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.
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’.
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.’
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.
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.