Sustainability at New Zealand’s Bragato conference: what’s next?

The Romeo Bragato conference is New Zealand’s national wine industry conference for producers, policy makers, vendors, researchers, and such (and today, “such” even included New Zealand’s prime minister). With that audience, the topics discussed are broad, which makes it particularly interesting that the word “sustainability” seemed to crop up more often than any other today.

The main message from many today — growers and winemakers and administrators — is that New Zealand is awesome and needs to shout about it a bit more loudly. It’s hard to disagree. 94% of the country’s wineries are certified through the Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand program (“swins”). 94%! And yet, to me, that’s actually a lot less significant on a story level than the individual, often very thoughtful initiatives wineries and vineyards are taking beyond that certification. From a consumer perspective, it’s near-impossible to translate the soft language on into something meaningful and tangible; “foster biodiversity” and “monitor and manage erosion risk” and “engage in clean production practices,” as the sustainability standards say, is all pretty soft soap. But when I hear that Yealands Estate in the Awatere Valley is baling their vine prunings (yes, like hay) and burning them to fuel boilers that supply most of their hot water needs and eliminate the need for about $100,000-worth of LPG per year, that’s meaningful. That’s tangible. So are things that don’t involve metrics at all, like sniffing fine-aged manure with Rudi Bauer on his biodynamic estate in Central Otago; whatever you think of biodynamics, his extraordinary care for his land and vines and people is, well, something you can practically taste. Nevertheless, while I think folks abroad tend to think of New Zealand as a near-untouched refuge of pristine greenness (not entirely true, regrettably), the fullness of what Kiwi winemakers have achieved together on the sustainability front doesn’t come across as it should. Kiwis tend to be a pretty understated bunch, and it came up several times today that they may not realize how extraordinary, and how absolutely worth talking up, “just the thing we do here” really is.

But a second message — the step most speakers take after patting their collective backs — is the what’s next question. We’re great, but we can do better. And not just we can do better, but we must do better, and fast, not so much to protect our land as to protect our edge over those wilily Chileans who could rapidly and easily overtake us if they can market their wines as being more sustainable than New Zealand’s.

So what’s next? The industry has just updated and stepped up their sustainability reporting tool, WiSE (part of the Sustainability Dashboard project through which part of my PhD research is being funded), which is intended to be not just a reporting but a benchmarking and self-improvement tool. But that doesn’t really answer the question. The New Zealand wine industry has been remarkable in collaborating to create a unified international image. Seriously: where else can you find 94% certification in any non-mandatory administrative scheme? What’s the next direction in which the industry, collectively, will choose to travel?

Gwyn Williams, the chair of the New Zealand Winegrowers Sustainability Committee and a man with 31 years of Kiwi vineyard-managing experience, thinks that the national wine sustainability movement has stalled. I wonder if that stall is because there isn’t clear consensus on what’s next. Organic Winegrowers New Zealand is aiming for 20% certified organic vineyards by 2020. The president of that organization, James Milton (also the winemaker at the Demeter-certified biodynamic Milton Estate in Gisborne), said today that the organic and biodynamic folk need to work harder at speaking the languages of sustainability and science instead of isolating themselves in their own strange little corner as they’ve traditionally been wont to do. But, in a later session also on sustainability, Chris Howell of Prospect Vineyard in Hawke’s Bay mentioned being unconvinced about the totality of organic practices from a science perspective. A walk through the vendor’s area made it obvious that he’s not alone.

Is organic the next step beyond “sustainable?” Or biodynamic the next step beyond organic? Or organic-with-caveats — organic, but we’re not certified because we do X when we really have to, as I hear many vineyard managers say? Or just raising the bar on those key performance indicators about which the sustainability folk are always talking? More and better of the same, or something new?

If the New Zealand wine industry can decide, together, what better-than-sustainable looks like, they’ll achieve it. They don’t talk very loud, and they’re the most collectively laid-back people I’ve met, but I’ve learned in the past nine months not to underestimate the extraordinary Kiwi capacity for getting the job done.

4 thoughts on “Sustainability at New Zealand’s Bragato conference: what’s next?

  1. Indeed…
    It’s a big story, and one I’m very familiar with (I part own a company that consults in winery sustainability – “Aura Sustainability”). It’s done more good work in this area that any other (I’m unable to mention our clients or you would realise why I can say that) and the Principals were the people behind the world’s first carbon neutral winery, amongst other ground breaking work (recognised with a National Green Ribbon Award).

    Unfortunately it’s a complex story and you are wise to wonder “where to from here”. Personally? I gave a presentation to the PM yesterday and the Minister for everything, Steven Joyce, last week on one of Aura’s “where to from here”: New Zealand’s first Equity Crowd Funded company and plans to build a new “Category”.

    Of interest to me though was a reference by the PM to the likely resurgence of an environmental drive to mitigate climate change, now that the world’s economy was back on track (or thereabouts). The surprise was because (and I don’t refer specifically to the PM here):

    · I’ve missed the bit where the climate change naysayers changed their minds (and said so).

    · I missed the bit where mitigation rather than prevention became a good idea.

    · I missed the science around the world’s economic stability having an effect on climate change to such an extent that we could put prevention on the back burner while we fixed the economy.

    I mentioned to a senior representative of one of our finest universities yesterday that I had presented to the Carbon Zero management at Landcare on a (developed by Aura) revolutionary new (affordable/viral) model for Carbon Accounting several years back. They were deeply impressed and advocated joining with us in rolling it out, but the political will was/is not there to do what needs doing.

    Anyway it’s still something I’m passionate about and going through the process taught me a great deal about how the world works.

    Watch out for the South Africans (and ultimately the Chinese).

    – Dave

    • Dave, thanks very much for the comment. I’ve been appreciating how complex a story it is, and attending Bragato both helped me wrap my head around a little more of it and made it’s complexity even more clear. Political investment in so many superficially apolitical industry issues (if anything can ever be said to be apolitical) is part of that. I couldn’t agree with you more on your points about climate change, and the specific instance you’ve highlighted reminds me of how sustainability and environmental considerations in general seemed at every turn to be brought back to market share and competitiveness and profits. It seemed that I heard little about environmental and social responsibility for its own sake or for the general good and a lot about preserving and growing NZ wine’s international market position. I suppose that any motivation is better than no motivation save that, as you’ve observed, motives direct what sort of action is appropriate and when it happens. I heard nothing at the conference, for example, about the welfare of marginalized workers in the industry — and, moreover, the absence of non-whites in the crowd and on stage was palpable — though I would call this a crucial element of social sustainability. But perhaps buyers in China and London don’t care about worker welfare?

  2. Being that current science points out that low-to-mediocre crop production, weed, disease and insect pressure are all symptoms of nutritional imbalances and inadequacies, NOT the result of a lack of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to consider a progressive ‘sustainable or regenerative’ farmer/grower as one who knows and applies this science with a measure of common sense?

    Another contemplation for the industry that needs to be further addressed is, as consumers and farmers become more educated and challenge today’s conventional thinking, how do we feel, as an industry, we are placing ourselves to meet the public demand and possibly public law and at the same time show a farm profit?

    The Bragato conference seemed to miss the hard fact that the industry has a very long road to travel in order to attain the ideal that we are focused and driven by the right mechanisms to be at the cutting edge of a more ecologically focused society moving forward into the future. This was made evident with some of the selected speakers in one workshop in particular; Sustainability: Future sustainability. Were these the best advocates for this critically important issue?

    • Thanks for the comment, Julian. Perhaps the single most interesting observation I made at the conference was the way “sustainability” was used as an apparently defined and unquestioned term by nearly everyone. “We’ve been practicing sustainability since the mid-1990’s.” “Sustainability is a ‘must have’ for our industry.” This sort of usage implies a shared and agreed-upon understanding of what sustainability means. Maybe that conversation has come and gone and “sustainability” as a term is now transparent to everyone, but it seems likely that that isn’t the case, if for no other reason that I heard multiple interpretations at the conference. It seems as though “sustainability” may be an umbrella term that encompasses and allows for a lot of individual variation, which is great, save perhaps that then people like you feel as though your views aren’t being heard or taken seriously with the consequence that the industry as a whole is moving in a direction you can’t support. I appreciated that the “Sustainability: The Great Debate” session included James Milton as a biodynamic perspective. Unfortunately, I missed the “Future Sustainability” session, but I’d appreciate hearing more from you about why you felt that it was ineffective.

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