The launch of the Regenerative Organic Certification, a spotlight on sustainable wine producers, CO2 recycling at Château Montrose, and an attack against ‘conventional winemaking’

The newly launched Regenerative Organic Certification 

Writing for The Washington Post, Dave McIntyre reports on the new Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) program. Launched in August this year by the Regenerative Organic Alliance based in Santa Rosa, California, the ROC is “dedicated to reforming agriculture and fighting climate change.” The certification’s main sponsors are Patagonia, the Rodale Institute and Dr. Bronner’s, and applies to any industry based on agriculture, including wineries.

The ROC is based on three ‘pillars’ of protecting soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness. McIntyre shares how the “new ROC program aligns companies who reject the ‘greed is good’ ethic” that focuses only on the bottom line. Instead, these companies “accept a degree of stewardship for the plane and their communities.” 

Ten companies participated in a three-year ROC pilot program that came to an end this summer. The only winery among these was Tablas Creek in California, a winery that follows organic and biodynamic farming principles. Jason Haas, owner of Tablas Creek, believes that the ROC will become “the gold standard of certifications” for wineries, calling it “the most rigorous evaluation of farming and business practices” so far. 

McIntyre quotes Haas, who comments on the ROC’s transparency and global approach: “The ROC is built around the idea that agriculture has to be involved in the fight against climate change if that fight is to be successful, because such a large part of the earth’s surface is used for farming. If that surface can be used for carbon capture, it will go a long way toward controlling carbon emissions.”

Tablas Creek wine bottles will soon include the ROC certification label.  Haas notes how the ROC logo “is not going to tell [consumers] much about the wine, but it’s going to tell [them] a lot about the company,” that it treats people fairly and is playing a role in the fight against climate change. McIntyre believes the certification logo will appeal to today’s increasingly eco-conscious consumers and comments how interest in the new certification is spreading “among other eco-minded wineries.” 

Read more here

A spotlight on sustainable wine producers: Jancis Robinson 2020 wine writing competition winners announced

This year JancisRobinson.com’s wine writing competition (WWC20) invited entrants to submit stories that championed the “sustainability heroes” of the wine industry, or the producers “who put sustainability at the heart of everything they do.” Receiving over 85 entries, JancisRobinson.com shares how “the number of wine producers who are clearly taking sustainability seriously” is heartening “for those of us keen to see increasing awareness of sustainability in the world of wine.”

In reporting on the origin of the entrants, JancisRobinson.com notes how “wine truly is a global business and interest.” The top three groups of entrants came from the UK, the US, and Canada. Other entries came from Australia, New Zealand, France, Hungary, Italy, Greece, China, Chile, Cyprus, Denmark, India, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, and Venezuela.

With 75 entries deemed as publishable quality by the JancisRobinson.com team, the website published two entries a day up until last week (see the guide to published entries here).However, as with any competition, a winner had to be chosen. To help pick out the top stories, JancisRobinson.com consulted two external sustainability experts, Irina Santiago-Brown in Australia and Tobias Webb in the UK.

Out of the 18 entries shortlisted (see them here), the two final winners were declared on Thursday this week as:

External judge Irina Santiago-Brown shares how when reading through all the entries “the writers unearthed so many great stories that [she] felt moved to write this article sharing [her] thoughts on sustainability and highlighting many of these compelling ideas.” Discussing the different topics of the entries, she emphasises how “the wine community has…[adopted] and [adapted] to a changing world” and how the “sustainability heroes are changing the world’s status quo from the bottom up.” She provides examples of these initiatives, including: the careful consideration of farming systems; initiatives to reduce carbon footprints; smarter packaging; reducing or eliminating the use of pesticides; driving social change and “taking better care of employees and community;” and more.

Whilst the competition highlights and champions the producers pioneering sustainability in the wine industry, it also draws attention to the realities of doing so, in that “there are so many interrelated issues involved and no single way forward,” “sustainability is a constantly moving target,” and that “the sustainability concept is always more complex than one might think.”

Read the entries here and Santiago-Brown’s report here

CO2 recycling at Château Montrose 

For over 15 years Château Montrose has demonstrated its commitment to driving sustainability through ambitious initiatives. As part of this commitment, Château Montrose issued a press release earlier this week declaring its goal for the 2020 harvest “to recycle 100% of the CO2 from its alcoholic fermentations.”  

Recycling is a key priority for the winery and Montrose has recently focused on the capturing and recycling of the CO2 from alcoholic fermentation in the estate. Working in partnership with Alcion-SEDE Veolia, Montrose has trialled a process of reacting the released CO2 with sodium or potassium carbonate to produce bicarbonate. The process was first trialled in 2018 and the subsequent 2019 harvest saw the carbon capturing process produce 15 tonnes of potassium and sodium bicarbonate. 

This year, having installed the first “automated continuous CO2 capture system,” Montrose strives to capture 100% of the CO2. The system in place “consists of a network to capture the gas emitted from the tanks during fermentation and a network of columns to convert it into bicarbonate.” The 2020 harvest is expected to produce an estimated 40 tonnes of bicarbonate.

This will make Montrose “the first wine estate in the world to produce bulk quantities of bicarbonate from alcoholic fermentation.” Bicarbonate has many potential uses, ranging from “the food industry, cosmetics, pharmacy and agriculture.” 

Read more on Château Montrose here.

An attack against ‘conventional winemaking’

In her article for Meininger’s, Felicity Carter talks to Todd White, owner of online natural wine store Dry Farm Wines. According to Carter, “this is no ordinary wine site. It’s an expression of White’s mission to turn wine on its head.”

Favoured among health-conscious consumers including “biohackers*, athletes and performers,” Dry Farm Wines strictly only sells additive-free natural wines that have been tested in the lab for “purity,” sugar levels of “less than one gram per litre,” and lower alcohol levels under 12.5% ABV.  The article describes the story behind Dry Farm Wines,  explaining how “it didn’t start out as a business,” but as White trying to find a healthier way to drink. He soon discovered natural wines and began sending them to labs for testing. 

Shortly after in 2015, Dry Farm Wines “became the official wine supplier to an annual biohacking conference” and business took off. In 2018, White launched his “own direct import company” and now works with around 800 wineries, which “[represent] about 70% of the wine inventory.” Carter shares how “according to the San Francisco Chronicle, White now has 100,000 subscribers and sells about 3m bottles a year.”

In light of White’s commercial success, a paradox to the “anti-corporate movement” of natural wine, Carter notes how “White attracts plenty of criticism.” This is further fuelled by Dry Farm Wine’s advertising which is loaded with health claims such as “Minimise hangovers & brain fog with Natural Wine.” As Carter raises this point with White, he responds by saying, “I don’t know a single person who’s in the natural wine business that won’t make that same statement,” and points out he also posts about how “alcohol is a very dangerous neurotoxin and ruins millions of lives a year.”

In his fight against “conventional winemaking,” White is working on a campaign in the US to “[get] labelling and transparency on wine bottles.” He preaches strong views on what he calls the “big, deep, dark collusion between the wine industry and politicians” to keep what goes into wine a secret. He shares how upon testing the “top 20 bestselling wines” in the US they “found high sulphur and sugar levels.” He continues to explain how “Big Wine lobbies to keep ingredient labels off wines,” especially in light of the rising alcohol levels which keep consumers addicted.

Meininger’s set out to check White’s claims on Big Wine and Carter quotes vice president of Government Affairs of WineAmerica, Michael Kaiser, who says, “We have not actively lobbied against ingredient labelling in the 14 years I have worked for the organization.” Over in Europe, secretary general of the Comité Européen des Entreprises Vins (CEEV) Ignacio Sánchez Recarte argues that “asking small wineries to update labels every vintage would impose an economic burden,” but that “legislation is underway” in response to the increased consumer demand for transparency. According to the article, Sánchez Recarte believes that “by the end of 2022, European wine bottles will have ingredients lists.”

Carter concludes by noting how although “someone who spins conspiracy theories about wine is clearly no friend to the industry…White is probably the best enemy the wine world ever had….outraged and energetic enough to push it to do the things it should already have done, from paying people properly to labelling ingredients.” Read the full article here.

*Biohacking “aims to optimise the body through diet, exercise, and supplements.”

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Sustainability from the ground up: The story of Château George 7, Fronsac

As part of our occasional series of posts from sustainability specialists, we’re sharing this podcast and accompanying article by Anna Chilton. Chilton sat down with Sally Evans, owner of Château George 7, to discuss the story behind the winery, Evans’ approach to sustainability, the dangers of greenwashing, and more.

The late summer of 2015 was relatively mild by Bordeaux standards. Just ahead of the harvest, the air is always filled with the kind of energy that comes right before the rains. It’s hard to catch that golden window of Indian summer so, while everything buzzes with anticipation, no one is around. Winemakers are busy in cellars, scrubbing final bits of machinery for the herds of bunches to come in.

Eventually, rumours start to spread via neighbours and at market stalls. News and projections ripple through every winery at the speed of ripening. All of the pain from the previous harvest is momentarily forgotten as the euphoria and toil take over, in welcoming the new vintage. Standing at the foot of a vineyard in wellies and shorts, Sally Evans looked down at the earth with the sentiment of the harvest. Fear, excitement and relentless hope. She had just bought a vineyard. 

Sally didn’t study winemaking, nor was she born into a family of winemakers. She sold her Accenture shares and bought a vineyard. A modern story of a successful Marketing Executive from England. Initially, the idea was cushioned by the fact that she would buy a vineyard with a friend, relocating from Provence, where she had spent the past 20 years. When her love for Bordeaux outlived the friendship, it became clear that she would go it alone. She also wanted to spend more time pursuing her own passions, something a corporate career and being a single mum had not afforded her.

Everyone, including some vineyard consultants told her not to launch into making wine. How could she run her own business in the middle of nowhere, with no connections, no experience and in one of the most famously snooty wine regions of the world? Sally passed her WSET diploma, decided that ‘the better the commune, the better the wine’ and set out to find the best vineyard she could afford. As a self-proclaimed control freak, the idea of running an organisation ‘from A to Z’ filled her with joy.

Château George 7, Fronsac

We sat down to speak on a sunny afternoon, five years after she stood at the foot of her vines, as the grapes she came in. She is elegant in that particular way that only an English lady can be: down to earth and eloquent, with a hint of playfulness to her logic. Sally is striking for someone with children all grown up. A vibrant smile and golden hair, she must stand out in the vineyards of Fronsac quite a bit.

The commune she chose is known for its velvety, red wines, which offer the kind of value for money that ensures they never see much light of day outside of Bordeaux. You are unlikely to have come across Fronsac unless you are 1. well informed about wine 2. live in the area. Those in the know, know, and ideally, also know a producer in the region because it makes for a rather nice visit, thank you very much. Fronsac is a picturesque, valorous region, neighbouring the big boys: St Emilion and Pomerol. 

What was to become Château George 7 was finally Sally’s in 2015 – a dilapidated house, a barn with tractors and a winery that hadn’t ever made wine. She chose to run the vineyard fully after 2 years of time spent with the previous owner and learning from the ground up. The vineyard comprises 3 hectares and split into parcels in one plot around the winery. The parcels are defined by the varieties and the soil types. The underlying limestone plateau, for instance, delivers grapes ideal for barrel fermentation and offers a fruity, lively character.

Sally loves wine but did not have an epiphany over a glass one day. Instead, she just wanted to dive into a project which would excite her, ‘As I was wrapping up my corporate career, I was always thinking about what I would take on next, and while I was doing that I enjoyed wine. Eventually it just became obvious that owning a vineyard is what I had to do’.

The first year on the vineyard exposed Sally to some of the ways in which she wanted to work the vines and most of the ways she did not. She noticed that much of what was done around her was done because the previous generation had done it that way, including applying chemicals by calendar without much reflection on the impact on the environment or people around and without a holistic view of the health of the vines and soil. It became clear to her that the winery could benefit from a more detail-oriented approach. That’s when a friend recommended a consultant from Libourne.  

Anthony had been working in vineyards all his life. Born and bred to a wine making family, he has a natural affinity that is matched with traditional training. Sally was looking for a consultant she could learn from, with a focus on sustainable winemaking. ‘I am always so impressed with how he sees what the vines need for us to do next. He is very busy, don’t get me wrong. It’s not like he’s out there caressing the vines all day long. He is pragmatic and open to using technology to allow us to work hand in hand with nature. He has taught me to look to the vines for information on how and where we need to work harder or differently.’

Anthony uses drone technology to map out the vineyard and define the areas where frequent spot-checks are to be done on the ground. This mapping of the vineyard into small subsections (precision agriculture) has helped Sally to apply treatments sparingly. Sally embraces new technology – in fact, in her former life at Accenture, she raised visibility for a sensor technology project in a US vineyard that was way ahead of its time.

As a business owner, she noticed how it is lighter on resources, both time and money, and is thus an ally when it comes to sustainable production. ‘We plan to conduct soil analyses for the first 5 years, at least’, explains Sally. ‘The idea is to build a picture of the vineyard in different vintages and to gauge how the vineyard responds to the changes in weather and to our work.’

The wine industry has quite an obsession with soil, almost every vineyard is OCD about it. Terroir, a catch-all term for the natural image of wine, comprises many factors within one word. Soil is definitely a key element but also climate, weather, wind, slope, gradient… basically, everything which makes up the environment in which the vine exists. ‘Anthony asks me why I am so obsessed with soil’, says Sally, ‘He taught me to observe the vine because it tells us precisely what it needs’.

Foliar analyses are frequently done at the vineyard to add a layer of precision to spot checks, soil sampling and aerial imaging. Of course, the aim of gaining a deep understanding of the vines is to help them to make better wine but there is another key driver at play. Chateau George 7 is Sally’s home full time, ‘In close proximity to the vineyard is where I hang my washing, have breakfast and spend time with friends’. This is her version of sustainability, to treat the ecosystem as a home and workers and neighbours as the community. 

‘There is this tendency to make sustainability so complicated,’ says Sally, with a little exacerbation, ‘I view it simply as doing the right thing, with a bit of common sense’. It is about economic and social sustainability as well as environmental. One of the first things she did was plant hedgerows around the vineyard, ‘I could not understand why the vineyard was so bare’, she says. The ground between the rows was then filled with cover crops and, with considerably lower agricultural applications on the vines, there are now, ‘many more birds and insects in the vineyard’.

Château George 7, Fronsac

In a bid to move away from chemical applications, they use alternatives wherever possible, such as pheromone traps to deter moths. To spread the word about what they have been doing, Sally teamed up with a local bird conservation charity and invites school children to see the different types of wild life that it harbours. To get to know her neighbours, Sally is organising events at the newly renovated tasting facility for everyone in the commune.

To stay informed about the recent changes in winemaking policies and the various programmes available to growers and visitors, Sally became a certified tutor for the Ecole du Vin of the CIVB. When it came to building the barrel rooms and updating the buildings on the vineyard, she only used local suppliers and an architect from the village. For Christmas, she plans on inviting local producers to sell their products at small stalls in the winery. The ‘rental’ of the stalls will be donated towards an environmental initiative, which will be selected by the local school. ‘I used to work in a big team and I love that’, remembers Sally, ‘but you don’t have to work in a large organisation to have a team, it’s about having a community mindset and supporting those around you’.  

During her first couple of years at the winery, Sally equipped the cellar and updated the buildings, while she delved deeper into winemaking. The learning curve was a fast, upward slope with surprises along the way. ‘There is a more shady side to winemaking that we never see on the photoshopped pictures of vineyards online’, she tells me, ‘I hear stories of winemakers buying chemicals under the table in wet years because they cannot face losing their certification or their grapes. It gets cold and humid here in Bordeaux and there are times when it’s that or losing the whole crop.’

Has she thought of going organic? ’Sure. Then I saw what can happen in the wettest and mildew-prone years. I could lose the majority of my crop in wet years yet I do not want to feel pressured to do double or triple the number of treatments with copper just to keep a certification if it goes against my common sense for what I should do for overall soil health. Costs from the loss could be transferred to the few bottles left. Whoever would be willing to spend 2,500 Euros on one bottle because the majority of my vineyard was demolished by mildew?’

There is no universal manual for sustainability because every region or winemaking country has its own rules and its own challenges. ‘I had to do quite a bit of digging and learned a lot from Anthony, explains Sally. For an outsider, not yet desensitised to the bureaucracy of certification, Sally was surprised by some of the legislation.

One example is the regional laws relating to regulation of spraying toxic chemicals close to streams. Ironically, irrespective of your agricultural approach (i.e. even if you are certified organic/biodynamic) the Ministry of Agriculture has the right to impose toxic sprays against particular pests, to stop them spreading. This includes spraying close to the ditch that takes water directly into local rivers. ‘You could be certified organic and still have to spray those chemicals which are imposed by the government’, explains Sally. How many of our customers know or understand that?’

Peel away all of the political correctness out there, and we have two camps. Those who believe anything less than organic is just lazy and those that don’t. No, it’s not that simple, not least because organic certifications vary greatly from country to country. As if wine was not confusing enough for normal homosapiens, we can add biodynamic, reasoned viticulture, natural wine and sustainable to the list of definitions to befuddle the wine drinker.

‘I believe that you have to get to know the winery you buy from’, explains Sally, ‘When people come here, I share everything about what we do with my visitors, warts and all. I gave myself a hernia moving barrels in 2017. It’s hard work. It’s not sunny in the vineyard every day and sometimes when it’s muddy and raining I do want to post about it online but I hesitate because everyone else is posting pictures of horses plowing the fields, drenched in sunlight.’ 

Sally Evans

This is the dilemma of sustainability today. There is a danger that, against the backdrop of a photoshopped reality, the industry beyond the winery will never find out what it truly costs to work sustainably. ‘People go on social media to be inspired or to dream’, says Sally. ‘Why would I weigh on them that it’s been raining for days and we have lost a chunk of the crop?’ On the other hand, Sally sees the dangers of greenwashing* which is why she is very vocal about sustainability being a journey and not a status.

‘Sustainability can become just another thing that we have to be perfect at and this perfectionism can lead to people cutting corners behind the scenes.’ Sally weighed up the true costs to her vineyard and chose to use applications which mimic defence constituents made by the plants themselves and are permitted under organic agriculture in many parts of the EU. ‘We have chosen this route to bring down the use of copper which may be natural but not good for the soil, if used in high quantities and to limit the number of tractor hours going up and down the vines.’ The majority of these applications are based on algae and by using precision agriculture, the volume of chemical applications is reduced by a considerable amount. 

In Fronsac, the laws relating to recycling, water use and human rights are strict in comparison to many regions around the world. With everything in place for the highest French sustainability certification, Sally has found information easy to collect and audit, partially because the region already required these metrics to be covered in her annual regional review. The area does not permit irrigation, for instance, and all effluent must be recycled.

‘There is hardly any waste because we recycle. I don’t have any human rights concerns because there is no in-house team, basically it’s just me and the external consultant, Anthony along with Bruno the oenologue’. By not having full time direct reports but by outsourcing, she can be more nimble as a company and support local suppliers who have teams of workers on the payroll all year round that can help at peak times. 

Sally has looked into more environmentally friendly packaging and recently moved to lighter bottles, which, like for many producers, are unfortunately more expensive because lighter glass orders generally don’t benefit from economies of scale. It surprises to learn that her local cooper, Silvain, had never been asked to reuse the metallic closures on the large 500litre barrels until Sally requested this, simultaneously saving on input costs. All of the furniture in the cellar and tasting room are re or upcycled and used barrels are sold on to other producers.

‘The biggest challenge for me is the carbon footprint’, explains Sally, ’The region does provide a tool for reporting but to collect the data I would need to hire a consultant’. This is one of the main concerns for sustainability reporting today. Larger, more financially robust organisations can afford to hire consultants or build a sustainability department, while smaller entities can appear to be doing nothing at all, simply because they do not have the resources to conduct empirical research and communicate about sustainability online. 

Sally Evans

If you missed Sally’s latest blog or newsletter and if you cannot visit the winery, you might miss the story behind her wine. Though this is hardly an extreme case. At this time, we see smaller organisations, and specifically those with lower margins, greatly disadvantaged in sustainability. Before certification becomes more widely accessible and sustainability accounting more attainable, will we have a skewed perception about which organisations are sustainable and which are not? What steps can we take to ensure that sustainability is not limited to the privileged few?

Sally writes and speaks very frankly about how she has made her decisions and has built a strong community in her region and around the world by doing so. ‘I believe in transparency because if your heart is in the right place then you can be at ease with what you do. You just need to get to know the producer behind the label’. Sally believes that sustainable production is different for every winery and it means something different for every person. ‘

If we accepted that winegrowers are already doing the best they can to be good guardians of the land with the resources they have, and if we take an interest in their sustainability efforts even if they don’t have a specific label or certification, then they will be more motivated to go further on the sustainability journey’ 

*Greenwashing; to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is (Cambridge Dictionary)


Anna Chilton is currently studying a full-time Executive MBA in Sustainable Business at the Business School of Lausanne. Prior to pursuing the MBA she was the head of sustainability at Camellia PLC.

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What has the wine industry learned from the Covid-19 pandemic so far? Four key insights

Times of crises and rapid change force us to find new ways to adapt and innovate. Just as the world has shown incredible resilience to the pandemic, so too has the wine industry. Hanna Halmari reports on what some wine industry insiders say are key lessons to be learned so far.

Bar message board: Covid-19 closure

Amidst fear and confusion around a deadly virus, lockdowns and closed borders, uncertainty and mixed messages, 2020 has certainly been an incredibly challenging year on both a personal and professional level.

The Covid-19 pandemic has hit the global economy hard and the wine industry has been no exception. The industry has been faced with labour shortages, impacting production, distribution, and the livelihoods of seasonal workers.

The hard stop in the hospitality industry has resulted in a massive downturn in the on-trade business and wine tourism. On the other hand, the rise in off-trade demand has been met with logistical difficulties.

On top of that, add a looming uncertain Brexit and increasing wine tariffs and no wonder the outlook has often appeared gloomy.

As many of these challenges remain and the pandemic unfortunately appears far from over, it is important to consider what we have learnt so far. Just as the world has shown resilience by adapting and innovating during the pandemic, so too has the wine industry.

In the spirit of the saying ‘never waste a crisis’, what are the key learnings the wine industry can take away from the pandemic so far?

To get a better understanding of the positive trends, changes, and learnings that have emerged from Covid-19 in the world of wine, Sustainable Wine spoke to a few experts from different sectors of the industry. These interviews produced four key insights: 

Insight one: The Importance of rapid digitalisation

Virtual wine tasting

With global lockdowns enforced and social distancing measures in place, businesses had to quickly turn to digital solutions for business and communication. This forced the historically traditional wine industry, significantly less digitalised than other industries, to rapidly realise the importance of up-to-date technology.

Despite the sector’s pre-existing lag, “[it] has been incredibly quick to adapt to this new digital world we are in,” shares Lauren Holman, export sales manager for Château Léoube in France. Whilst “the agricultural work remains somewhat the same, the [form of] communication has definitely changed,” agrees Heidi Mäkinen MW, importer/distributor for Viintie Ltd in Finland.

Customer engagement
With face-to-face contact no longer a possibility, online channels became vital for communicating with customers. Social media channels stood out as especially important.

As UK based wine educator Richard Bampfield MW notes, the pandemic even saw the creation, marketing, and selling of a new rosé brand solely through social media. To successfully connect and engage with customers through digital channels, businesses needed to come up with more creative and innovative approaches to content.

For example, Sally Evans, owner of Château George 7 in France, turned to engaging customers stuck at home with topical content around food and wine pairings through recipes on her website.

The revolution in wine tasting
Similar to other industries, Zoom rapidly emerged as a major platform in the wine industry. With no vineyard or wine club visits possible, wine tasting events went virtual.

The pandemic has revolutionized wine tasting as now anyone can join a wine tasting from the comfort of their own home. This incredible increase in accessibility to wine tastings is certainly one of the key benefits of online tastings. With the possibility to deliver wine samples across the globe, virtually anyone can join as potential guests are no longer restricted by location or travel arrangements.

Not only are wine tasting more accessible to customers, but the variety of wines on offer has also increased. As Holman points out, “many ‘old school’, traditional producers – the ones that are usually strictly off the books to anyone other than true wine investors and trade – [have pivoted] their business operations into opening up their cellars and doing virtual tastings.”

Having proven to be highly successful, many plan to make virtual wine tastings a permanent offering. For example, London wine club 67 Pall Mall  plans to continue providing a series of virtual events in the future. 

The rise in e-commerce
According to Nielsen research, off-trade alcohol sales in the US were among the “fastest growing categories in e-commerce channels.” The massive increase in demand for online alcohol sales was met by rapid investment in e-commerce channels by many wine retailers.

Companies such as Wanderlust Wine with business models built on direct-to-consumer e-commerce sales seem to have fared especially well during the pandemic. Relying solely on technology to power their operations, Wanderlust sells a range of sustainably produced wines sourced directly from small winemakers to consumers, the off-trade and the on-trade. 

The spike in off-trade demand and sudden halt in the on-trade sector forced many on-trade distributors to target the consumer market. “It’s been great to see some on-trade focused distributors open up their portfolios to general consumers via e-commerce sales and other forms of B2C models sprouting up all over the industry,” Holman says.

Whether the dominance of online shopping habits persists beyond the pandemic remains to be seen, but Evans believes that “many businesses will emerge [from the pandemic] with more advanced technology and better B2C selling capacity.”

Insight two: The potential for creativity and resourcefulness

Wine window in Florence, Italy

From labour shortages to premises closures, logistical difficulties to wine surpluses, the pandemic posed several significant obstacles in the wine industry. However, as evidenced by the industry’s rapid digitalisation, businesses did not come to halt. Instead, they looked for innovative and alternative ways forward, unlocking endless creativity and resourcefulness.

Adaptation and perseverance
Heidi Mäkinen notes how the pandemic forced the wine industry to “[re-think] many past habits” and how “we [have] all had to accustom to new ideas very quickly.” The importance of adaptation and perseverance in overcoming the challenges of the pandemic is further highlighted by Evans.

Faced with labour shortages, she went ahead and sprayed organic fertiliser by hand throughout her vineyard (by no means an easy or pleasant job). In response to social distancing measures, she came up with a new way for customers to experience a vineyard in the Covid-19 era, offering a ‘private vineyard for a day.’

However, she points out how the size of winery makes a massive difference in the types of challenges faced and the possibilities for navigating these. She notes how as a small vineyard owner, she was fortunate to not have to worry about costly social distancing workplace measures or furloughing of staff, for instance. 

She also shares her experience of decorating the tasting room during the lockdown, reusing and upscaling furniture and fabric, noting her amazement at how resourceful you can be: “When we can’t get hold of certain things, we become more creative to make the most of what we have.”

The industry is certainly abundant with examples of creativity and resilience. For example, in Italy, the city of Florence saw the resurgence of historical ‘wine windows’ for socially-distanced wine sales, and in the UK some wineries offer a drive through wine service.

Between April and July of this year, UK wine supplier Berkmann Wine Cellars ran a fantastic initiative called Help 4 Hospitality. Consumers were given access to wines they would otherwise consume in restaurants and bars, raising £75,136 in donations to help the struggling hospitality industry.

We should aim to carry over such open-mindedness and resourcefulness into the post-pandemic world. As Mäkinen says, “we should keep thinking if we could be yet more efficient and imaginative, and not just act in a way that’s always been done without questioning the habits or searching for new possibilities and opportunities.”

In the longer-term, the impacts of the pandemic will no doubt be felt for years to come. Holman believes that “safety will [continue to] be one of the major deciding factors in doing business for quite some time.” Mäkinen also believes that “the different parts of the industry will likely be much more cautious when making investments in the long run.” 

Opportunities for innovation
Among the key opportunities brought on by the pandemic have been those of innovation. Holman shares how at Château Léoube, “[the] situation helped [them] to really highlight [their] weaknesses and afforded [them] the time to strengthen [them].” She notes how the “slower than usual period of business” enabled them to “[explore] new sustainable product innovations.”

Opportunities for innovation have also extended across other industries. For example, as cooking became increasingly popular, many tapped into the rising trend. Among these was Evans with her food and wine pairings, who emphasizes how “wineries should continue to look into how to innovate across other industries.” 

Insight three: The Importance of diversification and agility

Wine bottles on shelves

This need for diversification stands out as a key learning from the pandemic: businesses should never be too reliant on one market segment.

Considering this, Richard Bampfield believes that in the “longer term, businesses have a decision to take. Do they specialise in a particular area in which they believe they can add value and be profitable? Or do they spread their risk by trying to supply different sectors?”

Agility is key
Either way, businesses must ensure that they remain agile and are equipped with sufficient technology to be as flexible as possible. On emphasising the importance of technology, Bampfield points out how “businesses that had the technology in place responded quickly and admirably.

Partly in the way they communicated with their clients and partly in the methods they found to keep some sort of business going.” For example, on-trade suppliers worked with restaurants and hotels to sell wine online to the restaurants’ customers, “thus making the most of the take-home opportunities and also depleting stocks.”

Do not take wine sales for granted
Overall, this year has taught us not to take anything for granted, including the sale of wine. The pandemic has reinforced how hard it is to sell wine and as Evans stresses, “never take it as a given that wine will sell.”

Discussing the future of wine sales, Mäkinen notes how prices will likely be reduced due to grape surpluses. “This is already partly seen in Bordeaux where 2019 prices are much less compared to some of the previous vintages,” she says. 

Insight four: Sustainability takes a leading place in the agenda

Vineyards near Blemheim in New Zealand with wind turbines

On a more positive note, the crisis has highlighted the importance of protecting the environment and creating a more sustainable future. As we stayed indoors to protect ourselves and others, we were forced to slow down. During this time, we saw nature re-heal as we stopped overusing it, with countries seeing a significant reduction in carbon emissions during periods of lockdown.

Think local
It is no doubt that the pandemic has united us together on a global scale. It has also re-shaped and strengthened many local communities, with people coming together to support one another both personally and professionally.

During the pandemic we have realised how much of the travel we do is unnecessary and, as Evans says, “that we don’t need to travel to the ends of the earth to get what we need.” With global supply chains disrupted, many businesses have seen the benefits of supporting local supply chains such as greater agility, increased transparency, and not to mention – sustainability.

Here to stay
The pandemic is challenging governments and businesses to reconsider ways of working for a more sustainable post-pandemic world. Sustainability has been a growing focal point in the wine industry over the last few decades and is certainly here to stay. “People are caring more for the provenance of products and where they buy their produce and wine from,” says Holman. “This focus was slowly happening before the crisis, but most definitely increased since.” 

She also points to the fact that “the wine industry has seen an increased amount of sales on higher value wines than before, the theory being that people are drinking less and in moderation, but they are choosing to drink better,” opting for organic and sustainable choices.

Bampfield too believes that sustainability is here to stay. However, he raises the concern of price. “If many wine drinkers are having to watch how much they spend, there will be added pressure on price – and that might make sustainable and organic initiatives look like an expensive luxury.” 

Mäkinen hopes that “seeing how our nature…re-healed after we stopped over-using it will…stay in our minds for a long time.” “We are in no way doing what’s enough yet to preserve our planet,” she says, “but I hope our industry will keep making better choices understanding there are consequences in everything we do.”

If you’re interested in sustainability in the wine industry, join Sustainable Wine’s free virtual interactive business conference on 26-27 November, 2020. The Future of Wine event will analyse the big issues facing the wine value chain with a focus on how the industry can respond with practical solutions. Register here. Places are limited.

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What is a sustainable wine closure? Corks vs. the rest

David Harvey

As David Harvey of Raeburn Fine Wines points out in this podcast with Toby Webb, sustainability in closures is not as simple as you might think…

Join 200 wine producers, distributors, traders, retailers and many others from the industry, at the Future of Wine Forum 2020, our free virtual conference on November 26-27. Register or sign up for updates at: https://futurewineforum.com/. For regular media updates and analysis sign up on this site, above, for our weekly newsletter.

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Record-early harvests, exclusionary wine language, alternative wine packaging formats on the rise in the UK, dangerous conditions for Californian farmworkers, and De Bortoli’s new sustainably-produced wine range

France’s record-early harvests

Writing for Bloomberg Quint, Rudy Ruitenberg reports how France’s “record-early start to grape harvests” is fuelling optimistic forecasts of a recovery in the country’s wine production. The French Agriculture Ministry predicts a 6.3% YoY increase in the 2020 vintage, amounting to 45 million hectoliters, or “about 6 billion bottles.”

In light of global rising temperatures, Burgundy saw its earliest harvest in over 600 years, starting on August 12th, and a day later, Champagne experienced its earliest harvest start on record. According to the Agriculture Ministry, the early harvests are “explained by a spring that was the second-warmest in 120 years and a relatively warm winter.”

Whilst total volume output is expected to increase overall, Ruitenberg reports how some designation wine producing regions have set production limits due to the Covid-19 induced slow-down in the wine market. For example, given the decrease in sales, Champagne’s wine board have decreased the “maximum amount of grapes that can be used to produce Champagne-labeled sparkling wine by 22%…this year.”

Read more here.

The limiting effects of wine lexicon

Writing for The San Francisco Chronicle, Esther Mobley discusses the exclusionary language used in the wine industry and its limiting effects on diversity. Mobley highlights how descriptions of wine are “almost farcical in [their] specificity,” providing examples such as “notes of smoldering tobacco or forest underbrush or underripe Jonagold apple.” Not only is wine lexicon “intimidating and opaque,” but it has a dangerous implication in that it “[excludes] dimensions of flavor that are unfamiliar to the white, Western cultures that dominate the world of fine wine.”

Mobley notes how French words appear frequently in descriptions of wine, with commonly used terms including “pate de fruit (a jellied fruit candy), coulis (a fruit sauce), fleur de sel (very fancy salt).” Whilst this makes sense given France’s widely exported wine tradition, such terms “carry considerable class baggage with them” as not everyone has the access or opportunity to know and truly understand these specific tastes. Furthermore, Mobley highlights how many wine professionals are “conditioned to ‘mold’ [their] palates to a French ideal” even if “French flavors [aren’t] evocative for them.”  The dominance of such exclusionary language “is part of [the] larger exclusion” and diversity issues in the wine industry. 

Mobley also raises the issue of sexism in wine lexicon. For example, the common descriptions of wine as ‘masculine’ (meaning “aggressive or muscular”) or ‘feminine’ (meaning “delicate and floral)….[adhere] to an outdated, irrelevant set of gender norms.”  Even more sexist is the use of the term “slutty,” used to “describe a wine whose appeal is obvious, rather than subtle.” 

The use of such heavily gendered language in the wine industry has declined in recent years, proving that the industry can “change its own norms” and that “a deeper examination of the racial and class-based undertones is possible.” In a call to promote more accessibility in the wine industry, Mobley urges the industry to broaden its use of language. This does not mean that “western European flavors should be vilified, or use of French restricted,” but rather that “the dictionary should be expanded.”

Wine Intelligence report finds alternative wine packaging on the rise in UK

Wine Intelligence recently published its UK Wine Packaging Formats 2020  Report exploring the different trends in the UK wine market. In his article for Wine Intelligence, Richard Halstead shares the key takeaways of the report, highlighting how alternative packaging formats are on the rise in the UK. 

Alongside Sweden, the UK is at the forefront of alternative packaging trends in Europe. Although the standard 75cl glass bottle still remains the most common in the market, the last three years have seen an increasing openness among UK consumers to try “alternative wine packaging formats that save weight, offer value and avoid waste.” The report reveals growing “awareness [and consideration] levels for other formats” in the UK.

Despite being lesser known packaging alternatives, almost half of regular wine consumers in the UK are familiar with formats such as “pouches and cans.” Bag-in-box wines, offering an eco-friendly option, “convenience and good value for money,” saw an increased purchase frequency during June and July 2020, likely further driven by the Covid-19 lockdown. The report also demonstrates a clear link between “specific occasions and packaging types,” with consumers more likely to purchase glass bottles “for more formal and gift occasions.” Cans are more commonly purchased for “travelling and outdoor events,” but the report highlights “an emerging opportunity…as consumers associate [cans] with the opportunity to try new brands and styles of wine.”

However, as Halstead notes, the key obstacles to purchasing wine in alternative packaging such as pouches, cans, or bag-in-box are still widespread. Among these are “the belief that these packaging types typically contain lower quality wine” and the “long-standing and habitual preference for standard glass bottles.” Despite these challenges for producers looking to sell wine in alternative packaging in the UK, the overall tone of the report is positive. Wine Intelligence “[expects] the positive attitude and curiosity, especially among younger consumers, to continue to drive alternative packaging formats for wine for years to come.

Read Halstead’s summary here. The full report can be purchased here.

Limited choices for Californian vineyard workers: “Unhealthy,” “Hazardous” or “No pay”

Although recent cooler temperatures have helped firefighters in containing the LNU Lightning Complex wildfires across Napa and Sonoma Counties, the drastic impacts on Califorian wineries are not easing up. Writing for Wine Searcher, W. Blake Gray shares how over the last two weeks “California wineries have been scrambling to harvest grapes,” even in “evacuated areas (with permission)…despite thick smoke.”

Farmworkers in California have been presented with a limited set of unfavourable choices: picking grapes in dangerous levels of air quality, or forgoing work and missing out on important pay. Robert Rivas, California assembly member, shares how many “farmworkers live paycheck to paycheck” and how many are undocumented and therefore not eligible for any unemployment benefits. “Whether it’s a pandemic or these severe wildfires, they have no choice but to continue to work,” says Rivas. 

Given the dangerous conditions all farmworkers should be provided with a N95 mask. However, with many wineries having donated their N95 masks due to the medical shortage, they are now not in a position to provide one to each farmworker. Furthermore, the wineries continue in their struggle to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. Farmworkers are especially at risk due to their “crowded [living] conditions” and regular “[commutes] to work together in vans or buses. 

Gray highlights a report from a county supervisor in Sonoma County that reveals how 65 percent of positive Covid-19 tests “came from the Latino community” even though “the county is only 27 percent Latino.” Of the 65 percent who tested positive, 20 percent are agricultural workers.

Read more here.

De Bortoli Wines launches sustainable 17 Trees range

Sonya Hooks’ article in Drinks Retailing reports on the recent launch of sustainably-produced wines from De Bortoli Wines in Australia. The sustainable range is produced under the new label 17 Trees and includes three wines: a Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, and Shiraz. De Bortoli says the range is vegan-friendly and supports “essential tree regeneration projects in Australia via a commitment to plant one tree for every six bottles sold.”

The new range takes its name from and builds upon De Bortoli’s existing sustainability initiatives, the first of which began in 2008, reports Hook. In 2008 the winery committed to “[planting] 17 trees for each company vehicle to offset the carbon effects of its fleet.” The winery’s tree planting scheme comes at a crucial time given the recent bushfires in Australia, which have burned over 11 million hectares of land. Having partnered up with non-profit organisation Trillion Trees, De Bortoli “[hopes to contribute] to rebuild the Australian bushland lost.”

The 17 Trees wine bottles are made up of recycled glass bottles and paper, are “packed in recycled packaging materials,” and are retailing at a favorable price point of £9.00 RRP.

De Bortoli is working towards becoming a Zero Waste Wine Company. Hook quotes managing director Darren De Bortoli who shares how “through initiatives including wise water management, energy efficiency and improved waste management over the past 15 years [De Bortoli is] demonstrating [its] commitment to a future where great wine and a healthy environment can be enjoyed by everyone.”


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The high effort behind low-intervention wine, the need for better protection of worker rights, smoke taint in California, and an argument for clearer labeling

Low-intervention winemaking: “It takes a lot of work to do very little.”

In her article for Wine Searcher, Vicki Denig explores the persistent trend of the “hands-off approach” in the wine industry. This low-intervention method “has become a favored style of winemaking for vignerons across the globe.” Whilst such an approach may look slightly different across vineyards, its underlying principles are: “farm organically, manipulate the juice as little as possible, and add nothing, with the exception of minimal sulfur.” Denig provides the example of winemaker Joe Swick in Oregon who “[lets] vinification processes happen naturally and only [intervenes] via top-offs and/or sulfur additions.”

Low-intervention winemaking is favoured for its eco-friendly processes, respecting the terroir, and better tasting “honest” wines. Denig quotes winemaker Bernard Bohn in Alsace who says, “If you feel obliged to work in a commercial way, its oppression and lack of character will be felt through the glass.”

It would appear logical that a low-intervention approach to winemaking would by default require less work. However, as Denig highlights, this is not the case.  By not using additives or high quantities of sulfur the risks are higher, requiring “maximum attention in the cellar.” She quotes Bohn who shares how “[hands off] sounds easy, but on the contrary, you need a lot of rigor and precision.” This is further emphasized by Tomoko Kuriyama of Chantereves in Savigny-les-Beaune, who notes how “the numerous variables, factors, and unknowns that go into hands-off winemaking actually makes it more prone to accidents”

Kuriyama also highlights how organic farming necessitates more intervention than processes reliant on chemical pesticides. For example, since organic treatments can be “weak, as well as washed away by rain,” they require more frequent application. Organic farming also involves “more detailed pruning,” as “intensive canopy management [is necessary] to let air in if your vineyard is organic.” 

Clearly, as Chris Brockway of Broc Cellars in California sums up, “it takes a lot of work to do very little.”

Read more here

The need for wine certification to protect worker rights

Writing for Grape Collective, Monty Waldin calls for wine certifications to set standards to protect worker rights. He begins with a discussion on the development of organic and biodynamic wine third party certifications in the last few decades, noting how the natural wine movement has been less reluctant to adopt standards. 

Referring to France’s recently established ‘Vin Méthode Nature’ certification as a “good first step” Waldin notes how “it doesn’t go far enough to protect the values of the natural wine movement.” Although it is the first formal recognition of natural wines, Waldin states that “the next task must be a social contract between winery owners and their staff and communities for fair working conditions.” 

This is especially important given the prevalence of “temporary, short-term contracts which favour employers rather than the employed.” Waldin refers to the recent arrest of businessman Settimio Passalacqua in Puglia accused of exploiting migrant agricultural workers. The arrest placed Valentina Passalacqua, Settimio’s daughter, under heavy scrutiny. As the owner of an organic, biodynamic, and natural vineyard in Puglia, Valentina’s winery and its working conditions have been under close inspection. 

He hopes that the arrest will push the wine industry to re-examine its practices and that worker exploitation will not remain as “the dirty secret that [the wine] industry is turning a blind eye to.” He stresses how the industry must demand for certification boards to include stricter guidelines in their rules to ensure and protect vineyard worker rights. After all, as Waldin notes, “the cast-iron truth [is] that there is no terroir expression in wine without the human hand.”

Smoke taint in California

Writing for The San Francisco Chronicle, Esther Mobley reports on how the ongoing Lake Napa Unit (LNU) Lightning Complex wildfires in California have affected winemakers in the area. Spanning across Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Solano, and Yolo counties, the wildfires began on August 17-18 and have spread to become California’s second largest wildfire in history.

Mobley shares how many wineries in the area may end up not making any wine this year due to the damage the wildfire smoke has caused in the vineyards. “Prolonged, heavy smoke exposure” causes a highly damaging effect called ‘smoke taint,’ in which grapes are tainted “with unpleasantly smoky aromas and flavors.” According to the article, smoke taint is difficult to identify and “many laboratories test for only a few of the compounds that can contribute to it.” Furthermore, it can take some time for the effects of smoke taint to surface, resulting in wine that initially tastes fine but later reveals to be tainted.

Among affected winemakers is Noah Dorrance, owner of Reeve Wines in Sonoma County. Having sampled many grapes, Dorrance shares how the smoke taint is highly noticeable, noting how “you could already taste and smell this ashy, barbecued flavor, kind of like a campfire.” As a winemaker without his own vineyard or winemaking facilities, Dorrance cannot risk “taking a chance on potentially smoke-tainted wines.” Smaller wineries such as Reeve Wines have “less financial wiggle room” and unfortunately, ending up with an undrinkable wine would “put [them] out of business.”

Wildfires and issues of smoke taint are by no means new to the region. However, as Mobley highlights, the effects of the LNU Lightning Complex wildfires are unprecedented in that they are widespread. She quotes Dorrance who says, “I had never considered that smoke could affect everything we make.” 

What would be the business impact of “[skipping] the 2020 vintage” for Reeve Wines? According to Dorrance, “it’s potentially a little bit of a blessing.” As a winery heavily dependent on sales in the hospitality sector, a reduction in inventory could help balance out the unsold stock resulting from the  Covid-19 pandemic. 

Read more here.

Clear labeling: the way to attract more consumers

So argues Jim Gordon in his article for Wine Enthusiast. According to Gordon, wineries need to focus on “the most obvious, simple way to attract engaged consumers: clearer education and transparency through labeling.” An increasing number of consumers demand and value transparency in products, especially among the Millennial and Gen Z audience. Furthermore, a wine’s packaging is an already paid for, customer-facing space that provides an “exclusive communications medium.” Wineries should therefore engage in clearer labeling to “tell consumers what’s really inside the bottle or what the wine tastes like.”

The article provides the example of American winery Ridge Vineyards, which has for several years “declared everything that goes into their wines.” Terms that can be found on their wine labels include: “‘hand-harvested, sustainability grown,’ ‘indigenous yeasts,’ ‘naturally occurring malolactic bacteria,’ and ‘minimum effective SO2.’”However, according to Gordon, transparency should extend beyond ingredient labeling to descriptions of taste, as “consumers want and deserve to know what a wine tastes like, too.” Winemaking processes and techniques could also be shared to further engage and connect with consumers. Overall, Gordon believes “it’s time to stop mystifying consumers with opaque labeling that obscures what’s in the bottle.”

Read more here.

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“Clean Wine” Needs Clarification

The idea of clean wine demonstrates that we need a more joined-up, industry-wide approach to ensuring that viticulture is sustainable, both environmentally and economically, argues Richard Bampfield, MW.

Richard Bampfield is a Master of Wine and well-known wine educator and presenter.

The launch of a new, “clean” wine called Avaline by Cameron Diaz and Katherine Power has raised hackles amongst the wine fraternity who, understandably, resent the accompanying claim that most other wines must, by definition, be dirty. However, much though I envy those who see the world in terms of black and white, I seldom do; in this case, I too would defend the wine industry against claims that it is dirty but I also believe that much of what goes on is, at best, grubby. And that perhaps this is the call to arms the wine business needed to sharpen up its act.

One of the reasons wine has been so successful in the last four decades in countries with no great history of widespread wine consumption like the USA and the UK is that it is perceived as a more natural product than beer, whisky or other forms of alcohol. Wine’s narrative has been accompanied by spectacular shots of pristine, green vineyards, often surrounded by high peaks or rugged hillsides – images that the photographers attached to the beer, vodka or whisky businesses have been unable to match. Pictures of grapes feature strongly…and fruit is good for you, right?

Yet we all know that the reality in the vineyard can be a little different. Disease in the vines is as problematic as ever, partly caused by vineyards being planted in areas perhaps not best suited to viticulture and partly due to the increasing extremes of weather. We should remember that most of the Bordeaux vineyards were planted so they could be conveniently close to a port that provided the sea transport essential for such a heavy, cumbersome product as wine – NOT, as the almost annual battles against mildew and oidium attest, because Bordeaux is a viticultural paradise. And, much though I welcome the move by many to organic viticulture, we all know that the levels of copper usage that almost inevitably ensue are perhaps more toxic to soils than a carefully selected combination of chemical and organic treatments applied by a conventional grapegrower.

I am not a winemaker so cannot comment on the levels of additives, clean or dirty, that might be used in winemaking. However, in those halcyon days of hosting live, physical wine tastings, I would frequently hear someone say that they were allergic to wine or that wine made them come out in a rash or a headache. Yes, of course there were occasions when I suspected that the level of alcohol consumption might be part of the problem; but the conversation always made me uneasy because I know that most of the complaints were genuine and I had no satisfactory answer. In these days of rampant conspiracy theories, is it possible that research into the allergens in wine has indeed been conducted and that it has been deemed wise not to share the results publicly because they may not have been conducive to the ongoing health of the wine industry?

So do I agree with Avaline’s literature stating that “the overwhelming majority of wines…could be legally adulterated with dozens of chemicals and flavoring components”? No, of course not. It is a despicable, low-down, cheap shot at an industry already on its knees in many parts of the wine-producing world. But that’s business: any SWOT analysis features a strategy in the Opportunities column for targeting the weaknesses of the perceived competition. And, if the wine business does not see its currently languid response to the lack of transparency in goings-on in both vineyard and cellar as a threat, then it should not complain at the consequences.

There have been scandals in the past when producers have tried to cut corners and, given the financial pressures on the industry at present, we would be naïve to think that there may not be more in the future. Yes, the Chinese economy seems to be picking up quicker than most in the west and perhaps the Chinese will helpfully drink some of the current oversupply of wine. But we should be mindful that the main reason the Chinese turned to red wine in the first place was because they believe it is good for their health. In other words… clean.

I mentioned at the beginning that I see the Avaline story as a call to arms. Firstly, we need a more joined-up, industry-wide approach to ensuring that viticulture is sustainable, both environmentally and economically. This should include growers of all creeds, researchers and, dare I say it, the suppliers of chemicals to the industry. Secondly, we need to be very clear that, if the wine industry does not collectively tackle the issue of ingredient listing, we will be prey to regulators and unprincipled marketeers calling the shots for us.

I am no more keen than anyone else to see albumen and fish bladders included on back labels but, at the very least, it seems sensible that every wine label should include a QR code that enables the interested consumer to access a list of ingredients if they wish to. Who knows, we may then find that Avaline is not quite the additive-free liquid its creators make it out to be.

You can find the originally published article on the ByWine blog here.

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Italy’s wine windows, ongoing criticism of ‘clean wine’, questioning the shape of wine bottles, struggles of South African wineries, and the first SWGB accredited producers

The comeback of Italy’s ‘wine windows’

Writing for Decanter, Chris Mercer reports on some lighter Covid-19 related news: the return of ‘wine windows’ in Florence, Italy. This socially distanced form of serving customers is an age-old method dating back to the 17th century. With over 100 wine windows in Florence, they were traditionally used to serve flasks of wine to customers during the bubonic plague between 1630 and 1633. According to the article, the use of wine windows was not limited just to the time of the epidemic. It is believed that they were also used by Florence’s “noble winemaker families to serve city residents.” 

Mercer quotes Diletta Corsini, cofounder of the Wine Windows Association website, who recently wrote an article sharing how the wine producers conducted their business during the plague. Instead of receiving direct payment, the sellers would “[pass] a metal pallet to the client, who placed the coins on it, and then the seller disinfected them with vinegar.” Whilst today’s contactless payment methods certainly take on a different form, the purpose and convenience of wine windows remains very much the same.

“When it comes to clean wine, the only thing being cleaned is your wallet.”

So concludes Felicity Carter in her article on clean wine for The Guardian. Referring to it as “the Goopifcation of grapes,” Carter discusses how an increasing number of ‘clean wine’ companies are looking to capture the wellness market through “disparaging the competition.” They are doing so by “claiming that other wineries fill their wines with noxious chemicals” – all of which Carter rightfully points out to be untrue.

Since winemakers are not legally required to list their ingredients, ‘clean wine’ brands are claiming that the traditional wine industry lacks transparency and are consequently positioning themselves as ‘honest and transparent’ winemakers. However, as Carter notes, “the clean wine gang is pretty quiet about where their own wines come from.” She provides the example of the Wonderful Wine Company, who provides very limited details on the origins of their grapes – all we know is that their white comes from “France.” 

Carter also addresses another common claim made by ‘clean wine’ brands about how their wines are made free from manipulation. Are we to believe that these winemakers have simply left grapes in a tab and produced drinkable wine, as opposed to “vinegar or cloudy, sour wine”? As she emphasizes, “wine doesn’t make itself” and “winemaking is both [an] art and science,” developed through centuries of testing different processes in search of higher quality. 

Overall, the wine industry is highly regulated. Whilst some mass-market wine producers in the US do employ practices such as adding grape concentrate like Mega Purple for added colour, this practice is illegal in the EU. Furthermore, as Carter points out, “just because winemaking tools exist doesn’t mean people use them.”

Finally, at the end of the day, whether ‘clean’ or not, “there is no wine that won’t deliver a hangover if you drink too much.” Read more here.

Why are wine bottles still round?

This is the question Robert Joseph explores in his recent article for Meininger’s. According to the article, the argument for square bottles is fairly straightforward: you can save on money and space. Round packaging is “wastefully inefficient,” as “you could fit 100 square…[bottles of wine] in the space occupied by 82 round ones.” Whilst it may take more materials to produce square bottles, Joseph argues that this would be offset by the lower costs resulting from the savings in space. In regards to the extra weight, this is less of a concern “if the glass is properly recycled – or more ideally refilled.” 

So what are the barriers to change in alternative bottle shapes in the wine industry, he asks? He focuses on the common argument that “consumers just don’t want it. In addressing this, Joseph makes a valid point about creating consumer demand and cites a few examples. Among these are how consumers “didn’t ‘want’ a car before Henry Ford offered them one,” and how consumers didn’t want screw caps prior to 2000 when “Australian, New Zealand and subsequently Austrian and German producers, along with UK retailers all supported the idea, and millions of wine drinkers found themselves happily unscrewing Marlborough Sauvignon or Austrian Grüner.” Perhaps one day round bottles too will no longer seem ‘wrong.’

Struggles in the South African wine industry

The pandemic has caused economic hardship throughout the global wine industry and South Africa is no exception. In his article for Wine-Searcher, James Lawrence discusses the “toxic storm” that the South African wine industry is currently suffering from as a result of economic, social, and political crises. Already a country burdened by a shrinking economy and “societal divisions and tensions,”  Covid-19 will only deepen these issues. Although the wine industry does not traditionally engage in political discussion, Lawrence argues that “to discuss South African wine today without first dissecting the socio/economic and political forces at work in the nation seems ridiculous.”

He specifically calls out the massive impact on wineries of the ban on liquor consumption, highlighting the fact that an estimated “80 wineries will close their doors, obviously leading to significant redundancies in the sector.” Lawrence also believes that the pandemic is further fuelling the anti-alcohol discourse in the country, predicting that politicians will maintain the tighter regulations on alcohol sales once the pandemic is over. He quotes winery owner Anthony Hamilton Russell who argues that whilst such restrictions are “an understandable sentiment” in the context of the rise of alcohol-related domestic abuse during the pandemic, “wine, however – and particularly fine wine – is not the culprit.”

Some expect the alcohol ban to be lifted in the next few months. Among these is winery owner Alexander Waibel, who shares his opinion: “I’m not sure if restrictions on alcohol sales – especially after a vaccine is found – make a lot of sense. SA is one of the world’s leading tourist destinations.” 

Hit by the loss of income in the hospitality and tourism, many wineries turned to focus on international sales during the crisis, as exports are exempt from the alcohol ban. Whilst exports have been “surprisingly buoyant…South Africa needs tourism.” Russell also fears that by not being able to visit other countries, South African wineries will “not be able to grow or maintain [their] international markets easily.”

Lawrence concludes by stating that, “the literary ‘divorce’ between the grape, grower and wider political context is lunacy; their fates in South Africa are dangerously intertwined.”  Read more here.

WineGB announces the first producers to receive its sustainability certification

WineGB recently announced the first twelve producers to receive its Sustainable Wines of Great Britain (SWGB) certification. The SWGB working group was formed in 2019 by 30 founding members to drive environmental responsibility in Great Britain’s wine industry. Key focus areas include “conservation of the environment, and minimising the use of sprays, water and energy; all ultimately to achieve production of outstanding grapes and wines.”

Producers can “formally achieve recognition for their sustainable credentials” under the SWGB scheme provided that they operate according to the WineGB Sustainability Guidelines. As stated in the press release, the accreditation process is based on an annual self-evaluation against the guidelines, and accredited producers are then independently audited every three years. 

The twelve accredited producers are:

Their wines from this year’s harvest will be the first to “include the certification mark on their labels,” and will be supported by SWGB sponsors Marks & Spencers and Waitrose when released. Read more here.

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Clean wine, the toxic history of lead and wine, crisis distillation, and children’s wine education

The crossover between wine and the wellness industry: “Clean wine”

In her article for The San Francisco Chronicle, Esther Mobley discusses the recent “clean wine” trend in the wellness industry, citing Cameron Diaz’s just launched Avaline label and Secco “(‘keto, paleo, low-carb’)” as just a few examples. Targeting the health-conscious, “clean wine” brands market their products with the same language of that of natural winemakers “based on principles of responsible farming, ingredient transparency and minimal intervention.” However, as Mobley highlights, the use of such language is often incorrectly used by many “clean wine” brands. This leads to the creation of “false narratives,” such as the marketization of “low-calorie” wine that in fact accounts for perfectly average calorie count for wine.

This echoes a familiar phenomenon termed as “NatWashing” over ten years ago by Alice Feiring, a leading American advocate for natural wine. Whilst by no means a new issue, many perceive “NatWashing” to be reaching its peak. Mobley quotes Todd White, founder of Napa-based natural wine subscription service Dry Farm Wines, who says, “It’s been hijacked, this word ‘clean… by copycats and inauthentic players.” Whilst this may indeed be the case, the author carefully raises the point that the vulnerability of the natural wine industry stems from its lack of an official definition or standards.

Natural wine, especially in America, can essentially be “whatever you want it to be. Unfiltered? Unfined? Fermented by ambient yeast? Undoctored by additions of acid, tannin, color?” Whilst these may be commonly observed features across the natural wine industry, the use of sulfites, for instance, remains a highly controversial aspect. The lack of standardisation makes it easy for brands to commercialise natural wine marketing, especially among the uncertain wine purchasers more susceptible to marketing tactics. 

As Robert Joseph notes in his article for Meininger’s, “there are no laws to stop entrepreneurial wine businesses and celebrities from piggybacking onto a widely recognised term and turning low intervention into something larger than the natural wine world could ever have imagined.” Whilst “clean wine” sales are based on the profit-driven commercialisation of the natural wine movement, as Joseph concludes, “if it means that people switch from Barefoot to a sustainably or organically produced Barefoot Clean, in the way they have switched from fast food burgers to the Impossible Burger, [is that] an entirely bad thing?”

A toxic history: the use of lead in winemaking

Lead, a highly toxic element, has been used for millennia in winemaking and storage, writes Anna Archibald in Wine Enthusiast. In her article about the “disturbingly long history of lead toxicity in winemaking” dating back to at least 2000 B.C., she shares how lead was used as both a preservative and sweetener. 

In ancient Rome, for example, a common method to sweeten wine was by adding a syrup created from boiling grape juice in leaded vessels which when heated, spread toxins into the liquid. According to this study Roman wine may have held up to as much as 20mg of lead per litre. Archibald quotes University of Michigan emeritus professor, Dr. Jerome Nriagu, Ph.D., DSc, who shares how, “there are many records of essentially [Roman] doctors describing very precisely the symptoms of acute lead poisoning.”

Unfortunately, the Romans were not aware of the metal’s toxicity and used lead across a variety of industries. Paralysis and other side effects of lead poisoning are known as colic Pictonum.

It was around  200 B.C. that a Greek physician called Nikander raised the suspicion that lead might be the source of the poisoning. Although this suspicion expanded to ancient Rome, the use of lead continued. The symptoms of lead poisoning “continued to plague Europe for centuries, as lead sugars remained a popular way to sweeten wines and balance tannins.”

Archibald shares how it was in 1696 that the connection between the sickness and the use of lead in winemaking was discovered by physician Eberhard Gockel in Ulm, resulting in a local ban on the use of the metal in wine. However, its use continued elsewhere. For example, Champagne bottles discovered in 2010 from a 19th-century shipwreck in the Baltic Sea revealed to still contain high amounts of lead.

Lead’s contact with wine has persisted in more recent years through its use in glass manufacturing, given its ability to produce “ultrathin” and “ultraclear” glass products. The metal was also used in wine capsules up until 1996 when the FDA prohibited the use of the metal. Although lead capsules are no longer in use, Archibald concludes her article with a warning: “if you have a collection that dates back [to 1991 or earlier], keep an eye out for white residue on the bottle’s neck. It could indicate a leak and a potentially dangerous reaction…You can easily get rid of it if you just take a damp rag and wipe it off.” 

Crisis Distillation in Alsace 

The French wine market is struggling to survive amidst the Covid-19 economic crisis and Trump’s tariffs on French wines. Reporting for The New York Times, Adam Nossiter relates the challenges faced by winemaker Jerome Mader, a producer of Rieslings and Gewürztraminers. Heavily implicated by the current economic climate, Mader’s reality is shared by many other wineries in Alsace and other French wine regions.

The article shares how Mader has lost half his sales since December. In light of the upcoming 2020 harvest, he has had no choice but to make space by selling his excess stock to a nearby distillery. Despite the high commercial value of his wines, he will only receive “modest compensation.” Soon, his high-quality wine will be converted into hand sanitizer. The same fate awaits the wines of Domaine Borès in Reichsfeld. Winemaker Marion Borès compares the winery’s recent sale of 30% of its production (19,000 liters) to a distillery like “saying goodbye to somebody who is very dear to you.”

Referred to as Crisis Distillation, the operation is subsidised by the French government and around 5000 winemakers have already signed up. According to the article, “in Alsace alone, over six million liters of wine” will end up boiled-down in a distillery, with winemakers receiving less than $1 per liter. Nossiter highlights how not only are winemakers suffering from steep financial losses, but significant psychological stress as the relationship of winemakers to their vines “is personal as much as financial.” 

Unfortunately, many winemakers have had no other choice other than to sign up to the Crisis Distillation scheme. As winemaker Guillaume Klauss shares, “My cellar is bursting. If I don’t send it off, I don’t eat. Clearly this is tearing me up. It’s three years of work, and we’re not even paid properly.” Read more here

Too young to drink, but not too young to learn

Determined to ensure that their “passion for the culture and science of vin” will be carried on by the next generation, some French organisations have begun promoting free wine education for children. Writing for Wine Spectator, Emmalyse Brownstein shares how Château Canet in southern France runs viticulture programs for children. Owner Floris Lemstra “takes several groups of kids each year on a brief journey through vineyard maintenance to harvesting to bottling.” Whilst this may indeed seem a little abstract to many, Lemstra emphasizes the importance of “demystifying wine and its consumption,” especially since “wine is a huge part of…their…culture, economy and daily life.”

This view is shared by Solène Jaboulet, director of marketing and communications at Bordeaux’s Cité du Vin. The wine museum offers free admission to under-18s and has created a number of tours, exhibitions and workshops catered to educating children. In describing these, Brownstein notes how the themed tours include immersive experiences such as “soaring on an airplane above vineyard landscapes, sailing aboard a ship with a Roman crew and even trodding in the shoes of a winemaker.” The museum also offers “exhibitions and workshops to teach kids to identify aromas, colors and tastes like sweetness, acidity and bitterness.” Whilst many parents are apprehensive at first, according to Jaboulet, “once they’ve visited, they realize it is as well suited for kids as any other museum.” Read more here.

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UV robots treating vineyard mildew, natural wine certification, Sustainable Wines of Great Britain accreditation, and the Future of Wine Forum 2020

Thorvald: The robotic future for eliminating mildew in the vineyard

Writing for Meininger’s, James Lawrence reports on a potential “game-changer for viticulture”: a robot that eliminates fungus from vineyards using ultraviolet (UV) lamps. Known as Thorvald, the prototype robot has been developed by a group of scientists and manufacturers from institutions including Cornell AgriTech, the University of Florida, and SAGA Robotics. 

Recent tests of UV lamps on strawberry plants and Chardonnay vineyards have produced convincing results that UV light can effectively treat “fungal diseases common to agriculture.” 

The UV project initially started back in 1991, but was brought to a halt due to the “irreparable damage [it did] to the plants.” However, the project resurfaced in 2010 when PhD student Aruppillai Suthparana demonstrated that the UV treatment did not harm plants when applied at night. 

Lawrence quotes David Gadoury, senior research associate in Cornell’s Department of Plant Pathology, who explains why this is the case: “These fungal pathogens have an inbuilt defence mechanism against naturally-occurring UV light – they use blue light emitted during the day to repair their cell damage. But at night this defence collapses. So only a small dose of UV light is needed, which is effective in killing single-cell organisms, but doesn’t harm the crops.”

Equipped with up to 30 UV lamps, Thorvald is “almost totally autonomous,” can work at an “operating speed [of] five miles per hour,” and “can cover 30 hectares in one evening.” The Thorvald team expects the “market to react very positively” once the robots can be produced on a larger scale. According to Gadoury, “this is the future.”

Should there be a natural wine certification?

In his article for Meininger’s, Woolf discusses the regulation of natural wine. It is a largely contested topic. Those who oppose regulation, such as Doug Wregg of Les Caves de Pyrene, argue that natural wine cannot be codified as “it is about this thing called ‘spirit’.” On the other hand, advocates for natural wine certification argue that it is precisely because of this “vague definition” and the wide “possibility for abuse” that regulation is necessary.

Among those pushing for natural wine certification is Angiolino Maule, president of the natural winemakers organisation VinNatur. Woolf describes how VinNatur is different to any other natural wine organisation in that “it undertakes stringent checks on its members’ wines, winemaking and farming methods.” This rightly raises the question of whether a system “based on laboratory analysis and regulation [can] ever coexist comfortably in the world of minimal intervention winemaking?”

According to Maule, it certainly can. In 2016 VinNatur adopted its charter which strictly lays out how members must make their wine. For example, “only spontaneous fermentation is allowed, filtration below five microns for white and rosé wines or 10 microns for red wines is forbidden, [and fining] of any sort is not permitted.” VinNatur aims to randomly test the wine of around 40% of its members for pesticide residues and offers up to three chances for producers to “explain why residues have been found in their wines.” Not only does VinNatur strictly regulate its members, but it also “co-funds, coordinates and participates in pioneering research programs,” with a current focus on “learning how to make consistently good natural wines.”

However, not everyone agrees with VinNatur’s approach. The introduction of the charter caused a number of members to leave, including Frank Cornelissen. Woolf quotes Cornelissen who states how “many natural wine people…like to work in a very intuitive way. The principle of introducing a protocol just didn’t fit any more.” Despite the discord caused by the charter, Maule adamantly stands by it, asking, “If you’ve got nothing to hide, why do you run away?” Read more here.

The Sustainable Wines of Great Britain Certification Scheme

WineGB’s Sustainable Wines of Great Britain (SWGB) working group was formed last year by 30 founding members and is sponsored by leading retailers such as Waitrose and Marks & Spencer. Representing about 40% of total UK hectarage, the founding members recognised the wine industry’s collective responsibility to drive environmental sustainability and created the SWGB certification scheme. According to WineGB’s website, the key objectives of the sustainability initiative are:

  •  “Protect our soils, conserve our environment, and promote biodiversity in our vineyards
  •  Manage our vineyards sustainably, with minimal pesticide and fertiliser inputs
  • Use water wisely, and protect our watercourses from contamination
  • Minimise our energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint, both in the vineyard and the winery
  • Be economically viable in the long term
  • Grow outstanding grapes and produce excellent wine for our customers”

Reporting for The Drinks Business, Phoebe French shares how the first vineyards and wineries to be accredited with the SWGB scheme will be announced next month. This accreditation will permit them to use the SWGB certification mark and will indicate that the member operates according to the WineGB Sustainability Guidelines. These guidelines “detail best practice, set minimum standards and list prohibited practices.” The guidelines will be reviewed every year and the accredited wineries will be reaudited every three years.

French quotes SWGB chairman, Chris Foss, who says he hopes that “most, if not all” vineyards in the UK will sign up to the certification scheme. Read more here.

The Future of Wine Forum 2020 

Earlier this week we announced the 2020 Future of Wine Forum which will be taking place later this year on 26-27 November. The 2020 forum will be held virtually, hosted on an interactive state-of-the-art online platform and will be free to attend.

We’ll be bringing together hundreds of wine industry professionals from across the globe to debate the biggest wine sustainability issues, providing a unique learning and networking opportunity. 

Key topics to be addressed include: 

  • Wine sustainability definitions, standards and certifications;
  • Labels, transparency and wine marketing;
  • The future of wine packaging, logistics and shipping;
  • Planning for climate adaptation and mitigation in the vineyard;
  • Circular approaches and profitability;
  • Social sustainability, and;
  • Equality, diversity and inclusion in the wine industry. 

To learn more about the conference, visit www.futurewineforum.com.

Registration is currently open, so be sure to sign up here and secure your online spot (spaces are limited!)

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