WWC20 – Corison, Napa Valley

Cathy Corison sorting grapes

Cathy Corison is no stranger to these pages, but today it's her sustainability ethos she is being celebrated for. The author introduces himself thus: 'Chris Struck holds undergraduate degrees in Culinary Arts & Food Service Management from Johnson & Wales University & an Executive MBA in Food Marketing from Saint Joseph's University. He has gained industry certifications from the: Wine & Spirits Education Trust, Society of Wine Educators, Court of Master Sommeliers, and Deutsche Wein und Sommelierschule, among others. NYC restaurant experience has included working as a sommelier on the opening teams of Racines NY and Union Square Cafe. In addition to working as a full-time sommelier and consultant, Chris has taught beverage and marketing classes as an Adjunct Lecturer in the Hospitality Management Department at the City University of New York’s (CUNY) CityTech Campus since 2018. He currently resides in Brooklyn, New York City. Disclosure: While a sommelier at Union Square Cafe, I organized a winemaker dinner to honor Cathy Corison and feature wines she made at various wineries throughout her storied career. Her and her family have become professional and personal friends since that time. I currently have and have never had any financial or commercial interest in her winery.' For an increasingly long list of sustainability heroes, see our writing competition guide.

Winemaker Cathy Corison and her artistic husband William Martin, who is billed as ‘Director of Non-Winemaking’ at Corison Winery, take sustainability in the Napa Valley to a degree that even the local municipality didn’t initially know how to understand.

When I first visited the winery in the third quarter of 2019, the couple was excited about soon installing and implementing a first-ever-used-in-the-USA green (colored) solar panel … just as soon as the local governmental bureaucratic powers that be could fully understand the technology well enough to (forgive the pun) green light its use.

Upon getting in touch with a Barcelona, Spain-based company, Onyx Solar (who produces photovoltaic glass panels), William, an architect by trade, who designed Corison winery, worked with their engineers to develop a new type of solar panel, where they could color match the panel’s color to that of the roof. This to upset convention and minimize the eye sore often associated with this device of clean energy technology.

The winery’s distinctive green color was part of William’s original architectural design and he wanted to make sure solar panels would not conflict with the roof color, specs, etc. Pragmatic and aesthetic – a winning combination, befitting of one of the America’s best wineries. By the time I visited the winery again in July of 2020, the beautiful panels were up and running (consider for comparison that solar panels once installed on the roof of The White House, during the Carter Administration, were removed during the following Reagan Administration for political reasons).

After the successful completion of the solar panel installation, they bought a Tesla, recognizing the wide differences in the specificities needed for various winery vehicles to perform various winery tasks. Bottom line: a fleet of trucks wasn’t necessary for every winery job. It has nearly zero maintenance costs and the ‘free’ electricity was hard to beat. They shared with me that they were so impressed by the efficiencies made by the purchase that they plan to use a Tesla as a backup battery for their solar panels so that they can continue to operate on solar anytime there is a power outage. The Tesla model 3 and Y come with a bidirectional charger that will allow them to connect it to their solar panel system and run the winery for a significant amount of time to keep operations going in the event of an outage.

Beyond harnessing sun and Elon Musk technology, Corison Winery takes the well-being of their workers very seriously Not including Cathy or William, the winery employs 8 full-time employees. In addition to the benefit of paid vacation after the first year, these employees receive 5 days of paid personal time to deal with illness and family issues, an allocation of Corison wines upon release, a 50% discount on Corison wines, 7 paid holidays (including April Fool’s Day, thanks to William’s lightheartedness), a health plan, and a 401k. How awesome a world could this be if 401k opportunities were included in the business plans of farmers – those who grow our food and drink – and we as consumers attributed this to the value of those consumables and to our fellow human? Full time employees have been with them for 7 years on average, and 3 of the 8 have been there for more than a decade (made more impressive by that fact that the Victorian-style winery barn where they all work has commemorated the winery’s existence since only 1999).

Literally right outside of that winery and in one of the best Cabernet vineyards in the world, Cathy’s Kronos Vineyard (where she can be seen often 7 days/week depending on the season) has been farmed organically for over a quarter century. They optimized irrigation there with a Tule sensor and minimize sulfuring for powdery mildew by being very attuned to the local sensor and with a mildew spore trap. Cathy and her team manage their vineyards to live for at least 100 years, learning to prune for sustainability from Simonit & Sirch in Italy and with the belief that cover-cropping provides all the nutrition needed for their vineyards.

Both Corison’s estate vineyards, Kronos and Sunbasket, are Fish Friendly Farming Certified by the California Land Stewardship Institute and are Napa Valley Vintners Napa Green Certified. None of them are certified organic and Cathy attributes this to putting her attention to her vines in front of the red tape that such certification would entail.

Her philosophy is to farm organically for the longevity of the soils, her family, and Corison’s customers. She recognizes that she can’t do it alone and has cared for and is caring for a team that will allow her to continuously keep to her convictions, while making some of the best wines in the world.