What is Sustainable Wine?

Grape vines at Talley Vineyards

I drink wine and have noticed a few new words on bottles in the wine shop. Natural, Sustainable, Organic and Biodynamic are appearing on certain wine labels. As I'm learning about wine and grapes I thought I should learn about sustainable wine making. It turns out that viticulture (the science of growing wine grapes) is a complex science and sustainability adds to the complexity. So, I started small by touring a sustainable winery on the central coast of California.

Wine making is an interesting collision of industry and agriculture. Many vintners have built their reputations with images of rolling hills covered in grape vines and the alchemy of oak barrels in musty cellars. The reality of making wine is perhaps less romantic and more prosaic. Grapes are affected by the same sun, water, soil (a.k.a. terroir) and environmental issues that affect general agriculture. As some segments of agriculture are moving towards sustainability, so are some vineyards.

Most (if not all) wineries offer a sampling of their recent vintages in a tasting room with (hopefully) a view of the vineyard. Unfortunately, a tasting only tells you if the winery's chardonnay or cabernet is respectable. To learn about how a winery makes their wine you should arrange an extended tour or a visit with the winemaker. I dipped my toes into the greater world of sustainable viticulture with an 'Estate Tour' of Talley Vineyards, outside of Arroyo Grande, CA.

We took the tour with Andy, a recent graduate of the Cal Poly Viticulture program, who has been working at Talley Vineyards for a few years. We started by walking through the adjacent Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vineyards. The vines do not live on sun, soil and water alone but are amended with organic fertilizers and composted pomace (grape skins and stems). Andy told us about their use of off-season cover crops that are tilled back into the soil adding organic matter. Talley also uses Integrated Pest Management, which is a more environmentally sensitive approach to vineyard pests.

From the fields we toured the crushing, fermenting, barrel and bottling facilities. Despite the ads you've seen, a vineyard uses plenty of industrial tools, hoses and stainless steel tanks. Grapes are a delicate crop and processing them is a tricky business using incongruously gentle stemmers and crushers. Talley Vineyards use French and American oak barrels to age their wines. When cleaning barrels they use sulfur dioxide to prevent bacterial infection of the wines. Sulfites (sulfur dioxide) are not allowed in making organic wines but they are an effective antibiotic and antioxidant.

While Talley isn't an organic vineyard they do use sustainable practices. The process of becoming an organic winery is not trivial and making that change is an involved process. With that in mind, the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance has established the Sustainable Winegrowing Program. The Sustainable Winegrowing Program is an educational program to help wineries and vineyards adopt and implement sustainable practices. The CWSP defines sustainable winegrowing as growing and winemaking practices that are environmentally sound, socially equitable, and are economically feasible. {To the best of my knowledge Talley Vineyards is not a member of the Sustainable Winegrowing Program.}

I'm impressed with the thought and effort that goes into winemaking at Talley Vineyards. I'm also starting to understand the challenges of sustainable viticulture. Considering how challenging organic gardening is I'm excited to find out what goes into making organic and biodynamic wines. This should be an adventure (which may require a designated driver)!

More Info:


Talley Vineyards

California Polytechnic State University - Wine & Viticulture

EPA.gov - Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Principles

Sulfur Dioxide in winemaking

California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance

Bottle Shock - movie