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California North Coast wineries find greater sustainability in the bottle

Making wine packaging more sustainable is playing a large role in helping two large North Coast vintners reach ambitious goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

For Sonoma County-based Jackson Family Wines, whose dozens of brands include Kendall-Jackson, La Crema and Cardinale, packaging had accounted for 20% to 25% of the company’s carbon footprint, and transportation inside and related to the organization still makes up another 40%, according to Julien Gervreau, sustainability manager.

So addressing both has been something the company has worked on for the past several years and factors largely in its announcement last month of multipronged environmental and social plan, called Rooted for Good: Roadmap to 2030 to help save the planet. Key to it is a pledge to halve the company’s carbon footprint by 2030 and become “climate positive” two decades later.

Carbon positive is the term for going beyond net zero carbon emissions to doing things that remove additional greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Environmental activist groups such as the World Wildlife Fund have called for companies to focus more on reducing operational and supply-chain emissions to reach climate-positive goals, rather than purchasing carbon credits.

Jackson committed to hitting its climate-positive goal without such offsets.

From 2015 through 2019, Jackson cut its glass packaging carbon footprint by about 15% by purchasing lighter-weight glass, Gervreau told the Business Journal. One change was reducing the weight by 2 to 3 ounces per standard 750-milliliter bottle of the Kendall-Jackson and La Crema brands. That amounted to a 3%-4% reduction immediately.

“It was something that we recognized, by using data and information, we could start to challenge, make some positive changes that challenged some long-accepted industry norms around the weight of packaging,” he said.

Now Jackson is looking to get aggressive in decarbonization of its transportation footprint. The quickest lever to pull there is in how finished wine is taken to market, Gervreau said. Eyeing 80% higher fuel efficiency in using rail than over-the-road trucks, the company wants to more actively use the rail spur at its cavernous American Canyon distribution warehouse to move more wine to distributors that way.

“We ship a lot of case goods out (from there) to the East Coast,” he said. “A challenge for us in the next couple of years is to figure out how we can move more of those case goods to rail, because that has a pretty immediate impact.”

Part of the difficulty is connecting with distributors that may not have rail service to their warehouses. And Jackson also wants to work with them on incorporating electric trucks into their fleets to take wine to stores, restaurants and other accounts.

Jackson also is eyeing the release of electric pickup trucks and other equipment in the next few years that could replace vineyard trucks, if the electric versions will be able to perform in tasks such as towing equipment.

Mendocino winery cuts carbon tied to bottles

At Fetzer Vineyards in Mendocino County, the 53-year-old winery last year announced it would take its commitments to improving the planet to a higher level, and cutting carbon emissions tied to its packaging was one of the first goals.

“We declared a climate emergency, stating the business couldn’t thrive and continue in a world that is in crisis,” said Jessica Baum, director of regenerative development and sustainability, speaking at Wine Industry Network’s virtual packXplore conference Aug. 25.

That led the wine producer, the key North American brand owned by Chile’s Vina Concha y Toro, to commit to become climate positive by 2030. Fetzer has gotten just over half-way (52%) toward that goal, Baum said.

Founded in 1968, Fetzer was an early promoter of sustainability, later launching the Bonterra organic wine brand. In 1999 Fetzer achieved 100% of its electricity needs being offset by renewable energy.

In 2014, it earned Zero Waste certification, which means an average of 90% of solid waste isn’t sent to garbage, incineration or otherwise ending up in the environment. Fetzer said that its diversion rate average has been near 97% in recent years.

In 2015, Fetzer became a certified B Corporation, a third-party verification of social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.

So Fetzer tackled emissions tied to its packaging and its transportation. Trouble is, the company saw that glass was both among the most reliably recyclable consumer wine containers but also had high associated emissions, from melting and forming the bottles to transporting them to the winery to moving even heavier filled bottles to market.

But Fetzer also considered the “cradle to cradle” lifecycle of packaging, including consumers’ refrigerating of bottles and washing used glasses.

“For a long time, we've had this idea of there being good packaging and bad packaging,” Baum said. She said that distinction is not so simple and such decisions have to consider more than recyclability.

Amid a branding refresh that rolled out earlier this year was a shift to a nearby supplier for empty bottles, saving on overseas shipping emissions, and lighter-weight glass containers.

“We also developed new technologies in order to lightweight our glass, to reduce the need for it to be as thick in certain areas while maintaining its integrity and maintaining its approachability and its style,” Baum said.

The result for the Burgundy-style chardonnay bottle was 14.8% lighter than what was used before. The total calculated carbon footprint was reduced by 15.7%, including an 11% reduction in transportation emissions and a 7.9% cut related to the materials.

“It's of critical importance that we educate our consumers about packaging sustainability, and that we begin to communicate some of these nuances … so that consumers can be more aware of the new technology and the new science to describe packaging and what is and isn't sustainable,” Baum said.

That’s an important distinction because just because a given community says it accepts a type of packaging doesn’t not mean it’s recyclable, according to Lucy Pierce, project coordinator for the Sustainable Packaging Coalition.

“For example, take No. 3 plastic PVC,” Pierce said at the conference. “Many curbside programs say they accept (No.) 1 through 7s. But PVC is harmful to the recycling stream because it contains chloride, which can turn into chlorine gas if processed in certain ways. It can be accepted, but it's definitely not recyclable.”

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before the Business Journal, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. He has a degree from Walla Walla University. Reach him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

Sept. 15, 2021: The name of Jackson’s strategic plan was updated from Rooted for Growth to Rooted for Good: Roadmap to 2030.

Sept. 14, 2021: This story was updated with Fetzer’s recent solid-waste diversion rate.

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