Sustainable Winegrowing: BRIT International Award

Celestina Blok Special to the Business Press

From using solar energy to implementing eco-friendly bottling and labeling, vineyards around the world are incorporating more sustainable winegrowing practices, and the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, based in Fort Worth, is recognizing those who are doing it best. In 2010, BRIT launched the International Award of Excellence in Sustainable Winegrowing, honoring wine professionals who use innovative, sustainable practices in winegrowing and winemaking.

BRIT’s vice president and director of research, Will McClatchey, says that in addition to BRIT’s longtime conservation award, which honors an individual, BRIT saw a need for an award to promote sustainability and conservation for organizations that use a market system. He says wine fit really well. “What was needed was a product that, if consumers saw it was sustainably produced, had some added value,” he explained. With wine, he continued, “You have lots of producers rather than just a few big ones and there’s an incentive that makes being sustainable appealing. Also, the majority of wineries in the world are relatively small, family-run businesses. The ideal product, for our purposes, is a product that is used regularly and valued by decision-makers and policy-makers. We’ve been hard pressed to find something that can do the job better than wine.”

The award looks at environmental, economic and social or community aspects of winegrowing and winemaking. Evaluations are based on an 18-question self-assessment application. Environmental best practices might include using rare grape varieties and preserving and propagating those varieties. Soil conservation and water management are also big, McClatchey said. “A lot of people have drip systems or don’t water at all. They’ve got landscaping that directs water to the vines. Many ideal applications are bringing in no external water. All the water is being captured on their property and is being used wisely. It would be great if all of us could do that,” McClatchey said. Economic initiatives encompass recycling and resource management, including increasing efficiency in the winemaking and bottling process, and applying ways to reduce the vineyard’s carbon footprint. Social and community aspects evaluated include education for employees, stakeholders and consumers, such as sustainability research done in-house or in partnership with a local university. BRIT then looks at how that information is distributed to spread the word about sustainability, be it through websites, advertising methods or on-site communications materials. Until this year, the award has gone to U.S. vineyards: Trefethen Family Wines (2012), Parducci Wine Cellars (2011) and Hall Wines, the 2010 inaugural award recipient. All are from California.

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Yalumba, Australia’s oldest family winery, is the 2013 winner. The South Australia winery is recognized for its viticulture best practices program, which focuses on soil, irrigation, biodiversity and energy management. Yalumba’s wine production program minimizes greenhouse gases and engages employees to protect the environment through recycling and monitoring their own use of resources. More than 98 percent of Yalumba’s packaging materials are recyclable. Since word spread of Yalumba’s win, McClatchey said, the BRIT office has been swamped with international inquiries on how to apply for next year. “Several places in the Southern Hemisphere, from South Africa, South America, around Israel and Australia, as well as North America and Europe, are applying and it’s expanding,” he said. Representatives from BRIT have been invited to Milan by the Italian Wine Union to participate in its sustainable winegrowing conference in November, which will aim to set sustainability standards for Italy’s wine industry. “The technical group within the union is talking about adopting BRIT’s 18 self-assessment questions as its base level of sustainability instead of dictating rules and procedures,” said Chris Chilton, BRIT’s director of marketing and public relations. “They have also guaranteed that five to 10 of Italy’s most sustainable wineries will apply for our award next year.” As not only the quantity but the diversity of applications continues to increase, judging will become that much more challenging, McClatchey said.

“A solution that works really well at one vineyard may be completely inappropriate at another one because of the natural environment differences. That makes our evaluation complicated,” he said. “We have to learn enough of the background environment to understand the stresses and factors the vineyards face and what it really means to be sustainable in that place. You can imagine a site in South Africa, a Bordeaux region and one in northern New York are going to be quite different.” The award’s review panel includes people of expertise in not only wine but agriculture and conservation, along with sommeliers. “In the end, the wine needs to taste good, too.” McClatchey said. “If these businesses can produce a great product and do it more efficiently, they’re going to make more money. That’s a win for the environment, a win for the consumer and it’s obviously a win for the business owners. We think conservation is an investment in a business that’s going to become more profitable.”