A little over a week after a United Nations panel issued a stark report on the rapid pace of climate change, one of the world's most influential wine companies, California-based Jackson Family Wines, announced a 10-year plan to help fight climate change and pursue other broad environmental and social responsibility goals. It's one of the more ambitious efforts ever by a wine producer to help the environment.
By making a public commitment, backed by educational outreach, the company aims to inspire other wine businesses to follow suit and adopt more climate-friendly and sustainable practices. "We're calling it the decade of action," said Jackson Family Wines CEO Rick Tigner, noting that the company had a team of 100 employees and external stakeholders develop specific, measurable goals. "If we can lead by example and get other wineries to join in this conversation and be collaborative, this decade of action will get off to a good start."
The four key areas addressed in the "Rooted for Good: Roadmap to 2030" program—which builds upon more than a dozen years of prior sustainability work at the company—are greenhouse-gas emissions, land conservation and soil health, water management and diversity, equity and inclusion.
Among Jackson Family's boldest commitments is its plan to cut its carbon footprint by 50 percent by 2030 without purchasing carbon offsets and become "climate positive" by 2050—meaning that not only will it reach net zero emissions of greenhouse gases, it will help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That effort goes hand in hand with a plan to transition all of its estate vineyards to regenerative agriculture, a form of farming that improves soil health and helps land store more carbon dioxide.
Although an Aug. 9 report from the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that a warmer future is unavoidable, with a likely temperature rise of around 1.5° C within the next two decades, it said that there is still a short window to prevent the worst effects. Agricultural businesses can play a key role there, noted Katie Jackson, senior vice president of corporate social responsibility: "If we are able to sequester more carbon in our lands, we can possibly have a positive impact on climate change."
With 40 high-end wineries spanning five key California regions, Oregon, France, Italy, Australia, Chile and South Africa, Jackson Family believes its efforts have the ability to shift policy and practices globally. Vice president of sustainability Julien Gervreau said they will "share our progress and share our successes but also our failures" in the spirit of transparency to "try to advance progress for the entire industry and really for agriculture as a whole."
Jackson Family Wines already works on sustainability and climate-change projects through public-private partnerships; collaboration with its suppliers, other wineries, growers and regional wine organizations; and research with universities and private companies. In 2019, the family joined forces with Spain-based Familia Torres to found International Wineries for Climate Action (IWCA) to bring together wine companies to work on decarbonizing the wine industry. So far, they and eight others have committed to achieving net carbon-zero status by 2050, encompassing direct emissions from their own properties, indirect emissions from purchased energy and indirect emissions from other parts of the supply chain such as packaging and transportation.
Now, as part of Rooted for Good, Jackson Family will be adding an educational component open to the wine trade. This year, it will hold a series of virtual seminars that bring together scientists, sustainability experts, suppliers and others to discuss carbon reduction, water management, regenerative agriculture, social responsibility and the effect of sustainable practices on wine quality.
To register for the free Rooted for Good: Fostering a Sustainable Future for the Wine Industry classes, sign up here.
Rooted for Good builds upon a sustainability benchmarking program Jackson Family started in 2008, explained Jackson, which was then formalized in a 2015 report that outlined sustainability goals for the next five years.
Since 2015, the company has cut emissions by about 17.5 percent, primarily through investing in on-site renewable energy, said Gervreau, making it the largest generator of solar power in the U.S. wine industry, with 23,000 solar panels across its wineries in California and Oregon. Switching to lightweight glass and encouraging the use of electric vehicles by providing charging stations at its workplace have also helped.
To achieve more dramatic carbon reduction goals, Jackson Family will continue adding on-site solar arrays at wineries and is building a utility-scale wind turbine in Monterey that will generate more electricity than they currently need, so they can contribute the extra back to the grid. The company is also planning to reduce emissions from its own vehicles and agricultural equipment, such as by using electric tractors, and from the transportation companies with which it works. It will not be buying carbon offsets—a way of compensating for one's own emissions by paying someone else to cut emissions elsewhere, such as by reforesting lands or funding clean-energy projects in developing countries. Gervreau explained, "We don't think you can just buy your way out of this."
Switching to regenerative agriculture may eventually help take the company from carbon neutral to "climate positive," Gervreau said he hopes. The farming method aims to reduce or eliminate tillage—turning over the soil for weed control, aeration and other purposes—and encompasses practices such as adding carbon-rich compost to the soil, planting diverse cover crops in the vineyards, and using livestock such as sheep to control weeds among the vines and avoid compacting the soil with heavy farm equipment. The company is working closely with the scientific community to understand the impact on soil health and carbon sequestration, Gervreau said, and has seen early promising results on reducing erosion, increasing water-holding capacity and improving plant nutrition.
All those things "are going to make our vines more resilient in the face of climate change," added Jackson, who said a team is also looking at the effect on wine quality over time, comparing regeneratively farmed vineyard parcels to adjacent control parcels. She believes wine quality will improve with all the attention to detail that regenerative farming requires.
Learn more about Jackson Family Wines and its sustainability efforts:
Water usage has been a big focus for Jackson Family, as California has been struggling with years of recurring droughts, which are only expected to get worse with climate change. "We've reduced by about 43 percent the amount of water we need to make one bottle of wine in our facilities," said Jackson. The company will continue to expand upon successful projects such as recycling water used to wash barrels, capturing rainwater for use, monitoring water use in real-time to avoid waste and using new precision-irrigation technologies in the vineyards.
But Jackson noted that the company is also looking at the bigger picture: how to protect watersheds around their vineyards (through partnerships with the National Marine Fisheries Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife) and how they can help recharge groundwater aquifers when they have more than enough water for their own use (through research with the University of California at Davis).
A key but often-overlooked part of sustainability is creating a better environment for employees and a strong community. To improve diversity, equity and inclusion in the company, Jackson Family has established a steering committee and employee council to revise its policies and is expanding recruitment, scholarships, mentorships and career advancement programs.
Educator Elaine Chukan Brown, who will be leading the seminar series, noted that the company has already made great strides in gender equity; in the state of California, she found, about 10 to 14 percent of winemakers overall are women, while within Jackson Family, 61 percent of winemakers are women. Women also hold 50 percent of department leadership positions and director-level positions, 53 percent of senior management positions and 54 percent of the sales roles.
Some of Tigner's new goals are to bring more Latinx people, who are a large part of the wine workforce, into management and to do more outreach to historically Black colleges and not just recruit heavily from California university wine programs. He also noted that the company is revising its sick and family leave policies to focus more on wellness: "I'm big on mental health right now, because during COVID and the pandemic, lots of folks have had issues."
On all of these fronts, Tigner called upon other wineries to join forces with them: "It's the multitude of us talking to suppliers that's going to get things done."