Napa Valley’s Sustainable Wine Movement

We sat down with CEO of Napa Green Anna Brittan to get down to earth on sustainable wine and how the program works.

Rows of Vines in Napa Valley
Vineyards of Napa Valley

The Wine Siren:  Why the urgency of a truly farm-to-table sustainable winery today? 

Anna Brittan: The wine industry is the canary in the coal mine for climate change, and the impacts are happening NOW. Fires, drought, increasing high heat days are all making it essential that the industry take action and increase resource efficiency, reduce their carbon footprint and do what they can to adapt. When most people think about sustainability and wine they think about the vineyard, and that is essential, but we also have to recognize that there are often just as many opportunities to save energy and water, reduce emissions, and take care of employees and neighbors on the winery side. It’s critical to think about the whole system. 

Wine is the premier agricultural product – it captures global attention, meaning our leadership can be an outsized force for change. Here in Napa County we have the opportunity, as a globally celebrated wine region, to use our platform and influence to serve as a force to transform the industry. We have to get more growers and vintners onboard in making sustainability and climate action an integral part of day-to-day business. 

Image showing newscaster talking about 13 fires in Napa Valley in a single day

TWS: How did you get into this business?

AB: I grew up in Calistoga and St. Helena and graduated from St. Helena High. I went to college out in Massachusetts and had no intention of working in the wine industry. My first year of college I read a book called “The End of Nature” and it was life-changing. I knew whatever I did I had to work to fight climate change. 

I started my career working in environmental policy and management first in DC and then in Vietnam. Back in 2006, I needed a summer job when I was transitioning from working in Vietnam to my master’s degree at Yale. That is when I met John Garn, who had been doing sustainability consulting with the wine industry for over a decade. For better or worse, he got me into this niche of sustainable wine growing. I completed my Masters of Environmental Science & Management and spent a few more years working nationally and internationally. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that you can have the most impact at the local level. I moved home in 2014 and I started managing the growth of Napa Green in 2015.

Anna Brittan CEO, of Napa Green standing out by a body of water
Anna Brittan, CEO of Napa Green

TWS: Please share the clarification of organic, vs sustainable and the definition of what sustainable is truly is and why paying closer attention to this is important.

AB: In terms of environmental stewardship, organic certification is just for the farm, and is focused on one specific topic – don’t use synthetic pesticides. Sustainable winegrowing certification is for both the farm and production – from the vineyard into the winery – and has a much broader umbrella. Sustainability certification includes standards for saving energy and water, reducing waste, climate action, and, critically, social equity & justice. None of those elements are required for organic certification. Sustainable wine-growing certification includes a focus on reducing the use of harmful pesticides but goes well beyond that.

TWS:  Does “Natural wine” have any foothold in sustainability? (trying to dispel confusion here).

AB: Let me share the first critical issue with “natural wine” – there is no third-party certification. A grower or vintner can say they are “natural” and there is no independent third-party that has validated they are walking the talk. Natural winemaking is largely focused on eliminating or drastically reducing the use of sulfur (which occurs naturally in the environment). Most natural wine producers are certified organic or Biodynamic. And again, this is only focused on the vineyard and does not include a deeper, systematic focus on resource efficiency, climate action, and social equity. 

A spring photo of Opus One Winery surrounded by yellow mustard and lush green grounds
Opus One has recently achieved the "gold standard" of Napa Green's certification
Napa Green's certifications. One for certified winery (in red) and the other for certified vineyard (in green)
Look for these signs at your favorite Napa Valley Winery.

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On this windy and stunning day we welcome the owners of Alpha Omega Winery, Robin and Michelle Baggett. We’re talking about sustainable wine growing and winemaking.

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Napa Valley's Sustainable Wine Movement

TWS: What does a Napa Green Certification mean exactly?

AB: Well, first I want to stress that sustainability and Napa Green are about a lot more than just environmental stewardship – by definition sustainability also addresses social equity, as well as resource efficiency and resilience practices that increase the business success ($) and longevity. 

Our Napa Green Certified Vineyards have to implement more than 100 practices across six elements: Social Equity, Justice & Inclusion; Carbon Farming and Regenerative Agriculture; Irrigation & Water Efficiency; Tree & Forest Preservation & Enhancement; Prohibited & Restricted Pesticides; and Conservation/Low-Smoke Burning or Burn Alternatives.

Part one of the six pillars, Energy efficiency, Waste Reduction, Water Efficiency with icons to represent this graphic
Three of the six pillars required by Napa Green

AB: If you are wondering what “regenerative” farming means it is practices like cover crops, compost, and reduced tillage that increase soil health, organic matter, increase water and nutrient storage, biodiversity and increase the resilience of the vineyard to climate changes like drought and high heat days, ALL while also storing more carbon in the soil. This is exciting – farmers have an active and meaningful role they can play in fighting climate change.

Our Napa Green Certified Wineries have to implement more than 120 practices across Energy Efficiency; Water Efficiency; Waste Prevention and Green Purchasing; Climate Action; and Social Equity & Community. We also baseline and track their energy and water use and waste diversion annually to make sure they are working to improve performance.

Three additional pillars including social equity, integrated pest management and climate action in green graphic
The final three pillars include social equity, integrated pest management, and climate action.

TWS: How can people identify these wineries easily when in a market or buying wine online?

AB: This is an area with plenty of room for improvement. On our website, NapaGreen.org, you can see all of our Participating Members, and that is true for the handful of other sustainable wine-growing certifications in the U.S. as well. The easiest cue would be a logo on the bottle, but only a small subset of producers have added the certification logos to their labels. If you are a member of a wine club or have a particular favorite wine you know is committed to sustainability please encourage them to add this information on the bottle! Some certified members mention their sustainability commitments in their wine description and/or have sections on their website. 

TWS: Is this program available to other AVAs around the country, around the world?

AB: We want to expand our umbrella beyond Napa County. We have our members ask us about this regularly because they also own wineries in other counties or even states. We’ve also had a few international requests. I’m hoping we can build this larger identity and impact in the next 1-2 years. In the meantime, there are five other sustainable wine-growing programs in the U.S. (only three that cover vineyard AND winery), two programs in Canada, and another 10 or so globally. So, this is a movement in the wine industry, and we want to do our part to keep pushing the industry to elevate its standards and leadership.

TWS: What kinds of questions can consumers ask of their favorite producers to determine how sustainable a winery is?

AB: Our goal is to set the leading industry standard for sustainable wine-growing. On that note, I’ve developed a set of Six Pillars that can serve as a filter to evaluate the true sustainability of an operation or certification – to be leading they should have standards around these six pillars: I. Saving energy & energy efficiency; II. Saving water & water efficiency; III. Preventing waste and environmentally preferable purchasing; IV. Phasing out harmful pesticides; V. Social equity & justice; VI. All of which folds into systematic Climate Action.

 

 

A photo of the Wine Siren, Kelly Mitchell with a Napa Green Certified Winery, Sequoia Grove
Kelly Mitchell is an unofficial ambassador for spreading the word on sustainability in wine. Photo by Meghan Vegara

TWS: How can individuals helps better support our fight against climate change?

AB: Well, first, of course, you should use your purchasing power to support brands and companies that are committed to environmental stewardship, climate action, and social equity. Other easy steps: Set your thermostats at the most efficient level – 68 in the winter and 72 in the summer. Recycle – including wine bottles (did you know glass is infinitely recyclable but only 25% of glass bottles currently end up being recycled?). Don’t buy bottled water. If your electricity provider offers an “opt up” opportunity for 100% renewable electricity makes that small added investment. Bigger investments include installing your own solar and purchasing electric vehicles that can run on that sun energy. DO NOT feel powerless. If a lot of us make small changes it really does add up.

TWS: What is one thing most people don’t know about climate change they should?

AB: It’s here, it’s already happening, and we are facing “tipping points” within the next few years, and we have to take RAPID action. One example: The catastrophic mega-fires we are now experiencing every year on the west coast. My mother has had two homes burn down, one in 2017 and one in 2020. We have about a decade to accelerate action and make rapid changes, and the good news is we really have all of the tools we need. The key is will, fighting inertia, stepping up, changing our own behaviors, and demanding policy changes at the County, State, and Federal levels. 

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