What our competition taught a sustainability expert

Sustainability word cloud

One of our two external judges in this year’s writing competition, Dr Irina Santiago-Brown, begins her survey of the entries by explaining why she felt moved to write this article. She also compiled the word cloud above from the shortlisted entries.

When I was asked to help judge JancisRobinson.com’s 2020 writing competition (WWC20) as an external expert on sustainability in wine-grape growing, I was surprised and delighted by the stories told of the many different journeys taken towards a more sustainable wine-growing world in this collection of published entries. They challenged me to re-think the way I was communicating my ‘old thoughts’, those published in my PhD thesis in 2014. The writers unearthed so many great stories that I felt moved to write this article sharing my thoughts on sustainability and highlighting many of these compelling ideas. If, like me, you find ideas that challenge and resonate with you, I encourage you to follow the links back to the relevant submissions and read them in their entirety. I have included just the subject of the articles although in many cases the quotes are from the authors rather than their subjects.

The sustainability heroes described in the different WWC20 entries are unique and representative of how the wine community has been adopting and adapting to a changing world: choosing farming systems thoughtfully, by managing and selecting farm and winery inputs carefully, including not using synthetic chemicals; improving biodiversity; taking better care of employees and community; reducing carbon footprints by installing alternative sources of power; recycling; being inventive and creative in increasing sales to keep the business alive; introducing smarter packaging and lighter bottles; promoting social changes in their own businesses and addressing systemic/connected problems such as immigration issues, community welfare, race and gender equality. These are just a few examples of how sustainability heroes are changing the wine world’s status quo from the bottom up.

… take care of our vineyard so that it can sustain and benefit the next generation. … Without sustainability, we cannot offer the next generation the basic tools for producing quality wines.’ Franz Wehrheim, Dr Wehrheim

Sustainability in wine-grape growing

… love towards people and focus on nature, together with scientific concern, are essential parts of sustainability, not only winemaking.’ Schödl

The sustainability concept is always more complex than one might think. It is not a farming system. It is a strategic lens that refracts all of our current decisions in navigating our future. Traditional assessments and indicators such as spray regimes, balance sheets and employee surveys are insufficient on their own to provide meaningful measurements. The problem is that these assessments, used out of context and/or in isolation, are not comparable and, frequently, are inadequate as ways to embracing the whole ethos of sustainability.

For example, Dom La Tourraque cannot become more sustainable by installing solar panels for electricity because their historic location is protected by legislation. On the other hand, they sell two-thirds of their wine production locally to restaurants as they are in a ‘hotspot of international tourism’, avoiding the massive carbon footprint of international distribution. They find it ‘ironic that such an expression of localism relies on cross-continental tourism’.

There is also the dichotomy of wine regions with very low disease pressure because of their low rainfall, needing less spray than cool regions with higher rainfalls that need more protection against mildews in general. Conversely, warm regions tend to need irrigation while the cool regions usually do not. How, and for how long has the Champagne region been successfully producing desirable and expensive sparkling wines? They spray their canopy much more than we do in McLaren Vale, South Australia, where my husband and I have our vineyard and wine business. But can we therefore claim to be more sustainable when we spray less and irrigate more? San Donato in Tuscany, for instance, has been able to grow grapes as part of a permaculture project without ever spraying them. Examples like these emphasise how much context matters in understanding sustainability.

It’s tempting to suggest that we just need to keep adding indicators to have the ultimate assessment, but it’s not that easy. In spite of our ability to measure many things, there are costs involved in doing so. And it can be a very subjective task. Bias and context will lead us to very different results and understanding. ‘Sustainability is a lovely word that gets thrown around a lot and is thus diluted.’ Spottswoode.

In my research, I interviewed a group of viticulturists from California and one shared that that his indicator of employee satisfaction was hearing workers singing while working in the vineyard. I love that indicator. From his explanation and cultural understanding of his group of employees, mainly from Mexico, I fully agreed that that indicator was much more realistic and meaningful than any corporate survey asking these workers on a scale from zero to 10 how happy they were. As great as that indicator is, it would be a mistake to try to use it in other regions where singing is not part of the worker’s culture as an expression of satisfaction.

We are all familiar with sustainability being graphically represented as a perfect intersection of three circles, each representing one of the three components of sustainability: environment, social (equity) and economic. These three are intrinsically connected and there can be no sustainability if any of these variables is missing. We ‘… need to focus on the three of the E's, not just one of them.’ John Williams, Frog’s Leap.

‘It’s a principled approach that acknowledges we all need to eat; lots of people depend on the winery’s survival. It’s in everyone’s interest to preserve [our wineries] by making sure the land and people have what they need, not just to survive, but to thrive, while still making world class wine that turns a profit. This view of sustainability helps break down the old environment versus agriculture paradigm that can often pit neighbours against one another and stoke resentment, obscuring the values people do hold in common and gumming up opportunities for the community to come together.’ Spottswoode.

At Southbrook: ‘To go out and walk along the edge of the vineyard in the late summer and suddenly you’re surrounded by Monarch butterflies, that is a delight.’ How much work had to happen for the butterflies to be there? How much wine had to be sold for them to have the ability to invest in biodiversity improvement? ‘… sustainability as a journey to heal the earth’ Solminer. Sustainability must be seen as a systemic concept. This is essential for our interpretations. ‘Spain offers a lot more than cheap wine’ – Fernando Mora at Frontonio developed meticulous regenerative and organic techniques to produce ‘minimum intervention’ wines that have been successfully recognised internationally.

‘The birds chirp, the vines are green with life, the animals live in harmony, and the people embody the same sense of beauty.’ Cowhorn

Visually, the three balanced and intersecting circles image leads us to think that each of these sustainability components contributes equally to the concept. As a conceptual goal, this is a neat explanation. In the real world, my belief is that this view needs also to be dynamically embedded with at least three other essential variables: context, time and trade-offs.

Dr Irina Santiago-Brown and white grapes at Inkwell Wines, McLaren Vale
Dr Irina Santiago-Brown harvesting at her Inkwell Wines estate, McLaren Vale

Farming systems and choices

I believe there are many pathways to be or to become a sustainable wine-grape grower. And I am deeply sceptical about one-size-fits-all solutions for anything, particularly for grape growing and winemaking. I illustrate these different pathways on the sustainability journey with the example of travelling from Point A to a distant Point B. You can choose to walk, ride a bike, or drive a variety of vehicle types. And you can choose many different routes. All the choices will get you to your destination but each has unique, embedded values including purpose, speed, time, scenic preferences, resources used, money available, load carried, etc. These values inform your context for decision-making.

In wine-grape growing these choices include your choice of farming system (conventional, organic, biodynamic, biological, regenerative, for example) along with other business and personal objectives. These in turn will be influenced by the context of your business. The first missing variable to understand sustainability is context, best understood here as external factors on which you have little or no influence on such as vineyard location, climate, water availability, laws, regulations, distance to markets, labour availability, access to suppliers, your surrounding community, etc.

These entries describe the varied approaches and the wildly different context each had in their decision-making. Spottswoode describe their choice for organic farming as a starting point, but recognise that this alone misses the bigger picture – ‘the systemic nature of sustainability’. Silver Thread describes the difficulty of growing vinifera organically in the Finger Lakes region … but they are doing it ‘as close as possible’. Tillingham is using a regenerative farming approach that they consider as a step beyond biodynamics. Antiyal is embracing full biodynamic principles influenced by Alan York, while Levin Wines’ approach evolved over time, including producing vegan-friendly wines by adapting their biodynamic practices.

Herdade dos Grous are using birds of prey and ‘bat boxes for maintaining "aerial support" regarding pest control, from moths to rodents’. Salcheto is using the lightest wine bottles in the world and is the first company to have certified the carbon footprint of a wine bottle called the Bordolese Toscanella. Yannis in Four Greek Wineries is categorical about the use of lighter 450 g bottles in the wine industry: ‘I sell wine. I don't sell bottles.’

Practical matters

Transport is one of the greatest contributors for the carbon footprint of the wine industry. All wineries need to start shifting to lighter bottles. Illahe has a beautiful point of differentiation in their business by delivering wines using canoes and bicycles. My 500 Mates in Mongolia developed a tiny vineyard where food can’t grow. Borgoluce produces its own energy using a biogas plant to produce electricity using their own crops and farm-animal manure.

In Bill Redelmeier’s case, the context for change was when his wife wouldn’t allow him to wash his clothes with the clothes of their newborn child after he had sprayed synthetic chemicals. Only 1% of Ontario vineyards are organic and Southbrook is now the largest certified organic and biodynamic winery in Canada. In Vanya Cullen’s case, it was her mother that provided the context when she taught her the value of seaweed in agriculture and was never afraid of experimenting, including locust trees as vineyard posts; ‘… going from minimum chemical inputs to organics and then biodynamics has been a natural progression for us’. She is still nourishing the soil hoping that one day she will see indigenous seeds re-sprouting.’ Cullen

‘… it is not technology that preserves our environment but the thoughtful application of it’ Franz Weninger.

How to be sustainable then? Consumer recognition?

How can one tell if a wine-grape growing business is sustainable if farming systems are pathways and not destinations?

While we can measure an infinite number of chemical, physical and biological characteristics of agricultural systems, certify any number of systems, calculate carbon footprint or a business’s financial health, the question remains: what are the correct indicators of the sustainability of a wine business? And how can we claim to be sustainable with certainty?

When we talk about assessing sustainability, the second missing variable is the lack of a time component. Can we, in a specific and static moment in time, assess a vineyard or wine business and simply label it as sustainable or not? Is the correct time frame for assessing sustainability when new and better practices are adopted, or only when the results are clear? Or can both be relevant?

‘[Franz Wehrheim explains] "Our industry is clustered in very small enterprises yet we exist in an increasingly commoditised environment. Some of our competitors benefit from advantages relating to climate, costs of production and local market dynamics. In addition to working together for the common purpose of sustainability, collaboration really helps to be more competitive and to have a bigger voice when it comes to promoting the region." To what extent do neighbours work together to protect biodiversity, local water sources and resource efficiency? "We share bottling machines and agricultural equipment … we can afford the best quality and the most up to date equipment just by working together." New technology often means resource efficiency, and this, of course, plays a big part in sustainable production.’ Dr Wehrheim.

It is important to consider that assessments can only be conducted in a spatial context, which relates to the sustainability viewpoint. Another way to say this is to ask: whose sustainability are we talking about? Our wine businesses, our communities, our consumers, our countries, or the world? These questions demonstrate the systemic nature of sustainability and the difficulty of communicating sustainable production to consumers.

‘The wine must ultimately reflect its origin’ Waterkloof. ‘As consumers we can buy more of these wines and pay for quality. If we refuse to do this then how can we expect farmers to radically change their approach and put their livelihoods on the line to rescue our future?’ Ch des Bachelards. ‘In order to make a living selling their products, they need the same support from their consumers that they give to the environment’ Franz Weninger. And only ‘through education … we can broaden the influence of wines like these … only then will consumers truly understand that there is much more to a wine than just what's in the bottle’ Perlage.

These submissions unpack many of the different perspectives for every part of the wine community, including consumers being more able to support businesses like these. ‘When we buy a bottle of wine … pH and acidity may be important … but isn't the quality of life of those who made it more important?’ Matthiasson. ‘Quality wine will always come at a cost, so reducing this cost to the natural world should be a major concern of everyone involved in the production and enjoyment of it’ Crittenden.

Grape growing we are lucky!

In comparison with other fruit crops or food-production systems, wine-grape growing is unique: it needs few nutrients to survive and produce. Grapes are the most valuable fruit crop in the world because they are used to produce wine. Growing grapes is intrinsically connected to landscape and tourism (consumers visit wine regions more than those associated with any other fruit crop).

Castigno is an interesting example where wine meets the uniqueness of their sustainable hotel project, presented as a colourful village. Because of these differences, wine-grape growing is frequently less challenging than many other food-production systems that need to rely only on producing food for a growing world population. ‘Every day I wake up and feel lucky to be here’, says Bertie Eden in Ch Maris. I share this feeling with Bertie and I think most people in the wine community do too.

The lack of understanding of the term ‘sustainability’ by many of us is often used as an excuse not to make changes. But the term itself cannot be bigger than our actions. ‘If you're doing nothing, do something; if you're doing a little bit do a little bit more; and if you're doing a lot find new ways to challenge yourself. I can assure you that there are many ways to challenge ourselves and that there's no end to it’ John Williams, Frog’s Leap. ‘With sustainability you can always do more. I never feel like we have arrived’ – Franz Wehrheim, Dr Wehrheim. We can all make an impact, regardless of our size.

Certification and assessments

Many of the wine businesses described throughout the entries to the competition are certified organic, biodynamic, B-Corp, LEED and many others. Southbrook ‘collect certifications’, while I Vigneri decided not to pursue one. Certifications exist to provide assurance to distant consumers about claims made by a business through an independent third party. While certifications add an extra layer of trust, they also add a layer of costs to the business.

Understandably, this means larger businesses with a far-flung market frequently need more certification(s) than businesses more focused on local consumers who are able to see directly and/or know the people from the business. While we can assess and certify sustainability, ‘sustainability is not an answer to a market demand, it’s just the way things are’ Childéric.


The third missing variable that we must consider in order to understand sustainability fully are trade-offs. No business is able to invest equally in equally important things in a common time frame. For example, on a farm, in deciding to buy a new tractor, one might not have the resources to invest in biodiversity in the same year. Or, in an unusually wet growing season, money may need to be spent on spraying rather than irrigation improvements. Investments will always favour one or two of the three components of sustainability and, at least at first, create imbalances between the three.

An unexpected example of trade-offs is when Cowhorn had to import the large window used in their tasting room from Poland because they could not find a manufacturer in the US that complied with the requirement of their International Living Futures Institute certification. They had to trade-off the carbon footprint of a heavy imported item against the opportunity to educate consumers for decades through that window.

‘ … achieving sustainability is a never-ending goal. "Sustainability is as much about making money, as it about saving the planet, as it is about being good partners with your team and the local community."’ Alex Sokol, Sokol Blosser.

Forgetting and remembering

‘Although it seems that this year sustainability has been ungraciously upstaged by COVID-19 on the global agenda, the pandemic has disrupted the norm to such an extent that it has provided both the opportunity and the urgency needed to make fundamental changes necessary for the future health of our planet.’ Tillingham

A point we underestimate in all of this is the so-called TWF, the ‘things we forgot’. Two opposing examples come to mind. An example of the first type of forgetting is how recently it seemed normal to see smoking in restaurants, on planes and even in elevators. We also forget about the DDT and herbicides that we no longer use. The vexatious part of forgetting is the second kind of forgetting: the many helpful, time-worn practices that our forebears used that could positively inform our practices today.

Both types of forgetting are part of our context, our sense of time and the trade-offs we make. Constantly rediscovering things that work is not the most efficient way to learn in a rapidly changing world. These entries both reminded me to celebrate some of the many things that we ‘forgot’ that we have already done on our sustainable journey, and encouraged us to adapt or adopt some new ones. These entries are a great source of ideas and practices for the entire wine community.

‘"It’s not complicated" [said Alexandra de Vazeilles] … By its very definition, to “sustain” infers an essential link to the past, to effectively preserve what is already here. Maybe it’s due to a lack of glamour or because it asks too much of us as a collective to revert to a former, slower pace of life, but it seems to me that we already have a model for greater sustainability if we can access knowledge left behind.’ Ch des Bachelards

People, community, social equity

‘… from the very beginning, we should think how our actions impact the whole’ Karanika.

We are here in this world. We can always make real and better efforts to reconcile our business’s development and our interactions with society and the world. Sustainability exists to remind us how our actions affect the world by remembering both the previous owners of our land and future generations.

In these submissions, there are many examples of what we can do today. Johan Reyneke understood that ‘when individuals have the right to choose for themselves, only then they are truly empowered.’ They developed the Cornerstone Project and have been successfully providing education and home-ownership opportunities to their workers in South Africa. Reyneke doesn’t forget the uniqueness of the situation in South Africa:

‘Farm workers and their families have historically faced extreme hurdles to home ownership due to the institutional racism of apartheid, and their lack of ability to acquire such assets has thwarted economic mobility for a significant portion of the winelands’ labourers. Although Apartheid has officially ended, but many of the structures that propped it up remain firmly entrenched, and the pace of meaningful reform has been woefully and unacceptably slow.’ Reyneke

John Williams of Frog’s Leap developed their own approach, by ‘constantly measuring the spread between our lowest compensated employee and our highest compensated employee and there are multiples that are considered sustainable and considered socially equitable and so we are always trying to lower that multiple number of the difference … to be below a ten multiple and we’re actually surpassing that [below ten] right now.’

Matthiasson decided not to compromise their beliefs. From a challenging beginning while establishing an independent, first-generation farming family:

‘one could argue the decision to commit to their people to this degree is clearly rooted in a moral commitment, not reconciling the aforementioned benefits to the business’s P&L. But Steve and Jill [Matthiasson] would tell you that in order to play the long game necessary to run an agricultural business well, investing in your team from the beginning makes the most sense. Many of their full-time employees have been with them for more than a decade, so it’s a pretty proven theory.’ Matthiasson

Stolpman understood the difficulties of being a Mexican vineyard worker in California, and kept the pledge they made 29 years earlier to have all vineyard workers employed full-time, year-round. No story or business is too small not to try to ‘make a difference’. Similarly, Mehofer has two full-time local vineyard employees and one full-time office employee year-round.

Gender equity is another real problem and some are proud to be part of the necessary change to give women equal opportunity to men: 45% of staff from Venica & Venica are women. At Brooks Wines ‘women make up six of the eight members of our leadership team… [they also give] additional holidays for employees; pay increases that ensure a living wage versus a minimum wage; an annual 20 hours of paid volunteering for all full time employees’.

Other wineries, located in former indigenous sites, are trying to reconcile their businesses with their cultures. Tantalus uses the work of indigenous artists on labels to increase awareness of the indigenous Canadians (First Nations people) and are involved in projects to preserve indigenous heritage. Bellwether ‘thinks a lot about how we can utilise Indigenous knowledge to improve the way we work with the land. In many ways [Sue Bell of Bellwether] believes that by caring for the country we are already adopting some of those practices. She muses that many of the techniques described as being innovative are often re-adoption of ancient practices.’ At Dry River they honour the Treaty of Waitangi to work together with the Māori population at all levels, having shared decision-making on issues that affect the community and the environment.

What now?

‘Incremental change is no longer a viable option.’ Barbara Steele, Cowhorn.

The big conclusion from all of these entries is that everything is constantly changing. All three circles – economic, social and environment – are changing at micro, meso and macro levels in context; and time is driving inevitable trade-offs in our responses to them. Many things that are considered sustainable today will not be sustainable in a few years as science and behaviour change. Sustainability is a constantly moving target, receding from us as we approach it, like a rainbow. It demands all of us to keep changing, learning from the past, adopting new practices and adapting current ones.

A few examples of embracing necessary change that struck me include the brothers Sébastien and Guillaume taking over their family vineyard at Dom La Tourraque, dating from 1805, after 10 years being involved in the business. Domenico from Tappero Merlo is trialling robots to ‘detect on each plant nourishment deficiencies and risky diseases. This detailed scan permits winegrowers to work on individual vines targeting the problem. What a saving on spray, time and money!’ Dom de la Colombette is breeding hybrid vines to be disease-resistant. 2Naturkinder winery has been in the family and producing wines in Germany since 1843. They chose varieties and clones because of their suitability for the climate, and use field blending to increase diversity and to create more complex wines.

In my research project, I defined sustainability as ‘the continuous pursuit of equilibrium between economic, social and environmental variables and their trade-offs over time’, which, in the specific context of grape growers, means that a sustainable vineyard is ‘one that is able to economically provide for the farmer while maintaining its ability to consistently produce and improve quality over time.’

All these entries exemplify this in different ways. Please read as many as you can. I couldn’t cite all of them here, but in their entirety, they tell a rich and diverse story with something for everyone. There are two quotes that, taken together, capture the spirit of WWC20 beautifully:

‘Without sustainability, we cannot offer the next generation the basic tools for producing quality wine’ Franz Wehrheim, Dr Wehrheim.

‘… all for one, one for all’ Bertie Eden, citing The Three Musketeers, Ch Maris.

Irina Santiago-Brown and Dudley's wedding
The community-minded wedding of Dudley Brown and Irina Santiago-Brown, mid-life converts to grape growing from careers in high tech and government.