A stopped clock is right about sustainability

My colleagues at National Environmental Trust created the Luntzspeak website to expose and debunk the environmental doublespeak of Frank Luntz, a republican pollster. Luntz helped create the Contract for America and taught two generations of republican politicians and industry leaders how to make it sound like they cared about climate change.  It seems a little quaint these days, looking back on how we thought the George W. Bush administration was the worst thing that could happen to the environment.


I never thought I’d find myself agreeing with Republican pollster and PR wordblitzer Frank Luntz. But in a recent Washington Post article, writer Dan Zak recounted some of Luntz’s testimony before the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis. And it made me give grudging, limited props to one of the environmental community’s old nemeses due to Luntz’s comments about sustainability and climate change. These are two subjects I follow closely and have written about, particularly for the wine industry.

Luntz, an architect of Newt Gingrich’s Contract for America during the Clinton Administration, also coached leading Republicans on how to be climate change deniers while seeming more reasonable. But the 2017 California wildfires that grazed Los Angeles made him face the real-world impact of his work. In his testimony he owned up to some of his former activities and made suggestions for messaging that could more urgently convey the catastrophic impacts of climate change.

His words reached beyond just climate change, though. For example, when asked about “sustainability” to describe the desired impacts of climate action, he indicated absolutely not. “ ‘Stop,’ Luntz said, ‘Sustainability is about the status quo.’ “

Well, thanks, Frank. That’s the way I feel about industry-sponsored sustainability and so-called sustainable wine production. I’m glad you’ve acknowledged it. But what you didn’t say is that the industries you advised on obstructing environmental progress – energy and auto manufacturing in particular – are the ones who made “sustainability” all about protecting their status quo at our expense. They followed your playbook to the letter. Unfortunately, that means that even if sustainable wine production were a better concept, it would still suffer from the damage caused by those other industries over 30-plus years of greenwashing you helped them achieve.

I did say grudging props, didn’t I? 😉 Well, here’s one more. Unlike other anti-environmental wordsmiths pretending to be voices of reason, Luntz at least now tries to offer helpful suggestions. Not that it now makes Luntz a good guy, but contrast him with someone else Zak mentions in his article, The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Bjorn Lomborg. Lomborg used many of Luntz’s techniques in his book, requiring the environmental community to waste close to a year debunking his nonsense. And at least Luntz has owned up a bit, unlike closeted political figures who harmed the LGBTQ community through their policies and then expected a parade when they finally came out.

Here’s some background. I used to work for a national environmental organization, and our communications department created a website to expose and debunk what they came to call Luntzspeak. I’m sure my colleagues would recognize the Luntspeak in the way big-industry sustainability is practiced today. That is, expressing concern publicly, but undermining progress through inaction and campaign contributions. Although National Environmental Trust doesn’t exist anymore, an archived version of its Luntzspeak website is available here and seems remarkably current despite being from the George W. Bush era.  Read it and feel the nostalgia for a time when those characters were the causes of our environmental worries.  (Note that the domain luntzspeak dot com is now maintained by a different organization, and has a more general, non-environmental focus.)

Zak goes beyond misleading Luntzspeak to address the failure of the good guys — environmentalists and scientists — to find the right language to convey the seriousness of what’s going on. Partly because there’s crisis fatigue among the public, but also because scientists and environmentalists don’t always realize that environmental issues can become challenges to people’s core moral values. As a scientist, I sometimes find myself glossing over this aspect, and it has been an issue for the wine industry regarding sustainability.

I don’t mean to imply that sustainable wine reaches the same heights of seriousness as other issues. Choosing a sustainable wine isn’t going to have the same impact as buying a Prius instead of an SUV. Or choosing to do without a car at all. But as I’ve written before, most wine professionals don’t understand – or seem particularly interested in — what sustainability certification really is, or what it’s supposed to mean even if it doesn’t achieve its goals. And if they don’t, why should the average consumer understand or care about it? Sustainability gets lost among all the other do-gooder terms that seem like ways to guilt you into different choices. Another day, another breathlessly worded warning, like should we eat the new chicken sandwich from Popeye’s or not.

As I said, I’ve written lots about sustainability and wine on this blog, including the reasons why the certifications don’t mean what producers hope they do. (Look for the double asterisk ** below if you want links to some of the posts.) But I also have sustainability sympathy for the wine industry. It’s tough to convey the breadth of techniques involved in both growing grapes and making wine. The wine industry came late to the sustainability party, hoping it would help do that without some of the baggage of organics and biodynamics. It isn’t their fault that other industries brought them bigger, nastier baggage.

So although it still rankles me to think that Luntz is right about something, I guess we need a new term for sustainability in grape growing and winemaking. In my years doing environmental work, I saw “Sustainability” replace “Pollution Prevention” as a catchphrase about 20 years ago, so it’s probably time for something new anyway. And we also need easier, more systematic ways to convey it to consumers without pushing the moral buttons, as some in the “natural” wine industry try to do. Wine producers choose sustainability certification because they want it to be a shorthand for the way they operate without plonking a lot of mystifying terms on their back labels. Customers deserve to know what it means, whatever that is. And all of us in the wine and wine media biz need to do a better job talking about it even if we don’t get a new word.

** Here are some of my sustainability posts.  Enjoy!  And if you’re looking for more, type Sustainability in the search bar on the bottom of the page.

Sustainability as a concept and in wine production, Part 1 and Part 2.
What wine professionals know about sustainability.
Why you don’t see the word sustainability on wine labels.


The menu logo of the Mayflower Café in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Cy and I ate there earlier this month and had Portuguese Kale Soup. It’s a dish that you used to find all over town, but not much anymore.

Cy and I made our usual summer trip to Provincetown. We tried to hit all the usual activities and food. So there were lobster rolls, and other forms of lobster. And lots of other seafood. And our favorite burgers. And cocktails. But we noticed that one thing that used to be available at nearly every restaurant in the past was hard to find: Portuguese Kale Soup. In fact, a lot of the Portuguese-style foods we used to get there have disappeared. You can still go to the Portuguese Bakery and get various Portuguese and Portuguese-American treats. But I remember long ago being able to get dishes like Cod Escabeche that I haven’t seen there in years.

We went on a hunt for the soup, and found it at Mayflower, one of the older restaurants in town. The decor is nothing to look at, but our food was good, and it was great to have their Kale Soup. The soup is based on Caldo Verde, a Portuguese staple. Every Portuguese cook has his or her own version. Traditionally, it’s made with kale, Linguiça (a spicy, smoked sausage), potatoes, onion, garlic, and water or stock. It’s also generally more pureed (including pureeing the sausage), with some extra Linguiça as a garnish. Provincetown’s version is left chunky, and being in New England also contains beans. Mayflower’s soup had kidney beans in it, but small white or red beans are also used. Given the region’s reputation for thriftiness, probably just water with no stock, too, since you had to cook the beans anyway, and why waste the cooking water. And I didn’t see or taste garlic, which doesn’t surprise me – recipes from the 1920s and 30s frequently avoided it. (Mayflower proudly proclaims its 1920s heritage.)

So here’s my recipe for Portuguese Kale Soup. I’ve combined different versions from more authentically Portuguese to one listed in The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook. Linguiça used to be impossible to find outside of Massachusetts. But now some grocery stores carry it, and I found a homemade version at Stachowski’s here in DC. (Call ahead to make sure they have it, though.)

It’s a meal in itself, but of course bread and salad are always welcome. And serve it with a substantial wine, either white or red. Società Agricola Bulichella’s Tuscanio Bianco ($19) and Rubino ($21) are my choices for pairing. Neither is traditional to Portugal or Provincetown. But they’re both made with organic grapes and subject to the utmost care in grape growing and winemaking. So no sustainability-speak or guilt here.  Just eat, drink and enjoy.


Portuguese Kale Soup
Serves 6

6 tablespoons olive oil
12 ounces Linguiça (or Spanish-style Chorizo if you can’t find it), sliced 1/4 – inch thick
2 large onions, cut in large dice
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
6 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1 to 1-1/2 pounds kale (depending on the size of the bunch), center ribs removed, leaves cut into thin slices
2 15-ounce cans small white or red beans, drained and rinsed (See note below if you want to use dried beans)
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
4 cups chicken stock
1-2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Heat 4 tablespoons of the oil in a large soup pot. Cook the Linguiça slices in the oil until browned. Remove the sausage from the oil, then saute the onion in the pot until soft and just starting to brown around the edges, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 2 more minutes.

Stir in the potatoes, kale, Linguiça, and beans. Then add the stock and 4 cups of water, plus a little more if necessary to cover everything by an inch or two. Bring to a boil and simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour, to soften the kale. Add more water at this point if the soup seems too thick – it shouldn’t be a stew. Stir in 1 tablespoon of vinegar and taste. It should have just a little tang. Add more vinegar as necessary, along with more salt and pepper. Stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil, then serve.

Note on using dried beans: Soak 1 cup small white or red beans in a quart of water with 1 tablespoon salt overnight. Drain and rinse the beans, then put them in a pot with 2 quarts of water. Cook for an hour, then taste for doneness and cook longer if necessary. Save the cooking water to use in the soup.

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1 Response to A stopped clock is right about sustainability

  1. Pingback: Terroirist: A Daily Wine Blog » Daily Wine News: Phylloxera Found in WA

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