Isn’t it about time that we start defining ‘fine wine’ by how seriously the producer is about taking care of the land and the people who work on it?
And that means not only applauding the ones that do, but seriously questioning the ones that don’t.
This long overdue correction was at the heart of a panel discussion on social sustainability that I chaired during the Fine Minds for Fine Wines event, held by the Areni Institute in Bordeaux last week.
The idea was to look at social and environmental sustainability programmes currently underway, but I came away thinking that the only way for things to truly change long-term is if we have a wholesale redefinition of what a luxury wine should encapsulate.
We already know that consumers today are demanding more social responsibility from brands. Doing more than paying lip-service to sustainability, diversity and being a ‘good global citizen’ is expected, particularly from luxury brands that are going after the most discerning consumers.
You have to look outside of wine to see the most high profile examples today. In the UK, all industries with a turnover of at least £36 million must publish an annual statement on slavery and human trafficking within their supply chain, to make them take responsibility for labour practices that affect their products.
There’s a quiet revolution going on; look at the wave of start-ups designing clothes that have less impact on the planet.
These include Allbirds sustainable wool shoes and Unbound Merino, which uses fabrics that that need far less washing. Then there is Patagonia, the clothing company that famously took out a full page ad in the New York Times detailing the environmental impact of manufacturing its jackets, and asking people to think twice before buying them.
It’s been noted many times that the wine industry needs to take the lead in environmental discussions, because it’s among those on the front-line of the impact of climate change; a message that is particularly timely with AOC Bordeaux announcing the inclusion of new grapes as a response to rising temperatures.
Antoine Gerbelle, a French journalist with Tellement Soif, pulled up Saskia de Rothschild on Twitter this week for saying in an interview that Lafite is not organic or biodynamic because not every vintage is favourable.
‘A wine that sells at €500 per bottle?’ Gerbelle said. ‘Look no further for the authors of Bordeaux bashing – they do it to themselves.’
But the conversation needs to go much further than organics or biodynamics, and recognise that there’s also an increasing need for transparency about social sustainability in luxury wine estates.
I’ve never heard of a Bordeaux château, for example, raising their wine price by 50% in a good vintage, such as 2010, and then using some of that profit to pass on to the pickers who brought in the grapes.
It might happen, but if so the estates are not doing a good job of communicating about it.
Gerbelle’s outrage was echoed on the sustainability panel by Ixchel Delaporte, author of Les Raisins de la Misère, published in 2018, turning the spotlight on, as she sees it, ‘Bordeaux’s corridor of poverty’ along the D2 road that runs past the Médoc’s top châteaux.
Last week she chastised the châteaux owners present at the event for the vast inequalities in the region and the way that seasonal workers are treated.
Delaporte is relatively easy for châteaux owners to dismiss, because she’s so single-minded in her presentation that she over-generalises and gets things wrong.
It is of course also way too easy to target Bordeaux for issues that are found world over, but all the Bordeaux estates that aim to make a luxury product would do well to listen to the message rather than bristle at its delivery.
The simple truth is that there has to be more to luxury today than wines that taste wonderful and have a history that most of us can only dream of.
One of the most impressive contributors to the international panel was Laura Catena, of Catena Zapata, in Argentina.
Not only has she extended her own company practices to form a country-wide fine wine and viticulture charter known as ‘The Bodegas de Argentina Sustainability Protocol’, but the idea of providing true opportunities for workers to progress within the organisation is part of their DNA.
This includes language classes for all workers who would benefit from it, for example, and an array of routine cross-skills training.
An example of this opportunity is Roy Urvieta. One of the most successful academics at the Catena Institute of Wine, the research facility that Laura Catena founded in 1995, came from within the company.
Urvieta grew up in a small town in the Uco Valley and got his first job as an operator in the harvest reception area of a local winery.
He spent many years working there in the morning and afternoon, then in the evenings he would study oenology. The Catena family supported his studies when he began to work for them. Currently, he is finishing a PhD in agricultural science in Universidad de Buenos Aires, with an advisor at UC Davis.
The family also works with the local rural high school in Tupungato to teach vineyard and winemaking skills to the pupils. The aim is to cultivate skills and a sense that working in wine could be a serious alternative to simply leaving and moving to the nearby cities for work.
There’s no question that things are happening in Bordeaux also.
Château Lafite Rothschild, for example, has been quietly employing 30 to 40 refugees each year through the programme Action Empoi Refugiés, a foundation that Saskia de Rothschild recently brought to Bordeaux from Paris.
For now, they come mainly for the few months around harvest, but there are openings for one or two each year to join the permanent staff, and Rothschild is hoping to work with other châteaux to extend the programme.
Over in Moulis-en-Médoc, Jean-Baptiste and Véronique Cordonnier, of Château Anthonic, began the Vignerons du Vivant programme in 2018.
The first year saw 11 Médoc estates taking part in the programme to help find work for unemployed or under-qualified 18- to 30-year-olds by giving them a free nine-month training course in organic farming.
Jean-Baptiste has also begun a programme of tree planting following the principles of agro-forestry management. Careful analysis of the needs of different parts of the vineyard, such as protection of ditches or drainage channels and plus benefits to the soil, has led to the planting of specific trees, including oak, elm and pear.
He is clearly interested in forest management, as he owns a Pro Silva forest – a Europe-wide system of sustainable forest management – in the Ariège area of southwest France.
He plans to build a new winery here entirely from his own sustainable wood over the next few years.
By combining these two social and environmental initiatives, the Cordonniers could begin to creep up the luxury wine scale if we were to initiate this new definition of what makes a wine truly sought-after, rare and authentic.
Recent research has suggested that tree planting may be the cheapest and easiest way for us all to tackle the carbon emissions.
At the very least, if châteaux want to charge upwards of €100-a-bottle for their wines then they need to begin asking themselves why consumers should not expect to feel good about that purchase for their conscience as well as their taste buds.
Missing the point?
But perhaps most important of all is the understanding that this goes far beyond a marketing necessity.
One of my most illuminating discussions came with Will Berliner of Margaret River’s minimal-intervention wine, Cloudburst.
His observation has stayed with me: ‘Everyone at this conference is talking about how to move their brand forward, about how to not miss out as the world of luxury changes. But merely tapping into “sustainability” as a ploy to connect to the consumer and thereby grow market share, entirely misses the point.’