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.