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California’s Quest for Sustainability: pathway to 2045

Since joining ASI as a Gold Partner California Wine have been active partners in promoting not only California, but the organization’s commitment to be leaders in diversity, education and sustainability on a global wine stage. With close to 4,000 wineries and close to 6,000 winegrowers in California generating well in excess of $100 billion (US dollars) of economic impact, the California wine industry is massive. Guiding an immense industry like this on issues such as sustainability, a pillar of the organization that coincides with a commitment by the state of California to ensure the state’s electricity system is carbon free by 2045, is a dedicated team.

Honore Comfort is California Wine’s Vice President of International Marketing, Honore draws on her 18 years of international wine marketing, association management, and brand strategy experience to promote exports sales of California wines while building the brand for California wines on a global scale. For almost ten years Honore served as the Executive Director of the Sonoma County Vintners, a trade marketing organization for Sonoma County wineries. Previously with Foster’s Wine Estates Americas (now Treasury Wine Estates), Ms. Comfort had responsibility for marketing several international wine brands to the North American market including Penfolds and Rosemount Estate.  In 2015, Honore joined Brack Mountain Wine Company, a mid-sized winery start-up, where she served as President and oversaw sales & marketing, brand development and business strategy.

ASI conducted an interview with Honore to determine how California Wine and the California wine industry are playing a role in reducing our industry’s carbon footprint.

 

ASI: How is the California Wine Institute supporting sustainable viticulture with a lens towards carbon neutrality?

Honore Comfort: California Wine began this process more than twenty years ago when Wine Institute partnered with the California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG) to establish the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA). A unique partnership between two not-for-profit organizations, the CSWA’s mission is to encourage adoption of sustainable winegrowing practices and communicate the California wine industry’s global leadership through education, outreach, certification and partnerships.  Since then the CSWA has developed the Sustainable Winegrowing Program (SWP) which is founded on the California Code for Sustainable Winegrowing workbook.

It serves as a comprehensive guide to sustainable practices across every aspect of vineyard and winery operations built upon the principle of the triple bottom line of ensuring that California’s vineyards and wineries are environmentally sound, economically feasible, and socially equitable. The workbook addresses ecological, economic and social equity criteria through an integrated set of 15 chapters and 191 criteria, which includes a built-in system with metrics to measure performance.  The Code for Sustainable Winegrowing is used as the basis for self-assessment, third-party evaluation, and ultimately certification for California vineyards and wineries. In addition to the Code, CSWA has held over 660 educational workshops for nearly 17,000 winegrower participants and developed hundreds of educational tools and resources.

Following are a few examples of how the Code and other California wine sustainability efforts have helped encourage adoption of greenhouse gas emission reduction and carbon sequestration, two of the key elements on the road to carbon neutrality. Many of the chapters included in the California Code of Sustainable Winegrowing and requirements for certification relate to mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and increasing carbon sequestration. Examples of these include energy and water use efficiency, soil management, integrated pest management, sustainable purchasing and air quality.

  • The latest edition of the Code includes additional criteria and educational content that help vineyards and wineries move towards carbon neutrality. In addition, CSWA recently created a new “climate smart” report to help winegrowers track and improve on practices specifically related to climate change mitigation and adaptation.
  • The comprehensiveness of sustainability – which includes not only crop protection and soil management, but also energy and water use efficiency, air quality, human resources and neighbors, among many other areas related to climate change – makes it the most effective approach for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to change.
  • Wine Institute and CSWA worked with international partners from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa to develop a greenhouse gas (GHG) protocol for measuring winery and vineyard greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Wine Institute conducted a study of California Wine’s Carbon Footprint to identify the areas with the most opportunity for improvement to reduce a vineyard or winery’s GHG emissions (e.g., packaging, applied nitrogen in vineyards, electricity use, and distribution).
  • CSWA released an online performance metrics tool to help California growers and vintners measure, track and improve their use of natural resources and reduce their carbon footprint over time.
  • CSWA calibrated and validated the DNDC (DeNitrification-DeComposition) computer model for California vineyards in order to understand the ability of vineyard soil to sequester (capture and store) carbon. The model simulates carbon and nitrogen cycling among soil, air, and crops, and the interactions among local climate, local soils, and on-site management practices to simulate the emissions and consumption of gases within the soil environment. A simplified DNDC tool is integrated into the vineyard GHG metric.

To date, more than 55% of California vineyards or over 300,000 acres of winegrape vineyards are sustainably farmed, with 33% of California vineyard acres currently certified sustainable. More than 80% of California wine is produced in a certified sustainable winery, and 113 million bottles of wine produced each year bear the certified sustainable mark on the label.

To achieve certification under the Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing program required vineyard and winery prerequisites including many directly related to climate change – e.g., nitrogen management, vineyard water and energy use conservation/efficiency – and measuring and tracking winery energy and water use efficiency and GHG emissions and vineyard water use efficiency and applied nitrogen.

The California Sustainable Winegrowing program grows each year with more vineyards and wineries performing self-assessments and proceeding towards certification. By integrating climate smart practices that lead towards carbon neutrality, California Wine Institute and California Association of Winegrape Growers are actively educating and leading winegrowers and vineyards towards a sustainable and net-zero carbon future.

 

ASI: How is an industry such as California with significant export (domestically and internationally) finding ways to reduce the impact of transportation and packaging on climate change?

Honore Comfort: Transportation is one of the most challenging areas to address in the global wine industry, not just for California but for all of the world’s wine regions and for many other consumer goods. One reason for this is the dependence on other partners whose decisions and practices we can’t control, other than the choice we make for transportation companies.

As a result, the first step is to focus on what wineries can control, namely packaging – including lightweight glass, alternative packaging options such as cans and tetra packs, and case shipping materials. California is a hub for innovation and technology, and our wine industry embraces opportunities to experiment and work with partners to develop new solutions around packaging such as glass-lined plastic bottles, lightweight bottles, and recycled materials. Improvements in recycling processes and programs is a significant focus, particularly for the California Wine Institute’s focus on state and federal policy.

Furthermore, glass containers manufactured in California are required to contain 35 percent recycled content, with few exceptions. To date, California has the highest recycling content requirement of any other state. One of our largest challenges on this front is the availability of recycled glass to meet or exceed that requirement.

Transportation remains one of the challenging aspects of climate smart practices. In California we are actively working to start address these challenges with advancements and adoption of practices such as shipping in bulk and bottling closer to the point of sale, electrification of trucking fleets, and actively supporting broader efforts to improve trucking, rail, ocean freight, and air transportation systems in meaningful ways.

 

ASI:  How  is your organization supporting all wineries become better stewards of the environment?

Honore Comfort: Wine Institute has recently launched a climate action initiative to develop goals that demonstrate the California wine industry’s commitment to sustainable practices and beneficial climate action to consumers, media and trade around the world. The initiative focuses on three main tasks:

Task 1: Build the Understanding

  • Benchmarking international wine and peer industry groups’ commitments to climate action (e.g., GHG reduction goals) and evaluating California’s progress to date against other wine regions and industries
  • Identifying emissions reduction programs and practices for California wineries that align with potential climate action goals

Task 2: Collaborate and Align

  • Developing a range of potential climate action goals and timelines that lead to supporting the state’s 2045 commitment
  • Holding workshops with key stakeholders to discuss potential climate action goals and their interaction with international communication efforts

Task 3: Create the Roadmap

  • Developing a draft California Wine Climate Action Roadmap that includes recommendations on:
    • Specific actions required to achieve goals
    • Translating practice-based progress into performance measures
  • Developing a plan to manage and monitor progress, including key performance indicators (KPIs) and reporting

Currently, we have completed Task 1 and we are in progress on Task 2. We hope to present a Roadmap for the California wine industry as outlined in Task 3 in early 2022.

 

ASI: How important is it to educate trade on sustainability?

Honore Comfort: Education for the trade is critical – sommeliers are a direct connection between the wineries and winemakers and wine drinkers. The interest and engagement from consumers on sustainability, specifically related to wine, is growing and our partners in the trade are an essential part of satisfying the curiosity on the part of consumers. Recent consumer research from Wine Intelligence points to several key trends globally:

  • 71% of U.S. wine drinkers indicated they would consider buying sustainably produced wine in the future.
  • Nine in 10 Millennials are “willing to pay more” for sustainable wine. Younger consumers – Millenials and Gen Z of drinking age – view sustainability as increasingly important and have a strong affinity towards sustainable wine certifications.
  • Sustainability certifications can provide clear and simple visual cues or clearly identified sections in a store appeal to consumers seeking sustainable wine.

A trade survey conducted by Full Glass Research in 2019, using the Wine Opinions Trade Panel, indicates how important the trade is in this relationship and in helping to make sustainably produced wines more accessible and understood by consumers:

  • 82% of the trade responded that sustainable practices are frequently or occasionally a factor when choosing a wine to market or sell to customers. Only 3% responded “Never.”
  • 73% felt the demand for sustainably produced wine has increased over the past five to 10 years and slightly more think it will increase over the next decade.
  • “All things being equal” … 71% would purchase a sustainably produced wine over one that is not.”

In 2021, California Wines launched CapstoneCalifornia , a robust and in-depth trade education platform and certification program. Through this platform California will engage the international wine trade through education on all aspects of our wine industry, including sustainability. Integrating content from the California Sustainable Wine website, the Capstone California certification and education program strives to offer the global wine trade an in-depth and up to date understanding of California’s sustainable wine growing and winemaking practices, as well as how to find, taste, and buy sustainably produced wines.

ASI: How do you believe sommeliers can be active participants in this movement? The first and most important step is for sommeliers to be educated about sustainable winegrowing and winemaking practices themselves, and how organic, biodynamic, regenerative and sustainable practices relate to one another. Once sommeliers are informed, then they can become the critical link to the ultimate decision maker – their customers, the wine drinker. By sharing information with their customers throughout the wine buying and selling process, sommeliers can play an essential role in shaping the wine industry of the future.

The research mentioned above reinforces this point. (See Consumer & Trade Research Shows Increased Demand for Sustainably Produced Wine | Wine Institute.)

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