Bonterra, a Mendocino County winery in the Fetzer Vineyards portfolio, recently announced that the business is Climate Neutral and that its products are the world’s first organically farmed, Climate Neutral certified wines. While many wine consumers are familiar with organic farming, a label claiming climate neutrality is relevantly new. So what does it mean?
Climate Neutral is an independent, nonprofit organization with a framework for participating companies to measure carbon emissions. Offsets are purchased in order to achieve neutrality—carbon credit offsets conceptually “remove” emissions from the atmosphere, balancing them against carbon-eliminating or carbon-avoiding entities. Think of it like a scale, for each metric ton of greenhouse gas emissions generated, a credit for supporting a project such as reforestation or renewable energy can, in theory, lift that ton of emissions from the scale. For example, Bonterra has partnered with projects that restore mangroves in Myanmar, reduce deforestation in Brazil, and modify logging practices in China.
The system of carbon credit trading began as part of the 1997 UN Kyoto Protocol, and while it’s not new, the process is still being evaluated from a long range perspective. This is why a final—and possibly the most impactful—component of Climate Neutral requires a commitment to develop and implement an emissions reduction action plan. At Bonterra this mainly centers on the winery’s regenerative agriculture practices and resource management.
Over 300 brands—including several dozen in the food and beverage space—bear the official Climate Neutral certification. Lubanzi Wines in South Africa and La Honda Winery with vineyards in Santa Cruz Mountains are other wineries that wear the Climate Neutral certification.
Rachel Newman, vice president of marketing for Bonterra, says the urgency of the climate crisis motivated the winery to take action that is demonstrated immediately.
The Climate Neutral model allows participating companies to complete the measurement stage in a matter of hours or up to several months, depending on the size of the brand. Offsets must be purchased and documented within two weeks of completion of the measurement stage. The reduction plan is also developed quickly, with a commitment phase of 12-24 months.
Newman says communicating openly and transparently has garnered an “incredible” response. “It allowed us to measure our entire emissions footprint, disclose it publicly, commit to near-term reduction targets, and then communicate with our customers, consumers, and industry peers about the process and path forward,” she says. Bonterra’s immediate commitments include investing in electric vineyard machinery and reducing emissions resulting from the shipment of bottle glass.
Jess Baum is Bonterra’s director of regenerative development and sustainability, and she says that examining the company’s emissions footprint is a reasonable starting point in the complex challenge of addressing climate change from a business perspective. “It gives visibility into the soonest-opportunity areas to take credible action,” she says. “It can’t be said enough that we cannot allow perfect to be the enemy of good, and put this type of analysis off.”
Baum shares that Climate Neutral’s Brand Emissions Estimator (BEE) footprint calculator helped Bonterra determine its hot spots, build a plan to address those emissions, and take “immediate responsibility” for the brand’s carbon pollution. “We use third-party verification to ensure our carbon credits meet the ‘big six’ requirements: real, permanent, quantifiable, verifiable, enforceable, and additional,” says Baum.
The Bonterra team purchased 110% of what was required to account for any potential imperfections in the measurement process and to ensure its footprint was adequately covered. “The lesson for us has been that getting started, rather than waiting for a perfect solution, was the right next step following our declaration,” says Baum.
Newman points to an increase in “green-washing and good-washing” terminology that can confuse marketing storytelling with genuine, responsible action. She calls on wine industry leaders to establish “credibility and true transparency”. The industry fails to conceive a firm definition for terms like natural and clean, words that are used widely, but symbolize little more than what the brand intends them to mean. This leaves consumers in the dark about the wines they buy, because the nomenclature is unsettled.
For consumers, a reputable certification can facilitate the purchase of wine that matches their values and consumption standards. Many wine brands produce products ethically and responsibly yet don’t have a certification to prove the efforts in the market—certification by a reputable party can be a transparent way to communicate these with customers.
“That’s why we believe third-party verifications, such as Climate Neutral Certification and Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC), will become the gold standard for our industry,” says Newman. “We are keenly aware that trust is paramount to today’s consumers.” In 2021, Fetzer Vineyards joined peers Troon Vineyard in Oregon and Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles as Regenerative Organic Certified wineries, among the first in North American to earn this achievement.
The Bonterra team has also announced the Beyond Clean platform to “elevate above the so-called anxiety economy dynamics”. Newman sees the platform as a way to build relationships with consumers, by allowing anyone to see exactly what systems and practices have been employed in the making of Bonterra products. “Consumers are clamoring for brands to demonstrate that their goodness isn’t just at surface level, but rather something that runs deep and penetrates every aspect of a business and its supply chain,” she says.
Baum is reminded that vineyards are closely tied to the climate and land: “Our industry is directly impacted by the climate crisis, from drought and wildfires to record-breaking temperatures.” She says the wine industry is at the “front lines of the crisis” and that taking action is bolstered by collaboration and sharing ideas for improvement laterally. “I spend a lot of time on Zoom sharing thoughts with industry and extra-industry colleagues, and advocating for systemic change that will greatly broaden wine’s impact on a better tomorrow,” she says. “We need more of all of this.”
While not always necessary—many producers may find them restrictive or extraneous to their practices—certifications are a growing resource for wineries to refine or prove their methods and witness the actions taken by their peers, and meanwhile for consumers to make informed buying choices. For the Bonterra team, the challenge of meeting certification requirements has been fruitful. “We are energized by the positive reaction to our Climate Neutral Certification, as well as our other responsible business commitments, and can’t wait to see what 2022 brings,” says Newman.
Bonterra/Fetzer Vineyard’s full Climate Neutral entry is published here.