winery. We talk about the way that the company may treat its employees, but it’s also about the surrounding community, too. I think that’s another piece of this that’s important. Unfortunately, there is a situation where breweries, wineries, or distilleries are bad neighbors. Obviously, there are lots of examples where they are good neighbors. I don’t mean to say one or the other, but I think covering beverage alcohol has become a deeply complex task. I think it’s made all the more fascinating, rewarding, and rich by adding all this nuance and dimension to it. It’s also a challenge to us, to you and I, to the VinePair team, to everyone who covers this industry, and again, to consumers as well. Not every person listening is going to give a shit and that’s unfortunate but real. That’s fine. There are obviously products out there where none of this stuff is really a consideration. The taste and the price are the things that matter. That’s cool, too. Obviously, taste and price have to be a piece of sustainability, too. The product has to taste good. It has to be affordable for enough people. When I was younger in the beverage alcohol industry, I thought for a while that the only thing that mattered was how the product tasted. I think there was a certain privilege and naiveté in that mindset. As I became more established, learned more, and traveled more, whether as a podcast host, writer, or beverage director, I had the power to affect change or at least to say in my space, “Hey, look, these are the things that are important to me.” Yes, obviously, the taste is important. It has to be. All these other things have to matter, too, or at least they matter to me. I think it’s important to keep that in mind for all of us. If these are things that matter to you, your decisions — whether you’re a member of the trade, media, or a consumer — the decisions you make, the things you buy, stock, and cover have an impact. We have to be part of the movement towards sustainability as well. It can’t just all be put on the producers.

A: Absolutely. Well Zach, this has been a great conversation, as always. We hope that everyone listening, if you catch this early enough during Sustainability Week, will be able to join some of the awesome events we have happening on our webinar platform throughout the week. Zach, I’ll see you right back here next week.

Z: Sounds great.

Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please leave a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.

Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and in Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tasting director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who is instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.