Wine can play key role in advancing sustainability, but thinking needs a ‘generational change’

By Andrew Catchpole

Published:  12 July, 2019

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Consumers need to get behind the agricultural sector to support the true costs of sustainability, and the wine industry is uniquely placed to advance this message, but there is still a long way to go.

This was one of the central takeaways from a joint Harpers-California Wine Institute seminar, Sustainability: A Transatlantic Conversation, which took place at London’s Design Museum on 11 July.

The session brought together voices from both the Californian and UK wine scene (the former being a global leader in sustainable practices), plus viewpoints from the wider food and drink sector, to encourage an exchange of ideas and experiences from differing if related perspectives.

Following a presentation on myriad aspects of sustainable viticulture from sustainability expert and Napa producer Steve Matthiasson of Matthiasson Wines, a panel discussion then assessed the challenges of advancing sustainability and the role that the wine industry can and should be playing.

Matthiasson had earlier asserted that sustainable farming practices are in themselves only commercially viable if the consumer supports the growers and producers in terms of understanding and meeting the true cost of socio-economic and environmental best practice.

Grape growers and winemakers, Matthiasson said, “were associated with the problems, but also awarded with ways that can unlock the future potential, to better serve and improve our lives”.

Adding that “we’ve got ourselves into a mess on this planet”, Matthiasson described the urgent need for better education and awareness among consumers, beginning with far greater clarity over what ‘sustainability’ means in all its myriad but inter-linking facets.

“In California sustainability is part of our culture… we planted the seed and its become second nature, like brushing your teeth in the evening” he said, but with the caveat that many consumers are adrift when it comes to understanding what this entails and the financial cost that sustainable producers shoulder.

Sergio Verillo, founder of London urban winery Blackbook, added that the industry was also behind, saying: “There is a lack of real understanding of what sustainability is, a lot of industry doesn’t understand the different points, and how to [fully embrace sustainability], and that’s what we are trying to achieve.”

On the up side there is much to play for, with Bronwen Percival, cheese buyer for Neil’s Yard Dairy in London, saying that cheese production could look to wine to improve its own path to greater sustainability, with cheese too often being treated as a side commodity, produced to boost income on a dairy farm with little thought going into the environmental impact of making that product.

“Looking at the wine industry and the way in which it is making a value-added product that people actively want to buy, it has in many ways freed itself from the commodity market and is a really interesting case and one we can learn from,” she said, alluding to wine’s position as a luxury good and one for which consumers will pay a premium.

Dr Janina Grabs, a postdoctoral researcher of the political economy of sustainable commodity production at the University of Münster, agreed that wine is in a unique position among agricultural products.

Unlike coffee (an area of special focus for her) or other food products, it has the benefit of providing an emotive and strong link back to agriculture and origin, with consumers interested in its provenance and authenticity.

Greater sustainability, though, as Matthiasson suggested, cannot be implemented purely by forcing change via sustainability schemes, said Grabs, but instead needed a broad consensus, including consumer buy in, to advance the goal.

“Only farmers can make farming sustainable, but top down systems can only be implemented once they are accompanied by a lot of outreach, a lot of education, and by having systems in place that make it economically sensible for farmers to make those changes,” she said, drawing on her research of similar challenges in coffee production.

“It’s not just the farmers that need to change, but a generational change, in how we think about agriculture. Because we have to remember that agriculture has been taught in a very intensive, industrial way for a couple of generations and now we are pulling back, but [the farmers] also needs to be compensated by the consumers.”

The panel agreed that wine, rather than being on a back foot as “a non-essential” luxury, could in fact help lead the way on sustainability – if the trade chooses to fully embrace and support growers and producers by convincing consumers of the need to do so.

A full report on this sustainability seminar will appear in the August issue of Harpers.