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Climate Change

HomeClimate Change


Carbon Neutral Wines - Really? Really!

Outside the lab, 100% accurate carbon accounting is simply impossible, but that should not deter us from pushing each element of our wine’s life cycle toward carbon neutrality or even better toward being carbon negative (i.e. net carbon removing). Since 2010, we’ve been intensely researching and implementing all of the practices that contribute to a finished wine’s carbon footprint: (A) establishing the vineyards, (B) growing and harvesting the wine grapes, (C) making the wine, (D) bottling and packaging the wine and (E) delivering the final product to the consumer. Each individual practice can be a focus and each practice can be improved. In assessing the impact of our actions on climate change, two key points are often overlooked: (1) the difference between embodied carbon and expended carbon and (2) the impact of the time and duration of the carbon released. While we believe that we produce a truly great wine that will be climate adaptation certified, we can’t stop there. We still buy carbon offsets to extend our carbon reduction activities. We volunteer to help other wineries and vineyards move in the same direction and we contribute to the organizations that are leading the efforts to get more wine producers to pursue carbon neutral products. A glass of great wine can bring together the earth, the farm, engaging flavors and all of us in our enjoyment and support of this planet.

What we do to lower our carbon footprint

The pie chart below shows a calculated industry average for the components of the carbon footprint of a bottle of wine. The bullets under each component are some of the steps we take to lower the carbon footprint of Sei Querce wines.

Transportation – 15%

Full case shipping preference

Electric & hybrid vehicles

Bikes in vineyard (when possible)

Bikes to winemaking (when possible)

Bottling & Packaging – 34%

Bottles from local manufacturer

Shift to light weight bottles, 40% recycled glass

Label – 30% post consumer waste

Diam Origine Corks to prevent TCA waste (2-7%)

Eliminate capsule

No synthetic packing materials

Charts loaded here

Wine Making – 15%

Geothermal clean power

Passive heating and cooling fermentation

Buy carbon credit offsets

Lease local facility (don’t build)

Vineyard Planting – 7%

Conserve the creeks and land

Limit tree removal

Solar row orientation

Reuse posts and trellises

Plant insectary hedge rows

Vineyard Operations – 29%

Zero weed flaming

Permanent cover crops

Zero or limited tillage

Organic – no synthetic fertilizers

23 kW solar installed (8)

Strict no-idling policy

Springs and hillside well

No burn vineyard piles

Sources: PEI (2014) and Oregon DEQ (2017) as boundary industry adjusted averages back confirmed to Rugani (2013) and Vazuez-Rowe (2013)

Keep the Creeks and Conserve the Land

We don’t always see the downstream effects of our upstream use and abuse of creeks and natural drainages. To improve the health of our waterways, we completed a voluntary restoration of Fay Creek which included the relocation of a main farm road away from the creek banks followed by the planting of a 1500’+ riparian corridor to limit further erosion and to attract local fauna. The road relocation reduced our plantable acreage by over an acre. We also removed and scrapped many tons of abandoned metal objects and equipment from the creeks and main drainages on the property. We added no new roads on our 600 acres but we did repair them all using only road base that we quarried from our own property. And we removed dry crossings across creeks and installed two bridges and two land crossings to keep all traffic out of the creek channels and drainages. Our largest bridge (~90’ long) was constructed using two retired railroad flatbed cars.

Limit Tree Removal

It is standard practice to pull trees to make easily farmable maximum sized vineyard blocks. Here is the Ellis Oak : a 400+ year-old mammoth valley oak measuring nearly 7’ in circumference and a side to side reach of 126‘. Even though the tree is likely in its last 50+ years and even though it cost us 3 acres of plantable vineyards, it was here first and it’ll stay to its natural end. In fact, after the vineyard development was completed we had it registered as an Heritage Oak with Sonoma County. You can imagine the generations before now including the oak in their daily lives, climbing on it, picnicking under it, taking shelter in a spring storm. Across our 60 acres of vineyards, we removed a total of only six trees (non-heritage quality), and spared countless others. Conventional high return viticulture would have taken out many more. We even inventoried over 100 trees around our creeks and vineyards to monitor their health.

Covet the Cover Crops

Cover crops cover the ground under and between vine rows. They are expensive to establish and maintain compared to a few tractor passes and an annual application of glyphosate (Round-Up). But permanent cover crops also build up the organic content of the soil and can help with moisture retention, microbial soil populations and beneficial insects. Finding the right cover crop for each block requires art, science and patience. The reward is permanent, as the soils regenerate. We still have to mow and spade, but once the permanent cover crop is established we almost never disk. Despite the beautifully consistent furrows that disking produces, it can destroy soil structure in the critical top 10” and releases carbon. If the cover crop cultivation works, the amount of required fertilization (even organic) can be reduced. Well established permanent cover crops, especially when organic, may help reduce the soil emission of nitrous oxide, which is a green house gas that is about 300x more potent than CO2.

Reuse the Rust (infrastructure)

To lower embodied carbon we have to reduce the demand for new products and materials. Steel and concrete production, together, contributes over 10% of global carbon emissions. Our vineyard developments were carefully planned: Viticulturally, we did the obvious matching of rootstock to soil type, then variety to rootstock, and finally trellising to variety and solar aspect. But when building the vine infrastructure, everywhere we could we lowered our embodied carbon by reusing stakes, crossbars and end posts. When buying our farming equipment, we also pursued and bought used equipment whenever we could. Tragically the embodied energy is seldom factored in our purchase decisions.

Plant Insectary Hedge Rows

One of the most expensive parts of certified organic viticulture is establishing permanent “hedge” rows in those places where your block borders the non-organic blocks of a neighbor, or wherever your block borders your neighbor’s non-organic blocks. This is done to avoid accidental over spray from nearby conventional blocks. Properly selected hedge row plantings can be dry farmed and serve as host habitats for beneficial insects that themselves serve as natural pesticides (as the hosted good bugs eat [usually the eggs] of the bad bugs). Hedge rows are expensive not just to establish but because they permanently reduce the commercially plantable area. In our case, the inclusion of hedge rows cost us about 10% of our conventional farming area, and neighbors objected to our hedge rows because they thought the plants would harbor horrible pests that would infect their vineyards…aux contraire, mon ami. When taken together, our land offsets for the hedge rows, the creek setbacks, and the solar row orientation, meant that we gave up commercial production on over 20% of our possible plantings. This is a very expensive investment when you consider the high cost of Napa/Sonoma premium vineyard land. But still, it was the right thing to do.

Forget the Flame

For many reasons, organic vineyard farming is expensive compared to high-yielding conventional farming. Without the benefit of potent very effective but unfriendly chemicals, organic practices require more equipment passes, more hand work and flaming! Yes, flaming. The most expensive part of weed control (floor management) is under the vines themselves, and burning the weeds is one of the cheapest organic solutions. We did this in our first year, until we calculated the CO2 emitted per acre from the flaming…Oh my, never again!

From the beginning we knew we were going to be organic, but we did not know that there was a range of practices permitted under the organic certification; we distinguish between hard organic and soft organic actions. Soft is more expensive, more aligned to fight climate change and more frequently practiced by smaller organic producers than large ones. We are pursuing soft organic viticultural practices.

Follow the Sun

The highest returns for farmers come from planting the farming rows parallel to the longest block boundary, which usually follows the property boundary, and are almost always N to S or E to W in orientation. This planting practice reduces the amount of land required for tractor turn-arounds at the end of each row. However, in viticulture, this can also impede symmetrical exposure of the fruit to naturally dappled sunlight, thus lowering natural anthocyanins. Typically this high value planting then requires asymmetric canopy management, where the sun exposed canopy side is left to hang low (to protect the fruit from too much sun) while the shaded side is scalped (to try to gather more sun for the shaded fruit). But fruit grows on both sides of the vine and uniform ripeness requires uniform canopy covers producing uniform light and heat, plus it reduces tractor passes. For our entire first growing season, we studied the solar and heat peaks of each day and then oriented the vine rows to a average of solar and thermal noon, which is about 2:30 p.m. This resulted in tractor turn-arounds on all (four) sides of our blocks, reducing plantable acreage significantly. But the result is more uniformly ripe fruit and less drastic canopy management.

Power with Solar

Electricity used in the overall wine making process (growing, winemaking, bottling, admin…) is estimated to be about 13% of wine’s total carbon footprint. The two main consumption points are irrigation pumping and winery operations. Even though we decided to avoid the embodied energy of building our own boutique winery building and instead lease excess capacity at another local winery, still we installed an 27kW photovoltaic array on our main barn. Our system provides all the power for two homes, vineyard operations, and charging two electric vehicles, plus it generates enough extra power to cover all of our prospective irrigation and winemaking activities and then some.

Strict Anti-Idling Practice

We’ve long fought the mindless practice of letting cars and trucks idle, for any reason. In daily farming it’s a habit that is hard to break. But our crews now get the point and will cast a smile back when we give them the sign to cut their idling engine with a simple flip of our wrist. We can only hope our teams take the practice back into their daily lives. If, in a week, you idle a car 30 minutes (which is not hard to do) you will have emitted as much CO2 to the atmosphere as the average footprint of a bottle of wine. Over the course of a year that would be 50 bottles of wine worth of CO2 emissions. It’s the small practices that accumulate. Idling larger and less efficient farming equipment adds 3-5x more CO2 per minute idling. When Hal still lived in New York City, he lobbied and sponsored expansion of anti-idling laws.

Start at the Top and “It’s All Down Hill”

Our properties start at the banks of the Russian River (~200’ elevation) and rise to Lone Pine Ridge in the Mayacamas (~1300’ elevation). Many decades before us the prior owners plumbed in a single hillside spring and piped the water down to the valley floor for potable water at the ranch house. We found three additional hillside springs and plumbed them into the first spring giving us year round potable drinking water and a free topping-off for our irrigation needs. When establishing our three hillside vineyard blocks, the abundance of the springs suggested we try a hillside irrigation well. Today, we have an irrigation well at ~850’ that allows us to irrigate the hillside blocks without pumping up from the valley floor. Unfortunately, the 2017 fires burned infrastructure supporting the springs, fortunately they burned around the well and tanks without serious damage.

Climate Change Ain’t Pretty -- Neither is Fighting It

We’ve become accustomed to vineyards and wineries that look like fine gardens and manicured parks. The only way to achieve these man-made tableaus is to put significant energy (and carbon) into distancing ourselves from the natural (low energy/low carbon) world. With global warming, we’re learning to live with a little more nature and a little more mess. One common practice in vineyards is to annually create burn piles that accumulate vines pulled for replanting, fallen tree debris, etc. In our first few years, we got our burn permits, started the piles with gasoline and then tended them like a campfire on steroids, supported by our tractors and water trucks as they burned down. Now we gather our piles, put them in a safe place and let nature take back the carbon at her more patient pace.

Going Beyond What We Can Do

From our 10 years of researching and pursuing climate change mitigation for wine, we do not believe it is yet possible to produce a wine with a documentable zero carbon footprint, though we won’t stop trying. But since that is our objective, we estimate our own shortfall per bottle, and the carbon expense for final shipping and then fund carbon offset projects through Cool Effects, which invests in carbon sequestering or reducing projects like peat swamp conservation, tree planting, fighting rain forest deforestation, clean cook stoves in the developing world and more.

Bottles Break the Footprint

The biggest single driver of the carbon footprint of wine (or beer, but not liquor) is the glass bottle that delivers the product. This is due to (a) the thermal energy (~2700o F) needed to form the glass and (b) the transportation impact of shipping the heavy glass container (both to the bottling location and ultimately to the place of consumption). Using high recycled content barely reduces the carbon footprint of the bottle, because the same high thermal energy is needed to melt the recycled glass. Shifting to a lighter bottle can lower the footprint but only ~10%. Overall the bottle alone contributes between 25 and 50% of wines’ total carbon footprint. Over our few vintages we have shifted to use the lightest bottle that is available from a local manufacturer. Even though it is lighter, inexplicably it is not cheaper. Soon enough the big players in the wine industry will have to face a decision between shifting to soft packed wines or engage in recycling wine bottles for re-use. Research suggests that reuse could reduce the bottle’s carbon footprint by as much as 96%. The main challenge has been the proliferation of over 500 bottle shapes that get used around the world and (somewhat like wineglass shapes) have come to symbolize wines from a specific region.

Our Quiet Wheels: Hybrids, EVs and Bikes

In our very first months of ownership we went in search of an electric tractor. After months of searching we only found one eccentric inventor/tinkerer who had one home-made electric tractor, and that wasn’t even operational! Heart-breaking. Even electric pick-up trucks are not on the market yet. So we have not been able to integrate electric vehicles into the main winemaking activities. But still, non-product transportation (i.e. staff travel) can total between 2 and 5% of a wine’s carbon footprint. So, meanwhile, we’ve been happily driving Priuses since 2003 and were delighted to start driving the all electric Chevy Bolt in 2018. But our favorite wheels on the ranch (the valley floor part, not the hillsides) is our fleet of ranch cruisers. These are working bikes and so come fitted with racks and baskets.