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February 2009 Issue of Wines & Vines

Keep the Green Light On

by Jane Firstenfeld
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What happens when you put five gods of green on one panel to talk about business? At the Green Wine Summit in December, you got a standing-room-only audience, unexpected humor and a reality check about the famous triple bottom line of sustainability. It was inspiring in unanticipated ways.

Although I'd lobbied to attend the summit on behalf of Wines & Vines, I wouldn't have chosen this session of the four on the menu. As the de facto "solar specialist" and environmentalist on staff, I thought perhaps I'd get more news from "Best Green Practices," or "The Green Consumer." Our editor, however, signed me up for "Business of Green." Thanks, Jim.

The panel, moderated by educator Mack Schwing, consisted of Jim Fetzer (Ceago Vinegarden); John Williams (Frog's Leap); Peter Mondavi Jr. (Charles Krug); Chris Benziger (Benziger), and Paul Dolan (ex-Fetzer, now Mendocino Wine Co.). These guys and their North Coast wineries represent the cream of the sustainable wine crop. They share California wine ancestry, experience and instantly recognizable names--especially among this crowd. Maybe I should just refer to them as "nature's noblemen."

Each made clear his devotion to sustainability, but with a casual ease and camaraderie that made this something special. Each explained explicitly how his progression along the green path had helped him to do better business, and how his determination to do better business had guided him.

Fetzer, whose family sold its farm and brand to Brown-Forman in 1992, embarked on his ambitious Lake County project in 2001. It's Biodynamic, a concept that engendered hilarity at our magazine when we first started writing about it a few years back. Could we really show a pile of manure on our pretty pages? Our designer at the time, a vegetarian, gagged at the photos of dung-filled cow horns. Since then, we've recognized the seriousness of the concept, and have written about it, respectful of Biodynamics' respect for nature's holistic cycle.

Williams said frankly that the impetus for Frog's Leap's green trajectory was profitability. He started dry farming not to save water but to save money. Turns out, his wines improved. Similar steps: solar power, recycling and geo-thermal heating/cooling, contributed to his bottom line. He also forged a sustainable employment model: full-time jobs with benefits for vineyard/winery staff. "These are good business practices," he emphasized.

Mondavi acknowledged that although his inherited winery, Charles Krug, is Napa's oldest, it's still young in terms of its organic commitment. He grew up there, and personally recognized the desecration of Napa Valley's rich ecology, including the disappearance of steelhead trout from the Napa River and its tributaries. Krug invested in riparian restoration, and has achieved organic certification for 65% of its vineyard acreage; by next year, Mondavi said, that will grow to 85%.

In contrast, Benziger did not grow up in California wine country; he arrived as a young man when his family founded the Glen Ellen Winery in 1982 in Sonoma County. In the early 1980s, he remembered, the vineyards were "kind of a desert," the result of pesticide sprays. "Anything green on the vineyard floor was a weed," he remembered. Erosion issues and disease pressure left "vines that sucked," he said. When the family started Benziger in 1993, "We changed anything we had to." Benziger is now a famously Biodynamic producer.

And then, Dolan--the Zeus in California's green pantheon. For sustainable winegrowing, he's the go-to guy, the Godfather of Green, a collaborator on the Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices Workbook and author of True to Our Roots--Fermenting a Wine Revolution, which was published in 2003, when he was still president of Fetzer under Brown-Forman. He is a seemingly tireless promoter of sustainability. In his book, he admits, "I didn't become a leader by being bashful. I took control and made decisions."

The self-revelation and humility to listen to the land and the people he employed, however, made Dolan a pioneer in the movement toward a green wine industry, a movement that's gaining traction and forward momentum as I write, virtually on the eve of the inauguration of a new President and, I hope, a new era.

Many times I've quoted the triple bottom line of sustainability. One hour at "Business of Green" finally turned me onto the final bottom line--profitability. I saw and heard sincere passion for all of sustainability's elements. Let's keep that green light on and go all the way.

Jane Firstenfeld has been associated with Wines & Vines sporadically since 1972, and returned full-time in 2002. Now the news editor, she'd like to hear from you at
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