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How wineries and distilleries are addressing climate change

October 1, 2018, 11:30 AM UTC

Every major industry from oil to big food is adjusting itself for climate change, and the liquor business is no different.

What is different is the sheer variety of changes these companies are making to address it. Winemaking itself is an ancient practice, but innovation in product production and resource preservation is crucial as seasons and temperatures shift at a more rapid clip than ever.

“From a consumer and producer point of view, sustainability and clean practices are becoming increasingly important,” says Pauline Lhote, head winemaker of Domaine Chandon in Northern California’s Napa Valley. “Consumers are extremely conscious about their impact on the environment and as winemakers, we have a responsibility to care for the land we harvest.”

Some changes are intended to ensure product quality. From Champagne makers in France to port producers in Portugal, winemakers have been moving up harvest season by weeks and even months to ensure grapes are picked at the right time in order to avoid any distortion in taste.

At the same time, many beer, wine, and spirits businesses are incorporating new technologies and using natural resources in novel ways to not only maintain product quality but keep afloat (and even improve) the bottom line in the long-term as well.

It’s getting hot in here

A commonly overlooked part in the process of making cognac, a type of brandy named for its hometown in southwestern France, is the harvesting of the wine grapes that are eventually fermented and double distilled to in order to produce the base component of Cognac: the “eau de vie.”

But increasingly rising temperatures are forcing winemakers to reschedule harvest seasons—especially dire for cognac makers, who have to make an April 1 deadline for distillation each year to satisfy French law stipulating what can be officially deemed “cognac” or not.

“The fact that temperatures are getting higher and higher leads to the grapes being ripe earlier and earlier,” says Michel Casavecchia, the cellar master at D’Usse Cognac. “As such, proceeding with the harvest earlier is not so much of a technical issue.”

Casavecchia explains that a major ramification on the process that follows the harvest, such as crushing the grapes and fermentation of the juice, is that it takes place during a period when daytime temperatures are still too warm and nighttime temperatures are not low enough. Additionally, the yeasts are also producing heat during fermentation, which worsens the situation. If the temperature of the grape juice during fermentation exceeds 80 degrees Fahrenheit, it will lead to major aromatic deviances, distorting the classic Cognac taste profile.

If they waited longer and just went ahead with harvest during the usual time frame in years past (typically October), the grapes would also incur a higher sugar content with lower acidity.

“That is not what we need,” Casavecchia says. ” Also, obviously, the longer we wait, the higher the risk for the quality of the grapes to deteriorate.”

As risk prevention measures, Cognac winegrowers are now picking grapes off the vine as early as August and are constantly monitoring temperature during the fermentation process. Casavecchia says “all” cognac makers in the region have installed temperature regulation systems on their tanks to ensure they won’t exceed a temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Collectively in Cognac, we are evaluating the consequences of global warming on the vineyards in the mid and long turn, including its impact on the characteristics of the grape—acidity, sugar content, etc.—to be able to provide an appropriate answer for the future” Casavecchia says.

Electric shock value

Slightly farther north, Moët & Chandon has been heavily investing in some highly-advanced horsepower to improve operations.

In 2015, Moët & Chandon added a fourth T4E tractor to its vineyard fleet. Designed by the Champagne, France-based firm Kremer Energie, the T4E is the world’s first 100% electric, high-clear tractor. As it uses no fossil fuel, the tractor generates zero carbon emissions while meeting Moët & Chandon’s internal technical specifications for both milling and treatment work. The technology took three years to develop, and the fine wine company touted that the development won a host of awards for its designers. Moët & Chandon plans to increase the fleet in the coming years.

Also under the LVMH umbrella, Hennessy boasts to operate the largest fleet of electric vehicles of any private business in France. The cognac house began acquiring green cars and delivery trucks in 2011. According to the company, switching to electric vehicles cut CO2 emissions by 80% compared to its previous fossil fuel fleet.

Here comes the sun

Solar power is reducing work not just for wine and spirits makers, but also for animals that have been employed for drudge work for centuries. This has been especially critical in the mezcal-making process.

Oaxaca, the heart of mezcal country, enjoys 300 days a year of sunshine on average. Traditionally, roasted agaves are crushed with a stone wheel mill drawn by a horse or donkey. But Sombra Mezcal, distilled at 8,000 feet above sea level, is overcoming this with the development of a mechanical millstone, which can be fueled by solar power. Sombra plans to install enough solar panels so that solar energy will soon provide for 100% of the distillery’s electricity.

“Since its founding in 2006, Sombra Mezcal has been committed to sustainability, from the fields to the bottle,” says John Sean Fagan, the lead distiller at Sombra Mezcal. “Our new distillery leverages over a decade’s worth of environmental insights and sets new benchmarks for eco-friendly practices.

Clos Du Val
Clos Du Val

Solar power has found popularity with winemakers as well, and not just based on how they affect the grapes on the vine. Clos Du Val—a producer of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Merlot in Napa, Calif.—installed 935 roof-mounted solar panels between 2015 and 2016, which now produce 85% of the winery’s electrical power usage annually.

Just keep swimming

Although housed in the 250-year-old stables of Slane Castle in the rural countryside of County Meath, Ireland, Slane Irish Whiskey’s new, state-of-the-art distillery began construction in 2015, opening to the public two years later.

“Climate change and global warming are top-of-mind concerns here in Ireland, as they are worldwide,” says Alex Conyngham, co-founder and director at Slane. “When designing our new distillery for Slane Irish Whiskey together with Brown-Forman, we made sure to include measures that reduce our energy and water consumption and lower our carbon footprint.”

Slane Irish Whiskey’s distillery
Slane Irish Whiskey

This extends to a special project that was designed to be mutually beneficial to both the distillery and the local wildlife. The distillery installed a “fish ladder” in order to safeguard and assist salmon migrating up the river on the Slane Castle Estate. This started with the restoration a 19th century millpond, a pool created by small dam that provides the head of water powering a water mill, in order to establish a local pool of water for immediate fire fighting.

But a side effect was a drop in water levels in the local river, which is a salmon spawning tributary of the River Boyne. This drop prevented fish from being able to move upstream. To overcome this, Slane, in consultation with the National Fisheries College of Ireland, constructed the fish ladder so that fish can now bypass the millpond. By December 2017, both salmon and trout were seen coming up the ladder, so the distillery is confident the plan is working.

Don’t go chasing waterfalls

For winemakers, most water is actually used in the winery itself, and not the vineyards typically. With intermittent years of drought as well as an earlier start to wildfire season plaguing up and down the West Coast, winemakers have had to go to new and extreme measures to conserve water.

Situated in the Stags’ Leap district of California’s Napa Valley, Clos Du Val uses ultraviolet light, instead of water, to sanitize its winemaking tanks. When Clos Du Val’s winery was revamped between 2012 and 2014, designers took into account placement of the winery’s tanks and barrels in order make labor more efficient. This was done to both cut down on injuries as well as time spent working with the wines while they are in tanks and barrels. Furthermore, smaller fermentation tanks allow for more customization and are easier to manage.

Clos Du Val reps say the winery was founded on the idea of “making the very best Cabernet Sauvignon from the estate vineyards.” They have reaffirmed that goal by reducing production by 50% in order to focus fully on making estate wines. Prior to 2014, Clos Du Val was purchasing fruit in order to augment production. Without the larger volumes to worry about, the team can focus on farming the vineyards in a way that grows the best fruit. They have also ceased using pesticides and herbicides, and they are entering organic certification process on all their vineyards across 250 acres.

New Riff Distilling in Newport, Ky.New Riff Distilling
New Riff Distilling

But even spirits makers, which produce most of their inventory inside and might not be as obviously susceptible to extreme weather conditions, have to take water sources and conservation into serious consideration.

A relatively new player on the Kentucky Bourbon scene, New Riff Distilling has had the benefit of not only planning water conservation and usage methods during a time when those are now-common conscious business decisions, but also a distillery location the founders said they ended up with “by luck or kismet.”

New Riff says it uses 100% non-GMO grains (breaking down to roughly 65% corn, 30% rye, and 5% malted barley) and pure water directly from the Ohio River Alluvial Aquifer, located 100 feet below ground and is naturally filtered and cool at a temperature of 58 degrees—even in summer. This particular water source, which gushes forth at 500 gallons a minute, is boasted to yield enormous energy savings by effectively cooling the mash (the mix of grains used to make bourbon) and condenser coils without first requiring to be artificially chilled.

“As if ‘doing the right thing for our planet’ wasn’t enough, it is my view that any business, not just distilleries, that is not focusing on sustainability will ultimately be rejected in the marketplace, especially by our coveted 21-35 year old consumers, and by their own young, talented, and environmentally sensitive employees,” says New Riff owner and founder Ken Lewis.

Rainwater conservation, especially, is also becoming common practice among distillers, and there seems to be no better spot than to start one logical place: the roof.

Sombra Mezcal, which announced a new distillery in January, installed three underground tanks meant to capture 100,000 liters of rainwater from the distillery’s roof. Municipal water is only used for the fermentation process, so the conserved rainwater is rerouted for all other needs, such as distillation and cooling condenser coils.

And Slane, just 30 miles north of Dublin, is using the roofs of the distillery buildings to collect rainwater, which are then used as the boiler feed in order to lower onsite process water consumption.

Critter country

While farmers and winemakers alike take special care in preserving the land, there are small skirmishes with Mother Nature once in a while.

Chandon, among other Napa neighbors such as Newton Wine, uses owls in their vineyards prevent pests like rodents from damaging the plants. Established in 1973 by Moët & Chandon as first French-owned sparkling wine producer in Napa Valley, Chandon California sparkling wines are crafted from three noble grapes—Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Meunier—from three estate-owned vineyards in the Valley.

Chandon’s Lhote tells Fortune that the winery actually started started installing owl boxes in its vineyards over 20 years ago. Barn owls, she explains, are natural predators that can effectively keep the population of small vertebrates below a damaging level in the vineyards. Essentially, the barn owls act as a natural pest control solution, reducing the need for harsh chemicals, baits, traps, or fumigants. The owls can detect the sound of prey under snow, leaves, or grass.

Domaine Chandon
Domaine Chandon

The benefit of letting natural enemies interact the way owls and pests do, goes beyond any economical equation. Sometimes these actions are expensive but their return is perceived in many ways,” Lhote says. “Not exposing our employees to chemical products makes it a better place to work for them.”

Lhote notes that the winery doesn’t actually bring in barn owls, but rather they’re attracted by the boxes designed specifically to serve as nests at each of our estate vineyards. Chandon has over 90 barn owl boxes with more than 80% of occupation rate distributed around the vineyards.

“Disrupting nature as little as possible allows the land to develop into its ideal conditions, producing healthier soil and vines,” Lhote says. “Healthy grapes mean better wine for everyone.”