July 8, 2020

Sustainable Wine? Or Just Greenwashing?

We share with you an article by Wine-Searcher, that brings a provocative yet necessary view, of a topic that we are all talking about:


So-called sustainable wine regions often allow synthetic pesticides, so just how green are they?

Talking to winemakers with different approaches to sustainability is like talking to two parents engaged in a vicious divorce. Those who employ glyphosate in their vineyards as an important tool and those who view at as poison are equally confident that the facts are on their side, and view the members of the other camp with beady-eyed suspicion.

And the truth is, the stakes couldn’t be higher. See warming temperatures, glaciers melting, rising seas, all of which lead to droughts, heat waves, increasingly violent storms, more frequent wildfires, rampant human misery. Pollution from chemicals and agricultural run-offs are damaging waterways around the world and have led to “dead zones” in the world’s oceans, where nothing can live or grow. Studies from the National Cancer Institute and beyond have linked chemical pollution in water to increased rates of cancer and birth defects.

Only a fool would dismiss concerns about the climate and pollution in favor of profits. Or the Environmental Protection Agency, an agency whose mission is to protect human and environmental health, which used studies funded by Roundup producer Monsanto to determine that the weed-killer glyphosate is not “likely” carcinogenic, and can therefore be manufactured in the US. The key ingredient in Roundup is glyphosate; in 2017, Monsanto reported net sales of $3.7 billion in its agricultural productivity division, so the company, one might argue, could be financially motivated to influence those studies it’s funding.

The World Health Organization, for what it’s worth, views glyphosate’s safety differently. In 2015, the WHO said that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans”. Three juries in the US seem to share WHO’s perspective, awarding significant sums to people whose cancer they determined was linked to Roundup. In May, an Oakland, California jury awarded one couple $2 billion in punitive damages.

Austria is attempting to ban the substance, as is France, both of which are rejecting the European Union’s move to extend glyphosate’s use. Six ministers of agriculture or environment in France, Belgium, Greece, Luxembourg, Slovenia and Malta have formally called for an “exit plan” tfrom the use of glyphosate in the EU.

It’s bigger than “just” Roundup of course. In 2007, the University of Nebraska tracked down more than 40 glyphosate-based herbicides, and researchers predict the glyphosate market will grow to as high as $10 billion annually by 2021, up from $5 billion now.

In the meantime, winemakers – ones who use glyphosate, and ones who don’t – are at the very least playing lip-service to environmental issues, and are often doing much more. Every major region that grows grapes for wines has some sort of sustainability initiative. But how many of them are more greenwash than teeth? In a bid to bring some clarity to this incredibly divisive issue, we talked to winemakers and regional representatives to find out why they think – or why they don’t – that going chem-free is foundational to being sustainable. Here’s what we found.

Chemicals can be important tools

The EPA, California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency, New Zealand‘s Environmental Protection Agency, Japan’s Food Safety Commission, Germany’s Institute for Environment and Human Security, the European Food Safety Authority and others have all formally studied and approved the use of glyphosate on crops grown for human consumption.

Several producers we spoke with – in Portugal, Spain and California – see chemicals as a tool on which they or other winemakers may need to occasionally rely, and see the march toward greener pastures as a slow and steady process, full of incremental steps.

In Portugal’s Alentejo region, Joao Barroso, the manager of the region’s sustainability initiative WASP, says he is taking an aggressive approach to environmental advancement, but he’s trying to be realistic at the same time.

“We modeled our program against initiatives in South America, Australia and California, and we are most focused on promoting biodiversity in the vineyards with auxiliary insects and cover crops,” he says. “By establishing ecological corridors and buffer zones around our vineyards, we have increased the number of insect-eating mammals and birds and have significantly reduced the use of pesticides and spray.”

They are also encouraging renewable energy and water conservation; but participation in the program is completely voluntary. Those who sign on get free training, largely conducted by Barroso, an environmental engineer, who has trained about 400 people in the past four years. Of the 2000 growers in the region, he says only about 400 have signed on, but those 400 represent 60 percent of the volume of wine produced there.

“We want to reduce the use of chemicals, but we know if we forbid it, there will be pushback,” Barroso says. “We are a young region, and taking things one step at a time. Many of these guys didn’t even have a water-flow meter until we introduced it.”

Same story in Cariñena, a region in Northern Spain. The DO is launching sustainability initiatives incrementally, with major producers like Bodegas San Valero and Grandes Vinos leading the way. In 2011, San Valero began testing a pheromone-disruption program (pheromones released throughout the vineyards essentially trick the European grapevine moth into not mating) across 247 acres. After seeing a significant reduction in the need for pesticides, and a decline in the moth population, it expanded the program across its vineyards, and in 2015, the DO followed suit. Previously, San Valero says that at least 3.5 sprays were needed to keep the population down, and now they don’t spray at all.

Some vineyards are using pheremones to control pests such as the European grapevine moth.

© University of California | Some vineyards are using pheremones to control pests such as the European grapevine moth.San Valero is also currently studying organic alternatives to powdery mildew and botrytis treatment. Grandes Vinos, meanwhile, has reduced the need for chemical insecticides by 75 percent, thanks to the pheromone treatment, and is also focused on water-use reduction, energy conservation through solar power.

In the US, where nearly half of all consumers will change their buying habits to support a more sustainable brand, talking the eco-friendly talk is a key part of every brand’s marketing plan.

California is still by far the biggest player in American wine, producing on average about 81 percent of all wine, according to the Wine Institute, so what happens there, in many ways, sets the standard for the rest of the country.  All told, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation reports that in California in 2017, more than 205 million pounds of pesticides were applied to 104 million cumulative acres, a decrease of 2 percent since 2016. Wine communities are estimated to have between 79,000-189,000 pounds of glyphosate sprayed per year, not that the average consumer would know that by the proliferation of green labels on wines.

Sonoma recently made headlines when it declared that 99 percent of vineyards within the AVA were certified sustainable. To be part of the 99 percent, vineyards have to have third-party certification from the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, Fish Friendly Farming, Sustainability in Practice or Lodi Rules. Wines made with grapes farmed sustainably get a consumer-pleasing sticker that declares they were made from “Sonoma County Sustainably Farmed Grapes”.

But what does sustainable mean? That’s where it gets tricky. While there are solid rules in place requiring the implementation of safe pest management, and water and energy conservation, participants in the above programs have to simply say they’re opting for nonchemical pesticides and herbicides “where possible”. In other words, it’s OK to use Roundup and other synthetic pesticides, such as neonicotinoids, which have been linked to bee colony collapse disorder.

That grey-area doesn’t sit well with some Sonoma brands; La Pitchoune‘s owner Tracy Nielson and winemaker Andrew Berge for one.

“We’re organic and we use a network of growers in Sonoma who grow grapes without pesticides,” Berge says. And yet, it’s not a black-and-white issue, he says.

“Roundup gets really bad press obviously, but it’s frustrating when people ask me if I use Roundup and I say ‘no’, and that seems to end the conversation. Everyone should be asking a follow-up question: what’s the alternative? Because even if you use organic alternatives like copper, that can be just as bad. Organic winemakers in France, New Zealand and elsewhere are grappling with copper toxicity in their soils after they turned to copper as a safer nonchemical alternative to chemicals 30, 40 years ago.”

Plus, there are certain regions of the world, including in Sonoma, where the humidity and fog creates a mildewy environment that can wipe out a crop if left untreated by (often chemical) fungicide.

“I see the sustainability certification in Sonoma and elsewhere as a step in the right direction, but what we need to do is push for a more holistic approach to vineyard management, and a better way of communicating what we are and aren’t doing in our vineyards to consumers,” Berge says.

Dan Panella, a co-owner of Oak Farm Vineyards in Lodi, California, agrees.

“Under the Lodi Rules sustainability certification, which we have, use of glyphosate and other chemicals are discouraged and the application amount is monitored,” he explains.

This happens under its pesticide environmental assessment system, or PEAS, in which every pesticide is graded in terms of its risk to workers, consumers, aquatic invertebrates, birds and bees. Pesticide use must fall below 50 PEAS units. “But one thing that we talk about a lot on our estate and elsewhere in Lodi, you have to look at the whole picture,” he says. “I don’t think it’s necessarily more sustainable to go in with a tractor 17 times and spray an organic spray that can have a longer life in the soil, than to go in once with a chemical pesticide that’s sprayed on the ground between the vine rows. We have to look at the carbon footprint too.”

Chemicals are poison

There are a handful of wine regions around the world instituting what almost anyone would consider extraordinarily rigorous standards that have either banned or have starkly stated their intention to ban glyphosate and other synthetic pest foes in the near future.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron has declared war on glyphosate, telling the Paris Agricultural Show in February that he intends to “create the first wine region in the world without glyphosate”.

Mandating regional cooperation is key, some say. A US study of beer, wine and hard ciders recently found that 19 out of 20 drinks – even the organic one – tested showed traces of glyphosate. Chemicals can drift. In other words, organic, biodynamic winemakers whose neighbors are spraying chemicals will inevitably get traces in their grapes.

In Prosecco they are working to ban glyphosate, folpet and mancozeb as of this year, Stefano Zanette, the president of the DOC Consorzio explains.

“Many municipalities within the DOC already banned glyphosate, and have not been using them since 2017,” he says, noting that locals launched protests against operations spraying pesticides, over concerns about the effect on human health. The DOC is now working on organic alternatives to spray, in part by launching biodiversity initiatives that will encourage pest-zapping birds, bats and bugs in vineyards.

Several producers we spoke with seem to be weary of the producers and regions who aren’t making unambiguous strides away from what they see as toxic, dangerous practices.

“Roundup is poison,” says Janie Brooks Heuck, managing director of Willamette Valley’s Brooks Wine, a Certified B Corporation, Demeter Certified and 1% For the Planet partner. “But there’s so much confusion among consumers. Terms like sustainability, natural and green are subjective. Organic and Demeter-certified biodynamic are clearly defined, and that’s why I think actually getting that certification is more important than ever.”

She has worked with her neighbors to ensure that they are all using organic practices, so that her plants aren’t affected by their farming choices. One neighbor, she says, initially resisted, but once she taught him the techniques that make it financially efficent to grow organically, he has stopped spraying chemicals. “It’s all about observation,” she says. “If you’re out in the vineyard and you know it’s humid and rainy and hot, you tackle that mildew before it grows. If you try to treat it using organic techniques when you actually see the mildew, it’s too late.”

Vanya Cullen, the influential Australian biodynamic winemaker at Cullen Wines, who has mentored producers in Margaret River, has zero patience for ambiguity in terms of chemicals, saying that any producer or region who calls itself sustainable and still uses glyphosate is being untruthful with consumers.

“Glyphosate should be banned everywhere,” she says. “It causes cancer. Vineyards that aren’t certified biodynamic or organic are likely using chemicals with the potential to harm people or the environment.”

Anne Bousquet, owner of certified organic Domaine Bousquet in Mendoza, Argentina, agrees that certification, and in a certain sense, absolutism, is mandatory for true sustainability.

“There have been so many multimillion-dollar lawsuits against Roundup all over the world, my feelings are it’s very bad,” she says. “The chemicals we’ve used to grow food and drinks since industrialization have seeped into our soils, and created a toxic environment that is dangerous for human health. That’s why we’re 100-percent organic, and we’re certified.”

Bousquet says that educating consumers about their organic practices has been part of her company’s mission. “Once consumers understand what they’re getting, they of course want organic wine. In the US alone, our growth has been incredible. We entered the US market in 2015 with 30,000 cases, and now we’re selling 100,000 cases annually.”

Depending on whom you ask, chemicals are either saving or causing many of the world’s problems, in vineyards and beyond. Perhaps it’s time for members of the industry to decide – really decide – what sustainability means, and if chemicals have a place in that definition.

Either way, that definition should be communicated more clearly to consumers, who equate “green” and “sustainable” with chemical-free.

By Kathleen Willcox | Posted Saturday, 04-Jan-2020

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