For thousands of years, people have picked, squashed, juiced, and fermented grapes to make wine. These days, heading into the wine aisle at the supermarket turns up the same basic beverage but with many different flavors, colors and labels. As an environmentally conscious buyer, that bottle of booze could be labeled as organic, natural, or sustainable, but knowing what exactly those words mean for the planet can be tricky.
Studies show that consumers who care about the environment are willing to pay more for a bottle of wine marked as “sustainable.” A recent survey from the Wine Institute shows millennials and Gen Z consumers specifically are increasingly interested in sustainability. Still, all interested US wine consumers say they would spend up to $3 more for sustainably produced wine.
Allison Jordan, the executive director of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, says she thinks that sustainable wine won’t just be this season’s happy hour trend. “It’s definitely deeper in terms of people really caring about how food is grown and their products are made.”
What do all of these labels mean?
Some of the definitions you see on wine labels mean similar things and even overlap in some cases. In the US, certified organic wine is made from organically grown grapes and has no added sulfites. Some consumers say sulfites cause headaches, but health professionals say there is not much evidence for that. The culprit may be another ingredient in the wine (or maybe headaches are just from over-imbibing). Sulfites are naturally occurring, but some get added to prevent wine from spoiling and give it a longer shelf life. Wine can also come from organically grown grapes, but not converted to wine under organic standards–which means it can include sulfites and won’t carry the USDA organic logo.
Natural wine doesn’t have one specific definition. Generally, it is wine made from grapes that are grown without pesticides, hand-picked, and then fermented with wild yeast that is naturally present in the environment. There is no specific certification for natural wine in the US, but France has recently decided on an official definition and rules for what can be called natural wine.
There is no one definition of sustainable wine, either, but it encompasses many categories of agriculture and winemaking. Different groups certify sustainable wine, such as the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing, and others worldwide. In California, Jordan says there is a list of sustainability practices vineyards or wineries must do to obtain the certification fall into numerous categories, including water and energy efficiency and soil health.
Sustainability means a lot more than just the environment that a grape is grown in. How a winery or vineyard functions for employees and the community is also important for the larger picture of sustainability, which encompasses employee safety and accountability to customers and surrounding farms and neighborhoods, Jordan says. “It can be as simple as letting neighbors know how to contact the owner or winery if they have questions or concerns,” she says, or offering extensive daycare facilities to employees who work during the harvests.
How are wineries and vineyards certified sustainable?
Dozens of sustainable practices can happen throughout the stages of the winemaking process. “There’s your practices of growing grapes, there’s your practices when making wine, and then there’s the whole hospitality aspect,” says Chris Gerling, a senior extension associate at Cornell University’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station
A vineyard can work on its sustainability via agricultural practices. In California, some examples of vineyard requirements include limited application of nitrogen fertilizers, water conservation practices, and the use of lower-risk pesticides.
In New York, Cornell helped develop a program called VineBalance: a guide to sustainable growing practices in the state. While not a certification program, it provides a self-assessment workbook to growers. The score sheet includes considerations on soil nutrients, fertilizers, herbicide and pesticide application, and more.
Water use is a major factor in wine production like many forms of agriculture. In California, it can take over 300 gallons of water to produce one gallon of wine. Some vineyards have committed to a type of farming called dry farming, which tries to conserve soil moisture by producing crops during the dry season. This method of farming has existed in the Mediterranean region for thousands of years.
Turning those grapes into wine can use a large amount of water as well, says Gerling. “You want to keep everything really clean to avoid spoilage … so you can easily use lots and lots of water,” he says. Depending on the winery’s size, anywhere between three and 20 gallons of water might be used to produce one gallon of wine.
For the California certification, Jordan says vineyards and wineries must account for their water use, and an auditor verifies this information. Other sustainability certifying groups work similarly, such as LIVE certification in the Pacific Northwest. These third-party auditors check up on wineries and vineyards at regular intervals to ensure compliance with not just water use guidelines, but dozens of other environmental and community practices.
What should you do if you want to find a sustainable wine?
Gerling says that with increased demand for sustainable and environmentally friendly products, big grocery store chains are becoming more interested in wines with certifications to make purchasing a bottle of legitimately sustainable vino as simple and easy as possible. Certifications, he says, “are still the best signals that we have on an industry-wide basis to show that somebody is committed to this.”
Numerous groups around the world have searchable databases of wineries, vineyards, and specific wines they have certified by their standards, including California Sustainable Wine, LIVE certified, and Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing. And in many cases, your bottle of wine’s label will feature the group’s logo, so you know that you’re diving into a sustainable sipping experience.
Some vineyards and wineries may engage in sustainable practices but do not try to get certification because third-party auditing can be an added cost. But a key thing to look for is transparent information on their practices. No mention of environmental practices on a winery’s website might signal alarms, but when a winemaker shows they care about water, energy, and the community, those are solid signs that your wine is as good for the planet as it tastes.