Can the wine industry ever be socially responsible?

In 2014, one of the questions on the Master of Wine exam asked if the wine industry could ever be socially responsible.  I recently looked into the issue & I believe the answer is yes.  Here are some of the issues.  This is a fairly long article for wine geeks, but hopefully there are some interesting points along the way.

Social responsibility is the idea that businesses should balance profit making activities with those that benefit society.  It means developing businesses that contribute more than they take from society and the planet.  The wine industry hasn’t always been socially responsible.  There are barriers to success, but it is possible for different areas of the industry & the industry as a whole to be socially responsible.  Let’s look at the wine industry supply chain to see the challenges & opportunities.

Grape growing


For much of the last 10,000 years, grape growing was actually done in a manner that would be considered organic today.  Starting with the late 1800’s & picking up speed in 1903 with the creation of the first synthetic fertilizer, vineyards began to shift to growing practices that had negative environmental impacts.  Here are some of the worst practices/greatest challenges.


According to the California Department of Pesticides Regulation, in 2010 25 million pounds of pesticides were applied to conventionally-grown wine grapes in California. The Pesticide Action Network (PAN) classifies about a million pounds of those chemicals dispersed on wine grapes as “bad actors,” meaning that they are known or probable causes of cancer, are neurotoxins, or groundwater contaminants.  France sprays over 60,000 tons of pesticides per year.  Numerous studies have suggested links between pesticide use and a range of health impacts, including cancer, Parkinson’s disease and other chronic conditions.  In 2015 manslaughter charges were filed against the government of France & the producers of certain pesticides over the death of James-Bernard Murat from long term exposure to sodium arsenite.  In May of 2014 a number of schoolchildren in Bordeaux were hospitalized after exposure to drift from pesticide spray.  Some fungicides are toxic to fish.  The toxic chemicals can enter the groundwater as runoff and find its way to rivers and the ocean.


The primary issue is the use of glyphosate as a herbicide (primarily under the trade name Roundup.  It is estimated that in 2001, more than 400,000 pounds of Roundup were applied in vineyards (out of almost 200 million pounds used worldwide).  There is debate over the hazards of glyphosate, but there are a number of legitimate concerns.  In March 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer research arm of the World Health Organization, designated glyphosate a “probable human carcinogen.” Three out of the four human studies on agricultural workers that were reviewed showed a link between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system.  It has been linked to Parkinson’s disease as well.  It has also been shown to harm the microbial structure of soil, which can have long term effects as well as damaging the terroir for wine growing. In 1996, the Attorney General of New York won a lawsuit to force Monsanto, developer of Roundup, to stop making claims that the product was biodegradable & “practically non-toxic.”

Water use/irrigation

Irrigation can waste precious water. CAFF Policy Director Dave Runsten said, “We’re over-irrigating a lot of crops in California.”  With drought a growing problem because of global warming, over irrigating is not socially responsible.

Fertilizer runoff

Like many agricultural enterprises, some grape growers use chemical fertilizers, which are nitrate based.  After the nitrogen makes its way to rivers, lakes, & oceans, it fertilizes blooms of algae that deplete oxygen and leave dead zones where no fish or traditional sea life can survive.  There is the potential for a catastrophic collapse of our food chain.

CO2 Production

CO2 is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.  Gas used in farm vehicles in vineyards emit CO2.  Gas or electric pumps for irrigation also contribute to the problem.

Migrant exploitation

Well before John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, some grape growers were known for exploiting their workers.  Whether that has been illegal Mexican workers in California or illegal Algerian workers in France, there is a history of long hours for low pay with minimal safety standards, poor housing, and little attention paid to the dangers of pesticide & herbicide exposure.  Child labor has been common in places like Argentina.

PossibilitiesEco Cert

Organic growing practices & biodynamic practices can prevent most of these problems & reverse some of the damage.  Even a move toward regulated sustainability, like the Lodi Rules program can help.  Wineries like Chakana in Argentina has seen changes in the vineyards after a switch to biodynamics.  Juan Pelizzatti showed me the difference in the soil between his vineyards that had been converted to biodynamics & nearby vineyards that had not.  The biodynamic soil was much richer.  I noticed fireflies at the winery that evening & he told me that they never had them when they farmed conventionally.  Perlage Winery in Italy has a similar story.  They feature a rigogolo (oriole) on some of their bottles.  The bird had disappeared from the area for years, but after their biodynamic vineyard was established the orioles returned.  Some of the best-known wineries in the world, like Domaine de la Romanée-Conti have embraced biodynamic growing.  Using these processes decreases the number of vehicles used in the vineyard.  Between that & the increased use of solar power for the vehicles & for pumps, and it is possible for vineyards to not only be carbon neutral, but to be net reducers of carbon due to sequestration of carbon in the vines themselves.

Adopting sustainable/organic/or biodynamic practices could lead to reduced yield, but it would make grape growers better stewards of the land.  Since grape growers aren’t under pressure to feed the world in the way that other agricultural producers may be, they have a real opportunity to be socially responsible.

Katia Gindro is working on another solution.  The Swiss biologist has extracted & identified 60 molecules from Vitis vinifera grapevines including a couple that are particularly effective at killing vine diseases.  She is working on turning these molecules into treatments that eliminate the need for fungicides.  This research is funded in part by Chateaus Lafite Rothschild, Latour, Margoux, Haut-Brion, Mounton Rothschild, Ausone, Cheval-Blanc, Yquem and Pétrus.

Finally, there is a movement towards better treatment of workers.  One of the points in the Lodi Rules program for sustainability is that it requires that workers are paid a livable wage.  In California, market forces are forcing growers to pay more because they are competing with marijuana growers for workers.  This has also led to an increase in benefits.  The Napa Valley Farmworker Foundation pays for education and professional development programs ranging from English training to safety in the vineyard programs.  As part of the program, Napa growers contribute to fund better housing for farmworkers that include meals, lodging, recreational opportunities, & a laundry.  The starting pay for a Napa vineyard worker is around $12 per hour and experienced Napa Valley farmworkers and those with certificates and additional training can be paid as much as $40 per hour.  More workers are becoming fulltime employees due to the need for year-round vineyard management. The 2011 Napa Valley Wages & Benefits Survey shows that 91% of supervisors and 69% of vineyard workers are offered medical insurance plans (compared to 52% nationwide in the private sector) and 55% are offered 401k plans in Napa.

Fair Trade programs in many countries have helped ensure better treatment of workers.  In Argentina Fair Trade certification for wineries like Chakana ensures that no child labor is used.  There is a program called Education Harvest in Argentina that gives children of harvest workers safe temporary housing during harvest.  In the past, workers had brought their children into the fields with them during harvest.  In February, the kids are out of school.  With this program about 100 children stay at the nursery garden & sports center in Tupungato.  The receive breakfast, lunch, & medical care.  Major producers like Bodega Cantena Zapata, Domaine Chandon, & Don Antonio Vineyards participate in the program.

Wine production


Water use can be very high in wineries. This is harmful for the same reasons above.

Electricity use is very high at most wineries, particularly during harvest.

CO2 is a natural byproduct of grape fermentation.


Many wineries are adopting solar power.  Lange Twins in Lodi is a net supplier to the grid & only has to pull from the grid during harvest.  Sustainable wineries can capture water used in production, filter it, & then use it for irrigation. Nuevo Mundo in Chile is the 1st certified carbon neutral winery in South America.  They practice water efficiency management in the vineyard and treat all the water used in the production process, which then goes back to the grid. It is also possible to capture CO2 in the winery to reuse for blanketing grapes.  The E-CO2 project promoted by the Consorzio Tutela Soave and carried out by research facilities and companies in the winemaking industry found new process to clean & capture CO2 at a food grade level.  The CO2 is then sold off for other uses.  The new Jess S. Jackson Sustainable Winery Building at the University of California, Davis is demonstrating a system for sequestering carbon dioxide from fermentation that will convert carbon dioxide into calcium carbonate (chalk).

Wineries can even be certified as carbon neutral if they reduce and offset residual emissions so the net calculated carbon emissions equal zero.  Grove Mill in Marlborough New Zealand was the first winery certified carbon neutral.  The use lighter weight bottles & sponsor forest regeneration in the Marlborough Sounds.  They also have a program to protect the rare Southern Bell frog in the nearby wetlands.  Backsberg Estate in South Africa plants trees & uses biofuels to offset excess carbon.  The have a wine called “Tread Lightly” that uses PET packaging to reduce shipping weight & fuel costs.  They were the first carbon neutral certified winery in South Africa, which is an area that is currently under severe drought that may have been worsened by global warming.  The first U.S. winery to go carbon neutral was Parducci in Mendocino.  They turned to solar and wind power and installed an “anaerobic digestor” to get rid of the methane released from livestock manure on the family farm.

“Global warming is the most serious issue on the planet,” said Paul Dolan, co-owner of the Parducci Family Farmed winery in Mendocino County. “I don’t want to see every winery in the United States go carbon neutral, I want every single person in the world going carbon neutral.”

Wine shipping (import/export, distribution, trucking)   


Wine shipping has a huge carbon footprint.  Glass may be shipped from China or Mexico.  The typical case of wine in a cardboard box weighs about 35 pounds & wooden boxes weigh even more.  Wine may be shipped from Europe to New Jersey, then trucked to a warehouse in California, then trucked to a distributor’s warehouse elsewhere, then trucked to the restaurant or retail store.  That accounts for a lot of fossil fuels and CO2 emission.

Some of this is due to a consumer belief that quality wine was made & bottled at the winery.  The big shift towards bottling at the winery started when Baron Philippe Rothschild had the 1924 vintage of Mouton-Rothschild bottled en châteaux. He successfully encouraged other Bordeaux Growths to do the same to ensure the provenance and quality of the wine, although Margaux didn’t switch to estate bottling until the 1948 vintage.  Many wine regions require the wine to be bottled in the area of production if they want to use the regional name on the wine.


Much of the world’s wine is once again shipped in bulk and bottled near the point of sale.  Australia has increased its bulk exports to the UK from around 30% in 2008 to 80%. South Africa ships 65% of their wine in bulk.  In the EU, “approximately 64 percent of imports were comprised of bulk wine.”   Bulk wine accounts for 43% of all exported wine.

Environmental concerns were the impetus for the bulk boom in England. In 2005, thirteen UK Supermarkets representing 92% of the market signed the Courtauld Commitment, designed by government supported non-profit organization WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) (IGD).  This was an agreement between WRAP and the grocers to work together to reduce their carbon footprint by acting on opportunities to reduce waste. They believe during the first 4 years of the program; 1.2 million tons of food and packaging waste was prevented and 3.3 million tons of carbon emissions were avoided.  They calculate that “in comparison to road freighting, transporting bottled wine by rail from France can reduce transport emissions by almost 30%, whereas transporting by sea can save about 20%.”  There have been continuations of the agreement and more retailers have joined.

Shipping in bulk and bottling closer to the consumer reduces environmental costs.  The GlassRite study on bulk shipping concludes, “By more than doubling the amount of product that can be shipped in a standard container and by avoiding the transport of bottles, bulk importing greatly reduces environmental emissions associated with transport.” The writers at the thirtyfifty website, (Wine Educator of the Year 2015), point out CO2 savings aren’t the only environmental benefit, “In the UK where we have natural use for green glass, importing by bulk reduces the amount of waste glass imported into the country … Reducing waste and improving the recyclability of green glass in the UK.”

As mentioned earlier, some wineries are using lighter weight glass bottles and some are using lighter alternative packaging in their efforts to be carbon neutral.  Gallo has created their own carbon neutral plant to produce glass rather than importing it.

Transportation will always be a negative part of the overall winery puzzle, but it is an area where progress can be made.

Wine retail or restaurants


There aren’t many social responsibility challenges to wine retailers that don’t face other businesses.  There are employment issues and energy use issues.

The main difference is that the sale of alcohol can be perceived as a social ill.  If stores cater to or encourage alcoholics, that isn’t socially responsible.  The Center for Disease Control (CDC) says that alcoholism kills 88,000 people per year in the United States.  That isn’t primarily caused by wine of course, but they don’t break it out between wine, spirits, & beer.


The wine industry has moved away from the high alcohol, cheaply fortified wines that contributed to the wino stereotype.  Regulations require industry campaigns to combat alcoholism & drunk driving.  As the wine industry has moved toward premiumization, wine has become less of the choice for alcoholics looking for the most buzz at the cheapest price.  While more can be done, wine has differentiated itself somewhat from the spirit or beer industry.

The wine industry is regulated in a way that prevents it from properly telling the story of the health benefits of wine.  When looking at social responsibility, it is fair to look at the positive benefits of moderate wine consumption.

  • Wine drinkers have a 34 percent lower mortality rate than beer or spirits drinkers. This is according to a Finnish study over 29 years.
  • Moderate drinkers suffering from high blood pressure are 30 percent less likely to have a heart attack than nondrinkers according to a 16-year study by the Harvard School of Public Health.
  • Moderate drinkers have 30 percent less risk than nondrinkers of developing type 2 diabetes. This was seen in a study following 369,862 individuals studied over an average of 12 years each, at Amsterdam’s VU University Medical Center.
  • The possibility of suffering a blood clot–related stroke drops by about 50 percent in people who consume moderate amounts of alcohol. This was seen in a Columbia University study of 3,176 individuals over an eight-year period.
  • According to an Icelandic study, moderate drinkers are 32 percent less likely to get cataracts than nondrinkers; those who consume wine are 43 percent less likely to develop cataracts than those drinking mainly beer.
  • Moderate consumption of wine cuts the risk of colon cancer by 45 percent according to a Stony Brook University study of 2,291 individuals over a four-year period, published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, 2005.
  • Brain function declines at a markedly faster rate in nondrinkers than in moderate drinkers. This is according to a Columbia University study of 1,416 people, published in Neuroepidemiology, 2006.


Some wine retailers have gone carbon-neutral. JJ Buckley Fine Wines, a wine shop in Oakland, Calif., works with to offset all its emissions associated with shipping and receiving as well as employee commuting.

Two more issues

I also wanted to touch on two areas that don’t fit neatly into the supply chain approach.  The first is the final disposal of the wine bottles.  Luckily more companies are using recycled glass.  More communities are recycling.  Many wineries are using a portion of recycled paper, ink, & glass in their production.  In fact, Lodi Rules require it.

The second area is employee diversity.  While women have played a historic role in the history of wine from Eleanor of Aquitaine to the Widow Clicquot, to modern wine makers like Helen Turley, and influential critics like Jancis Robinson, women have been underrepresented in the wine industry.  This is changing & organizations like Women in Wine are leading the way.  A bigger diversity problem is a lack of African American representation.  At our recent MW Seminar week in San Francisco, there were people there from several continents with a diverse range of ethnic groups, and a strong female representation.  There were no people of African origin that I saw at the event.  According to the 2012 U.S. Census of Agriculture, only 1% of all farm operators are black.  While African Americans purchase 50% of all cognac sold in the United States, only about 25% of African Americans drink wine.  This is slowly changing.  There is a relatively new African American Vintners Association & more African Americans are joining or starting tasting groups.  This is still an area where as an industry, we can do better.


While it requires work to do so, there is nothing that prevents the wine industry from being socially responsible.  In addition to what we covered, there are many charity programs run by wineries.  Profits from the Monde Eau label from Badger Mountain go to help dig water wells in Africa.  Staglin Family Vineyards has the Salus label where profits go towards mental health services.  The Hospices de Beaune charity auction in Burgundy has been held annually since 1859.  There are hundreds of other examples. There are many socially responsible companies in the wine industry, just like in any other industry.  For the industry as a whole to reach that point only requires enough additional companies to join them to reach a tipping point.




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