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Sustainability in Winemaking is a Philosophy, Not a Religion

A few days ago, we mentioned that we were attending the II International Conference on Organic Viticulture, Sustainability and Climate Change (EcoSostenibleWine 2010) being held just south of Barcelona in Vilafranca de Penedes. The aim of the conference was to disseminate information on the latest technology in sustainability, organic procedures, and means to reduce the advance of climate change among winemakers and viticulturalists alike. Over the course of 2 days, of which we attended 1, over 40 speakers from around the world fought, with a few exceptions, to convince the 480 participants that the earth was our responsibility and that there were simple and effective ways reduce your impact, increase your production and foster and new way of thinking.

What constitutes a “new” way of thinking?

For me, I walked away feeling as if the speakers who really nailed it were individuals who spoke within their niche of expertise without killing you with flashy presentations or diving head first into the minutia of percentages displayed in a series of grafts and pie charts merging into a technicolor smorgasbord of lines. No, these individual spoke of the big picture, emphasizing that sustainability may begin in the vineyards, but it ends with your moment to moment decisions.

According to the Dictionary of Sustainable Management, sustainability is defined as, “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Or as I like to say, “how your actions today will effect future generations when you’re fertilizing daisies (if they’re any left) underground”. However, we live in a digital world, and in this world, attention span is less than the life of a fruit fly, and desires are fulfilled in a blink of an eye; thus, it’s quite difficult for many of us to wrap our brains around “future consequences” when everything around us is screaming “the future is now”. Future to us means a second, a day, or God forbid, a week; but the concept of decades or centuries is unfathomable.

“In the near future, agriculture will compete with grapes. Major investments will be poured into land for agriculture and grapes will be struggle for space”, foreshadowed by Dr. Hans Schultz, Professor of Viticulture at The Geisenheim Research Institute in Germany.

His statement should be a warning to us that we need to pay attention, to prepare for a changing future of higher temperatures, intense storms and little water. We need to remain conscious of what we put in the land, how we use and reuse water, the effects of rising temperatures on vineyards, the ways in which we conserve energy in the winery, and most importantly, what we do in our everyday lives. And if you’re looking for a glowing example of the majority of elements touched upon by every single speaker we listened to on that beautiful Tuesday morning, look no further than the UC Davis LEEDS Platinum Winery.

“Fine wines are the result of an intricate mix of environmental and processing factors”, said wine chemist Andrew Waterhouse, chair of the Department of Viticulture and Enology and the Marvin Sands endowed chair in viticulture and enology. “If we are to better understand how environmental factors, such as sunlight levels in the vineyard, impact the subtle aspects of wine quality, we need to be able to very precisely control the winemaking process. The new winery will equip us to do just that.”

LEEDS stands for Leadership, Energy, Environment and Design. The 12,500-square-foot winery is supported entirely by private, philanthropic donations and anticipating its first vintage this year. It will become a benchmark in sustainable winery technology by utilizing innovative techniques such as, rainwater collected and stored to irrigate landscape and flush toilets, recycled glass in flooring and carbon dioxide from fermentations will be sequestered on site in the future.

So we’re a bit more knowledgeable about what it means to be sustainable in the winery, but what about the vineyard? According the Dr. Hans Schultz, wineries need to adapt to climate change by investigating alternative varieties. Although this may be problematic for the reputation of your region, potentially renown for certain grapes, flexibility is key to success. Additionally, these varieties should be disease tolerant. Hans spoke at length about the ample amount of clones currently available on the market that show very similar characteristics as classical varieties but that are considerably more resistant against disease.

However, a huge round of applause goes out to Hans Peter Schmidt, one of the most dynamic and interesting speakers of the conference who presented a small black vial filled with soil at the beginning of his speech and said, “a year ago, this was charcoal”.

Hans presented a entirely new concept to me called, biochar. From my understanding, biochar differs carbon in that its primary use is not for fuel, but rather biosequestration. It takes carbon out of the air and places it into the soil, where it has the potential to make soil fertile. But that’s not all, Biochar traps nitrogen and water due to its porous nature, which allows viticulturists to use less water and fertilizer. If mixed with compost and minerals, it becomes supercharged! It can also improve water quality, reduce soil emissions of green house gases, reduce leaching of nutrients and reduce soil acidity. Therefore, biochar could be considered the “magic potion” for sustainability. Read more about Hans and his use of biochar on his vineyards here.

So what was the overall message I took from this conference? In short, there are no surefire answers to stopping climate change, but there are several effective tools that wineries can experiment with today to become more sustainable on an environmental, social and economical level.

Below, check out our interview with Alice Feiring at the Eco Sostenible Wine 2010 Conference, as she both exposes the hypocrisy in using the term sustainable carte blanche and gives the limelight to Iberian wineries who are doing it right.

If you would like more information on climate change and wine, check out the following articles we did at the 2008 Climate Change and Wine Conference:

Do you Think Wineries Should Focus on Adaptation, Rather than Prevention? Interview with Richard Smart and Miguel Torres

How do you Teach Old World Winemakers New Tricks
Pancho Campo Poses a Question for Al Gore on Wine and Market Choices
II International Conference on Climate Change and Wine Wrap-Up
Live from the Conference on Global Climate Change and the World of Wine

Cheers,

Gabriella Opaz

Alice Feiring on Iberian Organic Wines from Ryan and Gabriella Opaz on Vimeo.

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