The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Sustainability Series: Willamette Valley Vineyards

Sustainability Series: Willamette Valley Vineyards


October 24, 2010

The Oregon-based Willamette Valley Vineyards grows, by hand, high quality Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay grapes. Since their founding in 1983, they have served as stewards of the land – a key principle in their winemaking. We talked to Caitlyn Kari, Communications & Sustainability Manager for Willamette Valley Vineyards, about the importance of ensuring the healthy longevity of our vines and land.

How does your business define sustainability?

If the environment, people or other living things are harmed growing or making wine, it shouldn't be done. Only by naturally nurturing the soil, ecosystem and vines through stewardship do we sustain our environment and livelihood.

How are you incorporating sustainable practices into your business?

All of our vineyard properties have been certified sustainable through LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology) and SalmonSafe. In this sense “sustainable” means that we are not taking anything from the land that we are not replacing, and that we are not putting anything into the land that is damaging to living organisms. The combination of these two certifications results in “sustainable viticulture” – the implementation of practices that aim to eliminate reliance on synthetic chemicals and fertilizers with the goal of protecting the farmer, the environment and communities at large. Our winery and production facility are also certified through LIVE. By carefully following these practices, our vineyard and winery operations do not produce harmful externalities. Our Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir plantings have been certified as organic by Oregon TILTH, a program that certifies to USDA National Organic Program (NOP) standards.

Since our founding, we have offered 10 cents for each wine bottle returned to our tasting room, regardless of origin, and one dollar for returned shippers. We use recycled paper throughout the facility, recycled cardboard shippers, and we recycle all plastic, aluminum, paper and cardboard products. We also recently implemented biodegradable wine bags in our Tasting Room. In 2005, Founder Jim Bernau launched the employee biodiesel program; offering fifty gallons of biodiesel a month to each employee, at no cost, to help reduce their carbon footprint. Employees, delivery vehicles and tractors fill up onsite or at card-lock stations.

Launched by the Oregon Wine Board in late 2008, Oregon Certified Sustainable Wine (OCSW) is a seal that wine bottles can carry on their label to indicate to consumers that the product was produced sustainably. All the different certifications out there can be confusing, and so OCSW focuses on the shared principle of sustainable, organic and biodynamic certifications that producers act as responsible stewards of the land. When you buy an OCSW certified bottle of wine, you know that that wine was made using responsible agriculture practices, responsible winemaking practices, and that both of those processes were certified by an independent third party. Willamette Valley Vineyards was one of the first wineries to gain OCSW certification for our products in December 2008.

Willamette Valley Vineyards was the first winery in the world to use 100% natural cork in our wine bottles, certified by the Rainforest Alliance to Forest Stewardship Council standards. Cork is a natural, renewable, recyclable and biodegradable material that is obtained through an environmentally friendly harvesting process. Trees are not cut down to harvest cork, rather, the bark is stripped by hand every 9 to 12 years. Cork oak trees can live up to 300 years! The Mediterranean cork forests are second only to the Amazon Rainforest in their importance to the world’s biosphere. Opting for screw caps and plastic stoppers directly causes the loss of sustainable livelihoods as the cork forests are a vital source of income for thousands of families.

In late 2008, we launched a consumer recycling program, Cork ReHarvest. A cradle-to-cradle cork recycling program implemented with zero increase to our carbon footprint, corks collected will continue to be used in various industries as they are utilized to produce molded fiber wine shippers, cork flooring, and other sustainable products. In June of this year, Cork ReHarvest separated from us and became a stand-alone non-profit organization, which has allowed many other restaurants and wineries to participate in the program. We are very proud of the success of Cork ReHarvest and the work they are doing to educate consumers on the vital importance of the Mediterranean cork forests to our world’s biosphere. WVV continues to be a major sponsor of the program.

What are your short term and long term goals?

Our short term goals are simply incremental to our long term goal – to have as little impact as possible on the world around us. This means continually expanding the understanding and tracking of our current company footprint and making changes to reduce it. The greatest opportunities for change and reduction exist up and down the supply chain; sourcing sustainable materials and working with our distributors to ensure that our products are handled and transported in a responsible fashion.

How do retailers factor into your efforts?

Diners and shoppers are now paying attention to the behavior of producers and favor those who farm responsibly. We must work with our retailers and help them understand how integral sustainable practice is to our product, so that they feel compelled to pass along the message.

Why are sustainable business practices important to the food industry?

For the wine industry specifically, sustainable practice and greenhouse gas reduction is important because we farm a crop that has very specific climatic needs. At Willamette Valley Vineyards over half of our production is Pinot Noir. The Pinot Noir grape currently thrives in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, but has a climate change tolerance of only a couple degrees Fahrenheit. If the climate overall in our region warms at all, the viability of our crop comes under severe threat. That is why the Oregon wine industry has pioneered a collective effort to achieve carbon neutrality. Wineries and vineyards are not large producers of greenhouse gases, but we are greatly impacted by them and want to do everything in our power to preserve the unique gift of terroir (soil, climate, altitude) that we have here.

Why are sustainable business practices important to the consumer?
When our Founder, Jim Bernau, first raised money from small investors and wine enthusiasts to build the winery, they questioned him on his values. Sustainable practice is important to all of us. Our customers consistently engage us in conversations about our sustainability practices and stewardship innovations. 

As the climate warms, people are becoming very aware they must consider how their actions affect others. If consumers knew the soil was damaged and fish were harmed in the making of their wine, how would it taste? Not very good, I imagine. Consumers can change the world and save the planet. All they have to do is purchase goods and services from environmentally sustainable producers. Because profit margins are often thin, it only takes a small group of like-minded consumers choosing to purchase sustainable products for business owners and managers to seriously reconsider their behavior.

In upcoming issues, we will feature interviews with food companies that are making strides in their sustainability efforts. If you are interested in telling us more about what your company is doing to get involved please contact Allison Bloom