The greenest vine of all

Last week, I traveled to Mendocino County to the tiny towns of Ukiah and Hopland in northern California to check out Bonterra Vineyards, the organic, biodynamic wing of wine giant Fetzer. I’d long thought of Fetzer as an inexpensive producer of Chardonnay, bought up in recent years by Brown-Forman, and so I went on this trip with not just a little bit of dubiousness in my hip pocket, and my radar trained for greenwashing.  How green could they really be?

Well, very. With the small exception of a question I asked about harvesting (hand vs. machine—I was initially told that all Bonterra’s vineyards are hand-harvested; and, barring labor shortages, they are, but difficulties with issues concerning immigration and migrant workers sometimes make hauling out the machines a necessity, although not a regular practice), the company has a lot to be proud of beyond Bonterra.

Ann Thrupp, Fetzer’s manager of sustainability and organic development, toured me around Fetzer’s administrative offices in Hopland—a spot that’s not exactly a tour stop for most wine enthusiasts and thus has no real reason to put up any elaborate smoke screen. The walls of the building are made of rammed earth that keeps the building cool in summer and warm in winter, it uses almost entirely recycled or reclaimed wood and timber for doors and other framing details, has a roof of solar panels that generate the building’s electricity, and when you walk into the offices or break room, the lights automatically switch on—and off when you leave— so power is never wasted.

As for the winery, there were countless exciting examples of good, green business and stewardship:  using a percentage of recycled glass for bottles, getting rid of the traditional “punt” design (the large indentation at the bottom of a bottle) in order to save glass production and lighten the weight of an average bottle of wine, eliminating the use of chlorine in winery sanitation practices by putting water through an ultraviolet treatment system, using recycled cardboard for all its labels’ cases, using non-treated wood pallets in store rooms that are eventually put into a chipper and used for mulch, using the leftover grapes, stems, and skins from wine production as fertilizer, generating  nearly all the manufacturing plant’s energy via a combination of solar power (there are 4,300 panels of the roof!), geo-thermal, wind, and hydrolic energy sources. And on and on. 

It made me see all the amazing possibilities that vineyards and winemakers have available to them—although, admittedly, with no small initial investment. Fetzer started on their greening long before parent company Brown-Forman bought them out, but B-F has been generous in the ante-up to keep the momentum going, and Fetzer hasn’t disappointed—they’ve managed to double production (now ringing in at a whopping 4 million bottles a year among their myriad labels) and yet still have reduced their haul-away waste by 95% via recycling. “If you toss a piece of paper in the wrong bin, someone will likely say to you, ‘Oh, that’s not very E3…’” Thrupp joked about the in-house goody-two-shoes policy (e.g., Economics, Environment, Equity) that has been an oft-used buzz word around the offices. But behind her slight eye-roll and the acknowledged goofiness of it, the sincerity of the company’s culture was no joke.

One afternoon while visiting Bonterra, I bumped up the benchlands about 2,000 feet or so with its vineyard manager David Koball and winemaker Bob Blue for a walk around the high-altitude Butler Ranch, which encompasses a portion of the 375 acres upon which Bonterra grapes are organically and biodynamically farmed.  Beautiful zinfandel vines sloped down the hillside looming above the valley floor below, green and a little brown from the dry season that’s upon them right now. Koball’s pretty, rustic shingled home that he shares with his wife and four-year-old twin boys sat to the west in the distance.  Earlier in the afternoon, we’d tasted some of the wine from the vines I was looking at here and far down below at McNab Ranch. I had a floral, Viognier that had a sweet lemon-meringue tang and notes of white-pepper; a juicy, jammy Merlot; a Sauvignon Blanc reminiscent of fresh hay and bright grapefruit. It’s easy to swoon at that away-from-it-all magic spell that wine country can cast upon you, but Blue and Koball live smack in the middle of all this, working, raising families, making a living. If there was a judgment-impairing, green-washed haze here, then they were drunk on it, too. But the only culprit I could find that made me giddy and possibly a little dizzy was the extra altitude and a second glass of Merlot. —Amy Zavatto


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I commend Bonterra Vineyards for their approach to green business. Winemakers have many opportunities for 'greening' their businesses. While some initiatives, such as hand-harvesting, may be more costly, many others result in a return on investment. That's right, sustainable cost savings. In Canada we have Vincor, a conglomerate of Canadian wineries, which has initiatives for organic winemaking, reducing water consumption and having waste products converted to clean energy to power local homes.

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