WineFuture 2021, an ambitious virtual wine conference, is just two weeks away and I am excited to be part of the program. The wine industry has embraced the necessary pivot from in-person events to on-line programs, so there are lots of virtual conferences these days. What makes WineFuture 2021 different?
One distinguishing factor is the expansive vision of the organizers. This program thinks big, with global reach and broad societal focus. The gist of the program is this: the world is facing not one, not two, but at least four crises and the future — of wine, but not just wine — depends on what we do to address these challenges. The four crises are these.
Coronavirus Pandemic Crisis. The global health crisis comes first if only because it is an inescapable fact of daily life today that is likely to cast a long shadow into the future.
Global Economic Crisis. The pandemic and policies to address it have pushed the global economy into crisis, which some regions suffer more than others. China seems to be recovering pretty well, for example, while Europe looks likely to slip into another recession in 2021.
Inequality and Social Justice Crisis. The health and economy crises have accentuated many serious underlying issues. Inequality and social justice problems are not new, but they, along with the political reactions and social responses to them, have captured our attention.
Climate Change Crisis. Climate change is an existential threat and no serious attempt to address other problems can afford to ignore it.
Each of these crises demands our attention. And although there is a natural desire to prioritize the crises and tackle them one at a time, it is important to consider that they are interdependent and can’t really be unstirred, to use a phrase from Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia.” It is a dauntingly complicated situation. But that’s not a reason to ignore complications and uncertainties. It is a reason to try to unravel the threads to increase understanding so that effective action is possible. That’s what WineFuture 2021 is about.
Beyond Davos Man
Looking through the many sessions and keynote talks it occurs to me that this is the sort of ambitious agenda that I normally associate with the World Economic Forum, that insanely expensive gathering of the global elite that takes place every winter in Davos, Switzerland (except this year, of course, because of the pandemic). What’s different about WineFuture 2021 is that it focuses on the wine industry, of course, and is open to a much broader audience and pressing practical concerns. “Davos Man” has become a derogatory synonym for a certain insulated attitude toward the world and its problems. I don’t see much evidence of Davos Man at WineFuture 2021 … and that’s a good thing.
So what is it about wine that provokes ambitious projects like this? I pondered this question a couple of years ago at the equally ambitious Porto Climate Change Leadership Conference. Maybe it is because wine is an agriculture product, and so rooted in nature in a way that finance capital and some manufactured goods are not? Maybe it is because so many of the largest and most important wine firms are family businesses, which bring a generational perspective to their thinking. Maybe it is wine’s special ability to bring people together — especially thoughtful people like Adrian Bridge, who was instrumental to the Porto project, and Pancho Campo and David Furer, who are the organizing forces for WineFuture 2021.
And then there’s this. WineFuture 2021 will benefit three non-profit initiatives, with funds from the program plus an auction of items donated by speakers going to the charitable causes. The non-profits are SOS Cape Town, which works to address water issues in South Africa, The Porto Protocol, which promotes sustainability in wine, and North Bay Jobs with Justice, which supports initiatives to improve worker conditions in California.
Unfolding Wine’s Future
The four day conference begins with analysis of the challenges, then dives deep into particular areas of concern, focusing on workable solutions, before gazing ahead to the future. Here is how the first day unfolds.
Francis Ford Coppola opens the show — and with his experience in film I know he will do this in dramatic fashion. Coppola is famous for his cinema work, of course, but also for his important efforts in wine and for the values that guide his many and varied efforts. The first formal panel, moderated by the wine industry’s most famous MD — Laura Catena — will address the inescapable topic of the health crisis.
The second panel examines at the economic crisis. I’m speaker and moderator and am delighted to have Rabobank’s Stephen Rannekleiv, South Africa’s Carina Gous, and Professor Eugenio Pomarici of the University of Padova join me for this discussion. Together we plan to break down the economic impacts and reactions in ways that generate useful insights. We are followed by important panels on reviewing and reversing discrimination, how to deal with the unexpected, and then a keynote by UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova.
The program on days 2, 3, and 4 follow with more important programing by global leaders and wine industry luminaries including keynote talks by Pancho Campo, UNWTO Executive Director Manuel Butler, and OIV Director General Pau Roca. Click here for a list of all the speakers and here for the complete program.
WineFuture 2021 is kind of a big deal. It thinks big, acts big, and seeks to set a high standard for the wine industry as we move into the future. I am proud of the wine industry for its support of and commitment to big ideas and big initiatives like this one.
The Wine Economist World Tour is back on the virtual road in 2021. We hope for the return of in-person events before too long, but until that’s possible virtual events will do very well. Here are the first three stops for the new year.
The Unified: State of the Industry
The Unified Wine & Grape Symposium (January 26-29, 2021) is going virtual this year, including both the seminars and the amazing trade show. It will be quite an experience.
The program addresses a host of important issues, with special attention to wildfire threats and diversity and inclusion initiatives. Several sessions analyze changing wine market conditions including the State of the Industry session on Wednesday, January 27. Danny Brager, Glenn Proctor, Jeff Bitter, and Jon Moramarco join me on the virtual panel.
Idaho Wine Commission: State of the Industry
The Idaho Wine Commission’s annual meeting goes virtual this year, too, with half-day sessions on February 22-23, 2021. This is the third time I’ve spoken at this event and I am sad that I won’t be able to visit Boise in person to refresh friendships, exchange insights, sample great Idaho wine, and enjoy Boise’s amazing Basque food scene.
I will anchor the first day’s program with a special take on the State of the Industry. Greg Jones, the world’s foremost viticultural climatologist, will speak the following day. Economic change, climate change. Food for thought for Idaho’s dynamic wine industry.
Wine Future 2021: Challenges & Solutions
WineFuture 2021, an incredibly ambitious international event, will happen on February 23-26, 2021. This big international conference boasts an all-star cast. I will lead a panel on the economics of the crisis on February 23.
The folks behind Wine Future 2021 think big. The theme of the first day is the four crisis challenges facing wine (and the world): climate, economy, pandemic, and inequality. Day 2 focuses on solutions and sources of inspiration. The final two days look to the future from many different points of view.
Wine Future 2021 has been hosting a pre-conference webinar series since November to get ideas in the air and discussion flowing. You can view previous webinars (including one I did with Rabobank’s Stephen Rannekleiv) and register for upcoming broadcasts on the Wine Future 2021 Webinar home page.
The Unified Wine & Grape Symposium is just a few weeks away (February 4-6 in Sacramento) and I am already excited. The Unified is North America’s largest wine industry event with about 14,000 in attendance for the trade show and seminars.
Bursting at the Seams
The 2020 Unified promises to be bigger and maybe even betterthan ever before. The event has been moved out to the Cal Expo fairgrounds for 2020 while the Sacramento Convention Center is expanded and remodeled — the Unified simply outgrew the old facilities. The one-year move means even more room than in the past for trade show exhibitors, including outdoor space for big machines and equipment. It’s going to be huge — literally!
And the program organizers have gone to some trouble to expand seminar offerings, too, with 110 speakers divided among about 30 sessions. Something for every need and interest with programs for growers and winemakers, marketing and business management. As has been the case for several years, some of the technical sessions are offered in both English and Spanish.
Labor cost and availability is an important issue in the wine business, so I am interested in one session that examines mechanization in the vineyard and includes a wine tasting. I’m guessing that the audience will be offered the opportunity to see if they can taste the difference between wines made with machine-harvested versus hand-picked grapes. Should be interesting.
State of the Industry
I’ll be moderating and speaking at the “State of the Industry general session on Wednesday morning. Danny Brager (Nielsen), Steve Fredricks (Turrentine Brokerage), Jean-Marie Cardebot (University of Bordeaux), and Jeff Bitter (Allied Grape Growers) will be joining me on the big stage. A great team with deep understanding of the wine market.
Jeff O’Neill of O’Neill Vintners and Distillers is giving the Tuesday luncheon keynote speech this year and I am looking forward to hearing what he has to say. These are uncertain times for wine in the United States and it is easy to be pessimistic about the future. O’Neill’s company has been remarkably successful in navigating the treacherous seas, taking advantage of favorable winds. Everyone will be looking for lessons and insights they can take back to their businesses.
This is important because one cloud hanging over the meetings is a structural surplus of grapes and wine in some categories. U.S. wine demand is plateauing, which is better than some countries where demand has been falling for years. Overall wine expenditures are still rising even if overall volumes have declined.
The surplus creates a problem that may take years to correct through a combination of rising sales in old markets, development of new markets, and adjusting production capacity. Heidi Scheid is leading a session that will address the issues directly titled Strategies for Managing Through Over-Supply. Should be a standing room crowd.
Trade Wars Shrink the Pie
Trade wars are another concern. President Trump has said that trade wars are good and they are easy to win, but the wine industry has found little to celebrate about being in the center of the battlefield. Having invested years of effort and lots of dollars opening up Chinese markets, for example, many wineries have watched hoped-for opportunities disappear with retaliatory Chinese tariffs on U.S. wines.
It looks like French wine producers have dodged a bullet, avoiding sky-high U.S. tariffs that were threatened as retaliation for France’s digital tax scheme. You might have expected U.S. wine producers to celebrate tariffs on wine imports because some buyers are likely to shift from imports to domestic wines. But this substitution effect is not the only impact the tariffs have.
Prohibitive tariffs on imported wine are more likely to shrink the wine market pie at every stage of the product chain. It is hard to see how retailers or distributors can justify investment in the wine category when overall sales fall and uncertainty about future conditions is high. The uncertainty effect looms especially large, despite the recent wine tariff trade truce. If wine was caught in the trade war cross-fire before, there’s no reason it couldn’t happen again. And truces are by their nature temporary and fragile.
When tariffs work to protect an industry they tend to do so only temporarily and at high cost (struggling Harley-Davidson is a good example of this). But they more often backfire. The recent tariffs meant to protect manufacturing jobs in the U.S., for example, seem to have only accelerated the decline of the manufacturing sector generally because of the complex international interweaving of manufacturing chains and other factors.
The Red Mountain AVA is Washington’s smallest, warmest, and maybe its most distinctive wine-growing region. The warm part has been advantage for most of Red Mountain’s history. But not any more, according to Gaye McNutt and Benjamin Smith, owners of Cadence Winery and the Cara Mia Vineyard.
Too Darn Hot
Climate change has had a variety of effects that condition Smith’s ability to make the elegant wines he prefers. Earlier harvest, potentially higher alcohol levels, sunburned fruit, tough tannins — none of these impacts is desirable. Working with vineyard manager Dick Boushey, McNutt and Smith considered many alternatives and found each potential solution problematic in one way or another.
Then they hit upon an insight — to transform the vineyard in the image above to the emerging vineyard you see below.
The result is the first vineyard in Washington State specifically designed to mitigate the effects of climate change by doubling the row density of the vineyard. First planted in 2004 at three feet between vines and eight feet between rows the vineyard is now spaced at four feet between rows.
This tighter spacing provides up to two hours additional morning and afternoon shading of adjacent rows thereby cooling the fruit, reducing the effects of high heat, and ultimately producing more elegant, lower alcohol wines even in hotter vintages.
All around the world winegrowers are facing up to the challenges that climate change presents and, because wine people are creative by nature, they are finding ways to adapt through innovative viticultural techniques. Cadence is a model of how this can be done.
The Cadence solution is not inexpensive, of course, but it promises to allow them to continue to make excellent wines and even has benefits as an opportunity to add additional clonal selections to the mix.
Peter Parker Principle
A 2000 case winery like Cadence is to be commended for setting an example of innovation to mitigate the effects of climate change. Larger wineries can do the same, but the Peter Parker Principle (familiar to all Spider-Man enthusiasts) holds them to a higher standard. With great power comes great responsibility.
Many large wineries have risen to the Peter Parker challenge. Familia Torres and Jackson Family Wines, for example, have taken the lead in forming a global wine alliance to fight climate change, the International Alliance for Climate Action. Adrian Bridge of Port producer Taylor Fladgate was instrumental in creating the Porto Protocol and the global conference on climate change and wine that Sue I and attended last year.
Many wineries embrace their social and environmental responsibilities by becoming benefit corporations (B Corps for short). Certified B Corps commit to a social and environmental responsibility agenda and agree to transparent assessment of their activities. Are you familiar with B Corps? A number of large businesses have taken this step including Patagonia Works, which has a B Impact Score of 151.2 on a scale of 0-200 (the minimum score for B Corps certification is 80 — an “ordinary” business might score about 50 points). The craft beer producer New Belgium Brewing is also a B Corp (B Impact score 136.5).
It is easy to be a B Corp skeptic because it seems so unlikely that a business really would elevate people and planet to the same level as profit in its priority list. And I am sure that some are more committed than others. But a number of my former university students have become practitioners of and advocates for the B Corp program and they have persuaded me to take it seriously (Steve, Russ, Portland, Douglas, and Colleen — I’m talking about you).
Many wineries are entering the B Corp economy. Oregon’s A to Z Wineworks became the first certified winery B Corp in 2014 and is now joined by a growing international community including Symington Family Estates in Portugal and Fetzer Vineyards in Calfiornia. Fetzer, with about 2.5 million case production, is the largest B Corp winery in the world.
The Symington Family’s sustainability program, Mission 2025, is especially ambitious and includes a recently announced €1 million Impact Fund. The primary use of the funds will be for community well-being and health, environmental protection and conservation and cultural heritage and education in the Duoro and Alto Alentejo regions where the company has vineyards.
Mapping the Road at Fetzer
Fetzer has doubled-down on the Peter Parker Principle. Fetzer and its Bonterra brand have long been known as environmental stewards and activists. Chilean leader Concha y Toro’s 2011 acquisition has given Fetzer greater scale and even deeper commitment to corporate social responsibility.
Fetzer’s 2017-2018 “Peter Parker” report, Mapping the Road, makes good reading because the range of activities and commitments is very impressive. As the report says,
Fetzer Vineyards understands that transforming the future requires not just small, incremental steps toward sustainability, but rather an ambitious framework—like regenerative development—applied to every part of its business. With the knowledge that the road will not always be easy, Fetzer Vineyards is poised to continue taking bold steps toward its vision of a regenerative, net positive company, and to be part of the movement to redefine what responsible business is all about.
One thing that I admire is that Fetzer is willing to “own” its supply chain. Many environmentally ambitious firms limit their universe of concern to their own operations, which is both practical and understandable. But wine’s supply chain is long and complex and progress in the vineyard and cellar alone is commendable, but not enough. Major players like Fetzer need to take responsibility for the whole chain. It’s the Peter Parker thing to do.
And, increasingly, they are. Congratulations to Cadence, Symington, Fetzer, and others for their leadership.
The notion that we must redraw the world wine map comes up a lot. Climate change is redrawing the map — you’ve heard this before, haven’t you? And I’ve written about how globalization is redrawing the world wine map. And money — changing consumer patterns across the globe and among generations — is changing things, too.
The Great Convergence
The idea that we must redraw the wine map is easy to talk about, but actually doing it turns out to be devilishly difficult. But that’s the task that Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson, and their team of expert collaborators set for themselves in the revisions that produced this 8th edition of The World Atlas of Wine. It’s quite an achievement.
Robinson discusses the challenge in her introduction to the weighty volume. A couple of decades ago it seemed like wine was on the path to global homogenization, she writes, with wine production everywhere converging on a few marketable varieties and even fewer popular styles. I think the rise of efficient international bulk wine transport put a premium on sameness — more market opportunities if your Chilean wine can seamlessly substitute for California or Australia juice.
Cool is Hot
I won’t say that the convergence has stopped, but there’s been a reaction to it that focuses on differences and highlights indigenous grape varieties and traditional wine-making styles. Climate change and scientific research have altered wine’s physical domain, pushing grapevines into unexpected places. Tasmania and England are hot, attracting lots of attention and investment, precisely because they are cool — cool-climate, that is.
It might once have been possible to think about wine in terms of old world and new world, but today’s map is more of a tapestry, with global elements interwoven with exciting local developments. How can this dynamic be captured in a wine atlas? There are a couple of obvious approaches and I think Johnson and Robinson have chosen the best and most difficult one for this book.
The Great Revision
So how do you redraw a world wine atlas? One approach I have seen to updating a big book makes heavy use of text boxes and call-outs. The bulk of the text gets a once-over-lightly revision, while the new material is patched into using the boxes. This makes the new material easy to spot and updating the book the next time is basically updating the boxes. This saves time and money, but the result is necessarily uneven if only because some topics need a lot of updating and others less so, but the editorial format often calls for equal numbers of box opportunities.
Much harder to do — so hard with a 400+ page book that it is almost crazy — is to rewrite everything taking the dynamic elements fully into account. That, of course, is what we have in this 8th edition. The changes are not always obvious because they have been seamlessly integrated, but they are there on every page.
Literally Redrawing the Map
Inevitably, this process means that the maps at the core of any atlas have to change. All 230 of them (!) have been updated as necessary and 20 new maps drawn (plus new 3-D maps and soil maps). Seven regions get their own entries for the first time: Cyprus, Lebanon, Israel, British Columbia, St. Helena (Napa Valley), Brazil, and Uruguay.
You might think the challenge of a 416-page atlas is to fill the space, but the reality is just the opposite. There’s an emphasis of economy and selectivity throughout. Each entry is a delicate balance of breadth versus depth and, while those with specialized interests may be frustrated, I think on the whole it works pretty well. That said, I’d love to see even more detail about China (which was allocated an addition page in this revision), since the wine world’s center of gravity is slowly shifting in that direction.
The new 8th edition of the World Atlas of Wine is a great achievement. Highly recommended.
“Some New World regions are adopting European-style AOC rules,” the Italian journalist I met in Sardinia explained, “Do you think this is an important trend?”
“No. Just the opposite. I think the Old World appellation system is under attack and will need to change to survive.”
He looked at me like I had dropped down from Mars. This was clearly not the answer he was looking for, but I think it is true. I wasn’t able to explain my logic very well in the rush of the interview, so let me try to explain here.
We Have Met the Enemy …
New World wine appellations are geographical indicators that specify a wine’s origin and help differentiate a region’s products. Some of these designations are very valuable (Napa and Sonoma, for example) in terms of price premium. Others are of little economic value, but can sometimes be useful in other ways that I don’t have time to explain here.
The Old World appellation system starts with designation of origin and adds to that a system of rules that restrict grape choices, blend components and ratios, viticultural practices, and other factors. AOC rules can literally fill a book as Jancis Robinson shows us in the classic video above.
AOCs (and Italian DOCs, Spanish DOs, etc.) evolved as essentially protective structures based on the experience in Champagne, which was the model for the current system. (I wrote about this in my book Money, Taste, and Wine). The first goal was to protect regional reproducers from fraud by outsiders passing off their imitation wines as the real thing.
The second goal (and the reason for such detailed regulation) was to protect quality producers in the region from neighbors inside the region who might cut corners and sacrifice quality to increase profit while benefiting from the regional “brand”.
Very high yields, for example, might increase a particular winery’s profit, but the lower quality dilutes the value of the appellation to all others. It is a cut-throat situation. “We have met the enemy and he is us” describes this element of the AOC program.
So AOCs seek to defend the regional brand from threats from the unscrupulous both outside and inside the region. Today, however, there are two powerful forces that threaten this system and will force it to change. Indeed it is already changing.
Shifting Center of Gravity
The first force is the global market, where the fastest-growing segments and categories are not closely aligned with the AOC system and where the premiumization syndrome is strongest. American consumers have shifted their market’s center of gravity to higher price points, but not higher prices for the same products. They will pay more than before but the product has to be differentiated and appealing. So innovation, which is not a strong point of the AOC system, is increasingly important.
Sue and I saw this when we visited the Valpolicella region a few years ago. The AOC system basically provides opportunities for Valpolicella wines, Ripasso, and Amarone in ascending order of retail price (I am leaving out details to simply, but you get my drift).
We met producer after producer who responded to this situation by creating proprietary blends of grapes that were “downgraded” to IGT status (because the blends don’t strictly adhere to the rule book), but upgraded in terms of price because of their effective branding and high quality. These new IGT wines were designed to fit price points created by premiumization that were not easily attainable with existing AOC products.
There is nothing new about the IGT movement — remember when super-Tuscans were controversial, which feels like a very long time ago? But the IGT trend, which basically slips out of the AOC handcuffs, has gathered unstoppable momentum. We see these wines everywhere now — France, Italy, Spain, everywhere. And some of them of fantastic. AOC? We don’t need no stinkin’ AOC?
In a sense the rise of these “super-” wines represents a shift in mentality that is worth noting. If the AOC system if defensive at its core, the IGT movement is entrepreneurial, seeking out new opportunities and breaking rules to get them.
Climate Change Challenges
The AOC system can withstand these market forces, although some regions will find it in their interests to adapt as Chianti did in the face of super-Tuscan success. But a second force is harder to ignore and will be even more threatening in the long run: climate change.
AOC rules are often promoted as an evolutionary pinnacle. We’ve had hundreds of years to figure out what grapes and blends are the very best for our terroir and here they are laid out in the rule book! Best of the best. You cannot improve upon the AOC rules.
It is a nice argument, but what happens when the terroir changes due to new climate patterns? The answer is that the wines need to adapt and evolve to remain at the peak, which is hard to do if the rule book doesn’t change. AOC standards need to evolve with the climate or become irrelevant or, worse, counter-productive.
Some Old World regions already see the writing on the wall, as Jane Anson reported in Decanter earlier this year. Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur producers now are able to experiment with “accessory grape” varieties that may better withstand climate change than the traditional (and designated) grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
“The red grapes for trial,” Anson reports, “will be Marselan, Syrah, Zinfandel and Arinarnoa. In white, Liliorila, Chardonnay, Petit Manseng Blanc and Chenin Blanc will be tested.” A recent VinePair article called this “a small revolution,” but I see it as something bigger and this is just the start.
Anson’s article continues,
Veronique Barthe of Chateau la Freynelle, who is working on the project with the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur Union, told decanter.com this was not a form of sacrilege.
‘We are not trying to make 100% Syrah in Bordeaux, but to test which grapes work best on which terroir in the region with the intention of introducing them only if they offer real quality,’ she said.
This sounds like exactly what a winemaker should be doing, don’t you think? “When the facts change, I change my opinion. What do you do?” according to Keynes. When the climate changes, what will the AOCs do?
So the AOC system is under attack from the inside by IGT wines and from the outside by climate change. The system will adapt, but it won’t be the same. We can debate whether this is a good thing or not (I’m on the good thing side), but it is going to happen. And that’s what I wish I had time to explain to that Italian wine journalist.
Miguel Torres recently warned that the wine industry is not doing enough to fight climate change and there is no doubt that he is right. There is a lot happening, as the recent Porto conference on climate change and wine makes clear. Wine is ahead of most other global industries. But it is not enough.
One reason climate change does not get even more attention in our industry (and I think that this is true of other sectors as well) is that we tend naturally to focus on the direct effects on our businesses, assuming that these are the most important ones to us. So climate change is seen as something to mitigate in the short term using appropriate viticultural techniques and other strategies.
In Australia, for example, there is a shift from French to Spanish and Italian wine grape varieties and investment in cooler regions including especially Tasmania. The fact that firms can adapt in this way lessens the sense of risk and urgency. Climate change is seen, to draw from the title of Al Gore’s film, an inconvenient truth. Inconvenient and sometimes expensive, but not necessarily an existential threat, especially since some elements of climate change actually benefited winegrowers in the not-too-distant past.
Taking the Heat Off
Not everyone thinks this way, of course. Torres has gone all in to combat climate change and he is not alone. But the fact that mitigation techniques exist and more are being developed tends takes the heat off the sense of urgency that might otherwise prevail.
But these direct effects of climate change are not necessarily the most important ones. In order to properly assess the climate change threat to wine we must look deeper into the future and broader to the impact on the overall economic environment in which wine is embedded.
So what does the future hold, assuming current trends continue in some form? There has been a lot of research on how changing climate will affect the viability of wine grape growing in the traditional regions. Some areas will suffer minor impacts that can be mitigated through changing viticultural practices. Other regions will remain viable, but perhaps need to re-graft vines with different grape varieties more suitable to the new conditions. Old World appellations will have to rethink many of the regulations that current define them.
Other regions will will cease to be viable for quality wine grapes – period – while elsewhere we’ll see areas in the spotlight as emerging wine regions. All this will take place in the context of increasing instability of weather patterns, which most of us have already observed.
Outside the Wine Box
All these factors are important, but I think it is necessary to think further outside the wine box. Climate change will impact all of agriculture in one way or another and a great many other industries, too. The problem of feeding the world (and earning an income in it) will not grow easier overall if trends continue. This will put a squeeze on living standards and wine, because it is far from a necessity, will be squeezed harder than some other products.
At some point, and I hope it is sooner rather than later, coordinated action to slow or potentially reverse climate change is in the cards. Economists like me have long advocated a carbon tax as part of the package. Carbon taxes exist today, but in a patchwork quilt of policies and regulations with widely varying tax rates.
Carbon Tax and Wine
A coordinated carbon tax works by raising the relative price of goods and services that contribute to climate change problems. Consumers are discouraged from purchasing them by the higher price. Producers are given an incentive to innovate products and processes that replace old systems to lessen tax burdens and climate change impacts at the same time. Economists favor a carbon tax because it creates incentives for private actors to reduce emissions whereas direct regulation creates incentives to get around the regulations (see VW diesel emissions fraud).
A well-designed broad-based carbon tax might be the best way to counter climate change. It would harness private self interest to combat climate change in a way that other solutions cannot.
If climate change will affect wine as noted above, how would the carbon tax impact the industry? Well, the modern globally-integrated wine industry has a substantial carbon footprint and a carbon tax would be a big shock. Even firms that are carbon neutral in the vineyard and cellar face the fact that the supply chain is a problem.
Take glass bottles, for example. Glass of course takes a lot of energy to make, which is an important issue, but that’s not the end of the story. The U.S. wine industry is dependent on glass bottle imports from China. The ships that carry containers full of glass bottles are significant sources of pollution. Transportation from bottling plant to warehouse to retailer to consumer adds to the carbon footprint, too.
Beer and spirits might well be less affected by a carbon tax since they can more efficiently be produced close to major markets using ingredients such as grains that can be shipped efficiently by rail. The fact that wine is mainly produced close to the agricultural source and then shipped to far away markets is a disadvantage in a carbon tax system compared with products where weight and bulk (in the form of water) can be added closer to the final consumer.
Need to Do More
I have obviously just scratched the surface here, both in terms of the broader impact of climate change on the wine industry’s economic environment and the potential impacts of policies designed to resist or reverse current trends. But I hope my point clear. The impact of climate change on your wine business goes beyond what you see in your vineyard or cellar and the cost of inaction now in terms of future consequences is likely to be pretty high.
Climate change creates losers and some winners and the policies that are eventually adopted to deal with it will be the same. It is difficult to imagine a scenario where wine will be among the winners and we can already see the negative effects. It’s time to join Miguel Torres and the Porto Protocol team who ask us all to do more.
An earlier version of this article made referenced to a report in The Drinks Business about Richard Smart’s views about climate change and hybrid grapes. Smart disagreed with the way his views were reported and the interview was removed. Here is the explanation.
Last week’s column about the Porto conference on Climate Change and Wine struck an optimistic note. Powered in part by the Porto Protocol the big international gathering showed that the wine industry is moving the needle on climate change, both in terms of mitigating the impacts and addressing causes.
Sue and I learned a lot from the experts who spoke on the science and technology aspects of climate change and wine, but of course it was the business side we were most interested in. If you have a little time, for example, I recommend watching the video of the session on “Consumer Expectations and Sensible Marketing” featuring Marks & Spencer’s Paul Willgoss, Antonio Amorim of Amorim Cork, and moderator Richard Halstead.
“Economy & Efficiency: Call to Action” was the title of the final session on the second day, which featured Stephen Rannekleiv of Rabobank, Robert Swaak of PriceWaterhouseCooers, and me as speaker/moderator. I led off the discussion, focusing on the need to rethink the relationship between economics and the environment and issuing a call to action.
Stephen was next up, showing how Rabobank has gone beyond its traditional role as an agricultural lender to creating platforms where innovative solutions can be tested and developoed. He followed up with a program on this subject on the popular Rabobank beverage industry podcast Liquid Assets.
Robert’s powerful talk covered several important points, but was especially effective in developing the notion that climate change introduces or magnifies a number of risks, which wine businesses need explicitly to take into account and act upon.
As I wrote in the run up to the conference, Sue and I were interested in the trade show that took place along side the sessions. We were hoping to see a showing of the products and services that vendors provide to firms that are committed to climate change action. What we found was different from our expectations. The trade show mainly gave conference sponsors (see graphic below) an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to the cause.
We were a little disappointed, but I think we harbored unrealistic expectations. Vendors are more likely to put their efforts into meetings that attract thousands, not hundreds, of wine industry actors. The Unified Symposium in the U.S., for example. Or SIMEI in Milan. We will look closely when we are at these and similar events to see to what extent climate change is being integrated into the daily business of wine.
Sue and I were in Porto earlier this month for the global conference on climate change and wine. The event started with a day and a half of presentations and discussions directed at climate change solutions for the wine industry and then concluded with a half-day summit on climate change more generally.
The highlight of the summit was a presentation by Al Gore, the prominent climate change activist and former U.S. Vice President. Gore’s presentation was intense, focused, and inspiring. Sue called it a “stem-winder” of a speech — it really got the audience worked up.
The conference itself featured speakers from almost all corners of the wine world (Asia was the missing corner, with one non-wine speaker, Afroz Shah, a United Nations Champion of the Earth, from India, and Rajeev Samant, CEO of India’s Sula Vineyards, in the audience).
In a pre-conference column I wrote about the tragedy of the Groundhog Day syndrome — experts meet to talk about climate change, but it is mainly talk and nothing really gets done. The next meeting is pretty much like the last one, repeating with only minor variations, as the in the popular Bill Murray film.
The Porto gathering promised to break out of the Groundhog Day cycle and offer real solutions; I am happy to say that it generally delivered. Starting with Miguel Torres, we were offered concrete examples of determined companies and leaders who backed their talk with action.
One thing I learned is this: the basic outline for progress on climate change issues is fairly clear. Start with an environmental audit to establish a baseline, set specific quantitative goals to reduce emissions and improve efficiency, evaluate results, then repeat the process. Some of the achievements reported here were startling and show just how much can be accomplished once a serious commitment is made.
You could tell that many actors were still struggling a bit with exactly where to put priorities: Try to make progress everywhere? Or focus on a few big goals, either the ones that would be easiest or cheapest to achieve or perhaps the ones that would have the biggest impact? I do not know what the answer to that question is, but it is better to know what you want to do than to thrash around blindly.
The Porto Protocol
Participants were encouraged to sign the Porto Protocol, a platform created last July in the first iteration of this conference (which featured a keynote by Barack Obama). Those who sign the protocol commit to doing more in the future than they are doing now and to sharing their methods and results with others. The idea is to create an open source database that will help everyone do more, faster, better.
Interestingly, Sue and I ran into several people who confided that their organizations were having trouble deciding whether to sign up, which was puzzling because each of them has developed a strong program to promote sustainability and confront climate change.
What’s the problem? One colleague said that his organization was already doing more than the protocol currently requires, so there was a concern that they might not get credit for what they have done. No one said it, but I think it is possible that the transparency requirement could also be an issue. If that’s the case, I hope we can get past it. As Adrian Bridge, the CEO of Taylor’s and the driving force behind this initiative, has said, “There is no time, and no need, to reinvent things. If we share our successes and experiences, we will all benefit.” He is certainly right.
Does Climate Change Action Pay?
This is the question that I am often asked about both climate change programs and sustainability measures generally. The gist is that these programs are costly. Who is going to pay for them?
I do not recall hearing anyone say that consumers would be willing to pay a premium for climate change-friendly wine, although some of us talked at dinner about what could be done to draw consumer attention to wineries that are taking climate change action.
Does that mean that the costs fall like a tax on the wineries who fight climate change (and not on those who don’t)? Yes and no. Some of the defensive costs of mitigating climate change, especially in the vineyard, are going to be unavoidable. Better to treat them as a sunk cost and move on.
Some positive actions have the potential to pay for themselves, at least in part. Katie Jackson of Jackson Family Wines, told the story of the decision to move to slightly (one ounce) lighter-weight bottles for some of the millions of cases of wine that they sell. The conventional wisdom is that consumers associate lower bottle weight with lower quality, so there was pushback about this method to reduce the firm’s carbon footprint.
Happily, according to Jackson, consumers didn’t notice the difference and the environmental savings became a cost-reducing part of Jackson’s carbon-reducing program. The world is not filled with free lunches like this, but there were several examples given of actions that paid for themselves, contributing to both financial and environmental bottom lines.
All Along the Value Chain
Antonio Amorim, president of the world’s largest natural cork producer, argued for the environmental benefits of natural cork closures. The cork closure, which captures carbon rather than releasing it, can offset the carbon generated by the glass bottle it seals, he said. Amorim announced plans to expand cork forests, building upon previous innovations aimed at speeding up the long cork harvest cycle and ridding corks of perceptible cork taint.
Other speakers addressed issues up and down the supply chain, illustrating both the challenges and opportunities that climate change action presents.
U.C. Davis professor Roger Boulton’s presentation on “The Winery of the Future” was a fascinating deep dive into what is possible with current technology if you decide to design a winery from scratch to have zero or negative emissions. It is like a Rubik’s Cube in a way, since each action has many reactions, but Boulton showed that a solution is possible, with a super-efficient production facility the result.
Call to Action
Stephen Rannekleiv of Rabobank, Robert Swaak of PricewaterhouseCoopers, and I had the final session of the conference, “Efficiency and Economics: Call to Action” We presented in a “two-minute drill” mode because the earlier sessions went over time and the we had to finish on schedule so that the room could be turned for the afternoon summit.
Rannekleiv focused on the many steps that Rabobank is taking to foster innovation in the food and agriculture sector to address sustainability and climate change issues. Swaak could have touted PwC’s environmental impact assessment practice, but choose instead to add a new dimension to the discussion by highlighting how climate change impacts businesses, and not just wine, through the various often unseen risks that it introduces or magnifies.
I talked about the fact that climate change requires new ways of thinking (which fit in very well with my colleagues’ remarks) and issued the call for action. Wine gets it, I said, but that’s not enough. The wine industry needs to extend its influence across the value chain in order to maximize its impact.
Sue and I want to thank Adrian, Taylor’s Port, Pancho, and David Furer for organizing this conference and give special thanks to Greg for suggesting that we participate. To everyone we met at the conference: we hope our paths cross again very soon.