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Sustainable Winemaking Practices

An Interview with Katie Jackson, Vice President of Sustainability

— November 16, 2019 — Lifestyle
Katie Jackson was raised by the Sonoma County vineyards with her siblings and their father started Jackson Family Wines in 1982. It is a natural path for the family, organically gaining knowledge of wines through their upbringing. Katie is the Cambria Estate Winery Proprietor and Jackson Family Wines’ Vice President of Sustainability. Sustainability is an important factor throughout the entire winery process from beginning to end. She believes that both social and environmental sustainability are essential to achieving longevity in the industry.

We sat down with Katie as she shared her knowledge of winemaking, her family’s heritage, the impacts of climate change on the process, and how sustainable practices are maintained at Jackson Family Wines.

Can you tell us a little bit about the heritage and upbringing of Jackson Family Wines?

Jackson Family Wines was started by my dad in 1982 and it's been a family-owned business since the beginning. My mom and dad have both been very involved as well as my older half-sisters. My sister Laura was actually the first employee of my father -- she was helping him when he was working out of his basement in his home and then my younger sister Julia and my brother Chris are also involved in the business. So we definitely grew up observing the business -- we'd go out and observe harvest with my dad and we'd learn about grape growing and soil types and the harvest process from a very young age. I just fell in love with the production side of things. Throughout high school, I worked in our marketing departments over the summer and then I started working with our communications team after college and then, later on, I became really drawn to sustainability, so that became my personal focus.

What are some of the challenges faced in the winemaking industry?

The industry is definitely weather dependent, so I think it's kind of typical for all wineries to have to plan for unusual weather that can happen. Like all farmers, we definitely grow dependent on what the season will bring. That also leads to vintage variation, which is kind of makes the wines more interesting and exciting, from my perspective. Some of the other things that are challenging are we've got environmental challenges and that's some like some of the work that I do. We've dealt with droughts in the past -- so we have a very robust water conservation program to kind of help us use every drop really by wisely and also reuse and recycle. And then I'd say that I think the wine industry in the United States kind of faces a challenge when it comes to selling their wines because there are a limited number of distributors, which I think you call agents up here in Canada, and they're consolidating or they have consolidated pretty rapidly in the last five years. So for smaller wineries, that can be a challenge for them to get enough attention from their distributor and get out, say, consumers. So that's an area that smaller wineries and ourselves, I'm really focused on cultivating kind of the guest experience when people come to the winery so they can really tell the story of their wines to people as they visit. So that's why visiting wine country is so important to the wine industry.

What are some of the impacts that climate change has on vineyards?

I would say that we've seen some extreme other events in the last five years in California and that's certainly something that's not unique to our region. We've dealt with wild wildfires and prior to that, we had a historic drought that was the biggest drought in the last 50 years or earlier this spring. We actually had really terrible flooding and that was one of the worst floods that we've ever dealt with. So we're seeing greater precipitation events, all the rain coming at one time and causing issues that way, like flooding and erosion control. And then wildfire threats are obviously a challenge. And that's something that I've seen, Australia's seen as well. So those are just some of the things that are kind of in the wine region.

How does the company maintain sustainable practices at Jackson Family Wines?

So when you start, we decided we couldn't manage what we didn't measure so we first started measuring everything we reuse in terms of water, energy and also the emissions that we create and also a solid waste that we produce. We've actually achieved zero waste on wineries on one of our facilities, which I'm really proud of. But what we do is we set a baseline for ourselves and from there we've really looked at how we can reduce those amounts as a business. We've been able to set targets as you have in your grocery. We've been able to reduce our water intensity by 33%, our greenhouse gas emissions per bottle produced by 33%, overshooting our 25% target and some and we've achieved zero waste wineries. So just by setting the goals and making it known to our employees throughout the company that this is a priority, that's really helped us make significant strides. Actually one of the things I'm most proud of is the fact that as we've been talking more and more about the importance of these things, a lot of our employees are personally passionate about it and they're taking this on as their own responsibility to help reduce the amount of water used in wineries, for instance. So people have made some really innovative changes to how they make wine or farmer vineyards and we're seeing this throughout the company. I'm really proud of the fact that we're empowering our employees to make these changes themselves.

What do you hope for the industry to head in the next 10 years?

One of the things I'm most excited about that I didn't mention earlier is that the term ‘regenerative agriculture,’ and you've probably seen on the concept that farmers can actually sequester carbon in their soils by changing their practices a little bit. So we're doing a trial at one of our vineyards in California that's helped funded by a grant from California state government. We’re looking at how, by applying compost and putting cover crops in our vineyard and also reducing the amount of tillage that we have in our soils, we can actually sequester significantly more carbon and regenerative agriculture has been talked about as a potential solution to some of the challenges of climate change. It's believed that if farmers around the world were to adopt some of these practices that it could take up to maybe 50% of the worldwide emissions out of the air. So that's something that I think that I've seen other farmers and Sonoma County really interested in actually our Sonoma County winegrowers just made a commitment to try to create a program for our region, for our county as a whole to start piloting these projects and start measuring exactly how much carbon we can sequester in our soil above the business as usual model. What I'm hoping is that in 10 years, we'll have trials and proven this concept that farmers can be a solution to that part of that piece of the puzzle and I think that others are going to adopt programs like IWCA or other community-led initiatives that are beneficial for them.