Jackson Family Wines’ investments in sustainability pay off

Using everything from fog machines to drones, the Santa Rosa company is aiming to be one of the greenest wine companies around.|

The buzzword in the North Coast wine industry is sustainability.

The word almost always comes up at every seminar, trade show or conference around Wine Country. Locally, it’s being pushed by the Sonoma County Winegrowers, a trade group representing farmers, which has launched a campaign to have all county vineyards be 100 percent sustainable by 2019. While that sounds good, it’s hard to describe amid different standards and binders full of requirements.

In essence, it’s about everything that goes into the winemaking process, from the bottles to the barrel, the cork to the cave, and doing it in an environmentally sound way that benefits society at large while still allowing the vintner to be in the black.

In practice, it’s a little harder to describe.

But spend a day at the various sites operated by Jackson Family Wines, and a visitor can see it in the fog machine and ultraviolet lights used to sanitize tanks, the Tesla battery systems to better store energy, and drone technology to monitor vineyards to make sure they get the right amount of water and not a drop more.

Those high-tech devices and others translate to big cost savings for the Santa Rosa wine company, at least $15 million on energy savings alone, while helping it reduce the amount of water consumed in its wineries by almost half since 2008.

Jackson Family Wines aims to be the green leader in the wine industry, following in the legacy of its late founder, Jess Jackson, who started with a small winery on his Lake County farm in 1982 with the goal of creating an company that would endure for future generations. It now employs 1,500 people and owns 35,000 acres worldwide, less than half of it devoted to vineyards. It was the largest vineyard owner in Sonoma County in 2013, with about 3,200 acres, according to a Press Democrat analysis.

The tradition continues today under Katie Jackson, the daughter of Jackson and Barbara Banke, chairwoman of Jackson Family Wines. Jackson, 29, has served as the company’s director of sustainability and community outreach for the past three years.

“From the beginning his values were about being a good land steward,” Jackson said.

The sustainability campaign comes at a time when the wine industry is under intense scrutiny, especially over its water use.

Research conducted in California has shown it takes from 105 to 440 gallons of water applied to a vineyard to produce a gallon of grape “must,” or juice, used to make wine, said Larry Williams, a UC Davis viticulture professor. And that amount doesn’t include the water used in the winery.

Customers are asking more questions about how their wine is made, driven by key retailers such as Whole Foods Markets that are at the forefront of setting standards for sustainable food products.

Despite the costs, the sustainability initiative makes good business sense, according to Jackson Family Wines officials. A survey by financial consultant Deloitte last year found 55 percent of the millennial generation thought businesses should do more in response to climate change. At Kendall-Jackson, the Avant brand was launched to target such millennials, those 35 years and under, who share those concerns. “It’s something we are hearing from consumers,” said Caroline Shaw, executive vice president of Jackson Family Wines.

A big focus of water savings at the company is in winery production, where much of it is used to clean large tanks and barrels.

The typical winery uses 6 to 9 gallons of water inside the winery to produce a gallon of wine, said Julien Gervreau, the company’s senior sustainability manager. Jackson Family Wines uses an average of 4.5 gallons and wants to get it down to the 3-gallon ratio over the next five years, Gervreau said. The company, however, did not share total overall consumption numbers.

As he walks through the La Crema Winery in Windsor with rows of almost 8,000-gallon tanks that will be filled this harvest, Gervreau notes that tank sanitation typically takes 150 gallons of water in a laborious process that consumes a lot of manpower. “That water just runs down the (tank’s) bottom door and down the drain and it’s gone,” he said.

The company has now two options to dramatically reduce the water consumption in the sanitation process. One device is an essentially a fog machine that emits micro bubbles, which adhere to the side of the tank and kill any biological activity as the surface is sterilized. It takes only a liter of water along with some peracetic acid.

Jackson Family Wines was contacted by a firm that uses it in Florida and Brazil to sterilize up to 1 million-gallon tanks in the citrus industry. “We have organizations come to us all the time to test new technology and develop new technology,” Gervreau said.

Another device emits ultraviolet light to sterilize tanks.

“There is also an incredible labor savings associated with using these,” he said as he motions to the UV light machine. “You literally pick it up, slide it through the door, pop it open, press this button and you walk away. You take 3 or 4 minutes to set it up.”

That’s not all the winery is doing. It uses water from a nearby pond to help cool the tanks to a temperature as low as 32 degrees through a reverse-osmosis process. Motion sensors help turn on and off lights. And a humidifier-like device helps keep wooden barrels moist so they don’t crack; previously they would have to be hosed down, said Mitch Davis, general manager at La Crema.

High-tech devices also are having an impact out in the vineyard. Jackson Family Wines has acquired its own in-house drone team, allowing it to fly the aircraft above its vineyards. The drones can send back images that monitor vegetation growth, including where vines are under stress, which show up as yellow and red images on the map, said Brian Malone, vineyard manager at Jackson Ranch in the Bennett Valley.

“We have actually been able to change our canopy management style, kind of tweak it, so we can get a more unified flavor state throughout the vineyard,” Malone said of the ranch that has 200 acres of mostly merlot grapes, many located on a hillside. The ranch has reduced its water irrigation use by 20 percent.

The two drones mesh well with other technology that is more common in vineyards across the North Coast, such as devices that determine the level of hydration on a vine. Additionally, Jackson Family Wines has assistance from a private weather service to help out in vineyard maintenance.

“We can pinpoint how much and when to water,” he said.

The unmanned flights also can help on cost savings, said Vince Marotto, vice president of enterprise strategy and governance. Last year, the company paid $20,000 to have a plane take one picture of each of its North Coast vineyards to monitor vegetation growth.

The drones, which cost about $26,000 and are flown by five licensed pilots, are more flexible and can provide continuous real-time updates during the growing season. In the future, the drones could pick up data from the water stations located in the vineyard, rather than having a crew go out to retrieve the data, Marotto said.

“Jess and the family have always been 100 percent into quality,” he noted.

The company also has moved to use more wind machines for frost protection and away from sprinklers that spray water on vineyards when temperatures drop, freezing the vine in a protective capsule of ice. “That’s a lot of waste,” Malone said. “We have gone away from that.”

Among its most high-profile endeavors is its partnership with Tesla Energy, as the winery looks to employ the same technology used in the battery systems of electric cars to better store energy.

In January, Jackson Family Wines started using 21 Tesla stationary storage systems at its La Crema winery and several other California wineries, resulting in 4.2 megawatts of power output with a storage capacity of 8.4 MWh. It is enough electricity to power a household of four for a year in California.

The batteries serve two purposes. First, the company generates a considerable amount of solar energy, 6.5 megawatts of onsite production, with panels in places such as the roof of the La Cream winery.

“We realized there is kind of a challenge of generating solar electricity and not being able to store it,” Gervreau said.

The Tesla batteries allow the solar energy to be stored for use during peak times. Next, it helps save energy by storing power from the grid when there is less demand on the grid, such as night, and allocating the electricity during busier times. The batteries constantly churn out a clicking sound as they discharge during high-capacity times, which will lower Jackson Family Wines’ utility bill as well as stress on the electric grid.

The Tesla batteries will reduce electricity usage by about 10 percent, the company estimates.

“It’s good economically as well as from an operational standpoint,” said Alexis Georgeson, Tesla Energy spokeswoman. “This is one of the largest deployments of Tesla energy storage.”

Even with all the high-tech devices, Jackson Family wines also relies on some decidedly low-tech options to be more environmentally friendly. It uses a falcon to chase birds away so they don’t eat the grapes. When grapes start to sweeten, it coincides with a western migration pattern of starlings. The raptors are a greener alternative compared to propane cannons or shotgun blasts.

The attention to detail even goes down to the winery floor where employees are encouraged to sweep rather than hose off. If they have to use water, all the hoses have a high-pressure nozzle.

“People can look just as busy with a squeegee and a broom rather than a water nozzle,” Davis said. “They really are some of our best measures for reducing water waste.”

The company is looking to the future as it has so far donated $4 million to UC Davis for the Jess S. Jackson Sustainable Winery Building, which is powered by energy and water captured onsite, and has a goal to be carbon neutral. Research at the site will have implications down the road.

Jackson Family Wines is the ninth-largest wine company in the United States, so a lot of its new practices may be difficult for small wineries and farmers to adopt because they lack such resources. But the company wants to trigger more innovation in the industry, which will eventually lead to greater acceptance as costs come down. It had a similar effect in the local industry when it started paying more for sustainably grown grapes a few years back.

“We want to foster that culture of innovation,” Gervreau said.

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