How Compassion Keeps Wineries Sustainable

A perspective for the New Year on putting 'social equity' into action

by Jane Firstenfeld
Like a three-legged table, the three “E’s” of sustainability (economic, environmental and social equity) must be of equal length and strength.
Napa, Calif.—A marriage of agriculture and business, the North American wine industry enthusiastically embraced the concept of “sustainability” since the turn of the millennium. Wineries and vineyards enlisted in countless local, regional, national and international programs designed to build their sustainability.

Three tenets support a sustainable business: economic, environmental and social equity. Like a three-legged table, all of these “E’s” must be of equal length and strength. But in the struggle to achieve economic and environmental sustainability, in themselves both worthy goals, that third “E” is sometimes relegated to lesser status, unbalancing the entire enterprise.

Focus on social equity
With its common roots in family businesses, California’s wine industry has a commendable record of support for social causes. Events like Auction Napa Valley raise millions annually for critical local charitable services. New efforts like this year’s Food from the Vine, an impromptu challenge to help fund Santa Barbara County’s FoodBank, join the tradition.

Individual wineries adopt their own practices to attain social equity. Dawn Wofford, managing partner of Napa’s Benchmark Consulting, has spent more than 20 years matching employees and applicants in the North Coast wine industry. Just before Christmas, she issued a newsletter suggesting simple ways to incorporate gentleness and compassion into daily—and corporate—life:

Pay attention to your tone of voice. Listen for any impatience or frustration that comes across in your words. Speak clearly and softly. Also pay attention to your body language. Keep your arms uncrossed and be willing to be near to people (respecting their personal space, of course).
Value people. Sometimes we are tempted to value things more than people, and we fail to act with compassion.…People have great value: Respect them as individuals and be understanding of their own journey. Life has a way of challenging each of us differently.
Be generous. Being gentle and compassionate means being forgiving and understanding.…When we view others with a lens of generosity, we can give out of a sense of abundance.…You can give to others without losing yourself.”

Respect for employees and employers
Benchmark is in the business of people, and Wofford said, “We believe in respecting the individual; we spend a lot of time with both the candidates and clients, getting to know them as people. When working with estate wineries, we get to know the families: What are they looking for to make their world better?”

She explained to Wines & Vines how Benchmark puts these principles to work. “Instead of just putting people in jobs and moving on, we’ve blended the lines between professional and personal. We see the wine industry as a family that enjoys great wine and has fun.

Employers need compassion too, she noted: “People need to be heard. If you own a business, you don’t have too many people to talk to.” From the bottom of the ladder to the top, she counseled: “Listen. Let people be heard.”

Paying it forward strengthens the crucial social equity element of sustainability, building strong bonds among the entire wine community as it continues to grow and prosper.

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