VinePair Podcast: How Chile’s Wine Industry Is Leading the Way in SustainabilityVinePair
There’s no doubt that sustainability is a topic of discussion in every wine-producing country and region around the world, but no country is doing more to push the conversation forward than Chile. Its Sustainability Code covers not just viticulture, but also practices in the winery and the way that wineries interact with their surrounding society.
This week on the “VinePair Podcast,” Adam Teeter and Zach Geballe are joined by Chilean winemakers Viviana Navarrete of VSPT Wine Group and Sofia Araya of Veramonte for a live podcast to wrap up VinePair’s Sustainability Week. They discuss why sustainability is so important to each of their winemaking ventures, how their definition of sustainability has expanded in recent years, and what they hope to achieve in the future.
Or Check out the Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter.
Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Wash., I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.” Zach, this is live, so I can say you’re in a new room with a ton of wine behind you. Where are you, man?
Z: I’m in my new house in my recording studio part of the wine storage, which is the white wine room here behind me. The red wine room is outside, but much bigger and less suitable for recording. Yeah, a lot of lifting boxes over the last week or so.
A: All right. All right. Good for you, dude. Congratulations. So what have you been drinking? I mean, there’s a ton of wine behind you.
Z: Well, we have had some really lovely weather here in Seattle, which has made moving a little bit easier. Honestly, on Sunday, I had a couple of my cousins who are fully vaccinated, as are my wife and I, and they helped us move a couple of things. Then we cracked open a bottle of rosé, the Château de Campuget 1753, which is one of their slightly higher-end bottlings. Man, just sitting out on my deck in my new house with a glass of rosé, seeing my cousins with whom I haven’t had a glass of wine in over a year. It was actually a little emotional. It’s been a year-plus, obviously. And not everything is back to normal, of course, but it was really cool and very moving to be able to do that. A rosè that I enjoy, I don’t know that I call it my favorite, but it was definitely a part of a great reset moment. That was great. How about you? What have you been drinking?
A: Oh, man. Friday night, I had a little bit of fun. The same thing, I hadn’t seen my brother-in-law in a really long time, and he came and stayed with Naomi and me again because we’re all fully vaccinated. That was really nice and we did a bourbon tasting. I’d collected some really great bottles of bourbon over the course of last year. I brought out a few bottles and we tasted through them, and it was just a ton of fun. We ordered pizza and drank really good bourbon. We had some Eagle Rare. We had the Larceny everyone is talking about, the barrel-proof that I think some people said it was one of the top bourbons this year. We had some other really cool stuff, a brand called Barrell Bourbon, which is now one of the new cool kids on the block. They go in, and they source barrels. Their magic is in the blending, and they’ve wound up on both of our last two lists of best bourbons of the year in 2020 and now 2021. Those were some fun bourbons to try with him, and he hadn’t had them before so that was really fun. We also had Michter‘s because I just always liked Michter’s, so that was a blast. That’s always tried and true. Then, throughout the weekend, I got to take him to the VinePair office, which was great. We sampled some seltzers, and then that evening we joined up with Josh, because he’s fully vaccinated. We had our first dining experience, with friends and family, the four of us at a restaurant. We ordered this great bottle of a Cru Beaujolais that was delicious. Again, as I talked about before, I don’t remember the producer because I was at dinner and I was enjoying the conversation. I didn’t have time to pull out my camera and take a picture of the label, which again, I do not think wine discovery happens in restaurants. I think it happens through retail. Nonetheless, it was a great bottle of wine that was really fun and helped make the conversation continue. That was me, but let’s get on to our guests. I’m going to welcome them to the stage now and introduce both of them. So today, we’re really lucky to be joining the podcast by Sofia Araya of Veramonte and Viviana Navarrette of Viña San Pedro or VSPT Wine Group. Viviana and Sofia, thank you so much for joining us.
Viviana Navarrete: Thanks very much for the invitation.
Sofia Araya: Thank you for the invitation.
A: Of course. We want to chat with you both about your projects and what you’re doing in Chile with sustainability. I want to jump off with obviously, Viviana, what you’re up to in the south of Chile with your Tayú project. Can you tell us a little bit about that and what you and Viña San Pedro are doing in a community with indigenous people bringing vines to this area for the first time and making wine?
V: Well, I have been very, very fortunate to be invited to participate in this project. As you say, it comes from the south of Chile in the Malleco Valley, which is an unexplored valley of only 130 hectares of vines. The wine production there almost doesn’t exist. It started back in 2015 when we decided to have social work. Viña San Pedro has been working towards sustainability for a long time. I would say 10 years back they have been developing the biggest biogas plant in the world, producing energy. They have solar panels in the vineyards producing their own energy. However, there was one pending thing, and that was social work. They decided to start exploring native communities, in this case, the Mapuche people, and they started working together with the government exploring this area. That was magical. It’s just fantastic, Adam, because they join two areas. One was with social development and the other was coming down south in Malleco, which is a great place for producing whites and reds like Pinot Noir. We arrived at this place and started to search native communities, and ended up in a community that is named Buchahueico. Twenty-four families, and they didn’t have any knowledge about viticulture because in the past they only knew forest production or animal production. The problem is that they don’t have a business at all. The younger generation doesn’t have jobs there, so they have to go to bigger cities to earn money. It was a beautiful chance for us to see that one production could be used as a social tool for social development. We started there first with only two families. Now, we are working with six families. This winter, we are planting with three more families. It’s really beautiful to see that every year, new families are showing a lot of enthusiasm about being part of this project. To see that they can have something for themselves, it’s a beautiful business for the future.
A: That’s awesome.
Z: Sofia, can you tell us as well? We want to come back to this concept of understanding how sustainability has all these different elements to it. Those of you who listen to last week’s episode of the podcast, that’s something Adam and I have talked a lot about. Sofia, can you give us some background on Veramonte, where it’s located, and what you are doing as well?
S: Yes, we have been working to keep a regional association. We have two states or two areas that we develop our project. One is Casablanca, where we have our main building and winery. Also, we have another two states in the Colchagua region, which is in the Apalta area and the Montes area. More or less, between all of those states, we have 500 hectares. In 2012, we decided that we really wanted to connect our wines to the surrounding areas. We thought it was a unique space that we have, especially in Casablanca. We did a biodiversity study on the hills surrounding our estate, and it’s a very well-preserved native forest. Since we saw there was a patrimony, we really wanted to let the wines talk about that and we decided to start working organically. All of this started becoming bigger and it became more of a sign of sustainability. It became so powerful that we were also seeing benefits not only for the wines, but also for the people working at the vineyard and also the surrounding community. It first started as a winemaking philosophy that we wanted to be expressed through the wines. Later on, it started becoming something bigger. The community and the sustainable concept came to be spoken. All of this started in 2012 as a philosophy. Now we had our certification for all of the 500 hectares in 2018. We are very proud of the organic certification. Our work is mainly organic. We’ve been very focused on the environmental aspect of sustainability. Also, we have been working very close to the community, especially in the Casablanca state. Now we have a community garden that is worked by the people that live in the nearby community. This was all put together with the tourist area that also got involved in the concept of sustainability. That’s briefly talking about it because we’ve been really into what viticulture and the environmental aspects of the organic work meant for a while.
A: Interesting. So talking about sustainability as a whole. You’re both working on different projects, Tayú and Veramonte, doing different practices. How do both of you as winemakers come to understand sustainability? First of all, how do you define it? I know it’s something that we’re trying to define. If you are able to define it, do you think there should be a formal certification for it internationally? This is a conversation we had yesterday that I’m curious about your thoughts on as well.
V: If you work with nature, you have to be responsible and be committed to what you are using. It’s not just a business, it’s not just taking the grapes, putting them in a bottle, shipping and selling it. You have to be responsible and be holistic in the whole view. In the end, what everybody knows about sustainability comes from the word sustainable. It’s funny when you Google it because sustainable means to be able to sustain in the long term. You have to be responsible for that. There’s a beautiful sentence from Patricio Parra, general consorcio in Chile, where he says, “When you see the global changing of the climate, you don’t just have to adapt. Not only have to adapt, but you have to mitigate it.” That is a responsibility that everyone has. I feel really proud to be part of the VSPT group. When you see all the different areas that the winery is taking on, but especially in the social area, you see the code we have as a country. We have a strong code that is the code of sustainability in the Chilean wine industry. The thing that is stronger compared to all the other countries is the social area. Coming back to the Tayú project, it is fantastic to be part of this to show the world that you can use wine production not only as a passion but go one step further. In my case, I always say that this type of project has made me not only a better professional and winemaker, but it has made me a better person. When you get that involved in your heart, in the way you live in the world by making wines, I would say it’s a gift. To have the chance to spread it to your colleagues, to the other winemakers. In Chile, we are living a beautiful time in the wine industry because there’s a number that is so important, that 80 percent of the Chilean wine bottles that are exported participate in this sustainable code. It’s huge in this area. If you compare vineyards that are in Chile that are committed to this social code, it is 123,000 acres, which is just the surface of Napa Valley together with Sonoma. I think we should feel proud as Chilean winemakers.
S: Yeah, I agree with Viviana. I have a strong environmental aspect that I always get from the sustainable concept because that’s an experience I had. Later on, the social aspect came into the conversation. That’s why I always think of nature first. However, sustainability should be considered as a holistic point of view that Viviana is talking about. Social aspects, environmental aspects, and financial aspects should be considered. In my personal experience, I was able to see the difference and the evolution of the vineyards when we came from conventional, chemical work towards the organic, sustainable work in the environmental aspect. I saw the difference in both the quality of the grapes, the resilience of the vineyard, and also in the philosophy and culture of the people. The main work we had to do was change the culture of people. It’s unavoidable that it becomes social, and that’s the path we followed. I think Viviana makes a great point when we talk about the national code of sustainability because it has a very powerful and strong social aspect. All, if not most of the wineries are, I believe, 50 percent of the wineries or the producers have applied and are certified in our Chilean code. I think it’s something to consider. All of the Chilean wineries are thinking sustainable, because there’s no other way. We have to be responsible. We have a very strong philosophy for future generations. Not only focus on the present, but also on the future and what we’re going to leave for the future generations. To be a patrimony for them, to be able to enjoy and not having to take care of, I think, it’s a very powerful concept.
Z: Sofia, you mentioned before how with organic agriculture or viticulture, part of the motivation was that you thought or the Veramonte team thought it would produce better wine. Do you believe that you can tell the benefits of that in the wine and in the winery? People who might be skeptical of the merits of thinking about things this way often look at sustainability efforts as costly and hard to justify. They don’t immediately reward the winery or the business. They don’t necessarily result in higher sales or higher prices. They can. However, can either of you speak to how in the actual end product, you believe the wines have been enhanced by being sustainable?
S: Well, in my experience, at least quality-wise of the wines, what I have seen is that going organic, there is a resilience that allows the vines to react better, to read the weather conditions. You won’t see big changes or big switches between one harvest or another, such as a drought or a heatwave, or a very cold season. There’s a certain stage that the vines will remain on, that you can rely on. There’s a certain quality that you can rely on. There’s a consistency that I think plays a very important factor in the sense of the quality of the wine later on. That being the quality aspect, I also think that consumers nowadays — especially younger generations — are more informed. They are finding more information. They want to know how what they are eating or drinking is produced, what is inside of the glass, or inside of what they are having. They want to see the responsibility of the industry related to that in every sense, not only environmentally, but also in every aspect of the chain. I’m not sure if I answered your question.
Z: I think that point is a good one, which is that when that message is communicated to lots of consumers, that message resonates. There’s a big portion of consumers that want to support sustainable viticulture and sustainable winemaking. Is that your sense too, Viviana?
V: Yeah, definitely. When I started, we had vineyards planted, and I’m a Pinot Noir lover. Of course, we came back and we fought against the weeds and the pests with herbicides. Since eight years ago, we started to be organic. We were not certified because we were not doing it by the logo, but by philosophy. I’ve been working in Leyda for 14 years now, so what I’ve seen is that the skin of the berries is getting thicker. For example, Leyda Valley is very close to the South Pacific Ocean. It’s only 12 kilometers so it’s really affected by humidity and cold temperature. I’ve seen the grapes develop skin that is a little bit thicker. In a way, they can naturally combat and fight against that. The other thing that I see beautifully, is the wines are getting more vibrant in the glass. When I make the vinification and then once in the bottle, if I compare back to 10 years or 12 years back, I see that they are beautifully brilliant, vibrant, and very juicy. Of course, there’s part of vinification that we have to change. However, when you see the portfolio, that change in the upper tier is associated with working organically. Also, we are going to be more responsible, to have the vineyards clean, the canopy more balanced, the soil brief. You have microorganisms naturally as well. Finally, the roots go deeper and it’s something that, again, you really find in the glass.
A: Well, I have a question for both of you, and I’m going to call out someone that I saw is watching. A friend of mine, Patricia, who’s the winemaker at Planeta in Sicily, was texting me last night and asked me after watching another session if I thought that it was harder to explain sustainability to consumers than organic? Do we think that eventually, consumers will understand sustainability? Also, in a lot of ways, it’s better than just simply organic certification in the future. The idea of understanding organics because we see an apple in the grocery store and we also know that it’s organic. When we talk about sustainability, we’re talking about not just how we’re treating the land, but the people, everything. The entire full picture. Is that a harder sell? If it is a harder sell, how do we explain to consumers why it is much better for everyone, that we’re operating sustainably than just simply going and getting organic certification? I’m curious what you both think about that question because I thought about it a lot after she asked it. I want to deeply believe that we’ll be able to explain to consumers why it’s better and why they should care, but I’m curious, as other winemakers, what you think?
V: Well, what I think as we spoke before, sustainability is more holistic, and you have four different areas. One, it’s not only the vineyards where you can be organic. You have the second area that is the winemaking and the bottling process. Then, you have this third area that is social development. Lastly, you have the fourth area that is new, which is tourism. It’s a big picture. When you go sell the wines and you say, “Did you know that there are workers in our winery that haven’t finished school and the winery pays for them to finish?” These wineries are giving workers a better chance to be better professionals and better people. Of course, they’re going to feel happier in the winery working with better performance. When you see that aspect or the long-term contracts that we have with the producers, it’s not only the process of buying the grapes and crushing them. No, there is a commitment with the producers. We get together. We gave them free consultancy. We work with them, giving charts and speaking about responsible alcohol consumption. We give them explanations about how to have a better life with their families. When you go deeper into that aspect and are able to spread it, you are not only committed to the land. Also, being in the cellar, you are responsible for decreasing the amount of water use. We are decreasing about 30 percent in the cellar. At San Pedro, 50 percent of the energy that we use is generated from ourselves using solar panels. When you show all of this, you say, “Well, this is not just the land.” I repeat, maybe the land is the most important thing, but it’s holistic. How can we make this business sustainable in the end, to be responsible with the natural resources and keep them as a safety to the future generation? When you have the tools, I think you can extend it for good. I’m sure people are going to evaluate it, definitely.
S: Yes, I agree with Viviana. I think it’s a matter of time until people understand better what happens behind a bottle, because there’s so much information out there. The same thing we’re doing right now, winemakers talking directly to people. We can also explain how we do things. We can give out information so people start becoming more knowledgeable. Therefore, I think it’s just a matter of time. If we keep talking about sustainability and what the aspects of sustainability are, people will understand better. They will find there’s an ethical aspect in the social aspects of sustainability that is important to keep in mind. Now, you may go for the glass of wine where you know that the people are well treated. That they receive the wages they deserve. They receive the opportunities they deserve. I also believe it’s a matter of education. I’m not sure how to specifically do it, but I think it’s inevitable that people start talking more about it because it’s something we are more aware of now, especially from the environmental aspect. However, I think it is linked. We are supposed to stick with people because we live in the environment. We have to take care of that. We have to be responsible for that.
Z: Viviana, you mentioned a moment ago that there are these four components of the sustainability certification in Chile, and you mentioned one that I am particularly curious about, which is tourism. One way for people listening to this or watching this, to support sustainable winemaking in Chile is to buy these wines and other wines that carry that designation. One of my great regrets in life so far is that I didn’t visit Chile when my sister was living there.
A: You missed out.
Z: I really felt that I did. So I intend one day to make up for that by going to visit. I’m curious how you both see tourism or wine tourism as being a part of sustainability because I think sometimes the perception can be, from me and others, that tourism is something that is neutral or sometimes arguably is harmful. How is it seen as an important and sustainable part of the wine industry in Chile?
V: That’s for Sofia.
S: Well, the sustainability code included tourism because there’s a social aspect in tourism and there’s also the consumer aspect of tourism. It felt important to consider. There are a few things that I think are easy to understand the impact of. For example, managing waste, or recycling. Also, gardens, if you do wine tourism, you have a lot of gardeners and then you have a lot of receivables from it as well. You can make compost, for example, or you can include the community for different things to make the experience of the touristic activities more enjoyable or more complete. You can have a part of the community selling their vegetables or selling their handicrafts within the facilities of your winery. You have them participate. These are just a few examples. Not everyone will do them, but it is included and considered on the sustainability code. All of this together, I think, will make for more responsible wine tourism. In our particular case, we have this community garden that I was telling you about. It was an initiative from the mayor. He noticed there was this need for the people of the community. They needed the land. They needed space to develop their orchards. We had space, we had the water, so why not give them space? We give them the water. We actually at that time had a restaurant. It was an interesting circle happening there. And of course, organically, that made even more sense for them because, in that way, they have an extra value added to not only their product, but also to their lives and knowledge. We had to teach them how to do that. That touristic aspect of the sustainability code makes a big impact. Nowadays, because of the context, it’s not really easy to put it there as a concrete offer in the short term, but hopefully in the long term, you will be able to see us, Zach, when you come.
Z: Hopefully, not in the long term. I want to in the short term.
S: Also, there are some financial aspects of sustainability which include the activity of tourism and so on. I think this is not easy or not so obvious to consider the tourism activity within the context of sustainability. I think if we really want to talk sustainable, let’s make the process, the chain including the consumer and the tourists because at the end of the day, they are one of the consumers. We have to include them within this concept of sustainability.
A: That’s great, so Viviana and Sophia, I want to thank you so much for joining us. We’re going to jump into a few audience questions here because we don’t usually get to take live audience questions. I’m going to read through some of these, and they’re mostly posed to all of us, so all of us can jump in here. The first one, Patricia, I’m going to let her ask a follow-up. Zach, this is probably for you and I specifically. Patricia asks: “I’m really curious how you see sustainability accepted in the world markets, as in Europe, sustainability as certification is often questioned often against organic. When European consumers look at someone who says they’re a winery that’s sustainable, they assume an organic winery is superior. The question is, will we ever get past that where people will understand the difference of sustainability and that there’s so many amazing things about sustainability? What do you think? Do you think we will? Do you think ‘big grocery’ has helped? I think that is the difference, right? I think wine is really held to a higher standard than a lot of other beverages and a lot of other foods, to be fair.” Patricia, if we’re really being honest with ourselves, wine is something that we expect a lot from. Unfortunately, the consumer doesn’t get to be educated every single day about why the things that wineries are doing are so important. But when we go to a grocery store, we see an entire section devoted to organics. We see organic milk, cheese, and apples. We expect that same certification. We don’t understand as consumers that certification actually pertains to a very small portion of the wine. Probably just to how it was farmed and maybe some other things that happened in the winery but that’s about it. It’s going to take more conversations like this to help people realize that actually sustainability is a preferred thing you should look for when it comes to wine, but I’ve said my piece. I’m curious what you all think because it’s going to take more noise or people won’t know the difference.
Z: Yeah, I want to say something and then I would love to get Sofia’s input on this as well. I think the grocery store organic produce comparison is an important one. Rarely does the consumer know where it came from. You go to a grocery store and maybe you go to Whole Foods or other upscale grocery stores and they might say what state it’s from. Maybe they’ll say the farm, depending on the location. A lot of the produce we buy, even those of us who are pretty conscientious, we don’t know exactly where it came from unless we’re buying it directly at a farmers’ market or something like that. Wine is so different because, for the most part, we know which winery made it. If we know a little bit about the winery or the region, we know exactly where it came from. It gives us this sense that it’s a higher standard you mentioned, Adam, but it also means that organic is apparently enough when it comes to produce. If you told someone, “Oh, this is a sustainably grown tomato,” they would say, “What do you mean by that?” We just need to keep explaining to people that wine is both agriculture for sure, but it’s also all these other things that we’ve been talking about in this conversation and in other ones that we’ve had this week. It’s labor practices, it’s energy usage, carbon footprint, and it’s tourism. In wine, because it’s such a premium product, it has both a burden, but also an opportunity. I have the Veramonte bottle here and on the back, granted, it’s not huge, but it’s got the certified sustainable wine of Chile being on the back label. If you get someone to turn that around or you’ve got that on a shelf talker, I do think there are consumers who will look at that and say, “That matters to me.” We just need to keep encouraging both on the consumer side and on the winery side, both doing things sustainably. It’s so exciting that Chile, as a country, is doing this. I think more regions and countries should be coming up with similar codes and saying, “Look, this is important to us because it makes sense both in the short and long term, to be thinking about this.” We all want there to be a wine industry in all these places in 10, 20, 30 years. I certainly want to be drinking wine from all these places and others so there has to be buy-in on all fronts. Patricia, some of that is just pushing that rock up that hill every day. It’s not going to happen overnight, but over time, I think the consumer will understand if we continue to talk about it.
V: I totally agree with what Adam said about education. If I remember, I’ve been in the wine business for 20 years and when I started, nobody talked about vegan wines or organic wines. It didn’t exist in those times. Now, sitting here and speaking about sustainability, I say, “Wow, in 20 years we have grown. We have done a lot.” I’m sure Chile is working really strong on this sustainable code. When you see a total region that is pushing a thing because all of the wineries believe in that thing, you start teaching and educating people. If you see the Nordic countries, Finland and Sweden, they’re very connected with sustainability, and they ask about these wines. Also in Canada, they are also friendly about this concept. The tenders and the leasing that they throw through the world, ask sometimes for sustainable wine. I think it’s definitely here to stay.
S: I agree. I think it’s something that has been here for a while. We just didn’t notice but it’s becoming stronger, and not going to get any weaker. It’s only going to grow. If we ourselves are not thinking the same way and seeing the opportunity we have here, then we are not going to be sustainable enough to be here for the next 20 or 30 years. That is one of the purposes of being sustainable, anyway. I think it’s a matter of understanding the difference, It’s not the same, as you say, being organic or sustainable. It’s the bigger picture practicing sustainability. Organic is just one of the aspects that you can understand, but there are plenty more.
A: One last question before we go. Patricia has a follow up, though, which was, “We definitely do need to figure out an efficient elevator speech.” I agree it’s a lot to explain sustainability, but we do have to figure that out. Patricia goes on to say, “What do you think it is about Chile, specifically? Viviana, you mentioned, 80 percent of the wineries in Chile are sustainable. What is it about Chile specifically that has caused it to become a country that has focused so much on sustainability? Did that come from the government? Did that come from the winemakers? Did that come from the consumers? How did that happen?” That’s the question. I think part of the question, then, we can learn from is, how could that happen in other countries? If there’s such a strong push for sustainability in Chile, how can we take the lessons of how it happened in Chile and take that to other places?
V: I’m not prepared for giving you that answer, Adam. Now, what I know is that the wines of Chile have done a great job in this, and I think they are responsible for pushing the industry together, creating this code and, of course, all the wineries jumping in. I think it’s because of the strong work of Wines of Chile. Definitely.
A: Very cool. Well, thank you both so much for joining us. It’s been a really awesome conversation. Zach, I’ll see you not on video, but in the recording studio next week.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please leave a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair cofounder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tasting director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who is instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
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