Are you doing your part as a wine enthusiast to contribute to sustainability in the wine industry? Did you even know sustainability was a concern in the wine industry? If you didn’t, you’re not alone. While many individuals are aware of issues surrounding sustainability in other industries, many don’t know exactly what sustainability entails and why it is fundamental for the future of winemaking.
What is sustainability?
Any discussion about sustainability, whether in the context of wine or other agricultural products, must begin with a discussion of the word “sustainability,” a term that is often flippantly used by businesses to market their products. A single definition can be difficult to pin down, but it’s worth noting that the term “sustainable” isn’t synonymous with “organic.”
Organic winemakers often avoid all synthetic pesticides, while sustainable vineyard owners typically avoid high-risk pesticides. While some people believe that synthetic pesticides are worse for the environment, farmers who use organic pesticides sometimes have to use a greater quantity of these substances to achieve the desired effect. They also may have to use more water, which can end up working against their sustainability efforts.
Sustainable winemaking is about much more than just pesticides, however. Sustainable practices influence everything from planting vines to bottling the final product. Given the many steps involved in making wine, sustainable winemakers must take into consideration everything from water use and energy conservation to air quality and preservation of local wildlife habitats.
In terms of water conservation, some sustainable vineyard owners use drip irrigation, a method that allows them to water vines more precisely and at ideal times, avoiding waste. Besides conserving water, this method also tends to yield more grape clusters instead of excessive leaves. Winemakers also leverage other technologies to use water more efficiently and to determine the precise water needs of their vines. For example, they can use probes to assess the soil’s water depletion and other tools to measure the water stress of the plant leaves.
When it comes to energy conservation, some winemakers have opted for night harvesting to keep the grapes from warming up in the sun. This strategy reduces costs associated with refrigeration, which consumes an enormous amount of energy. By taking the grapes to the winery while they are cool, winemakers also help them preserve their acidity, which can lead to a higher-quality final product. Furthermore, night harvesting keeps grape pickers out of the heat of the sun, a sustainable practice for employee health and vineyard operations. Additional energy-saving measures at sustainable vineyards include the installation of energy-efficient water pumps and solar panels, and the use of electric vehicles.
Another aspect of sustainable winemaking centers on soil preservation. Some vineyard owners enhance their soil by building up organic matter through the use of compost, which helps the soil retain water and nutrients. Many even use their own grape pomace—the remains of grapes after they are pressed during winemaking—as compost, which reduces the waste the vineyard generates. Other winemakers plant cover crops between vine rows to stop overgrowth, prevent soil erosion, and even attract beneficial insects.
Habitat and ecosystem
In addition to caring for the soil, sustainable winemakers take a holistic approach to their vineyards and take into account the natural habitats and ecosystems in which their grapes grow. Strategies to care for local habitats include collaborating with government and conservation groups to preserve the quality of streams and wetlands, as well as maintaining green areas around vineyards so that deer and other wildlife can access open space areas.
Protecting wildlife also entails the preservation of trees for birds of prey like hawks and owls, which help eliminate rodent pests. You might also see chickens or sheep wandering among the vines at a vineyard; the chickens feast on destructive pests like cutworms, while sheep are insatiable weed-munching machines. In addition, sustainable winemakers may focus on preserving native plant species to maintain insects that help control pests.
Environmentally friendly packaging is a growing concern for winemakers interested in maximizing their sustainability. For example, some wineries have begun to use lightweight bottles and other forms of packaging that require fewer raw materials, in order to reduce landfill waste. Other wine producers are opting for recyclable materials, such as paper, cardboard, or recyclable plastic. In addition, many winemakers are enhancing their product’s labeling by clearly explaining to consumers how they can recycle or dispose of the packaging.
The above practices are just a few ways that winemakers are trying to reduce their impact on the environment and use precious resources more efficiently. If you want to support their efforts, purchase wine made by producers who have made a clear commitment to sustainability; research the winery online or ask questions about the winery’s practices when you visit. With the involvement of both winemakers and consumers, the winemaking industry can shrink its environmental footprint while producing even better wine for years to come.