When Jess Baum joined Fetzer Vineyards in August 2020 as the company’s new director of regenerative development and sustainability, she knew she was joining an effort to fight climate change. The company, which owns the Fetzer and Bonterra brands as well as others in California, Chile and Argentina, had long been a champion of sustainable and organic viticulture, with a raft of certifications to show for it.
She was barely settled in before devastating wildfires swept through Northern California’s drought-parched wine country, scorching wide swaths of upper Napa Valley and reaching into Mendocino County, where Fetzer and Bonterra are based. Long-term goals of saving the planet by 2030 or 2050, landmarks bandied about in the discourse of international climate change diplomacy, no longer seemed realistic. Earth was hurting now.
“October 2020 was the defining moment when things shifted for us,” Baum told me. “Our employees were being evacuated from their homes, our vineyards threatened, just as the pandemic was redefining the possible. Science fiction was becoming science fact.”
The company declared a “climate emergency” and set urgent short-term goals. Last November, it announced that Bonterra, which produced 500,000 cases of wine (the equivalent of 6 million bottles) in 2021, had become the first nationally distributed wine brand to achieve Climate Neutral certification. Climate Neutral, a third-party organization, has three requirements: conducting and publishing a thorough — “from ground to glass” — evaluation of the brand’s carbon footprint, purchasing offsets of its current carbon emissions and reducing future ones. The Fetzer brand also added the certification last year.
Bonterra’s is one of the more comprehensive carbon footprint analyses I’ve seen of a major wine brand, all disclosed publicly on its website. The first conclusion I derive from the data: Wine is not killing the planet. According to Bonterra, a bottle of their rosé accounts for 3.4 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions. That’s more than an apple (0.9 pounds) but much less than an Apple — well, okay, an average smartphone — at 131 pounds.
Of course, everything we do has an impact, and we can all work to reduce it. Bonterra’s data echo conclusions from other studies: The biggest factor in wine’s carbon footprint is the manufacturing and shipping of bottles. In 2020, 37.2 percent of Bonterra’s emissions derived from packaging and materials, and an additional 25 percent came from shipping. Wine production accounted for 16.5 percent, and farming for 16 percent. Employee commuting and travel took 5 percent.
Bonterra has been a champion of organic viticulture since its founding in 1987, “long before organic was cool,” as Baum says. Its current marketing campaign is “beyond clean,” a side-eye at the new trend of wines claiming to be free of all sorts of nasties but not really telling you what’s in their wines. And Bonterra has moved toward regenerative farming, which strives to capture carbon in the soil. Conventional farming, with herbicides and pesticides, would probably increase the carbon footprint of the wine, but I suspect not dramatically so. While we focus — rightfully — on farming practices as “eco-friendly,” we should look at packaging, too. Producing those bottles and shipping them to and fro accounted for more than 62 percent of the brand’s carbon footprint.
As part of its effort to reduce emissions, the company switched to lighter bottles. The industry average is about 575 grams. Bonterra’s average bottle weight in 2020 was 475 grams, and it lowered that to 427.4 grams for 2021. Multiply that 50-gram reduction by millions of bottles and you have a significant reduction.
Bonterra’s conservation efforts include composting vineyard waste and maintaining a worm farm to process winery water so it can be reused. And the company works with its suppliers — grapes, bottles, boxes, labels — to make improvements through the entire lifecycle of the wine. To achieve climate neutral status, Bonterra purchased offsets by investing in reforestation projects around the world to account for 110 percent of its emissions. Baum said the offsets are “a voluntary carbon tax,” and Bonterra will continue to reduce emissions (and the need for offsets) to achieve its goal of becoming “climate positive” by 2030.
By putting all this on the label and the company website, Bonterra is making “a paradigm shift in the way we think about sustainability. Instead of the company being in the center of the story, you put the consumer as the hero,” Baum says. Transparency pulls the consumer into the campaign to fight climate change, she said.
“We are in the midst of a revolution, with consumers awakening to the reality of the climate crisis and recognizing that we need to shift the way we think about the world, business and the items we purchase,” Baum said. “We see that in millennials and Gen Z, with the importance of purpose in the way they live and where they choose to work.”
And wine is the ideal lens through which to view that revolution, especially as the wildfires of recent vintages dramatize the urgency of the climate crisis.
“Wine captures climate in a bottle,” Baum told me. “It’s a photograph of time and tells a story of time and place. We have a really scary story to tell right now that we couldn’t have dreamed of 20 years ago.”