Rebel with a Cause: How Fetzer Vineyards’ Regenerative Winemaking Creates Sustainable Value

Rebel with a Cause: How Fetzer Vineyards’ Regenerative Winemaking Creates Sustainable Value

This past year has been the hottest recorded on record.

As the earth’s average temperature continues a rising trend, the earth’s ecosystems and climate are changing before our eyes. According to reams of data from NOAA, NASA, industry-and-government sanctioned scientific studies, and independent peer-reviewed reports, the earth keeps breaking heat records.

These studies show that more and more climate-induced symptoms of change are converging and having immediate impact on businesses, consumers and citizens: severe weather anomalies, flooding, drought, wildfires, algae blooms, air pollution, and shifts in agriculture production. These indicators of climate change are becoming more swift and pervasive.

How the earth’s shifting climate conditions and weather patterns impact the long-term sustainability of humanity is not yet known. A foregone conclusion is that humanity will have to adapt to imminent changes in climate and the cascading impacts that will influence every facet of our economy and lifestyle. Where we live, how we work, and what we consume is being impacted by the earth’s climate at a more aggressive scale and accelerated pace.

In the short-term climate change is a relative nuisance impacting our relative comfortability and heating and cooling bill. However, for others, the impacts of climate change are much more substantial, displacing people from their homes – farmers from a paycheck – and children from access to clean potable water.

Climate change also directly affects other life-critical systems such as soils. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) more than half of the earth’s topsoil has been lost or severely degraded in the past 150 years alone. Soils are essential to the earth’s entire ecosystem. They provide nutrition, habitat, and temperature modification and serve as a medium for filtering and cleaning water.

The science of climate change is like our neurological mapping and understanding of the human brain, still relatively unchartered and undeveloped. What we need right now, at this pivotal point in time, is accountability and action.

In the wine industry, a sector that is highly susceptible to shifts in weather and climate, there are examples of action-oriented sustainability risk takers, global leaders who have elected to manage business risk by nurturing a restorative mindset and an integrated operating system for business sustainability. When it comes to sustainability, those that take action to create real change and value can help lead by example and inspire others to follow suit.

Josh Prigge and Holly Killion

Recently I caught up with Josh Prigge, Director of Regenerative Development, and Holly Killion, Director of Compliance – Environmental, Organic, State & TTB, for an inspiring conversation about how California’s Fetzer Vineyards has integrated solutions for sustainability.

Josh Prigge

In the creative and competitive world of winemaking, Fetzer Vineyards is a rebel with a cause. A pioneer in regenerative winemaking, Fetzer Vineyards has, for nearly half a century, strived to create sustainable business value by crafting quality products of distinct character, quality, and purpose. In understanding and respecting the synergistic relationships between land and people, Fetzer Vineyards has differentiated its brand and strengthened its business by continuously improving and optimizing its operations and products for social and environmental performance. Today, the company leverages its nearly five decades of sustainable entrepreneurship with a portfolio of wines that includes the labels Fetzer and Bonterra Organic Vineyards as well as Anthony’s Hill, Jekel, Sanctuary and 1000 Stories, which is a Bourbon barrel-aged Zinfandel from California.

Prigge and Killion shared with me the long and impressive history of sustainability excellence at Fetzer Vineyards.

Highlights include:

  • 100% of their Mendocino County, CA grapes are organically grown
  • >1,000 acres of their grapevines are certified as organic
  • >250 acres of their grapevines are certified as biodynamic
  • 100% of their electricity is derived from renewable energy sources (since 1999)
  • Nearly 100% of their waste is diverted (since 2014)
  • In 2015, Fetzer Vineyards became the largest winery in the world to receive B Corp certification, a voluntary commitment to transparently measure and report on the company’s integrated impacts across all stakeholders: workers, suppliers, community, and environment
  • In 2016 the company became CarbonNeutral® certified
  • Also in 2016, Fetzer Vineyards installed a groundbreaking BioFiltro BIDA® wastewater treatment system that uses billions of red worms and microbes to treat its greywater. Byproducts of the system are worm castings, which enhance the vineyards’ soils.

This latter accomplishment is a critical component of Fetzer Vineyards’ broader ambitious goal to be a Net Positive company by 2030.

Through its Net Positive by 2030 commitment, Fetzer Vineyards has set out to advance its energy, water, waste, supply chain, and emissions beyond zero targets – leading the company to become restorative to ecosystems and nature.

For example, the company has a plan to restore more water to groundwater aquifers than used for its operations. Fetzer Vineyards’ innovative BIDA® filtration system is expected to regenerate more than 17 million gallons of water, avoid use of more than 1 million kilowatt hours of electricity, and yield more than 750 cubic yards of soil-enriching worm castings, which will be used as fertilizer in their vineyards. This holistic, full-circle approach to business characterizes the Fetzer Vineyards culture: inventive and intelligent.

Most recently, the company announced a sustainable operations solution with APANA, Inc., a water technology, and services company, in an effort to integrate predictive data analytics into Fetzer Vineyards’ operations with the deployment of smart water meters. Together, the APANA, Inc. and Fetzer Vineyards teams are leveraging digital solutions like the Internet of Things (IoT) and big data analytics to proactively manage their water infrastructure toward attaining their 2030 net positive goals.

Fetzer Vineyards’ accomplishments in sustainability are many.

Killion pointed out, “It’s the company’s ability to integrate knowledge with innovative tools and approaches that keeps us agile, aware, and accountable.” Sustainable business is not something that is happenstance. Rather, the derivation of business value from sustainability occurs when an innovation culture is practiced as a business value and operational discipline.

Prigge stated, “When it comes to sustainability, Fetzer Vineyards has been a proactive company. Our tradition of winemaking has taught us that a great product is not only one that has the best ingredients – it’s one that is created in the most responsible way. We choose to take extra care of the earth because we know it provides the greatest value and experience for our customer and the long-term position of our company.”

 Like the wines it produces, Fetzer Vineyards is continuously perfecting the art-and-science of what it means to be a sustainable business. Prigge further noted that “sustainability has provided our company with a common language by which employees become more connected. With a shared sense of purpose, sustainability provides a framework and vision for Fetzer Vineyards, which stimulates employee engagement and reinforces a culture of change, innovation, and a concerted push to achieve the highest standards in social and environmental performance as a business.”

The true architecture of life is complex, yet the building blocks of human sustainment are relatively simple: food, shelter, water, happiness. Living within our means and leaving our earth better than we found it, those are the general “requirements” for the operating systems (government, business, economics, and civil society) that we have before us.

However, what we cannot yet fully comprehend is what happens when humanity interferes with and adjusts the architecture of living systems?

We are experiencing real-time impacts associated with excessive combustion of fossil fuels, the depletion of soils, and the contamination of water. Much of the impacts we see are “first order” impacts, the shorter-term, slap-in-the-face wake-up calls. What we do not yet know is how, for example, the interactive impacts of climate change may accelerate and amplify the alteration of living systems in ways that result in ecosystem collapse.

Humans are an integral part of the earth’s living system. For others, including business and political leaders, this means reflecting on our past and rethinking the ideologies that got us here in the first place.

By intelligently using earth’s natural processes, perfected over millions of years of evolution, we can protect and restore life-essential resources like water and soils, which are in a critical state of depletion. Fetzer Vineyards is one of many companies epitomizing an emerging “sustainability generation,” a group of companies that are bringing the best thinkers, data scientists, entrepreneurs, technologists, and change-makers together to proactively monitor the role and responsibility of a restorative and thriving ecosystem tied within earth’s broader and complex living architecture.

Garnering value from sustainable business practices is not dumb luck. Creating and capturing value from sustainable business occurs when the people (culture), policies (governance and values), practices (operations) and potential (strategy and innovation) of the business deliberately collide.

The work at Fetzer Vineyards illustrates that creating more value than is derived is possible. When we bring the will to succeed together with the right operating system (framework), we can proactively create restorative environmental feedback loops while creating tangible social, economic, and environmental value for businesses and communities.