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Sustainability, From Sauvignon to Survival

There’s no question that wine is a luxury product. At the same time, it’s undeniable that the principles a wine company must embrace to make great-tasting wine now and forever are exactly the same as those to be learned and practiced by a farmer in Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone and countless other impoverished countries where malnutrition and hunger are rampant. The concept of sustainability is relatively simple: Don’t bite the hand that feeds you; treat the land properly, and you’ll be rewarded now and forever.

In practice, however, it’s quite difficult. That’s whether you’re a winery with shareholders or a bank to please or you’re growing maize in sub-Saharan Africa. For the former, it’s often cheaper to buy and apply to the vineyard an array of chemicals that might enhance the grape crop and profits now, but may harm the land at a distant, unforeseeable point in the future. For the latter, why think about the long-term productivity of the land? It’s about what you can get from it today, since there might not be a tomorrow.

Yet what with Lot18’s partnership this week with Concern Worldwide US (an organization committed to eliminating hunger with sustainable interventions in agriculture that teach small-scale farmers about improved methods to increase their crop yields year after year), it felt important to point out that, yes, the notion of sustainability as applied to the wine industry and to farming in the developing world is not only identical, it’s essential.

Concern constructs transitional hurricane-proof shelters in Haiti.

Take, for example, the descriptions below of a couple Concern programs in Africa:

In Liberia, sustainability means Farmer Field Schools, which train farmers in sustainable farming methods and the use of hardy seed varieties, empowering them to share their knowledge with their neighbors.  It also means Farmer Resource Centers, model farms which will serve as training centers to be overseen by ministry staff and extension workers as Concern staff phase out.

In Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia, it means conservation agriculture, which trains farmers to plant seeds with the minimum of soil disturbance by using simple tools. This has the added benefit of reducing the energy required to prepare a field. The second principle encourages farmers to keep the soil covered throughout the year. This is done by leaving crop residues on the field or by planting a green cover crop. This keeps the soil cool and moist and retains the soil’s optimum natural structure. The third principle, crop rotation, is the basis of good farming practice everywhere, but one which has often been neglected.

Now take a look at the overview of the sustainable program of New Zealand Winegrowers. In that modern, developed country, the pressures on the environment can be extreme considering how quickly the wine industry has grown.

In the early 1990s, wine industry leaders recognized that the natural resources of the country, and the industry, were of significant value and needed to be protected and where possible enhanced. The industry was undergoing rapid vineyard expansion and this growth was projected to continue for some time. Along with this expansion there was new pressure on land and water resources, accompanied with issues related to changing use of land. In many cases not only was the use of land for viticulture new, but the land managers were also new to the production of grapes and wine. It was felt that developing guidelines for sustainable viticulture would help establish and retain good practice, and would also provide a valuable education tool by which results from industry research could be transferred to producers.

New Zealand’s sustainability program has been so successful, that the entire industry will be operating under it by 2012. But they have do have an advantage over farmers in Africa – they had modern technology and innovation already employed. While a switch to sustainable practices might involve a learning curve now or a slightly smaller payment to the bank next year, the New Zealand wine industry as a whole understands that sustainability is much more than a word – it translates to long-term viability.

Concern’s job is much tougher. It involves taking people who have survived some of the most desperate conditions for decades or even centuries, and asking them to learn and embrace entirely new sets of concepts and practices. But the simple fact is that sustainability works as well for the New Zealand winery as it does for the farmer scraping by in a much more hostile climate and environment.

This is why we hope that if you have a choice of buying a product through Lot18 today versus next week, that you’ll click the order button now, when part of your purchase price goes toward supporting Concern Worldwide US. To learn more about the organization and its efforts, click here. Or go to Lot18.

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