Greening the Wine Industry, One Cork at a Time

Jim is a founding father of sustainable wine in Oregon, and Patrick is carving out his path in sustainable cork — in fact resigning from his job at Willamette Valley Vineyards (Jim’s company) to set up a sustainable cork nonprofit.

My mother Carol Storke and I are visiting Jim and Patrick at the Willamette Valley Vineyards to learn more about the method behind their madness and, not incidentally, to taste the wines.

It is a gorgeous blue-sky day atop the hill where the vineyard headquarters is perched. We have a 180-degree view of undulating rows of vines and occasional tree lots, which are grown for riparian zone protection and pest mitigation.

The vineyard has various certifications including Salmon Safe, LIVE (Low Input Viniculture and Enology, organic, and Rainforest Alliance/FSC certification for their corks. Jim has worked with the Oregon wine industry to set up an Oregon sustainable wine certification that his 2009 vintages will carry.

But Jim has not stopped there. The company offers a ten cent refund for returned bottles and one dollar for returned shippers. They have made a commitment to carbon neutrality, are working to reduce energy use and are providing 50 gallons of biodiesel per employee per month.

Near and dear to the Rainforest Alliance, of course, is the cork recycling program which Patrick started with us, Whole Foods Markets and Willamette Valley Vineyards. He is planning on taking the program national, to include other retailers and other vineyards. His new NGO will be called Cork ReHarvest.

Rainforest Alliance/FSC certification is helping to preserve the gorgeous oak forests of the Mediterranean. Cork is a very sustainable industry: tree bark is removed for the cork, but the trees remain healthy. In addition, every scrap of cork harvested is used for something — from corks to flooring to the heels of shoes! The cork forests are home to important wildlife and provide good paying jobs to agriculture workers. They are now competing with plastic and screw tops — environmental disasters.

Over lunch, we talk about a fairly modest topic: what is needed to change the world? Jim says capitalism as we know it is broken. He believes that as long as shareholder questions about their investments are viewed solely through a financial filter, rather than a broader "values" filter, we will continue to experience environmental, social and economic problems.

Says Jim, "Our biggest challenge is to persuade people that they are getting a better value when they purchase products in a principled way. If we can do that, we can change the world."

 

And, he says, it works out better for the company as well. "You get a better wine when you act in a least-impact way and I can prove it." As indeed he has done to the other vineyards in the valley, half of which have jumped on the sustainability bandwagon. He explains, "Our wine tastes better because the soil is alive. The microorganisms in the soil give the grapes their flavor and aroma." When you use too many chemicals and don’t take care of the soil, you lose the complexity and richness of the taste. Also, chemicals will kill a fungus on the roots of the wine that when left, will create a stronger vine. He raced through many other examples but we were all getting a little thirsty with the flavorful aroma talk and adjourned to the cellars where the winemeister helped us navigate the hundreds of barrels of wine that he would blend into final product.

The cellar smelled lovely — slightly fruity and earthy. The barrels were piled quite high in long rows through which one person could pass. The winemeister brought out a long glass cylinder which he used to tap various barrels so we could taste a cornucopia of wines — wines from the same vintage and place but in different types of barrels, wines from the same place but a different vintage, pinot noirs, malbecs, tempranillos, and a fabulous pinot noir port! Amazing to think that one man could know what each barrel tasted like and figure out which to blend — quite a skill! My mother and I, of course, were quite happy just to be the appreciative tasters and leave all that know-how to the specialists!

Too soon it was time for us to head out, but not before Jim had expounded on another intriguing topic. He thinks ownership of modern day companies rests too far from the behavior of the company. He would like to see more companies owned by people in that company’s community who are personally invested in the product. Clearly this is easier to do with a wine company which by its very nature builds allegiance and has a physical plant around which owners can coalesce. And Jim has worked hard to build a public ownership that is invested in his values-based vision. But it is an intriguing idea that could take off for certain type of businesses.

I won’t be surprised if Jim and Patrick continue to innovate new ways for the world to change and for us, as consumers, to make a difference. And enjoy ourselves in the process!

Rainforest-Alliance

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