California winemakers are making big changes to your libations

For many people this Thanksgiving weekend, there will be a bottle of wine — maybe even have two or three — on the dinner table. Each glass contains years of hard work by experts who have devoted their lives to creating an exceptional wine.

Some of those experts living in California’s Santa Maria Valley — a wine lover’s paradise — have just wrapped up a busy few months as the harvest season, also called the “crush” season, just came to an end.

Until a few weeks ago, truckloads of grapes, one after another, would arrive at wineries, to be turned into liquid gold. Santa Maria’s crush lasts a bit longer than other winemaking areas of California.

“We just got a load of our hand-picked Chardonnay grapes. They’re sweet but there’s still a lot of acid,” Jill Russell, a winemaker at Cambria Estate Winery, told ABC Audio for its Thanksgiving special, “America’s Bounty.”

Russell said that people often ask her how the grapes can still be acidic. “[I say] it’s the Santa Maria Valley. Our soils, our coastal influence,” she said.

With the crush over, wineries up and down California are now making their wines. Cambria is one of the bigger wineries in Santa Maria. It’s part of the Jackson family of wineries dotting the globe from Napa to Sonoma Counties in California, in Oregon and even in France, Australia and Italy.

“These are old vines. They’re trellising like the old-school way: very wide rows, really great canopies,” Russell said.

Those lush canopies can protect the grapes from getting too much sun, and their orientation allows the wind coming off the Pacific Ocean to cool them down, according to Russell, who said this gives the grapes more time on the vine without spiking their sugar content.

Increasingly, winemakers are putting more money and resources into ensuring that the grapes they harvest and the practices they employ are sustainable not just for the land, but for the people working on the land, and ultimately, the consumer too.

“It’s not just plant [the] vines and throw [the grapes] into a bottle,” said Russell. “It’s what’s going to make the best wine and be best for the future.”

Wineries in the region that can prove they’re creating sustainable products can be awarded with SIP certification, which stands for “sustainability in practice,” which connotes that they’ve upheld certain standards related to the health of their workers and their land.

Both Cambria and nearby Foxen Winery are among the many wineries in Santa Barbara County that have put a premium on sustainable winemaking and become SIP-certified.

Billy Wathen, founder of Foxen, said there’s a new demand for sustainable wine.

“People are a little more in tune now,” said Wathen. “And it’s not just from the farming end but it’s what people are drinking too. They want to be sure that the wine they’re drinking is environmentally reliable.”

To make his syrah, chardonnay, and cabernet franc, Wathen said he’s put great effort into changing practices in the field and in production.

For a long time now, winemakers have added a variety of additives to their wine — often without labeling it — to enhance color, taste or shelf life. At sustainable wineries, these practices have been or are currently being phased out.

“We’ve used fish bladder. We’ve used sulfites, eggs in the process,” said Wathen.

Foxen became well known after the release of the 2004 comedy “Sideways,” starring Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church. The story of two friends who take a pre-wedding trip to Santa Barbara County to chug some wine at Foxen still draws crowds to the winery today.

SIP certification also requires certain standards for worker welfare. For example, wineries have to show that they are not using harmful chemicals on the grapes, which could harm workers touching them all day long.

“It’s what we’re actually doing out in the vineyard now,” explained Wathen. “We’re not doing anything that’s going to harm my crew that is working out there. I’ve got the best crew in the world and there’s no way in the world I’m going to do anything to harm those guys.”

Down the road from Cambria and Foxen, at Riverbench Vineyard and Winery, they are making chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier under SIP-certified rules, too.

“Every year we’re supposed to get a little bit better through the program. We all have to show improvement year over year,” according to Laura Booras, CEO and general manager at Riverbench.

The SIP program participants go far beyond what wineries are doing in many other areas of the world. Certification requires reduced water usage in the wine making process, energy conservation at wineries and more environmentally friendly packaging. These efforts often show in the price of the wine; Booras said that cheap wines are probably not made in a sustainable fashion.

“Most of the [grapes] for cheaper wines are going to be picked by machines,” said Booras. “So that means anything that’s on that vine is going to go in a bucket instead of a hand-picked cluster that’s been sorted out. I’ve seen snakes and frogs go in those bins beyond the chemicals we’re talking about.”

She said what goes in those bins often gets turned into the wine.

Up the road at Presqu’ile Winery, another SIP-certified estate on rolling green hills, winemaker Dieter Cronje prides himself on sustainable farming. He believes that wineries that don’t think about the earth and what is in their wines are getting the whole process wrong.

“I think it starts with customers being interested in where the product comes from,” explained Cronje. “It’s happened with food, it’s happened with everything people consume. We’re more than happy to spread the word and let people see how we do things because we’re extremely proud of it and we’re pretty sure it’s as sustainable as you can possibly do it.”

Wineries that are SIP Certified, or have some other type of sustainable certification, make it known on their wine labels. They proudly show off their ability to make environmentally and customer friendly wines.

“We’re just trying,” Russell said, “to make the best product we can and make it in a responsible way.”

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

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