Sustaining our wine, Part One

Before you get lost in the weeds of this very long blog post, a few points:

1)      This is the first of two parts on sustainability and winemaking.  In this post, I’m looking at sustainability in general, and how organizations that certify wineries measure for sustainability.  In the second post in a month or so, I’ll look at some specific winery examples.

2)      While I usually try to bring a blog post around to something that relates to first vine and encourages you to buy one of our wines, it’s more difficult with this post.  There’s a wine pairing with the recipe, though, so never fear.

3)      Finally, it strikes me on rereading this post that people might feel I’m actively discouraging them from buying wine.  I hope not!  But I’d like people to take away the thought that a wine that’s labeled sustainable might actually have a larger environmental impact than a wine with no sustainability label at all.


According to U.S. EPA, sustainability is a journey, not a destination. But more and more it looks like an end rather than the means.

Even though I gave up my environmental advocacy job to start first vine, I still try to keep up with enviro news.  It’s hard to completely shift my mind away from issues I spent 15+ years working on – especially when it sometimes takes that long for things I began at the start of my career to show progress.  So I still follow some issues, and my former colleagues help me stay just a little bit in the loop.

These days I seem to be seeing more about sustainability.  Partly because there’s a big meeting in Rio de Janiero this summer, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit that brought the term sustainability to public attention.  But I’ve also seen and heard more about sustainable winemaking in the past year.  So I thought I’d use a couple of blog posts to take a look at sustainability in general and in winemaking.

After a lot of reading and discussion, I’ve had to conclude that sustainability – both as a means of safeguarding the environment and producing wine – has a huge gap between perception and reality.  In general, people think of sustainability as much more protective than do the policymakers who actually implement it.  And customers who buy wines labeled as sustainably produced think that the wine is made with more care for the environment than it might actually be.  Or that protecting human health and the environment was the driver behind the actions a producer took to become certified sustainable.

First, sustainability as a world environmental issue (why not start at the top, after all?).  The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development will meet in Rio de Janiero in June, 20 years after the first Rio meeting that looked to “[meet] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.  Seen as a guiding principle for long-term global development, sustainable development consists of three pillars:  economic development, social development, and environmental protection.”  The original Rio Declaration also contained language about environmental protection and sustainable development as a means of poverty eradication.

Sounds like a lofty and worthwhile endeavor, and it is.  The problem is that sustainable development and/or sustainability has come to be the de facto goal of a lot of worldwide environmental policy.  This point was eloquently made by Paul Kingsnorth earlier this year in his “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist.”  Kingsnorth is a conservationist, someone who, as he puts it, “saves nature from people.”  And has been for a long time, as he jokes, back “before Apples and Blackberries became indispensable to people who wouldn’t know where to pick the real thing.”

Sadly, though, Kingsnorth has concluded that he just can’t stomach the way that sustainability has taken over the environmental movement:

“What does this curious, plastic word mean? It does not mean defending the nonhuman world from the ever-expanding empire of Homo sapiens, though some of its adherents like to pretend it does, even to themselves. It means sustaining human civilization at the comfort level that the world’s rich people—us—feel is their right, without destroying the “natural capital” or the “resource base” that is needed to do so.

“It is, in other words, an entirely human-centered piece of politicking, disguised as concern for “the planet.” In a very short time—just over a decade—this worldview has become all-pervasive. It is voiced by the president of the USA and the president of Anglo-Dutch Shell and many people in between. “

Over the time I was doing enviro work, my colleagues and I tacitly accepted a softening of what we said we were doing in order to make it seem more enticing to the public and the polluting community.  So “Emissions Reduction” and “Pollution Prevention” became “Chemical Use Efficiency,” then just “Resource Efficiency,” and finally, “Sustainability.”  I’d like to think we weren’t kidding ourselves imagining we were saving the planet through sustainability – after all, the planet will survive after we’re gone, assuming we don’t blow it to bits.  But I have to admit we did buy into some of it, particularly with global warming.

The problem with many plans for massive solar energy buildup is that it has to go in places that environmentalism was created to protect, like deserts.

Kingsnorth argues  — correctly, I think — that we have reduced the problem of global warming to counting carbon emissions in order to maintain our current lifestyles.  As I recall from my own work on global warming, focusing on man-made carbon emissions was a way of driving potential legislation and making people feel like there were things they as individuals could do to help.  But that decision comes at a price.  As Kingsnorth notes, mitigating carbon emissions without actually using less energy

“…will require the large-scale harvesting of the planet’s ambient energy: sunlight, wind, water power. This means that vast new conglomerations of human industry are going to appear in places where this energy is most abundant. Unfortunately, these places coincide with some of the world’s wildest, most beautiful, and most untouched landscapes. The sort of places that environmentalism came into being to protect.”

Deserts (for solar), oceans (wind and tidal power), rivers and estuaries (tidal power and dams), mountains (wind), and open spaces (solar, wind, and biomass) will all need to be developed to meet this need, at least in the short- to medium-term, assuming we can find a way to bring all the power to us where we need it.  So it’s really a question of exploiting different resources rather than exploiting fewer of them.

Granted, Kingsnorth’s argument may be extreme.  I think it’s safe to say that there’s no deliberate intent to ruin the environment with renewable energy installations (at least the non-hydroelectric ones).  And as my husband Cy pointed out when we discussed it, we could have solar installations on every roof and parking lot.  And wind “farms” (another euphemism Kingsnorth objects to) closer to industrial sites and not invading pristine areas.  It might not be the most efficient placement for electricity generation, but making them so visible would also serve the purpose of reminding people that even clean energy has a price.

Still, Kingsnorth has a real point.  By making sustainability the goal, we ignore other important aspects of protecting the environment.  Nothing wrong with prioritizing and setting achievable goals, of course.  But the reality of sustainability as practiced today – and potentially in the future with regard to global warming – is a long way from the lofty words of the Rio declaration and what environmental movements in the U.S. and abroad were started to defend.

Lest you think I’ve turned into an even bigger drama queen than usual, I want to make it clear that sustainable winemaking is not a gateway to global catastrophe.  But when I took a look at what it takes for a winery to be certified sustainable, there’s a similar (though less apocalyptic) gap between perception and practice.

I asked a bunch of smart, well-educated wine drinkers what sustainably-produced wine meant, and almost all thought it meant organic or at least having little if any environmental impact.  That’s not necessarily the case.  I don’t believe that wine producers that are certified sustainable are out to imply that their wines are anything more than sustainable, it’s just that people hear the word and expect more.

Sustainable winemaking is largely defined like sustainability in general: balancing environmental and human health, social equity, and economics in order to provide future generations with the same opportunities we now have.   In practice, it’s not easy to measure all the impacts of a business on society, even if you could define them.  So wineries that want to become certified as sustainable turn to organizations that provide them with ways to measure some of these, mostly environmental impacts.

The most influential organization in the U.S. for sustainability is Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing (CCSW), a program of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance.  The sustainability certification requires collecting a fair amount of data with a three-part environmental agenda:

1)      Measuring environmental parameters and developing a plan to deal with them.

2)      Comparing performance against industry best practices.

3)      Making continuous improvement in terms of improving performance per ton of grapes grown, liters of wine produced, or dollar value of sales.

Putting solar panels in a vineyard can help reduce the winery’s need for electricity generated from fossil fuels. Not every vineyard can afford it, though.

What struck me first about the program is that it doesn’t set out a standard for sustainability.  In other words, nowhere does it say “a sustainable winery uses no more than x kwh of electricity and y gallons of water.”  Instead, certification is granted for improvement, so wineries can get certified for trying to become sustainable rather than actually being sustainable.   Granted, absolute criteria would be difficult to make, but without externally-imposed targets a business is free to set goals that don’t necessarily translate to anything in terms of environmental protection.  And what that means in practice is that wineries can get certified sustainable for doing the things any business would have to do to survive economically and for potentially creating more environmental loading with time.

The first certification requirement is pretty standard.  Back in my days of pollution prevention work we used to say, “What gets measured gets managed.”  So the good news is that winemakers and grape growers will collect a lot of data on energy use, chemical use, greenhouse gas emissions, and water use.

But let’s be clear – other than greenhouse gas emissions (which so far haven’t been assigned an actual cost other than limited societal disapproval) and labor costs, which aren’t discussed here, energy and water are among the biggest variable costs for a winery, particularly in California where both are expensive.  Chemicals and complying with local, state, and federal regulations for their use could also be major expenses.  So any winery with any business sense is going to want to minimize those costs, as long as they can do so without a huge investment or compromising product quality.  Whether or not the word “sustainable” can appear on the wine label.  So why not fill out the paperwork and pay the fee if it just means doing what your business demands for economic reasons anyway?

The other two parts are more troubling.   I’m particularly bothered by measuring continuous improvement in terms of comparing environmental parameters to production or sales.  Because it’s possible to lower your energy and water use per ton of grapes produced (or wine produced or dollars of sales) and still use as much or more energy and water each year – as long as the facility is making more wine or getting more money for the wine it produces.  And I can’t imagine that most wineries don’t want to increase production or sales.

Why am I making a big deal about this?  In the words of a wise former colleague: The Environment Doesn’t Index.  It’s total pollution loading, energy use (assuming it involves fossil fuels), and water use that matter, not that a winery uses or creates less of them per liter of wine.  As long as a sustainability certification allows a winery to maintain or increase its environmental loading, then it’s doing the environment a disservice.

Finally there’s the best industry practice, which brings me back to Kingsnorth’s main point on sustainability.  Obviously, every vineyard and winery should strive to do its best.  But looking to best practices and not beyond implies that growing grapes and making wine is the best possible use for that particular parcel of land.  That may be the case, and as a wine merchant I’m certainly in favor of making wine.  Still, it reinforces the status quo from an environmental standpoint.  It’s not necessarily a good thing if every available acre in a winemaking region is used for wine production.

So before you go thinking I’m a total crank, I want to reiterate that I don’t believe that wineries are trying to mislead the public, even if they don’t object to reaping the benefits of consumers’ misinterpretation.  But there are also plenty of wineries that go well beyond what sustainability certification requires, with or without certification, and I’ll be talking more about them in my next sustainability post.


After all that, a simple recipe is in order.  When I want really simple food, I turn to my slow cooker.  A lot of slow cooker recipes ask that you brown up the meat before you put everything in to cook.  Personally, there’s nothing I want to do less in the morning than brown meat.  While it adds a lot of flavor to things like stews, you can also get away with not doing it if you have a really flavorful sauce.

Which this recipe definitely does.  I like to make beef barbecue in the slow cooker, and this recipe is tasty and easy.  Slice a couple of onions and put them in the bottom of the slow cooker.  Cut a few peeled cloves of garlic in half and throw them in too.   Top with the beef and the barbecue sauce, cover and set the slow cooker, and walk away.  You can use a barbecue sauce you like (you’ll need about two cups), or make this one.  I like to use boneless chuck roast, which comes from the shoulder.  Watching America’s Test Kitchen one night, I saw something that I now do for this recipe but you don’t have to:  you can pull the roast apart because of the line of fat in the middle.  Once you’ve separated it into the two parts, you can trim off most of that blob of fat.  It will make shredding the beef easier once you’ve cooked it.  When it’s done, just use two forks to shred the beef into small pieces, mix it in with the sauce and onions, and serve on a sandwich roll.  Having a salad with it or not is up to you.

And since it didn’t take you much effort to make the barbecue, why not splurge a bit on wine?  Lara O Crianza 2006 ($19) is 100% Tempranillo, aged in oak for a year then in the bottle for a year.  The barbecue is surprisingly mellow considering all the strong-flavored ingredients you put in it, and the Crianza is beautifully mellow too.  Just the thing to sustain you through the evening!

Bon Appetit!


Slow Cooker Beef Barbecue

Serves 8 at minimum

2 large onions, peeled, sliced in half through the poles, then cut crosswise into ¼-inch slices

4 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced in half

Nonstick cooking spray

1 3-4 pound boneless beef chuck roast

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

At least 8 sandwich rolls


1-1/2 cups ketchup

1/3 cup packed brown sugar (light or dark)

¼ cup red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1-1/4 teaspoons liquid smoke

2 teaspoons chili powder

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

Lightly coat the bottom of the slow cooker crock with nonstick spray.  Add the onions, then the garlic evenly over the sprayed surface.  Mix the sauce ingredients in a medium-sized bowl and set aside.

Trim off any large pieces of fat on the outside of the roast.  Then, if you have a few minutes, look for the fat line down the middle of the chuck roast.  Using a sharp paring knife, make a few cuts in it along the length of the fat line.  Then, using your hands, pull the roast apart – it should separate with some of the fat line remaining on each half.  Using that paring knife, cut off as much of that internal fat as a you can.  It’s fine to leave a little of it.  Salt and pepper the roast, then stack the two halves and put it all on top of the onions and garlic in the slow cooker.  (If you didn’t trim the internal fat, salt and pepper the roast, then put in on the onions and garlic).

Pour the barbecue sauce over the meat, keeping most of it on top.  Put the cover on the slow cooker, and set it to cook on low power for 10 hours.  When it’s done, remove the lid, then shred the meat with two forks.  Mix it in with the onions, garlic, and sauce, and serve on the sandwich rolls.

This entry was posted in Bodegas Fusión, Environmentalism, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Paul Kingsnorth, recipes, slow cooker, Sustainability, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, wine delivery washington dc and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Sustaining our wine, Part One

  1. Pingback: Terroirist: A Daily Wine Blog » Daily Wine News: Sustainability and Winemaking

  2. Sue says:

    Wow, that is a lot to absorb. One of the most intriguing things you said was that “wineries can get certified for TRYING to become sustainable rather than actually being sustainable.” (The emphasis is mine.) That seems unfair. I know that the organic certification – which you’ve pointed out is not the same thing – is a process that can go on for a number of years, but you’re not actually certified organic until you’ve met the guidelines. What a complex situation. Consumers are just trying to do the right thing when they are swayed toward “sustainable” wine, but it’s obviously a big issue that needs looking into.

    Yummy recipe. I know it would be good, because it’s very similar to my James Beard barbecue sauce recipe, except that it calls for lemon juice instead of vinegar.

    • firstvine says:

      I agree it’s unfair — the certifying organization has designed it that way to encourage participation. There has to be some flexibility (what’s sustainable for one producer might not be for another), but I think there ought to be a transition period of at least showing continuous improvement for a certain number of years before getting the certification. It would be more like becoming organic certified: a farm’s not certified organic until it meets all the guidelines, but farms can bill themselves as transitional during the initial period that they’re chemical-free. While this doesn’t totally allow them to recoup costs right away, it would indicate that the winery is working toward something more meaningful rather than being rewarded for business as usual.

  3. juantana says:

    I actually don’t mind seeing the wind farm (on Storm Lake) visible on our drive out to WV – they are slowly spinning on the mountaintops, and I’d much rather see that than when the one remaining coal fired plant is belching smoke into the sky. I don’t see how solar panels in the desert are harming the lanscape there, either. And finally, I am making that asparagus recipe this weekend!

    • firstvine says:

      I agree for the most part about the wind vs coal fired power plants, wind has the upper hand. It’s got its drawbacks though, and not only the way they look. Next time you are out in WV pick up a copy of the wVA highlands paper , it’s a local conservation publication. Mt Storm and other wind farms have a terrible, not totally successful, struggle trying not to kill off hordes of birds and other flying creatures. There have been some real tragedies In this respect, the highlands paper has done a good job covering.

      Please do try the asparagus recipe! It’s even good cold in a salad the next day 🙂



      • firstvine says:

        A good question, and it gets at the main point of the post. Why is it a choice between the wind turbines in a place where they weren’t before and a coal-fired power plant? Why are we using more and more power instead of less so we don’t need the plant? And even if we need it, is that mountain the only place for the wind turbines? Having the solar array in the desert brings people and material to a place that was previously unoccupied. And chances are the electricity would have to be carried a long distance, which is extremely inefficient. Why do we need to do that? It’s not a question of harm per se, just that we don’t necessarily have the right or need to put things everywhere on the planet.


      • juantana says:

        We already generate power far from the cities where it is used – just ask the folks that own land where we bought out in WV whose properties were cut in half by the huge power lines carrying it to the Northeast – nobody in WV is using that electricty. Plus nobody wants coal fire plants beside where they live (see closing of rarely used Mirant plant beside the airport, what an eyesore), but it would be cool to have solar panels on every roof to generate more power where it is being used and feed that back into the grid when not being used. cost needs to come down there though. I know windmills have issues with wildlife and bird migration but I think they can work thru those hopefully – putting them off the coasts a few miles almost out of sight is an option too. John

      • firstvine says:

        It seems to me that our already generating power far from where it’s used is beside the point (and a disincentive for us to use less electricity because we’re not reminded that it has to be generated somewhere). The huge transmission losses are part of the problem and can and should be minimized by putting renewable energy generation closer to its use, rather than spoiling pristine areas by putting solar and wind far from where the power will be used. I’m all for closing coal-fired power plants, but it would have been nice to see at least a token effort to replace some of the power Mirant generated with local renewable electricity. Without it, closing the Mirant plant likely means that some other fossil-fuel-fired plant will have to increase capacity, creating more potential health problems for people who live near it and long-range transport issues for those who don’t; all the while relieving people near the Mirant plant of a reminder of the downsides of the production of the electricity they consume. In addition to urban solar rooftops, I’d also like to see wind turbines in every industrial park rather than hiding them from view.

        Thanks for commenting, it’s always nice to know when people are reading!

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