Wines that are Better for You & the Environment. Meet Canadian Environmental Steward – Ann Sperling of Southbrook Vineyards

Southbrook Vineyards amustreadblog“Prescience” comes from the Latin verb praescire, which means to know beforehand, to have foresight. Prescient organizations often have leaders who – as the brilliant Queen’s University marketing professor Ken Wong says – aren’t afraid of leadership. “They recognize the ultimate competitive value is to be the best you.” Needless to say, (I’m saying it anyway) to lead with integrity, personal values and vision helps customers, employees and your community of followers know exactly where you stand.

Southbrook Vineyards in Ontario’s Niagara on the Lake appellation has two very prescient leaders at the helm. Winery owner Bill Redelmeier – a proponent of local agriculture before the word “local” became part of the foodie lexicon, and Ann Sperling, Canada’s leading authority on planet-friendly, sustainable viticulture and winemaking. Together, they lead with integrity and environmental values that benefit the natural environment, their employees and wine lovers everywhere. Importantly, they took a stand as environmental champions and exemplary wine producers long before the “climate” conversation became the #1 global issue (per United Nations).

So yeah….prescient.

Sheep Southbrook Vineyards amustreadblog
Biodiversity: Sheep on a rotational graze convert solar-powered pasture to soil fertility, eliminating Southbrook’s reliance on petroleum derived fertilizers.

Green Prescience

Southbrook Vineyards has been leading with their ‘best you’ since 2008 when they were certified as Canada’s first organic and biodynamic winery. Not only are they certified organic and certified biodynamic – they’re also certified sustainable and certified gold-level LEED – four levels of certification. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and it’s a third party verification that promotes green building design for environmental and human health.

Green 3 Southbrook Vineyards amustreadblogEverything about Southbrook’s winery is eco-friendly (see their green map). When not making some of my favourite Ontario wine, their goal is to minimize their environmental impact and ensure a biologically active, self-sustaining operation built on healthy agricultural traditions (i.e. crop rotating, biodiversity, fallow fields, composting). Every stage and level of their viticulture and winemaking practice reinforces their values of environmental stewardship and passes muster. Muster, you ask? Have a look at the extraordinarily cool interactive map on the World Economic Forum website to see what “insights” define strategic intelligence in the Agriculture Food and Beverage sector. They may as well put Southbrook Vineyard’s green map up there.

Southbrook Vineyards Tasting Room amustreadblog
Tasting room at Southbrook Vineyards in their LEED Gold certified building. Floor-to-ceiling glass lets in maximum natural light reducing the need for electric lighting. 15% of the building’s construction material is made from recycled materials and 20% of construction material was manufactured within 800 km.

Transparency Prescience

And yes, prescient again, because Southbrook Vineyards understood early on that the emerging “natural” wine market – winemaking that involves as little human intervention as possible – was and is – important to health and environmentally conscious consumers. They also appreciate how, um, confusing the environmental nomenclature can be (know thy customer).

As a lifelong marketer, I find today’s matrix of “green” monikers – organic, biodynamic, sustainable, low-intervention, natural, raw, chemical-free, low sulphur, chemicals-in-emergency-situations-only, vegan – almost indecipherable, even for well-intentioned, green consumers! The bigger issue here, however, is terms like low-intervention and natural are unregulated. It’s up to each producer to determine the level of chemical intervention and winemaking additives. Yes, these descriptors communicate a consumer benefit and speak to customer values, but it’s impossible to know if synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides were used in growing the grapes and if chemicals were used in the winemaking.

Which is why, wine certifications like organic and biodynamic help. Specific benchmarks exist and third parties pass judgement. They also offer the customer transparency. Ann Sperling acknowledges that the current crop of green certifications is less than perfect. “As producers, we can do so much more,” she says. But in a category rife with confusion around definitions and standards, certifications offer clarity.

demeter

climate protests-cbc
Climate protests: Fridays for Future. Photo credit: CBC

Customer Prescience: The green generation and the Greta Thunberg effect

On March 15, 2019 more than 1.6 million students in more than 120 countries, walked out of class and marched in the streets to demand a more aggressive response to climate change. Their spiritual leader? A 15-year-old Swedish activist – Greta Thunberg, who as I write this, is enroute the U.S. – by boat – to unleash her generational fury on governments and corporations. Inaction around climate change and environmental degradation, she argues, is destroying her generation’s future.

The climate strike came on the heels of the 2018 United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. It warned that, barring unprecedented action, the planet is just 12 years away from a climate catastrophe.

The headlines may scream climate change, but the green generation of first time voters and young millennials understand that issues like carbon emissions, desertification, land degradation, species and biodiversity extinction are also part of the problem. They want governments and corporations to show leadership and responsible environmental stewardship and get on with it NOW.

Greta Thunberg - weforum.org
Photo credit: weforum.org

“Adults don’t give a damn for our future.”

Here in Canada, it would appear Greta is partially right. Results from the CBC’s recent online pre-election survey of 4500 French and English Canadians shows first time voters – young people 18 – 21 (n=580) are considerably more invested in environmental issues than older voters.

Some specifics? More than half of first time voters say climate change is their most important election issue: 57% say our survival depends on addressing climate change, compared to 38% of the general population. What’s more, 32% of these first time voters (aka: newly legal wine purchasers) also agreed with the statement – “I am thinking of voting Green to send a message to the traditional political parties”.

Queen Anne's Lace Southbrook Vineyards amustreadblog
“We try to keep something flowering all the time for the beneficials (bugs). The Queen Anne’s lace and Dandelions just show up. They’re useful because their roots can go places the vine can’t, creating a channel for the vine.” Ann Sperling

The Green Generation wants wine that’s better for the environment and better for them

If you’re not connecting the dots, let me help. The current and next wave of wine consumers – late millenials and Gen Z – are not particularly happy with the status quo. And they’ve been influencing their parents on a broad range of issues …. biking, recycling, litter-less lunches.

Generation green thinks environmental issues – climate change, global warming, chemical farming, environmental degradation – is a very serious problem. Importantly, they want us….you…. me…to do more about it. (I’m working on an app for teens that has them counting their emissions and calculating offsets.)

Are we at that critical tipping point in public opinion yet where we’re willing to take action and change our behaviours? Three quarters of first time voters in the CBC research poll – the green generation – are. They’re willing to buy local food, reduce the thermostat and purchase less. Four in ten say that they would even pay more in tax. The real kicker for me is this statistic: an amazing 78% of first time voters in Canada support a carbon tax …..vs 43% of the less green-minded, general population.

I’ll stop with the numbers now. But you get the picture. Young people want to know politicians, brands, wine producers – care as much as they do, or at least – are leading and thinking about their environmental impact.

Southbrook Vineyards Intervin award amustreadblog

And that’s why you should consider visiting Southbrook and drink some of their award winning wine (I was not paid to say that!!).

They care and they lead with their  values. Importantly, they’ve put to rest the tired and baseless stereotypes that planet-friendly wine – wine that has no pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and fossil fuel derived fertilizers, is somehow….compromised. I’m not even going to go there!

Here’s my discussion with Southbrook’s very prescient environmental steward, Ann Sperling.

Ann Sperling Interview

Ann is Director, Winemaking and Viticulture at Southbrook Vineyards in Niagara, Ontario. She’s also a co-owner of Sperling Vineyards – her family’s property in the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. Ann and her husband also own an ancient Malbec vineyard – Versado Wines – in Mendoza, Argentina.

 Debbie: I’m going to ask you the same question that was asked of Isabelle Legeron at the Must conference this year. Isabelle, is of course, the standard bearer for the natural wine movement and the woman behind the RAW Wine fair. Does it matter what wine we drink?

Ann: Yes, to answer your question, I think it does matter. And there’s two main reasons why it matters or why I feel that wine grapes should be grown with no synthetic – herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and fossil fuel derived fertilizer.

First is what we’ve learned over the years about herbicides and particularly glyphosate (Roundup). It’s everywhere!  In Prosecco last year, when the local growers were asked why as a collective group of producers – who are pressed to the limit to produce as many grapes as possible in their designated area – why are they giving up herbicide voluntarily (a practice they started in January 2019). They said: “we were seeing our colleagues, our fathers, our uncles and our neighbors getting higher rates of cancer than everybody else. But it really hit home when we swabbed the University cafeteria and found that every single surface contained the chemical.“ So they’re seeing that the writing is on the wall. It’s a time bomb and we’re seeing the consequences.

We as an agricultural community don’t know everything there is to know about the synthetic pesticides that are being used. We have to think about long-term human health and the environment. In humid regions like Niagara where the vines are being sprayed every week, I think the community and environment are at risk.

The other reason I think we should be looking more carefully at what we’re doing – and herbicides are part of this – is carbon sequestration. A lot of conventional agricultural practices lose carbon to the atmosphere and decrease fertility creating dead soils. So around the world we’re losing land to desertification (land degradation including loss of water, vegetation and wildlife). But we’re also releasing more carbon into the atmosphere than agriculture should.

By using regenerative practices, we can actively pull carbon out of the atmosphere and hold it – sequestering it – in the soil. And this creates a benefit to the planet and all of us on it.

As much as I hate to say it, wine isn’t essential. So we really should be more exemplary and more responsible as producers. And consumers should demand more responsibility on the part of producers.

Also….in Canada we carry a heavy tax burden on our wines. A reduction in taxes could be used as an incentive to producers who use practices that help the environment.

Debbie: Interesting. Are governments listening?

Ann: At this point I’m seeing things coming out of the U.S. so that says that they are. I’m hoping Canadians will clue in too.

Currently there’s a group called Regeneration Canada – a national effort based in Quebec, and its purpose is to gather interested parties and disseminate information about the benefits of sequestering carbon. There is a petition for supporters, and its relevant whether you’re farming or supporting carbon reduction. The goal is to get lots of signatures then take it to the federal government, get more recognition, and make it an election issue. So I really encourage supporters to sign the petition!

Debbie: Is this specific to grape growers or broader agriculture?

Ann: Regenerative Agriculture is broad and is not limited to only grape growing. Anyone who is interested, including consumers or part of the chain can get involved. Right now the objective is information, education, and promoting the concept of carbon sequestration or carbon farming. Consumers need to support these concepts – the goal of the petitioners is to gain recognition from government so we can tie those benefits to education and support.

Yarrow wildflowers Southbrook Vineyards amustreadblog
Southbrook’s long grasses and wildflowers are a crucial part of creating a connected biosphere of plants, birds and insects which contribute to the health of their biodynamic vineyard.

Debbie: With all the headlines around climate change and sustainable wine production, the organic category is still only at about 10% globally. What’s holding back consumers?

Ann:  In Ontario the monopoly, LCBO, distributes and sells most of the wine in the province and is a massive gatekeeper.  Even though they have sustainability goals they also have a mandate to offer a broad selection. As a result they tend to lump biodynamic (BD), organic and sustainable together.  When you consider that most wine producing regions are at about 10% organic and often these wines come from small producers, there is a disconnect. A big system like the LCBO can’t get a broad assortment of wines that matches the size of the distribution channel and their way of doing business.

I would say they should have Southbrook in every release, but they don’t because they think they should have a changing selection, so they’ll choose someone who is sustainable over organic – and there’s obviously a big difference.

Southbrook Vineyard wines
Southbrook uses Ontario made, lightweight wine bottles made from recycled glass, reducing their carbon footprint and diverting waste from landfill.

Southbrook uses Ontario made, lightweight wine bottles made from recycled glass, reducing their carbon footprint and diverting waste from landfill.

Debbie: That’s interesting, because compared to global conventional wine sales, which are flat, the organic sector is on fire. The U.S. is predicted to grow +14.3%, Germany +17.9 %, France +13. 3% (Source: IWSR Report on Organic Wine – 04/19).  Are there any regions in Canada doing it better than the LCBO and helping consumers who are seeking out organic?

Ann: Even though the LCBO is the largest seller, there are lots of agencies who sell direct to restaurants and to a lesser extent to consumers. Motivated buyers can get organic products by going direct to local and Canadian producers as well as agents who import foreign organic wines.

But if I look at Canadian production since ~2000, a lot of interest in biodynamic and certifying organic was happening in Ontario before it was happening in British Columbia. But there’s been a real surge in organic production in BC in the last few years. A few people with large acreages are making a big commitment. They realize organic is the future and that it influences wine quality positively.  They’re working this way for all the right reasons including doing the right thing for your workers and the long-term viability of vineyards that you own.

Debbie: So true. We often think about the risk and rewards of grape growing in terms of the product and producer but it has huge implications for local communities and the people who work with the grapes and wine.

Ann: Here in Niagara there is some distance between the communities and the vineyards but in places like Tuscany and Bordeaux, the vineyards dominate the landscape and towns often have rows of vines that run right up against their schools and communities. There’s research and evidence in France with respect to leukemia rates in school children and they are relating high rates to proximity to the vineyards.

Debbie: Do you have a sense of who is buying your organic wine and the broader category of environmentally sustainable wine?

Ann: I would say it’s pretty broad. You have a range of age groups who are interested in health and the environment. Whether it’s boomers who are thinking about drinking less but better and more healthfully or 30 to 40-year-olds who are having children and buying organic food for their kids, and thinking gee, I’ve got a think about myself too. It really spans the generations. And in the tasting room we see a wide range of people.

organics biodynamics Southbrook
Southbrook fertilizes vines without the use of synthetic chemicals and follows biodynamic principles to correct the damage caused by conventional agriculture. It’s all about regeneratiion and creating a healthy environment. “Enlivening soils, being in sync with lunar cycles and pasturing animals creates the healthiest vines and the most distinctive wines.” Southbrook Vineyards

Debbie: There are lots of different terms being used to describe green viticulture and the winemaking process these days. Organic, biodynamic, low intervention, sustainable, natural, raw, vegan, etc etc. Some is regulated; some not so much. How do you begin to make sense of it all if you’re a consumer? Can we work through the language…?

Ann: Sure. In Canada, it’s important to know that organic is regulated. It’s actually Certified Organic and it’s regulated federally. The Canadian Food inspection Agency (CFIA) oversees the Canadian organic regime; it’s a federal standard that’s enforced by regional or provincial certifiers.

From a practical perspective every year the grape grower and the wine maker have to submit a plan before the season starts. You have to describe what you plan to do, how you plan to grow your grapes, what products, sprays, nutrients you plan to use – if any – and all of that detail has to be included. Every product, everything you use has to be certified organic and you have to have the paperwork to prove it. That goes right down to the seeds you use for the cover crop (plants that are not even harvested or consumed).

Every season, before the crop is harvested but while it’s still visible, the vineyards and winery are inspected. They inspect what the vineyard looks like, what our spray shed looks like, does it look like an organic farm, what’s the condition of the fruit, what’s the approximate yield. And yield is important, because they want to make sure the amount of wine we make from the grapes we harvest is appropriate.

It is a very, VERY bureaucratic process. But it’s what we all need to be sure that those using the organic standard deserve their organic certification. I think it would make sense for conventional winemakers to have to go through the same hoops, but for sure organic is the most regulated designation and certifiers have the teeth to do a recall or pull your certification if you don’t comply.

Debbie: Whoa!! There’s a lot of rigour and extra work required for certification. What’s the process for biodynamic?

Ann: Yes there is!!  Demeter is the organization that regulates biodynamic (BD) agriculture. Demeter International is who we work with and they’re a local certifier administering the international standard. They do the inspections and review all the paperwork.

In Canada we can’t just put Demeter on the bottles. We have to have both organic and Demeter certification.

Sustainable Certification Southbrook Vineyards amustreadblog

Debbie: And sustainable? Is there a formal certification?

Ann: Yup. The Ontario Wine Industry has a sustainable certification called “Sustainable Winemaking Ontario”. It involves filling in an extensive questionnaire followed by an audit. The auditor comes to your property and looks at how you’ve answered the questions and verifies that it’s all true.  Following the audit, a percentage grade is given.  For example Southbrook, with organic certification, LEED Gold certified building, solar panels and more, we’re always in the 95%+ range. The conventional wineries who achieve top marks would be would be in the 70 to 80% range.

Debbie: And how does sustainable work, exactly? What does it mean?

Ann: I would categorize sustainable programs as assessing wineries in terms of “good citizenry”. They consider things that can affect neighbours like noise and spills; how employees are treated; if water treatment is appropriate… these types of things.

Monarchs Southbrook Vineyards amustreadblog
Southbrook cultivates the native wildflower milkweed – the only plant where Monarch’s lay their eggs. According to Guelph University, Milkweed has become scarce as a result of the spread of round-up Ready genetically modified crops.

Debbie: And where does biodiversity fit?

Ann: Biodiversity ties into regenerative agriculture. Organic and biodynamic are specific about encouraging or mandating biodiversity and each designation requires a buffer zone around the vineyard (35’ for organic; 50’ for BD).  We are fortunate in Niagara with a great potential for biodiversity and we see large bird populations, butterflies, insects and other species that are beneficial. Here at Southbrook, we’re really working towards promoting an environment which supports all species – the kind you can’t see or don’t notice as well as the ones that are visible.

Southbroo Vineyards biodiversity amustreadblog

Debbie: So when it comes to biodiversity and beneficial insects, do you curate bug populations?

Ann: Currently we’re working with Brock University for 5 – 7 years on a project called the organic cluster and we have one researcher who is working with a variety of cover crops and relating it to leaf hopper populations.  Another researcher is just doing sweeps to determine the bugs that live in and around our vineyard, monitoring the populations. It’s giving us a good look at beneficial insects and bugs in general.

A few years ago we tried to bring in beneficial parasitic wasps as part of a two-year study. We learned that weather conditions were critical to whether the wasps were able to become established. In the first year it seems like they disappeared but in the second year it appeared as though they stayed. Now we find them routinely.

Our conclusion: providing comfortable houses for them to nest in is probably the best route forward.

Debbie: And then there’s the term natural, which often gets maligned in the industry. How do you define the term?

Ann: My definition of natural wine is wine made from biodynamic or organic grapes, fermented with naturally occurring yeast and bacteria, and with no additives.

Debbie: I hear from a lot of growers that they follow organic practices but aren’t certified.

Ann: Organic certification adds a lot of paperwork to the process, so I sympathize. And while growing the crop is tough enough, its often weed management that becomes the deciding factor in a region like this where we get lots of rainfall. Weeds are the thing that often makes a difference between how many tractor passes you have to make through the vineyard. With herbicide like Round-up, its once or twice a year but with mechanical weeding it can be every week.

fallow field Southbrook Vineyards
Lambs hang out in a fallow block that will be replanted next year.

Debbie: And how do you define mechanical?

Ann: Simply – not manual. Weeds can be removed by specialized implements like a tractor. For years there were very limited options but like many things in organic agriculture recently, a number of different approaches are improving that side of working organically. So now we have radius hoes, weed-badgers, tillers, mini cultivators, “finger wheels” all with sensor mechanisms that allow weeding around and between the plants.

Debbie: Some wineries also describe themselves as “low intervention”. How should consumers assess these wines?

Ann: Yes, that’s also used but without any formal definition. I don’t want to be all negative because there are some great producers producing interesting wines. In the end, these producers make their own decisions about when and how to influence the wines they make.

Debbie: So you’ve helped me understand some of the organic and biodynamic viticulture practices. Can you talk about some of the earth-friendly winemaking practices?

Ann: Did you see our Southbrook Vineyards “Green” map at the entrance?

Debbie: Yes, it’s a fabulous overview of both vineyard and winemaking green practices. Anything you’d like to highlight?

Ann: Winegrowing involves many decisions throughout the year, but for green-friendly, I guess I’d start with the decisions around harvesting. There are two choices – hand harvesting or machine harvesting. The new machine harvesters have some pretty interesting features from a quality winemaking standpoint and are a big improvement from the past. My preference for high quality is still hand-harvested grapes because the whole cluster is delivered into the winery leaving the grapes intact during the harvesting process.  Machine harvesting removes berries from the stems and causes a certain amount of crushing, releasing juice into the must so there’s less a significant opportunity for unauthorized microbial activity.

The new mechanical harvesters have green advantages. They’re less damaging to the fruit than they used to be and they have sorting capabilities….to remove “MOG” – material other than grape….like stems and leaves. All of this goes immediately onto the soil where it has the opportunity to breakdown and become useful to the soil in the next growing season.

In an organic operation we compost the stems and seeds and skins in compost heaps, and then we return it to the vineyard. That process involves mechanical activity – tractors, diesel and travel over the vineyard, whereas with mechanical harvesters it’s just dropping it on the ground so the soil microbes can go to work on it. And it’s all happening at the same time in that one step while harvesting the grapes. So that’s an environmentally friendly option if machine harvesting is considered.

In the winery, I think the most interesting green thing to consider – and we’re not doing it yet – is capturing C02 from fermentation. This got a lot of airplay a few months ago because Torres in Spain https://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2017/10/bodegas-torres-green-sky-thinking/

I’ve also read that some producers in Soave and the north east of Italy have figured out a good way to capture carbon.  What’s interesting is that we have all the C02 in one place in the winery, so collecting it is relatively easy. So it makes sense for wine making and other forms of fermentation. https://www.treehugger.com/clean-technology/new-carbon-capture-technology-could-help-microbreweries-cut-costs-co2-emissions.html

Some researchers are also using a chemical process to turn C02 into powder, which could then be used for other things. What these wine regions are doing is filtering it, and then concentrating it so they can use it again for winemaking during elevage.

Debbie: How is that done?

Ann: For some winemaking steps we use inert gas – it can be C02 or argon or nitrogen – and it’s used to keep oxygen away from the wine. So by reusing the C02 from fermentation you’re not adding more C02 into the mix. I’m hoping these processes move from prototypes to useful tools quickly …

Debbie: And water usage? Are there best practices there?

Ann: Yes – there are ways to use less water. Barrels for example – the ideal situation is to empty them and then refill them with the next wine. But if we have to have barrels empty, one option I’ve found really useful – particularly for chardonnay – is to empty the barrel and let it dry out leaving the lees on the surface of the barrel. We burn a sulphur wick to keep the barrel stable so we’re not encouraging mold or undesirable organisms.

Also, if there’s a good yeast coating in the barrel we can just go back into it with the next wine or we can rinse it just prior to filling and go back in.

Normally, when a barrel is emptied, it is immediately washed (with lots of water).  Then to avoid drying out until the next use, they may be filled with water to keep them hydrated.  All these steps use a lot of water.

Even if winemakers want keep all these procedures in place they can still reduce water usage by using timers – so you don’t use more water than necessary or recycling things like rinse water.

Debbie: Any other progressive practices you’re seeing in wineries?

Ann: I would add cleaning compounds have come a long way. Most cleaning compounds for wineries are peroxide-based so they break down to no residues. Likewise with ozone, which is used to sanitize surfaces such as floors, tanks, barrel and equipment. It is active as a disinfectant for about four minutes. It does its job and then just breaks down to water again.

Cabernet Sauvignon viticultural perfection Southbrook amustreadblog
“One of the attributes certifiers look for in a biodynamic vineyard is the symmetrical nature of the leaf and how much it expresses the archetype of the grape variety. When there’s too much nitrogen the leaf’s lobes disappear from too much vigour.” Ann Sperling – Cabernet Sauvignon

Debbie: Is there any other producer in Niagara who holds a candle to Southbrook? You’ve been doing this since 2008, which makes you true pioneers and true leaders in Niagara and Canada.

Ann: There are other organic producers. Hidden Bench is doing a great job and they have a lot of acreage. I give them a lot of credit. They started certifying organic in 2015, I believe.

There’s also Tawse. They certify some of their blocks and some of their wines through Demeter. They are farming all of their grapes organically, but they don’t certify all of their wines because they buy grapes and not all of their growers are organic.

Here at Southbrook all our wine is certified organic. We’re working entirely with organic or biodynamic fruit from our own estate and with certified organic fruit from the growers, including Heather Laundry and The Saunders Family.

Debbie: Thanks very much for your time Ann.

 

 

 

 

 

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