The SW Summary: The debate on synthetic pesticides, new opportunities for East Anglian farmers and well-deserved recognition for Bilbao and Concho y Toro

By Hanna Halmari

Is it necessary to go chem-free to be a sustainable wine producer?

This is the key question explored by Kathleen Willcox in this article for Wine Searcher. Comparing a conversation between two winemakers with differing approaches to sustainability to that of two parents tangled up in a vicious divorce, Willcox highlights just how divisive the topic of synthetic pesticides is in the industry.

In order to dig deeper into this contested issue, Wine Searcher conducted numerous interviews with winemakers and regional representatives to find out why it is (or isn’t) necessary to abandon synthetic pesticides as a foundation for sustainable wine production. 

Some wine producers they spoke to believe that chemical use cannot be instantly and completely abandoned. They perceive the transition to sustainable practices as a slow and gradual process in which chemicals may play the occasional necessary role.  Such an approach is held by Joao Barroso, manager of the WASP sustainability initiative in Alentejo, Portugal. He believes that environmental advancement must be aggressive but realistic. “We want to reduce the use of chemicals, but we know if we forbid it, there will be pushback. We are a young region, and taking things one step at a time,” he says.

This step-by-step approach can also be seen in California, the main wine-producing state in the US.  Dan Panella, co-owner of Oak Farm Vineyards in Lodi, California, emphasizes the need for a more holistic view of vineyard management and sustainability. “You have to look at the whole picture. I don’t think it’s necessarily more sustainable to go in with a tractor 17 times and spray an organic spray that can have a longer life in the soil, than to go in once with a chemical pesticide that’s sprayed on the ground between the vine rows. We have to look at the carbon footprint too,”  she says.

Whilst some winemakers have adopted this more lenient approach, others regard chemicals as poison and remain fiercely opposed to their use. Opponents of synthetic pesticides believe that true sustainability necessitates the complete abandonment of chemicals. Vanya Cullen, biodynamic winemaker at Cullen Wines, argues that  “any producer or region who calls itself sustainable and still uses glyphosate is being untruthful with consumers.” 

The lack of a clear cut definition of sustainability in regards to chemical use has resulted in widespread confusion among consumers intending to purchase sustainable wine. For example, a conscious consumer may purchase wine from Sonoma County on the basis that 99% of the vineyards in the viticulture area are certified sustainable. What may remain unknown to the consumer, however, is the fact that whilst some vineyards are chemical-free, others are still using synthetic pesticides. 

And yet neither approach is necessarily sustainable. As the article points out, the use of synthetic pesticides is linked to bee colony collapse, but many consumers remain unaware that the possible organic copper alternative results in soil contamination and toxicity. 

As Willcox concludes, “perhaps it’s time for members of the industry to decide – really decide – what sustainability means, and if chemicals have a place in that definition. Either way, that definition should be communicated more clearly to consumers, who equate “green” and “sustainable” with chemical-free.”

New Opportunities for East Anglian Farmers

It’s no secret that the wine map is evolving with climate change. As Sarah Chambers reports in this article in the East Anglia Daily Times, recent research indicates that the area for productive vine growth in the UK is comparable to the size of the Champagne region. Many East Anglian farmers now have a new opportunity to expand into grape growing. Agri-TechE, a business that supports innovative farmers, is connecting farmers with viticulturists to explore agri-tech solutions for regenerative agriculture. The article quotes Chris Roberts, Head of Industrial Robotics at Cambridge Consultants, who comments:

“ New technologies and techniques such as precision agriculture and robotics are required to meet [sustainability] needs. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think there is a reluctance from farmers to invest in new technology. The concern is more of the risk of it going wrong and the impact on the bottom line. The challenge is how to create a viable business model to support its adoption.”

Click here to find out about Agri-TechE’s event “Nothing to W(h)ine About – Uncorking the Opportunities for Innovation in Viticulture” taking place on February 11th, 2-6pm at Cambridge Consultants, Cambridge.

Ramón Bilbao and Concha y Toro’s successful sustainability initiatives

Wine producers Ramón Bilbao and Concha y Toro both deserve recognition for their sustainability achievements. As reported by Lisa Riley in Harpers, Spanish producer Bilbao is on track to exceed its 2020 sustainability targets to reduce impact by 20% in four areas: greenhouse gas reduction, energy efficiency, water management, and waste reduction. Since launching the sustainability program in 2016, audits of the first two years show the producer has already achieved a 23% reduction in greenhouse gases, 91% reduction in waste and 62% of energy efficiency objectives have been met. 

Responsible water management inside the winery poses the greatest challenges for Bilbao. Carmelo San Martin, Head of Sustainability at Zamora, Bilbaos’ parent company, shares how they are currently “working out how to measure and replace some of [the] winery practices and… are investing in more efficient tools.” To read more about Bilbao’s 2020 sustainability agenda click here.

Over in Chile, wine producer Concha y Toro has received recognition for its responsible forest management efforts. Edith Hancock for The Drinks Business reports how Concha y Toro has become the first winery to certify its forests under the Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC) Forest Management Certification. The producer’s Native Forest Conservation Program was launched in 2011, covering 3,272 hectares of native forests across nine vineyards. Today, the program covers 4,272 hectares and all nine vineyards “are credited by FSC for ‘low intensity’ management.” Read more about Concha y Toro’s sustainable forest management initiatives here.

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About the author

Hanna Halmari

Hanna Halmari is the editor at Sustainable Wine and the head of conferences at Innovation Forum. Hanna specialises in sustainability research and events across various industries. She holds an MSc in international development from Kings’s College London, where she developed a strong interest in political economy and post-communist transformation. Hanna speaks Finnish, Bulgarian and English. In her spare time she is a dedicated Radio Lollipop volunteer at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital, enjoys travelling, and tasting new wines.