American Wineries Embrace Change To Be More Sustainable

Kelly J. Hayes

Under The Influence

Beckmen Vineyards 2017 Purisima Vineyard Syrah

The Beckmen Family has been making small production lots of Rhone varieties for close to a quarter century and they know the power of place. The Purisima vineyard that is the source for this lush, dark and powerful syrah was the first vineyard in Santa Ynez to receive Demeter certification as a biodynamic vineyard. Hand picked, hand sorted and hand made, this syrah hits all of the right notes. Dark berries, leather, a touch of chocolate and vanilla on the palate and whiff of bacon, all in gorgeous glass of wine. The power of place.

Patrons who come to the Silver Oak wineries in Napa and the Alexander Valley are making the pilgrimage to taste the cabernet sauvignon produced for each location. But when they arrive they can’t help but see the future of wine as well, reflected in the thousands of solar panels that sit on the rooftops of each of the two wineries. And that is just the most visible example of the work being done at both locations to make them greener.

Silver Oak, like many American wineries, is leaning in to create myriad changes rapidly taking place in the wine industry to make it cleaner, more efficient and, ultimately, more sustainable in generations to come. From large, globally diverse, family-owned wineries like Kendall-Jackson to small boutique operations like Beckmen Vineyards in Santa Barbara, winemakers have long known that their futures as farmers and winemakers are tied to their ability to adapt and adjust to a changing world.

In February 2006, a calamitous fire burned the original and iconic Silver Oak winery claiming an estimated $2 million in wines and destroying many of the buildings on the property. The blaze came a month after floods that had also damaged the winery and its production capabilities. But where others might have seen only despair, the Duncan Family, who pioneered the property, saw an opportunity to both rebuild and take advantage of the emerging technology of the day to improve the efficiency of the original facility.

They set about reconstructing the existing buildings to what would ultimately become the first commercial production winery to be designated with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum status from the U.S. Building Council in 2016. To achieve this certification the winery had to be retrofitted at great expense to meet a list of environmental goals that included the use of reclaimed materials (stone from a coffee mill and white oak from a Missouri barn that were both well over 100 years old), energy efficiency (1,500 solar panels produce more than 35% of the energy used) and a reduction of water consumption (they converted their lawns and reduced landscape irrigation by 76% by using drought tolerant plants).

“The goal for our Oakville winery was to both innovate and embrace proven technologies,” David Duncan, president and CEO of Silver Oak, said at the time of the designation. But Silver Oak was just getting started.

Last year the company achieved the Platinum LEED designation in the category of new construction when they christened a new winery in the Alexander Valley designed by San Francisco-based Piechota Architecture. This state-of-the-art facility subscribes to the concepts of “reduce, reuse and recycle” and has a goal of “net positive” in its usage of water and energy. An array of 2,595 rooftop solar panels will ultimately generate 105% of the energy used on site and membrane reactor technologies will provide 100% of landscape irrigation needs.

The results of these programs not only impact the environment, they also elicit positive reactions from employees. Nate Weis, the Silver Oak winemaker, says, “I am incredibly proud to be a part of the new winery and to work there. It was not easy to build and certainly not cheap.”

But Silver Oak is not alone in this quest to use technology to improve efficiency. In the Napa Valley, Cade Estate Winery on Howell Mountain and Hall Napa Valley have both built LEED Gold certified structures. And Kendall-Jackson funded the creation of what is considered to be the first fully self-sustainable, zero-carbon teaching and research winery, the 8,500 square-foot Jess S. Jackson Sustainable Winery, on the campus of the University of California, Davis, the nation’s premier wine school.

With 40 different wineries and brands spread across the planet and production of over five million cases of wine annually, Kendall-Jackson has made sustainability a key component in its mission. For over a decade the company has set goals to reduce carbon usage, create healthier vineyards and develop values-based programs for their employees. An early adaptor to energy efficiency in their winemaking practices, the company collaborated with Tesla Energy to create energy storage systems to power wineries. All of of their estate-owned wineries are “certified sustainable” by third-party verification.

But perhaps most interesting is Kendall-Jackson’s company shift toward the production of lighter bottles that will reduce not just costs, but also energy usage in transporting wine in the future. They have shrunk the size of the punt at the bottom of the bottles in their largest selling wine, the Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, by about 5%, or 1 ounce. Not only does this forward-thinking plan save energy, it saves the company money, as well.

It is a new world for the global wine industry, and sustainability will require changes of extreme magnitude.