John Szabo gets technical with Ann Thrupp from Fetzer and Bonterra Vineyards

An interview with Ann Thrupp, Ph.D., manager of Sustainability and Organic Development at Fetzer and Bonterra Vineyards since 2003.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

In mid-April I sat down with Ann Thrupp during her visit to Toronto to chat about sustainability and some of Fetzer’s recent innovations in the field. Fetzer is recognized as an industry-leading company in the realm of sustainable winegrowing, and has been for well over two decades. Thrupp provides technical assistance and information, and organizes educational events about organic and sustainable practices for growers, wineries, government agencies, the food/beverage industry, and the public on behalf of Fetzer/Bonterra, so she was the ideal candidate to give some relevant background and share the latest developments in sustainability.

Following is my very loose transcription of parts of our conversation, edited for clarity and brevity [these are not Thrupp’s exact words], but enough to give a flavour of the discussion. And see below for links to my reviews of recent Fetzer wine releases.

How do you/does Fetzer define sustainability?

Ann Thrupp, Fetzer

Ann Thrupp, Fetzer

We use the definition that’s broadly accepted in the industry: it’s the intersection of practices that are environmentally responsible, socially responsible, and economically feasible. It’s a holistic approach. It’s a concept that also means continuing improvement over time to ensure long-term viability. At Fetzer we use the term “e3”, which stands for: environment, equity and economics. It’s a term we came up with long before sustainability became popular; we’ve been doing it for a long time. We find it’s easier to talk about “e tres” with our many Spanish-speaking employees than “sostenebilidad”. It has become our motto.

Is there a governing body that certifies and monitors sustainability?

There are three bodies in California that have sustainability programs. We’re part of Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing (CCSW), which is third-party monitored. It’s not overseen by government, however. Other countries, like Australia, Chile, South Africa and New Zealand have their own programs with specific requirements. We look at it as healthy competition, because we’re all working to make a difference. But the challenge is that there are multiple certifications and multiple interpretations.

Nevertheless, a similar definition of sustainability is now used internationally. It’s a nice thing that there’s been alignment on what the term means. There are certification programs that define what steps need to be taken for particular regions, but there isn’t a worldwide regulatory body. And people do use the term in different ways, sometimes without the level of comprehensiveness that we apply.

What’s the difference between sustainable and organic farming?

Organic farming is like a subset of sustainable farming. Organic requirements are defined by law, and are much more strictly defined. And there are regulatory bodies involved. There is alignment, for example between Canada and the United States in recognizing the same organic standards, and it’s the same in the EU. Internationally there’s much more cohesion around organics than around sustainability.

But the difference between the environmental part of sustainability and organic certification is that the definition of organics doesn’t take into account things like water, energy and soil conservation for example. Organic farmers don’t have to account for carbon emissions; most organic farmers are certainly conscious of these sorts of things, but they aren’t defined by law. Sustainability tries to take all of these things into account, even if there isn’t a strict definition, on, say, how much carbon you can emit. But at least it’s trying to encompass climate, water, energy usage and other issues as part of the definition, not to mention the social and economic dimensions.

The CCSW, for example, also considers aspects like, waste management, recycling, air quality. It’s a broader concept than organics. That doesn’t mean that organics is somehow lesser, but the emphasis is strictly on the environmental dimension, mostly having to do with farming inputs.

What percentage of California’s grapes is grown sustainably?

I don’t have the figure off the top of my head, but it’s a very high percentage statewide in California, and it has increased a lot recently. I believe about 60% of the acreage is farmed by growers who are enrolled in one of the sustainability programs. It doesn’t mean that they’re all certified, but it means that they’re active participants in the program and they’re getting education and doing self-evaluations. At least they’re on the path to increasing sustainability. [12.3% of the 535,000 total acres in California are Certified California Sustainable, according to the CCSW website – JS]

Bonterra Vineyards

Bonterra Vineyards

Pioneers like Fetzer have been open to sharing information. We’ve been involved since the very beginning, and been involved in delivering and sharing educational programs. It’s caught on that doing good business is about being sustainable.

There is certainly a risk that some will jump on the bandwagon, and not all may be aiming for the same authentic sustainability as others, so I think it’s really important for both the media and consumers to look closely at what a company means when they say they are sustainable, since there’s a very general definition.

Do you think it would be impractical to have one standard definition of sustainability worldwide?

That’s one of the challenges. For example, there are different water and energy issues in different parts of the world. So it makes it very hard to establish categorically what is sustainable across the world. A perfect example is water. In California, there are very strict regulations on the amount of water you use, given the resource scarcity. It’s essential. But on the east coast, they have too much water for growing grapes in most cases. So there wouldn’t be the same need to restrict water usage there as severely in order to be sustainable. By its very nature, sustainability means adaptability, over time, and over different regions. What’s sustainable here may not be sustainable there, and what’s sustainable today may not be sustainable tomorrow.

How can a consumer distinguish sustainably produced wines?

That’s a really good question. It’s hard for a consumer to know. Having the certification programs help, but putting the CCSW logo on the bottle is not yet allowed. It’s a complex issue. I think if you’re interested in that aspect of a wine, you have to dig deeper. You can go to the producer’s website, do some research and find out. You can also go to California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance where there’s a list of CCSW certified wineries and a description of all of our practices. It shows that we’re authentic.

What are the most challenging aspects of implementing a sustainability program?

It’s an effort that requires collaboration between many departments within a winery, but I have to say that I don’t really see any major challenges. That’s why more and more are catching on. Once people realize what sustainability means, they see that there are so many advantages, including wine quality. It’s not something that people tend to resist. It makes sense for so many reasons. Ten years ago, you saw far more widespread use of herbicides and pesticides. Now, people have changed that approach. And they’ve also realized that it makes for better wine.

Is it more expensive to farm sustainability?

There can be some up front capital costs for innovative tools, like solar panels, but these gives long-term financial savings, and they also give future stability, not to mention reducing reliance on fossil fuels. Sustainability is about seeking win-win situations. Some of the workers’ social benefits can also cost more money off the top, but it’s returned with things like increased productivity and employee loyalty, and less liability. Sustainable practices can also reduce costs. An obvious example is the reduced use of inputs like sprays in the vineyard, if the minimum, sustainable amounts are used rather than spraying to a calendar cycle. There are now efforts to more fully document the cost and risk reductions of sustainability.

 Fetzer/Bonterra Chickens and weed control

Chickens and weed control

A nice example of the win-win-win scenario is the lighter weight bottles that Fetzer introduced in 2008. There are obviously huge environmental advantages of moving to lighter weight bottles throughout the entire supply chain (less energy to produce, less materials used, lower carbon emissions to transport, less energy to recycle), as well as an economic advantage to the company in lower cost. And we didn’t even consider the social benefits: people don’t have to carry around heavy cases of wine.

What advice would you give to a winery or a wine region looking to become sustainable?

Start with an education program, not with obligations. It’s important for people in the industry to first learn and to evaluate their own practices before introducing a strict code to follow. Forcing people to become sustainable can lead to cutting corners. Many are likely already practicing sustainable standards without necessarily being conscious of it – it makes business sense. It’s a question of giving people the knowledge to improve on what they’re already doing, and to continually seek to improve.

It’s not often brought up, but to achieve real sustainability, you also have to be growing the right grapes in the right place! Varieties that are particularly susceptible to diseases shouldn’t be planted in high disease pressure areas. That’s just logical.

What do you foresee to be the greatest future challenges in maintaining or improving your sustainability code?

Water is a big issue, especially in California. At Fetzer, when we’re replanting, we’re looking at more drought resistant varieties, or using more drought resistant rootstocks. It’s caused us to be more proactive.

Cover crops

Cover crops

We’ve also just introduced a new cleaning protocol using paracetic acid that has allowed us to reduce our water usage in the winery – mainly from washing out tanks – by 140,000 gallons per year – that’s significant. We also recycle waste-water  wine lees are sent out to be recycled into vinegar, or turned into distilled spirits; diatomaceous earth goes into composting. There are all sorts of innovations that have allowed us to reduce waste, and we’re continually evaluating new opportunities.

Moving to sell wine in kegs, for example, to be served on tap in restaurants can also reduce packaging.  We’re always exploring new ways to conserve energy, too. One small thing is that we’re rolling out bicycles to be used to get around at Fetzer, reducing vehicles on site. There’s always a way to improve.

Sustainability Tips

Want to be more earth friendly? Here are few of the many simple sustainability tips found on Fetzer’s website (source:

  • Make sure your home insulation is up to par.
  • Car pool with others to work or school.
  • Instead of driving your kids to school, have them ride the school bus.
  • Cancel delivery of unwanted newspapers and donate old magazines
    to waiting rooms.
  • Plant a tree.
  • Paper or plastic? Neither. Bring your own canvas bag to the grocery.
  • Take shorter showers. That can save 700 gallons of water a month.
  • Properly maintain your heating and cooling equipment, including regularly replacing filters.
  • Set your mower to keep grass longer, which crowds out weeds and helps the grass retain moisture.
  • Don’t throw away old batteries or electronics – recycle them.
  • Line-dry your laundry every now and then.
  • Organic/Biodynamic Wine TagStart a compost pile in your backyard for turning kitchen scraps and yard
    waste into enriched mulch for gardening.
  • Use the cold water cycle of your washing machine for all laundry.
  • Defrost your freezer. A freezer that is free of accumulated ice
    uses less energy.
  • Purchase bio-degradable dish and laundry soaps.
  • Turn off lights when not in use.
  • Unplug electronic devices with stand-by features.
  • Use your bicycle when traveling short distances.
  • Buy food that is locally produced.
  • Buy products which advertise green and recycled production. 

And how are the wines?

I have included a few links to some recently tasted Fetzer wines below. You can search all Fetzer and Bonterra wines on WineAlign the Google custom search tool, or jump to the Organic/Biodynamic Tag from our Home page for even more organic producers.

Fetzer Pinot Grigio 2011

Jekel Vineyards Gravelstone Chardonnay 2010

Sanctuary Usibelli Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2009

Sanctuary Mariah Vineyard Mendocino Ridge Zinfandel 2009

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, M.S.

Photo of Ann Thrupp by John Szabo, others as posted by Fetzer/Bonterra on California Sustainable Winegrowers Alliance