Sustainable Wine Review: How Sustainability and Quality Go Hand in Hand

Donelan Wines' Obsidian Vineyard

I love small independent wineries because, among other things, they typically make better wine for your dollar. The $50 dollar bottle of indie wine is often much more enjoyable than a wine with the same price tag that comes from a larger producer.  And, I know that small wine producers are often at the forefront of sustainability. But, I only just recently realized that these two facts seem to be correlated.

It turns out that the wine industry is living proof that sustainability and quality go hand in hand.

David M. Keuhner, Founder and CEO, of Destination Cellars offered this commentary and analysis (which I have edited a bit):

Every decision made in the vineyard and in the winery to improve quality comes at a financial cost.

Here are a few decisions which improve the quality and bottom line cost of a bottle of wine.

  • YIELDS – As yields go up in the vineyard, quality goes down. While many vineyards are capable of producing upwards of 10-12 ton per acre, the average yield for premium wines is around 3-5 tons per acre (even less for the super luxury wines). With the average acre in Napa county running $180,000 you can see how quickly limiting production can raise your costs. (JK: but limiting production is directly correlated to high quality). As this is the average price, exceptional vineyard land goes for much higher premiums.
  • THE VINEYARD – Good farming decisions also raise the end cost of production. Harvesting by hand and general vineyard maintenance (leaf pulling, green harvest, canopy management, etc.) all increase the cost and quality of the end product. Less expensive wines often forgo many of these steps and will harvest by machine.
  • PRODUCTION – At the production level, premium wines will often sort the fruit as it comes in to make sure only the best makes it through to the fermentation tank while less expensive wines simply vinify everything the harvesting machine collects. At the super luxury level, large crews often sort the fruit at least twice.
  • OAK BARRELS – Often, premium wines are aged using a higher percentage of new French barrels. Many choose to use 100% new barrel in their aging program. The cost of one new French barrel is about $1200. With each barrel producing about 300 bottles, that breaks down to a $4 per bottle cost just for the barrel. Extended barrel aging also will show an increase in labor to keep the wines healthy through the process. Budget wines will use old barrels or in the sub $15 dollar range, often use oak chips ( JK: or even oak dust) to flavor the wine.
  • REPUTATION – This can also be a deciding factor on price. Excellent winemakers demand a higher premium for their services. And wineries who produce high quality wine should be rewarded with more substantial profit. After all, you wouldn’t expect to pay the same retainer for an attorney just out of law school as one who has argued an won hundreds of cases.

It seems to me that wine produced with an eye toward sustainability does in fact, and arguably should, cost more. The truly best vineyard maintenance practices are often sustainable: growing and tending cover crops to create habitats where “good bugs” eat “bad bugs cost a lot more than buying herbicides to kill unwanted foliage and insecticides to kill bugs. Employing owls, songbirds, hawks, bats and falcons to control rodent populations is more costly than buying rodent poison to kill moles and gophers. And its not just farming practices. By using labor vs. machines for all sorts of operations, sustainability wins but costs do not. Paying laborers to sort and discard damaged or unusable grapes and clean off M.O.G (aka. mold and bird poop) costs far more than the labor to drive a fuel guzzling harvesting machine. The labor involved in paying winery guys to roll around 59 gallon oak barrels clearly costs more than the labor to drive forklifts to push and pull barrels. And the list goes on.

Laura Mohseni, General Manager of Riverbench Vineyard and Winery concurs:

One of the biggest factors is farming costs-typically, the higher the cost of farming, the higher the costs on the resulting fruit and therefore the wine. For example, our vineyard is SIP (Sustainability in Practice) Certified, which means…through the program, we use vineyard treatments that can be more expensive but are better for the environment, such as falcons to control bird populations and damage, or stylet oil as a biodegradable fungicide and insecticide. For our own wine produced here at Riverbench, we prune for lower yields and higher quality, so you get less tonnage per acre, but the quality is better…We hand pick the grapes, and then sort them, discarding damaged or unusable clusters, which involves paying workers to work slowly. If we machine harvested, obviously labor costs would be much lower.

Laura goes on to point out other sustainable practices that cost more money:

Often you’re paying for packaging as well. If you see a stunning bottle with a thick embossed paper label with silver or gold on it, it cost more. If a cork is much longer (say 2 inches or so), it cost more. If it has a cartouche, it cost a LOT more. And thicker, heavier glass is expensive. At Riverbench, we try to use as much “green” packaging as we can…We use thinner glass, which is less expensive usually, but I refuse (for personal reasons) to buy Chinese glass, which is the cheapest.

This is not to say that only small, indie wineries embrace sustainability or that they alone make high quality wine.  There are all sorts of excellent wines coming out of big wineries. Its just that many don’t take want to absorb the the extra costs of embracing the very same sustainability practices that correlate to high quality wine. The Hess Collection of wines’ is a good example of a large producer with wines that benefit in quality from their commitment to sustainability.  They openly acknowledge on their website that ‘sustainable winegrowing improves wine quality’ and employ a variety of sustainable practices including using more than 100 goats to help with weed control to minimize the use of tractors and tilling.

The bottom line is that most wine producers that embrace sustainable practices do so because it not only reduces waste and saves money, but also because it improves the quality of their wine. That’s pretty cool.

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