Napa Valley

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves us to be happy.”  Thomas Jefferson was also America’s “first distinguished viticulturalist,” so it’s safe to say the founding fathers probably drank a bottle while founding our country (which would explain a lot). But if wine was consumed during the simpler, more pastoral time of the American colonies, should it still be consumed today in a world battling climate change? Just how environmentally friendly is the wine industry?

On a recent trip to Napa Valley in northern California, I got to see firsthand how sustainable the winemaking process is. I got to do a number of wine tastings throughout the trip, from “sparkling wine” at Domaine Chandon and Domaine Carneros to flights of red wine at Stags’ Leap and Chimney Rock (you can see a map of Napa vineyards here). Yet one of the most enjoyable tours we took, which was incredibly informative about winemaking and aspects of the process, was at Robert Mondavi Winery.

Fifty years since it began, Robert Mondavi Winery does not operate much differently than it did its first year. Although its founder, Mr. Mondavi, has since passed, the vineyard follows its traditional yet sustainable practices it started in the 1960s. For example, the vineyard uses natural pesticides on its grape vines; aphids love roses, so rose bushes and rose trees deter aphids and other pests from eating the grapes. Without the use of chemical pesticides, many vineyards can call themselves organic.

The process from the vine to the bottle is also incredibly waste-free. The grape juice or blend is left to ferment in gorgeous wooden barrels, which are large enough to each hold 300 bottles of wine. Robert Mondavi uses 5,000 new barrels each year for their new vintage wines. The barrels are imported from France, which is not so eco-friendly, but after a barrel is used on a wine, they break down the used barrels and give them to Home Depot for planting boxes, or to nearby breweries (which use the fruit flavor of the wine-stained barrels to enhance the taste of the beer). Just as the vineyard does not waste any barrels or wood, not one bit of the grape goes to waste during the process.

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The Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley.

After the grapes are harvested, they are mechanically pressed into “must,” a pulp. About 80 percent of the wine juice comes from this first press, where the grape skins are still on for red wine (which gives it its color, in contrast to white wine). Next, the winery squeezes the grape skins for the next 20 percent of the juice, and this thicker liquid is good to mix to create a red wine “blend.” The final residue of the grape skin is added to a compost, used to fertilize the vineyard.

Now that the grapes are de-stemmed, squeezed, and skinned, what about the seeds? Wineries give the seeds to spas because they are very popular for numerous health benefits. Just Google “grape seed oil” or “grape seed extract“- you’ll find about a million combined results. I had no idea that grape seeds were used for skin, and to my surprise, I noticed that the lotions, shampoos, and conditioners at our hotel in Napa were “Grape Seed Age-Protecting.” The manufacturer of these bathroom products was “29 by Lydia Mondavi,” the daughter-in law of Michael Mondavi, the son and co-founder of the winery of Robert Mondavi. Not only is it a small world, it’s a sustainable one.

Throughout my trip, I was very surprised that Napa Valley was so eco-friendly. Every minute driving through Napa, you pass a world-class winery with quality only found outside of France. I presumed that beautiful chateau-style vineyards and elegant tourists would mean Napa was not that environmentally conscious. To my surprise, most vineyards had signs or plaques indicating they were organic, advising water conservation to visitors and guests, and providing information on the local landscape and horticulture. Almost every wine tour spoke of the effects of California’s historic drought; Chimney Rock said the drought resulted in about 25 to 30 percent less yield in 2015, and Domaine Carneros said they lost about 15 to 20 percent.

Wine seems very elegant, urban, and detached from nature, but it is a very underrated, organic beverage made with lots of careful environmental consideration. Most vineyards had 500 acres, and every few acres produces a different tasting wine. The varying temperatures, vine directions, wind patterns, and features of the valley are what create unique wines. “The unknown quantity is mother nature,” as one winemaker said. Domaine Carneros has 50 blocks of wine, and each is farmed differently. Not only does that take a lot of careful work with the land, but the workers are cared for as well. Most vineyards do all-night harvesting, with workers wearing headlamps while they pick the grapes in the darkest hours of the night. Not only is nighttime the best time to get grapes, but workers also like the cooler conditions.

Last but not least, I learned one pretty surprising thing about wine and its relationship with the environment. Walking into one of the cellars at Robert Mondavi, I saw a religious stone statue in the middle of the room surrounded by barrels and barrels of wine. It looked like St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology (and who Pope Francis is named for). Because St. Francis was protector of nature and the natural world, wineries have adopted him as their own. From St. Francis Winery to Franciscan Estate Winery, to the bottle labels of Robert Mondavi reserve wine, you see St. Francis everywhere. Who would have thought that I could have one patron saint for two of my favorite things: the environment and wine.

© Rissponsible Living, 2016

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The Robert Mondavi winemaking room, with a statue of St. Francis of Assisi in the middle.

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