Food and wine are inherently connected beyond the fact that they make a great pair at dinner. They are agricultural products with a relationship to the land and climate. The food system is a major contributor to the climate crisis. Conventional agriculture is linked to the rise in atmospheric greenhouse gasses, pollution, soil erosion, land loss, and species extinction. The food system as it exists today is not sustainable, and as awareness of this issue grows, there is an increasing effort to push back on conventional methods. This movement has driven consumers to consider the origins of their food and beverage products and change their eating habits as an environmental act. This new wave of conscious consumers seeks out locally sourced products, farmed organically and sustainably, and made with natural ingredients. Food companies are adapting to this new demand, presenting customers with an increasing number of natural and organic products focused on restoring the environment.
Nowadays, if you walk into your local wine shop or wine bar, it is likely that you will find at least one section that presents similar values to those of the organic food store—with minimal processing, natural ingredients, and organic farming methods. Even though many food products and wine bottles boast the same organic label, the food and wine industries have different motivations and strategies for sustainability. Where do the movements toward natural and sustainable products in food and wine diverge and how could this discrepancy impact the ability of these movements to promote sustainability?
What is sustainability in wine?
Sustainability has become a buzzword in many industries, mainly when used as a marketing term to appeal to the environmentally-conscious consumer. In many markets, the term “sustainable” is not strictly regulated, and it can have vastly different meanings depending on the business or product. So, what does sustainability mean when it comes to wine? Richard Olsen-Harbich is the winemaker at Bedell Cellars on the North Fork of Long Island and a founder of Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing, the first 3rd-party certification program for vineyard sustainability on the East Coast. Richard is passionate about sustainability in his own winemaking at Bedell, and dedicated to sharing information on his practices to help the broader community. “The foundation of sustainability is really science-based,” states Richard. “We are implementing these data-supported techniques and practices to preserve what we have so that 100 years from now, we can still be using this land to make wine.”
Beyond maintaining the land for the sake of winemaking, Richard considers how his agricultural practices could impact the residents of his local area. Richard remarks, “Eastern Long Island is not completely remote land for farming; we have people living right around us, and the aquifer is the sole source of drinking water.” By limiting the use of chemical sprays on their vineyards and encouraging others to follow suit, Bedell prevents the runoff of harmful chemicals into the drinking water. “When it comes down to it, what we are doing on the East end is really about social justice. We are trying to assure equal access to clean water.” In addition to agricultural practices, Richard mentioned that sustainability also encompasses paying their workers fair wages and reinvesting in the local community. Another goal is to make a certification under the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing organization an affordable and attainable process so as many wineries can participate as possible. All these factors contribute to maintaining the health and livelihood of both the people and the land to continue to exist and thrive.
It is evident that Bedell and the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing organization keep the best interest of that region at heart. As Richard suggested, sustainability in wine reaches beyond the organic or biodynamic label and aims to connect the goals of the vineyard with its surrounding ecosystem. If viticultural practices can have such a significant effect on the local community, should we be considering championing local wine on the same level that we do local food?
Worldly Wine and Local Food
Sourcing food locally while supporting regional farmers has been a central goal in promoting sustainability in our food system. The basis for the local food movement is to ensure that small community businesses who have a vested interest in maintaining the local lands are supported. Also, to reduce the carbon emissions of transporting food long distances. On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, trying wines from all over the world is celebrated as a way to learn and experience different cultures. These conflicting narratives present a major rift between wine and food when it comes to promoting sustainability. This issue is embodied in many New York City restaurants, advertising a locally sourced, seasonal, and sustainable menu while also offering a wine list shipped in from every corner of the earth.
For many areas in the country, this is challenging. All 50 states produce wine, yet most do not have established wine regions. On the other hand, New York is the 3rd-largest wine producing state in the US and is emerging as a globally recognized region for high-quality wines. Even in New York, there are very few examples of businesses promoting sustainability through local wines. One restaurant changing this discourse is The Marshal in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City. The Marshal is dedicated to sustainability in its sources of energy and ingredients, fueling their ovens with replanted apple and cherry wood from local orchards instead of gas, creating dishes based on local ingredients, and serving wines and spirits from New York wineries and distilleries.
Charlie Marshall, the chef of The Marshal, grew up on a farm on a small island in Puget Sound where sustainable food values were a part of day-to-day life. When he moved to NYC, he was blown away by how disconnected the people were from their food sources. When Charlie opened The Marshal in 2013, he focused on implementing sustainable practices and showcasing local ingredients and beverages. They also exclusively sell wines from New York. He explained, “Wine and beverages comprise 40 percent of your sales at a restaurant, so if 40 percent of my sales aren’t locally sourced, am I really a farm-to-table restaurant?”
Even though putting more focus on local wineries is a great step forward, Richard of Bedell Cellars reflects that it would be unrealistic in this market. In addition to highlighting local wineries, there could be other ways to mirror the established local food movement in wine. La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels in SoHo has an interesting solution. Compagnie is a wine bar and restaurant that promotes local foods and responsibly farmed wines in their ‘CSA Farm Packs.’
Compagnie’s Farm Packs is their commitment to sourcing its products from sustainable farms. They partner with Berkshires Direct, which sources from a network of small farms in CT and the surrounding Berkshires Agricultural Area. The pack advertised includes two “farmer” wines. Caleb Ganzer, managing partner of Compagnie explains, “These are wines where there was primarily one farmer behind the production, people that we know are out there in the field doing their thing. Usually, the wines are organic, but the story is more about the farmer and the wines they make.” Those featured are not necessarily from the local area, but they still promote thoughtful farming in their own region. Compagnie also hosts a farm stand at their wine bar weekly, further amplifying the importance of thoughtfulness when buying both food and wine.
Ganzer’s inspiration comes from the impact that pollution from industrial farming had on his hometown. “I grew up in rural Illinois, and I wasn’t able to swim in the creek behind my house because my mother knew that there was a bunch of runoff from the neighboring fields. I [want] the kids in the future to not have to think twice about swimming in the creek behind their house. What I can do as a wine buyer in NYC is champion the wines and foods from farmers that care about their neighbors and the planet.” For this reason, he loves to support wineries that “advocate for organic viticulture in areas where people think it is impossible. Wineries that are really pushing the region forward.” He mentions Hermann J. Weimer in the Finger Lakes and Nanclares in Rias Baixas, Spain as great examples.
Changing Larger Systems Together
Even though food and wine face different sustainability challenges, their connection to the land irrevocably ties them to environmental causes. Rethinking conventional agriculture and food systems has been proposed as a real solution to the climate crisis, putting the food and beverage industry in an important position for inciting change. Leaders in the industry embrace this and use their platforms in food and wine in inventive ways to promote sustainability. For example, Eleven Madison Park, a three-Michelin-starred restaurant in New York, recently announced they would be reopening with an entirely plant-based menu as an effort to support more sustainable food systems. Rhodora, a wine bar in Brooklyn that features winemakers who respect the land and environment, aims to be the first zero-waste wine bar in the country. These efforts, and the efforts of Richard Olsen-Harbich, Charlie Marshall, and Caleb Ganzer will continue to help push the industry toward sustainability.