Five questions about sustainable wine for Monty Waldin, wine writer

By Tobias Webb

After our recent sustainable drinks conference in London on March 15, where Monty and Chris Scott (recent podcast/post on that here) had a spirited debate about sustainable wine and particularly organics and biodynamics, I sent Monty a few questions for the blog. His responses are below. Well worth a read, given he is one of the leading global experts on sustainability in wine.

Monty Waldin

1) Industrialisation. Are you concerned this is happening in the global wine sector to the point where it affects quality/taste, health benefits?

It’s began happening in wine in the late 19th-century, gained a foothold after the first world war with the advent of soluble fertilizers developed from bomb-making and really took off after the second world war with pesticides based on military nerve-gas.

We’re now seeing a revolution in wine¬–a high value crop you get to make only once a year and maybe 50 times a lifetime–as winegrowers who have visually tracked the decline in grape and vine health and physically tasted the decline in wine quality that conventional farming causes realise they have come to a dead end.

Wine lived off its feelgood image–and hid behind its reputation for mystery and being a crop that only “experts” could possibly understand–until only quite recently.

When I worked in Bordeaux as a kid it was clear that the more the vineyard was sprayed, the more additives the wine needed for it to survive in bottle. It was such an obvious waste of time, effort and money to farm this way, apart from the safety issues. If the sprays were safe why did we need body armour to go into the vineyard to spray them, then change out of body armour and shower before greeting a coachload of tourists to tell them how they should enjoy tasting our wine because it was a natural product?

We know wines contain residues (the industry always said wine was residue-free because residues “drop out during fermentation….”) and this is why powerful buyers working for Scandinavian and Canadian monopolies and elsewhere are now looking for wines which are organic or biodynamic. This is because “systemic” sprays which penetrate the vines and its grapes and which can end up in the wine are not allowed in organics or biodynamics.

Just because a wine is organic/biodynamic does not make it good. But if we can get more farmers in general and more wine-growers in particular to ditch the systemics our planet would be a nicer place.

Chateau Bellet near Nice, 100% organic

2) Chemicals use and human health. You mentioned some examples at our recent Sustainable Drinks conference. What are your concerns?

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that the chemicals aren’t working anymore as pests and diseases develop resistance strategies to commercially developed synthesised molecules. These sprays are expensive and wine-growers, who farm the same plot year after year, can easily track a decline in spray efficiency.

This is one driver of the continued increase in organic/biodynamic conversions – France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Austria all have around 8-12% of their national vineyard organic/biodynamic now. None of them were above 1% in the mid-1990s.

Whereas wine-growers have the power to change–to throw away the key to the chemical garage once and for all–consumers feel powerless because when shopping they feel there really is no choice.

For many it’s a ‘hypermarket or bust’ scenario.

We just hope someone else will sort out climate change without making our lives any less comfortable, will clean up the huge “dead zones” like the one in the Gulf of Mexico caused by fertilizer run-off, will get our bee populations thriving again, and will put an end to stories in the press like the ones about kids living near vineyards eg in Bordeaux suffering statistically significant spikes in cancer issues due perhaps to vineyard spays. The French government even assigned the cause of death to a wine-grower as “pesticide use” recently for the first time.

But scare stories are not what people–consumers, farmers–want. They want clearly defined and achievable solutions, or ways out.

Biodynamics offers a way out and is why it is becoming increasingly talked about, not just in wine but in food circles too (see Fern Verrow’s recent biodynamic farm cook book for example).

Biodynamics is a way of growing food good for both body and spirit but trying to make each farm, garden, or vineyard a self-sustaining organism. This means you must have a mix of plants –both those crops you eat like lettuce, tomatoes, apples, or drink as in grapes for wine, and wild plants for a biodiverse, healthy, strong eco-system–and farm animals whose manure is vital for composting all the green waste you produce so it all goes back into the land, not the landfill.

Over time the farm (and farmer or those who eats the farmer’s crops) becomes stronger because you are putting more back than you take out.

And as the bulk of what you put back in is carbon sequestered from the atmosphere by plants you are putting carbon back in the soil. This is good for climate change too. Agriculture is THE biggest contributor of greenhouse gases.

On a social level this type of farming can be labour intensive. But this makes it good for rural communities (over 50% of the global population lives in cities now). We have major issues with youth unemployment (in the EU). The job-for-life seems a thing of the past with the advent of new technology. But we all need to eat. If more of us participated in the growing of food we’d be fitter (mentally and physically), and we’d learn that we have the power to shape who we are because we are what we eat. And we’d make a significant beneficial impact regarding climate change.

Organic vineyard, Bandol

3) Organics and biodynamics. Do you accept the criticism that the current sustainability focus of each is too narrow, and should be broadened beyond just the vineyard and the winery? For example, to look at packaging and logistics.

I think production and packaging are two separate areas. For instance some of the bigger organic brands are made at wineries who buy in most of their (organic, biodynamic) grapes.The Demeter biodynamic rules are very specific about minimising energy use in the winery and using packaging which is recyclable, safe inks on wine cartons and so on.
Wine is a heavy, fragile product because it often comes packed in glass (although there is the beginnings of a trend for wine on tap now in the on-trade).

I don’t see why the industry cannot develop a model whereby bottles can be reused. Why do we need to truck them around the country, break them and more often than not stick the shards under new motorways when they are being built?

Breaking bottles and reconstituting them requires incredible amounts of energy. When we were kids we’d get given money to take Coke (and beer) bottles back to the store for re-use. I don’t see why we cannot do this for wine, especially since many big brands ship their wine in bulk (from Chile, Australia, etc) for bottling in the UK.

Let’s take bottles back to where the bottling lines are, clean them, and re-use them.
If the UK’s supermarkets (where most wine is sold) and three or for conglomerates that supply them (who all use the exactly same UK bottling lines) can’t work something out then stick one or two of their sustainable executives in the furnace where some of the crushed glass gets reconstituted. That’ll get the debate moving.

Consumers love it when big companies co-operate. If big companies can agree a few standard bottle shapes/colours/weights, and consumers buy into the fact that their standard bottle of plonk still tastes the same wherether the glass bottle is brown, clear or green you have the beginnings of massive change that is easy to effect and gets massive buy-in.

Organic vines at Domaine Suffrene in Bandol

4) Climate change. Wine has been called the “canary in the coal mine” with regard to climate change. Which countries or regions do you see as becoming most affected?

All regions will be affected in some way. It’s not just rising temperatures, but the increased frequency of flash storms, stronger winds, and marked seasonal changes like warmer, drier winters. Cold winters for example kill off over-wintering pests like mites which hide in vine bark. Mites are becoming more of a problem for vineyard owners experiencing warmer than usual winters. The typical conventional response is to spray yet more (fossil-fuel derived) miticides–but this only leads the pests to develop increased resistance to these pricey and unnecessary sprays.

The organic response against pests like mites is to take out some insurance, not with a new paper policy which arrives in the post, but by making sure your vineyard is as biodiverse as possible so beneficial predators can either eat the mites or out-compete them for food.
And also as mites love dust it means that if you herbicide your vineyard to make it look clean, free of grass and weeds, you’ll get more mites th earth will be directly exposed to sun, wind and rain, and there will be more dust.

I am a big believer in the idea pioneered by the Greeks and resurrected by the Fetzer family in California for whom I used to work of the “vine garden”: a vineyard of wine grapes within a wider ecological system containing food crops like fruit, vegetables, farm animals, and lots of wild habitat as buffer zones. The idea comes from the bbiodynamic notion of creating a farm or vineyard as a self-sustaining living organism.


5) What can be done in the vineyard and in the winery to keep rising alcohol levels down, given rising temperatures?

I have worked in a winery where the “black snake” came out during winemaking–meaning water from a hosepipe was used to reduce the wine’s alcohol level down despite this being illegal.

The usual way of reducing alcohol levels is to “cool” the vineyard down by watering it. In the Americas, southern hemisphere and parts of southern Europe you do this with irrigation–via drippers, via overhead sprinklers, or (on lower lying land) by flooding the vineyard. However climate change means there is pressure on growers of luxury crops like wine to reduce or elimate their use of potable water.

The Murray Darling vineyard area of Australia is a prime example of how wine made cheap by a subsidised free-for-all for river water eventually comes at a huge environmental cost re soil salinity, erosion, pollution. It is neither enconomically nor environmentally sustainable. What is required is to help soil become as spongy and water-retentive as poosible.

To do this one needs to boost the carbon level of the soil by composting plants which have captured atmospheric carbon dioxide. These plants can be vineyard weeds or forage plants eating by animals such as cows, horses, mules who ideally will work on the vineyard. Adding compost to the soil increase the soil’s humus content, humus being the “soil within the soil” and this in turn encourages worms and micro-organisms (beneficial fungi, bacteria, protazoa) to move nutrients around.

This helps vines so they stay stronger, they hydrate better, they root more deeply, and they are naturally more resistant to pests and disease. The microbes create tiny air pockets in the soil which allow rainfall to penetrate the soil and to remain there. This reduces erosion, and as soil erosion causes flash flooding by blocking drains it reduces home insurance bills, too. You get better wine, a nicer environment, and have more money in your pocket.