Food & Drink

Living Wages, Worms And Drones Help O’Neill Vintners & Distillers Achieve B Corp Status

At O’Neill Vintners and Distillers, the 10th largest wine company in the U.S., they tend a population of 150,000 million worms. The worms can recycle 80 million gallons of wastewater per year, and are just one aspect of O’Neill sustainability practices that allowed them to achieve B Corp status. Other components include a progressive human resource system focusing on living wages and continuing education for 360 employees, as well as drones in the vineyard that drop mealybug destroyers on vines as a natural method to control mealybugs, instead of using pesticides.

“Since our inception in 2004,” states Jeff O’Neill, Founder and CEO, “we have always focused on sustainability. First we became BRC and ISO14001 certified, and then achieved the California Sustainable Winegrowing certification in our vineyards and winery, so we’ve been laddering on all of these certifications, and are now looking at organic and regenerative certifications. Having accomplished the others made it easier to apply for B Corp status, which took us 18 months to achieve.”

To date there are only 25 wineries in the world that have achieved B Corp status. The certification is more stringent than others in that it not only evaluates environmental and social practices within a company, but also holds companies accountable for community, suppliers, customers, and corporate governance policies and practices. Plus, with an emphasis on transparency, it makes this information publicly available on the B Corp website.

Given that O’Neill Vintners and Distillers produces around 2 million cases of wine and another 2 million cases of spirits on an annual basis, this is no mean feat. O’Neill and CMO, Christine Moll, discuss the process and its benefits in a recent online interview.

Challenges & Benefits of Achieving B Corp Certification

O’Neill’s best known wine brands include Line 39, Harken, Intercept, Rabble and Robert Hall, but they also produce private labels for many stores, as well as wine and spirits at scale. Headquartered in Parlier, California, they own over 870 acres of vineyards throughout the state, and purchase grapes from independent growers that farm more than 15,000 vineyard acres.

“One of the most challenging aspects of the B Corp certification,” reports O’Neill, “is that all of our growers and other suppliers must be certified sustainable as well. This means they must have incorporated positive environmental and social practices in their business, and be proactively demonstrating improvement.” O’Neill mentions that getting that type of buy-in wasn’t a slam dunk with everyone, but eventually they achieved that status.

Another key component to their success, states CMO Moll, “was identifying a team within the company to lead the B Corp certification process.” The audit process includes rigorous documentation of all aspects of the certification and communicating with multiple stakeholders to gather information and insure that everything is being implemented correctly.

The champions were Caine Thompson and Alyssa Hall. “They were a two-person team that worked with our winery and vineyard operations teams, as well as human resources, marketing, sales, suppliers, and many other departments,” reports Moll. “In the end, all of the efforts paid off, because both our employees and sales force are really jazzed about achieving B Corp certification. It’s a force for good.”

Another key benefit, according to O’Neill, is responding to the consumer trend for increased transparency in the wine industry. “New consumers want to enjoy wine and know what’s in it,” he states, “and young consumers appreciate B Corporations.”

Some of the other U.S. wineries that have achieved B Corp certification to date include: Ron Rubin Winery, Sokol Blosser, Fetzer-Bonterra, A to Z Wineworks, Winderlea, Patton Valley Vineyard, Stoller Family Estate, Chehalem Winery, Brooks Winery, and Bainbridge Vineyards.

How the Wine Industry Can Help Be a Game Changer With Regenerative Farming

“I think the key question,” states O’Neill, “is how can we grow grapes in a more carbon neutral environment? Part of the solution is becoming sustainable first, but over the long term I believe that adopting regenerative farming can be a game-changer.”

Regenerative farming focuses on soil health, and includes the use of cover crops, reduced or no tilling of soil, reduced or no usage of agro-chemicals, and building a communal ecosystem with nature. Many of the top agriculture firms around the world are investigating this, because it also reduces carbon emissions. The challenge is the cost of implementing the new practices, and adverse climatic conditions, such as hot humid weather that can spur mildew growth and cause farmers to scurry back to spraying agro-chemicals.

“Climate change is a real thing,” state O’Neill. “One of us alone will not make a big difference, but together, we can. The movement to make this happen is larger than what it took the world to end WWII – but we got that done. Now it is important that everyone understand what we are up against, and that working together, we can solve this problem.”

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