Wine families against climate change

An interview with Katie Jackson and Miguel Torres by Felicity Carter.

Miguel Torres and Katie Jackson
Miguel Torres and Katie Jackson

Familia Torres from Penedès, one of Spain’s leading wineries, has been at the forefront of sounding the alarm on climate change, and has invested heavily in research and renewables. In 2019 the company joined with Jackson Family Wines from Santa Rosa, California to create International Wineries for Climate Action (IWCA). The group’s goal is to decarbonise the wine industry by sharing best environmental practices, verified by third parties. Each member undertakes to reduce greenhouse gases by 50 percent by 2030, aiming to become climate positive by 2050. Meininger’s spoke with Miguel Torres, president of Familia Torres, and Katherine (Katie) Jackson, vice president of sustainability at Jackson Family Wines, which owns wineries across the US, Europe and the New World.

MEININGER’S: Can you give me a short summary of Jackson Family Wine’s environmental history? 
JACKSON: We’ve had our sustainability program at Jackson Family Wines since about 2008. Prior to that we had been taking proactive steps to reduce our water usage and be as water conscious as possible. We started that in the early 90s and it was related to the fact that California has cyclical droughts. In 2008, we started to look at our company’s overall greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint, to understand what our impacts were. We also created a water footprint and looked at our energy use. About 2015, we realised there was a lot more we could be doing and we wanted to make some public commitments so we could hold ourselves accountable and be as transparent as possible. That’s when we released goals for ourselves as an organisation: to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent, to reduce our water usage by about 30 percent and to source 50 percent of winemaking electricity from onsite renewables, all by 2020. So those were our three main goals. We also have other goals around ensuring that we are involved in some sort of conservation project every year and making sure our employees are empowered to volunteer. We pay for two days of an employee’s time for them to volunteer at non-profits they care about. 
We have surpassed our water and our greenhouse gas emission goals and we are on target to meet the renewable energy goal by the end of the year; now we’re trying to focus on more long term and more impactful goals and that’s where our focus on IWCA comes in, because we think the critical issue for the environment right now is climate change. Meeting the IWCA goals we have committed to with the Torres family are of critical concern for us.

MEININGER’S: Can you give tell me more about the water situation in California? 
JACKSON: Since we started our company, we’ve had two different severe droughts. One from the early 2010s lasted for about four years, one of the most intense droughts the state had ever seen. From the very beginning we put in rainwater capture reservoirs so we can take advantage of water when it is most available. 

We will probably have much more intense storm events in the winter, where there will be all the rain coming at once. We’re going to have hotter, drier, longer summers, so if we want to reduce our usage of ground water, we need to take advantage of the water when it is here. 
We’ve trialled groundwater recharge trials on a couple of sites, to see if we can take water that we’ve captured in winter and have it percolate down into the aquifer. We’re hopefully counterbalancing out the amount of water that’s been drawn down.

MEININGER’S: Are you doing this experiment in conjunction with academics or scientists?
JACKSON: We partnered with UC Davis, California. They controlled the whole experiment. They figured out what instrumentation they needed to measure exactly how much water was being recharged back into the aquifer and how much water is going back into the stream next to our property. What we found in our first year was we were able to recharge the groundwater basin above our usage. That was a bit of an anomaly because there was so much rainfall, but it was about twice as much water going into the stream than we were taking out. For about three years now we’ve demonstrated that it’s more than we’re taking out, but not quite that extreme.

MEININGER’S: Are you also being affected by water problems in Spain?
TORRES: The water situation is completely different to the one that exists in California or in Chile, because they have dry summers. Here in the Mediterranean we don’t have dry summers because it rains. That’s why most of Spain’s vineyards are still not irrigated – only about 35 percent of the vineyards. Also, what you have to realise is that the roots go deeper, and then they can resist the drought, though often with low yields. We plan to reduce our consumption; our water usage has been reduced by 25 percent and we plan 40 percent. We have wells. We store a large amount of water in these reservoirs for the summer, especially for the harvest time where we use most of the water. 

MEININGER’S: How did your two families come together?
JACKSON: Obviously, Torres have been working on this issue for a very long time and Cristina Torres was interning with us; she worked with our sustainability team for a couple of months. I believe Miguel had been looking for somebody to partner with on an international scale for a while and she contacted her side and said ‘I think that Jackson Family Wines are taking this very seriously and could be a good partner in this endeavour’. We were approached to consider founding an organization that would require both of us to make significant commitments in terms of our own carbon emissions. We felt incredibly honoured because we know everything the Torres family have been doing. We were aware of this as being a critical issue and we were really excited to take a leadership role in that. The goal is to bring the wine industry together to have a collective impact, because we will make a much bigger impact together than we will separately. 

MEININGER’S: When was this? 
TORRES: We were speaking together for about a year and a half before we announced the organisation in February 2019; we were both going to be in Portugal for the Porto Protocol, so we thought it was a good time to share this news and talk about it with other members of the international wine community to see if they would want to be a part of it. 

MEININGER’S: What kind of reaction did you get?
TORRES: People were very intrigued, and some were very excited and wanted to sign on immediately. They are now some of our members. Others were intrigued but a little bit unsure about what it would require. We’ve had conversations with over 30 different wineries over the course of the year and now we have six members, so we’re eight strong as an organisation. They’re the members that went through the process to make sure that they were meeting the core requirements for applicants. We’re continuing conversations with the others who were interested.

MEININGER’S: How did you set up the standards?
JACKSON: One of our goals was to create a GHG emissions inventory; each organisation has to audit every couple of years. We needed to ensure that we had an inventory verification process that was consistent – how we were doing things and how Torres were doing things was a little bit different. It took about a year to come up with the standards. We decided to go with ISO standards and both wineries had to add a little bit more to what they were already doing to meet this collective standard. Now we’re going through this process with the other winery applicants, and it’s a learning process for all of us. But we’ve got it to a point where we have one standard that we’re using for everybody.  

MEININGER’S: Signor Torres, can you talk a little bit about how you developed the Torres approach in the first place?
TORRES: It started in 2008 after I saw the [An Inconvenient Truth] movie with Al Gore and took immediate action. The family agreed and we began to invest, especially in photovoltaic (PV) panels. Every year we have been dedicating 11 percent of our profit to be invested in this project. It was maybe two weeks ago that one board adviser said, ‘maybe we’re investing too much in this climate change project’ and I could prove that most of the investments had already been paid back. Like the PV panels, with the electricity we save. It’s the same thing with the biomass and even with the estate we bought very close to the Pyrenees at 1,000m altitude. Today, these vineyards are producing very good grapes: Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc. The only one we can’t prove is Patagonia, the investment in planting trees. We have to wait a little to see the results.

As Katie said, two years ago my niece Cristina was working at Jackson and she put us together. It was wonderful, because we realised immediately that we could work with Jackson. I am very glad that we moved ahead.

MEININGER’S: Can you explain what carbon farming is?
JACKSON: Carbon farming is a practice that attempts to sequester carbon in the soil and have the farm act as a carbon sink. It can offset the emissions that are being created elsewhere. If you’re a winery that is utilising carbon farming, what you’re trying to do is to add to the organic matter in the soil. Organic matter is about 50 percent carbon, so the more organic matter you can get into the soil, the more carbon you can sequester over time. We’re doing a trial in partnership with the California Department of Food and Agriculture; we’re looking at how the practices of low or no till compost activation and cover cropping can result in greater organic material in the soil. We have this trial plot at the Saralee’s vineyard and we’ve got rows that are being farmed conventionally and rows that are being tilled once every other year and rows that we’re not touching, the no till blocks. We’re applying different amounts of compost to different rows as well and utilising a very diverse cover crop to try and bring in more carbon to the soil. We’re only in the second year of this trial and are analysing results, but what we’ve learned so far is that the rows where we are doing no till have the most significant increases in organic matter. 

TORRES: I don’t think we have gone as far as the Jacksons but we are experimenting in this field. The problem with planting in the vineyard in the spring is you have to remove (the cover plants) before summer, or we would have competition for the water. But all of those things you remove will end up producing CO2. Lately, we’ve been trialling planting them much deeper. 

MEININGER’S: What works in one place doesn’t always work in another. What does this mean for certification and how much flexibility do you give members?
JACKSON: When it comes to carbon farming, we’re exploring allowing members to utilise carbon farming to offset overall emissions, but we haven’t put together the standards. It is going to be tricky given differences in farming; right now what they’re aiming to do is reduce the emissions associated with producing the wine, shipping the wine, the glass, everything that goes into producing the wine.

MEININGER’S: Where do you want to go next with the IWCA?
TORRES: The more wineries we have join us from many countries in the world, the more emissions we will be able to reduce. I wish we could reach at least 50 members by next year.

Last year in Quebec and Toronto I explained to the monopolies what we are doing and I told them how important it is that we wineries reduce emissions. Consumers are beginning to look out for products that reduce emissions, especially in Scandinavia. Maybe these monopolies could help us in the future by taking into consideration wineries that belong to a group like ours. Another very good tactic of our group is that we are clarifying the situation – many wineries say yes, they are carbon neutral, but it’s a lot of marketing. We are clarifying the situation and I hope in the future all the wineries that take it seriously will join us.

MEININGER’S: Because of the pandemic, sustainability has dropped off the agenda. How are you going to galvanise people?
JACKSON: The pandemic has had horrible economic ramifications for businesses and customers across the world, but we’ve also seen some encouraging information that this pandemic has made consumers value the environment. If we can tell our story in a clear way and appeal to customers’ belief in the importance of addressing climate change, this will become important to their buying practices again as we recover.

TORRES: Here in Europe, the reaction is finally happening. Look at the European Union – they have to reduce emissions by more than 50 percent by 2050. France is already saying ‘yes, we’re going to promote the decarbonisations of our economies’. The other thing is all the members who have joined us, joined because they believe it’s a critical issue. We didn’t have to go and convince them. We’re really excited that we’re working with people who are so committed and environmentally responsible. Another benefit is that by sharing our practices, each of us individually are going to learn a lot.

Interview by Felicity Carter

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