Today’s Wine101 episode is sponsored by Frei Brothers, a Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing ranch in Sonoma County. To earn this certification, Frei Brothers must meet 144 vineyard and 105 winery best practices, and be nice to neighbors and employees — all while growing high-quality grapes and making premium wine. (Talk about overachievers.) To try Frei Brothers and the other wines we talk about, follow the link in the episode description to TheBarrelRoom.com.

On this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers explores what it means for wine to be sustainable. What practices are popular regions undergoing to ensure that winegrowing protects the Earth? How do such practices relate back to organic and biodynamic wine? And who are some of the major players and organizations helping the larger wine community become more eco-friendly? Tune in to learn about all this and more.

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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and sometimes, I think about how almost every song from Sade is perfect. 

What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast. I know you’re doing well. I hope you’re doing well. You doing well? Good. Let’s wrap this whole thing up. We did organic. We did biodynamic. But what is sustainability in wine? What does that even mean? Is it part of the whole thing? Is it separate? Let’s get into it. 

All right, so we got down with organics. Then, we got nice with biodynamics. Now, I hope you guys have a good, well-rounded understanding of these two agricultural ideas. Now that we have that under our belts and we have a good sense of this stuff, we need to talk about the word “sustainability.” The word sustainability has been used a lot since we had the Green Movement come to the United States. It’s a big marketing thing that we have going on right now. The thing about the word, sustainability, is that it’s evolving again as we are in this movement. Right now at this moment in history, in our history of wine in the United States or in the world, the wine industry has now wrapped its head around the general idea of sustainability and now understands it like we do organics and biodynamics. Those are movements that started in Europe, came over to the United States, we had to embrace them, understand them, get them into the public mind. And then we finally said, “Oh, this is very cool.” Sustainability is part of that. 

The thing about sustainability in wine is that, with the organic certification thing going on, in the Demeter Certification going on for biodynamics, the word sustainability can get lost and mixed into the whole thing. But the thing about sustainability in wine is it’s beyond the organic. It goes beyond the biodynamic. It goes beyond the actual agriculture of a wine business. Just like there is certification in organics and biodynamics under the IFOAM guidelines compliant with the ISO 17065 we talked about in the organics episode — you definitely want to go back and listen to that if you don’t know what I’m talking about — there are now sustainability certifications within that compliant realm, which we’ll get to in a second. 

But let’s talk about what sustainability is in wine. What does it even mean? Well, the United Nations actually has a sustainability definition that they like to use, and it is “the principle that we must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Well, that wraps it up real nice, doesn’t it? Or does it? Basically what it’s saying is, let’s make everything nice so that future generations can thrive. That’s basically what it means. When you want to apply this idea of sustainability to wine, it has to go beyond the agriculture. And that’s really what sustainability in wine is. It is a further list of actions that one can take after agriculture to continue the stability of the vineyards, the winery, the community that surrounds it, and the labor force within it. When we talk about organic agriculture or biodynamic and that conversion, how it takes three years, or four or more for biodynamics, this is a conversion for actual business. Whereas let’s say in a winery or a vineyard, they were using NPK for many years and they did the three-year conversion, and now their vineyard is this living organism. 

They now look at everything around this product and say, “Well, if we’re going to be organic or biodynamic and ‘sustainable’ in our agriculture, we should probably start looking at everything else that we do to make sure that our carbon footprint isn’t too intense and that we may actually help the environment a little more.” Because wine is agriculture. Climate change is affecting wine, absolutely. But there are other things as well. The equipment that’s used in the winery, the winery itself, the wine cellar, packaging. What do you use to pack your wine? What kind of shipping materials do you use for bottled glass? Do you use Tetra Paks for your wine? What kind of vehicles are you using? What kind of carbon footprint is that actually putting on to the Earth? In addition to all that, is your labor force being treated well? Do they have benefits? Are you helping to improve the quality of life of your employees? All this stuff starts to add up. If you’ve done the work and spent the money to convert your agriculture to organic and biodynamic, you have a sustainable idea in your head. It’s now time to convert your business into a sustainable business that actually contributes to what you’ve done in the vineyard for the agriculture. 

Speaking of agriculture, that’s usually the first step to becoming a sustainable winery or vineyard or estate. You convert your agriculture to organic or biodynamic. Then, you get to do all the other stuff because it’s all kind of connected, right? Around the Earth and especially in places like California, there are problems with water supply. And there are new ways of actually recycling winery wastewater to be used for non-potable processes, which include irrigation in the cooling systems of the winery, which is very cool. But also, cooling systems themselves and wineries often use a lot of energy. So it’s just really crazy and cool. I love this. We’re going back to Agoston Haraszthy’s influence from our American Wine History series. People are going back into the hills. They are opting to drill holes into hills, so they get that more natural low temperature. If they have to do anything to add to that, it’s much more minimal than it would be if you just build a facility and then cool it down with regular HVAC. But even in those facilities that have HVAC, they’re actually opting for solar energy

So there are all these things you can do to add to the sustainability of your business that is friendly to the outside community beyond not using chemicals in your vineyards that actually run off into neighboring areas. I don’t know if you guys have seen this, but glass bottle manufacturing is one of the largest energy producers. The way that we’ve been combating this is tough, because there’s a lot of glass out there and we love our glass bottles of wine. They’re actually trying to lighten the bottles using different materials. There are more wines in Tetra Paks these days, there is more boxed wine these days. All of these things will help with the sustainability out there after things leave the vineyard. And of course, when it comes to the humans that are involved in this entire operation, there are health benefits and good pay. The amount of breaks a human needs when working in agriculture. Celebrating diversity and equality in hiring practices. It’s an absolute attention to detail on how humans work in the wine industry. That changes from place to place, depending on climate and conditions and all that. It’s alternative energy sources and recycling literally anything they can.

Low-input vehicles are very tough, as far as when it comes to distribution, but they’re definitely trying every year. As electric and hybrids become more prevalent, if you’re a sustainable establishment, you’re definitely going to go towards that. Just like converting from conventional agriculture to organic or biodynamic, it takes time and it’s not easy to do. The larger the company, the larger the producer, the harder it is and the longer it takes for that company or producer to convert as much as it can over to sustainable. But I can tell you, everywhere I go in the wine world and every wine region I’ve been in the past 10 to 15 years, everybody is really focused on the sustainability aspect of all this, going beyond the agriculture. Just like the convenience of NPK, if you’ll remember that quote from 1988 where microbiology scientists said that the soils of Bordeaux were as dry and lifeless as the Sahara desert sand, the United States has been using a certain kind of agriculture in a certain kind of business practice for quite some time. It’s tough to convert this stuff. Just like there are certifications for biodynamics and organics, there are now certifications for sustainability. And of course, all of these certification bodies do need to be and are ISO 17065 compliant. But what’s cool is, sustainability is such a big global effort right now that even if a winery is in the midst of converting a large company to sustainability or even a smaller winery or medium size, there are other third-party things that can be done to increase or even further sustainability. 

For example, Gallo — who is a sponsor of this podcast — partnered with Mastercard, the credit card company and Mastercard’s Priceless Planet Coalition. For every bottle of Gallo wine that’s sold, a tree is planted in. Gallo is a big company, and that’s a lot of trees. As I said before, a lot of these sustainability certifications are specific to certain areas because every region where wine is grown and vines are grown and wine is made, there is a specific kind of sustainability that that area needs. For example, Low Input Viticulture and Enology (LIVE) is a certification body for Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. California is a big state, of course. You have the general California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance that has certified California sustainable certifications. Sonoma County, a big popular winegrowing region, has its own Sonoma County Sustainable Farm Grapes organization. And of course, Napa has something called Napa Green, and you can have a Napa Green certification for a winery and a Napa Green certification for your vineyard. There’s also a large certification body called SIP, Sustainability In Practice, which is another certification process. I saw a lot of winemakers with that, specifically in Paso Robles and that area in the Central Coast. There’s SIP going on down there. And the cool thing is, New York State is now in the beginning stages of creating their own sustainable certification. There’s also the LEED certification, LEED or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. That helps wineries with their structures, like insulating their businesses the right way, trying to do it with less carbon footprint impact. There’s also Salmon-Safe, which is a water quality protection certification. You see what’s going on here, right? I’m not gonna go into this. You can go into each of their websites and see what they actually use for their criteria to certify and you’ll see that there are particulars that are particular to the areas. But you’ll notice that all of this is beyond agriculture. I could have listed, within the certification, organic certification and USDA organic certification. I could also put Demeter in that, because Demeter biodynamic certification and USDA organic certifications are part of a sustainable business or environment. 

What it comes down to is, sustainability is not only the way to improve what you’ve done to agriculture beyond the winery and the business. But it’s also kind of an overarching word that helps us understand all of it underneath. So sustainability is organic or biodynamic agriculture. Sustainability is getting certified with some of these other organizations to make sure that you’re going above and beyond. That’s pretty much what sustainability means in wine. It makes sense that sustainable wineries are also organic or biodynamic. For our purposes, when you’re out there buying wine, if you see the Demeter stamp on the back of a label, you know it’s certified. You see organic, and you know it’s certified. You know what those mean because we talked about it in the previous two episodes. If you see sustainable anything on there, you know that no matter what or whatever criteria need to be met within the region where that wine is made, the wine has met that criteria and it is sustainably certified and ISO 17065 compliant. What the winery is telling you on that bottle is, “We’ve done and we are doing anything and everything we can to eventually leave this place in a better place for future generations,” going back to that United Nations definition of sustainability. You’re drinking wine knowing that they are not only organic or biodynamic, but they’re trying to help the Earth in general, including humans. 

Before we wrap this up, I just have to state this because it’s just the facts and we have to put it all out there. There is no IFOAM ISO 17065 compliant certification for natural wine. There is actually no official definition for what natural wine is. Just so you know, natural wine does not necessarily have to be biodynamic certified or organic certified or sustainably certified. Natural wine is its own thing. I am sure a lot of the winemakers that make natural wine are within the realm of these, but there is just no certification for it. There is a certification for organics, biodynamics, and sustainability. Just like certifications in organic and biodynamic, sustainability certifications are great and they’re good for the planet. But know that just because it’s sustainable doesn’t mean the wine is going to be awesome. It’s up to humans to make the wine awesome, and it’s up to your palate to decide whether that wine is awesome or not, no matter what kind of certification it has. 

All right, I hope this really wraps it up for you guys and gets this all clear so that when you’re out there and you’re drinking wine, you got it all. You have all the information you need for some of the most popular terms in wine today. I’ll see you next week. 

@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.

And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.