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What is Sustainability in Wine? A Conversation with Michele Manelli of Cantina Salcheto

What is Sustainability in Wine? A Conversation with Michele Manelli of Cantina Salcheto

Michele Manelli, partner and winemaker at Cantina Salcheto | Photo Credit: Jeff Burrows

The (energy independent) cellar that we were just about to grand open was not the biggest part of the problem. Not great news at the time! It’s just fifteen percent of the problem.

Who is Michele Manelli?

Michele Manelli is a partner and winemaker at Cantina Salcheto in Montepulciano, Italy. Michele and his team farm 60 hectares of organic certified grapevines, producing approximately 400,000 bottles of wine annually. The main grape is Sangiovese Prugnolo Gentile, and their flagship wines are produced within the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG. The following article is drawn from an interview with Michele at the winery in September 2022. Michele shares the sustainability journey at Salcheto, ranging from organic farming to lifecycle carbon footprint and social sustainability, culminating with development of the Equalitas standard.

Origins of the Sustainability Focus at Salcheto

Aerial view of Salcheto winery. Caption: Salcheto Winery during harvest with hilltop village of Montepulciano in the background | Photo Credit: Jeff Burrows

In 1997, Michele purchased the historic Salco vineyard as part of a traditional multicrop farm. Early on, he recognized the ideal combination of grape and location given that the vineyard produced excellent wines, year in and out. “I had my own values and was concerned about modern farming techniques being ‘too much,’” he says. “That organic and biodynamic approaches were more balanced and careful.” 

From the beginning, the vineyard was managed under organic standards. Michele explains that the first actions were private, in part because customers at the time were suspicious of organic wines. As the business grew, “The seed of the sustainability idea rooted,” he says. “In the early 2000s, I said if I have to make it a serious business, I need to make it responsible, targeting more than just profit, more than just quality, because I’m making a quality product.” 

Creating an Energy-Neutral Winery 

The winery is lit by a large number of light tubes engineered to maximize light transmission. The tubes extend from the surface to all levels of the cellar | Photo Credit: Jeff Burrows

Salcheto vineyards were certified organic, so the next steps as the business grew involved building a new energy-independent winery. Innovations in the winery included a gravity flow layout to avoid pumps; photovoltaics for electricity generation; geothermal and biomass boilers for heating; a green “living wall” to reduce unwanted solar heating in summer months; and the incorporation of a large set of fresnel lens equipped light tubes to light the winery interior, reducing the need for electricity. 

1st Cradle-to-Grave Carbon Footprint Evaluation 

Michele constantly looks for additional steps to enhance the sustainability of the business. “[We were] trying to think of new models in the wine value chain that would fit a vision of environmental care management,” he says. “That was the innovative thing at Salcheto. We imagined a new vision of business in wine.” 

In the 2008-2010 timeframe, markets were still suspicious. His business plan at the time didn’t mention the energy conservation approach with the cellar, or the carbon footprint, because he felt they would be viewed as too romantic, or even crazy. 

The next step after assessing the winery was to assess the carbon footprint of a bottle of wine, with the goal of reducing that footprint. In 2009, in advance of any standards on carbon footprint calculations requiring support from university researchers, this was considered avant-garde. The footprint calculation is a full lifecycle assessment from cradle to grave. It includes supply upstream, the vineyard and winery contributions, and downstream distribution and post-consumption. This effort later became ISO Standard 14067.  “It showed the picture of climate impacts, telling us where the [critical points] were in our value chain,” Michele recalls. “[It turned out that] the cellar that we were just about to grand open was not the biggest part of the problem. Not great news at the time! It’s just fifteen percent of the problem.”

Carbon Footprint Surprises

Salcheto’s Solowine bag-in-box reduces the packaging and distribution contribution (fully 1/3) to the carbon footprint by 80% | Photo Credit: Jeff Burrows

“Packaging was over a third of the issue,” says Michele. “When we found out our great investment was not the #1 problem, we started working for two-to-three years on the number one problem, which was packaging.” To that end, Salcheto developed a lighter, locally-produced bottle that resulted in a reduction in carbon footprint of over 50%. “Consider that in 2013, and still today,” says Michele. “Going around the market with a light bottle for a fancy wine…In some markets it was a shut door. Asia for example, but everywhere.”

Next, Salcheto released a bag-in-box package, but the market wasn’t ready for it at the time. Bag-in-box represents an 80% reduction of the 1/3 contribution. In 2021, they relaunched the bag-in-box showing the impressive reduction in carbon footprint. 

“The other big page is the farming,” says Michele. “We always try to see if there are opportunities. We have reduced as much as possible the machinery operation, the diesel feeding the tractors. The second problem in farming is the production of pest products. We’re organic and it’s only copper and sulfur, but it still needs energy to be produced – quite significant amounts of energy. We have reduced as much as possible the spraying, but if someone doesn’t come up with a solution with a new engine for our tractors, there is a limit we may not be able to go beyond.” 

Salcheto worked with New Holland on their nitrogen tractor, but the prototype was never finalized. They are talking with an electric tractor producer, but the producer has postponed delivery, although there may be a solution next year. “There’s not a technology ready for purchase,” says Michele. “It’s not an investment or financial problem, it’s a technology problem.”

Water Usage & Biodiversity 

Michele explains that their next steps were to imagine what was beyond climate in the environmental challenges in a winery. They found two other parameters: water and biodiversity. “In 2010-11, we conducted the first water footprint ever made with what was available at the time, which was later absorbed by a broader standard in ISO 14046,” he says. “The standard includes a scarcity measurement and also a measure of the potential polluting impact of our operation in water in general.” 

The biodiversity evaluation involves measured biodiversity management in the farmed ecosystem. Salcheto joined the approach of the World Biodiversity Organization in which soil, water, and air biodiversity measurements are made annually on the farm. They measure quantity and quality at the microscopic level. 

“There is a microscopic shrimp naturally occurring in the soil here, which is rare and indicates a very light impact from the farm on the soil biodiversity,” explains Michele. “The problem is how every organization’s impact is potentially deteriorating what’s in its environment. That’s everyone’s problem, and it’s a big problem. If you kill the worms, the shrimps, the birds, the fishes in the river, and you cultivate ten types of grapes, it’s not the best choice, right?”

Formalizing Employee Welfare

In 2015, given all the efforts they had made for environmental care, Michele says they decided to take a break on new ideas in environmental sustainability, opting instead to focus on social sustainability. “We completely changed our interaction with our workers,” he explains, noting that they hold annual meetings with each employee to discuss wages, career goals, and working conditions. They also take a transparent approach to earnings, sharing the financial statements of the company between financial shareholders as well as workers. “It’s part of a vision – in the end it creates a mood and motivation with the employees,” says Michele. “Finally, all the good things you want to do in your winery, you have to monitor that the same conditions are applied to the outsourced workers. If I hire a company for harvest workers, [I ask] are they trained? Paid properly? Is there anything gray or anything we don’t want to be involved with? It’s useless to be good inside the gate of our property but [not] look outside.”

What’s Next

When asked what’s next for Salcheto, Michele outlines continuing progress on a new tractor and resolving some remaining issues with the recyclability of the bag-in-box packaging. He also shared some ideas for extending sustainability efforts to restaurants –  a high-quality winery’s second home. There is always more to be done!

Equalitas Standard

Equalitas certified wineries can post a plaque highlighting their sustainability commitment | Photo Credit: Jeff Burrows

In 2013, Michele worked with Professor Schenza and 34 university research centers to establish the original requirements. For 2 years they worked to deliver a picture of what was happening in sustainability in wine. This work was the foundation of today’s Equalitas standard. The Equalitas standard formalizes a set of factors critical to sustainability in the entire wine supply chain. The focus areas include environmental, social, and economic practices. The standard requires continuing evaluation and improvement, and establishes credibility through third-party certification and issuance of an annual sustainability report. The standard has been embraced by a wide variety of wine businesses throughout Italy, with a list of participants on the website. Salcheto’s report can be downloaded from their website.