Home Wine Business Editorial Expert Editorial Expert Editorial: Navigating the Nuances of Sustainability in the Wine Industry

Expert Editorial: Navigating the Nuances of Sustainability in the Wine Industry

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To truly make the most environmentally sound decision, it’s crucial to recognize the complexities, parameters and trade-offs regarding each specific situation.

By Emily Kern

Carbon emissions from human activities are causing global warming, which poses severe threats to our economy, communities and humanity’s ability to thrive on this planet. This much is clear.

The impact of climate change on the wine industry is equally as evident, as witnessed by devastating wildfires that leave grapes tainted with smoke, destructive hailstorms that decimate delicate buds and scorching heat waves that transform perfectly ripened fruit into raisins unsuitable for winemaking. It’s no debate that our grapes and wines are at the mercy of this ever-changing climate, and it’s in our best interest to take action.

What follows, however, is not always straightforward. The decisions we make in the vineyards, wineries, tasting rooms and beyond all hold power in the fight against climate change: Should we convert to electric tractors or continue to use our diesel-powered ones? Choose cork or screwcap closures? Employ sheep or tractors for mowing? Certify our vineyards as organic, biodynamic, or sustainable?

There are answers to these questions, but the answers are not always obvious or absolute, and they cannot be universally applied to every operation or organization. To truly make the most environmentally sound decision — in the wine industry and at large — it’s crucial to recognize the complexities, parameters and trade-offs regarding each specific situation. We must embrace the nuance to effectively combat the climate crisis and create lasting impacts.

Trade-offs, Uncertainty, and Competing Perspectives

As one example, many wineries and vineyards throughout the Napa Valley swap diesel mowers for sheep grazing to keep weeds and grasses low. At first thought, the sheep clearly are the better option, as they don’t require burning fossil fuels to mow (unlike their diesel-powered counterparts). But what about when you factor in that sheep produce methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide? Or that the sheep are likely transported in fossil fuel-powered vehicles to the vineyards in the first place? Tractors start to look slightly more beneficial from an emissions intensity standpoint. However, when we take into account the co-benefits of grazing — such as reduced soil compaction, natural fertilization, and a quieter, less exhaust-filled work environment for employees — the complexity of the decision-making process becomes apparent.

Now, take the decision of what closure to use. Cork closures are natural, punched out from tree bark. The harvesting process doesn’t require cutting down the cork tree and, therefore, promotes preservation of cork forests, which sequester carbon. Moreover, their bark is fully compostable, so consumers can toss the cork in their compost bins after use. But on the downside, anywhere from 2% to 6% of wines closed with a cork are impacted by cork taint. With 30 billion bottles of wines closed by cork per year, this equates to an estimated one billion bottles ruined by cork taint annually, increasing the overall lifecycle emissions of the product through waste. 

The problem of cork taint is resolved by switching to screwcap closures, resulting in less spoiled product. But screwcaps are typically made from aluminum with a multi-material liner. Aluminum manufacture requires strip-mining and smelting, and conventional screw cap liners contain PVDC, which is largely considered a contaminant to recycling streams. 

Embracing Nuances for Collaborative Progress

While it’s easy to read these examples and start to feel hopeless or confused, my hope is to invite the industry to come together in thinking critically when it comes to sustainability as opposed to chasing the latest fad, certification, or claim. My call is for curiosity, and to lean into the nuance of climate action. To truly combat the climate crisis, we need to be agile, curious, and continually learning. We must leverage the power of science and math — and the insights they provide — while carefully considering the full spectrum of each decision and its impacts based on the realities of operations. The wine industry is famed for its long history of collaboration and innovation, and it’s essential to maintain this mindset as we bring sustainability into the fold. 

By adopting an open-minded approach, we can explore innovative solutions, challenge long-standing assumptions, and discover the most effective pathways to sustainability for each winery or vineyard’s unique circumstances. By embracing complexity and seeking nuanced solutions, the wine industry can demonstrate the power of informed decision-making and adaptability in the face of global challenges.

Let us move forward with curiosity, acknowledging that the fight against climate change necessitates multifaceted approaches and a willingness to question our own assumptions. Only then can we forge a path towards a more sustainable and resilient future for all.

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Emily Kern, Treasury Americas
Emily Kern, Treasury Americas

Emily Kern

Emily Kern is Environmental and Sustainability Manager at Treasury Americas, a division of Treasury Wine Estates (TWE). Treasury Americas recognizes the urgency of climate action, mitigation and adaptation, and has set aggressive goals to reach 100% renewable electricity across all operations by 2024, and net zero carbon emissions for Scopes 1 and 2 by 2030. Contact her at emily.kern@tweglobal.com.

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