Sustainability in the wine industry

March 23, 2022
Interview

Unico Zelo shares how its transparent sustainability practice has strengthened its business.

Sustainability has played a critical role for winemakers and the wine industry for quite some time now, and it has really picked up in the last decade. Many natural and sustainable wine producers have emphasized environmental factors—from varieties of grapes and how they‘re grown to fermentation practices, business operations, and even materials sourcing. And they’ve carved a path for other industries also looking to become more sustainable.

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Australia’s Unico Zelo is a shining example of how a small winemaker can have an outsized impact. While other winemakers simply tout their successes publically, Unico Zelo has upped the game in the name of transparency. The company shares its sustainability initiatives—both the successes and shortcomings—out in the open, in a public Google Sheets doc. Why? Sure, to keep tabs on their own progress, but also so others can learn from their sustainable practices. 

We caught up with Noah Ward, Unico Zelo’s brand ambassador, to hear more about how the label moves the wine industry and sustainability community forward. 


Sustain.Life: What do you think is the biggest sustainability issue for the wine industry at large?

Noah Ward: Since winemaking is essentially an extension of agriculture, there is a massive push for more sustainable practices in viticulture. We’ve seen over the last ten years, with the rise of the Natural Wine movement, the massive desire for organic and biodynamic grapes to ensure that soils can continue to stay fertile into the future, and there is large consumer demand for more transparent farming practices so people know what they are drinking.  

But the biggest issue for not just the wine industry but all agricultural industries is our reliance on water. It is our most precious resource and we are overusing it. The Australian wine industry uses on average as a whole over 400 billion liters of water each year. In the Riverland, which is Australia’s largest wine region by volume produced, the most widely planted grape is Shiraz. Over a growing season, it needs 1.5 megaliters of water per hectare to grow 35 tons of grapes (which equates to around 27,000 bottles of wine). 1.5 megalitres is the equivalent of a six-lane Olympic-sized swimming pool—a colossal amount of water.  

Internationally, particularly in Europe, there are restrictions on how much water you can use in the vineyard each year, in fact, the yield of grapes is limited per hectare. In Australia, we don’t have such restrictions. The amount of water you can use is the amount of water you can buy. 

So our idea is this: If you can plant varieties that don’t need as much water to grow—for example, isohydric, drought-resistant grape varieties planted on drought-resistant rootstocks—surely you don’t need as much water to make the same amount of wine? Over the years, we’ve found that Fiano and Nero D’avola can survive in the Riverland in the worst years with six times less water (around 0.3–0.6 megaliters per hectare). In good years, we don’t even need to irrigate at all. If the entire region converted to more drought-resistant varieties, we could massively minimize the Riverlands water usage in the wine industry and divert it to more necessary needs. After all, wine is a luxury, not a necessity. 

 

SL: Why’s it important to prioritize local grape varieties?

NW: It’s important to make sure the variety that you use is appropriate for the climate that it is planted in. For example, Shiraz/Syrah is native to the Northern Rhone Valley, which sees on average around 32 inches (820 mm) of rain each year and average summer temperatures of 67°F (19.6°C). Compare that to, say, the Barossa Valley (Nuriootpa), which sees average summer temperatures of 78.8–84.2°F (26–29°C)and 18 inches (465.6mm) of rain each year. While these conditions have created wines that put Australian wine on the map internationally, it’s an entirely different climate to where that grape is native to, so its DNA is not used to these drier, hotter conditions. So more irrigation is required. 

But if we look at another variety that’s widely planted throughout the region—Grenache, an isohydric grape variety, that’s used to warm hot summers and actually thrives without too much water. Its home in the Southern Rhone is a lot warmer, seeing average summer temperatures of around 77°F (25°C)—a lot closer to the Barossa. We’re seeing a consumer shift into prefacing something like a Grenache over a Shiraz in the context of the Barossa too. So while we should definitely make sure we look after the amazing heritage old vines of Shiraz throughout the region, I hope we see far more new plantings of varieties that are more suited for the region. We should look for more appropriate places to plant Shiraz across the country in cooler, wetter regions (Adelaide Hills, Yarra Valley, Tasmania, to name a few, who are producing some marvelous expressions of the variety).

Image courtesy, Unico Zelo


SL: And how much is sustainability part of Unico Zelo’s brand identity?

NW: It’s the reason we started this business in the first place, to create wines from varieties that we believe are a lot more suited to our climate in general—from the intense heat in the Riverland—to the more moderate Adelaide Hills, in styles that actually suit our climate and lifestyle. Wines that are refreshing, flavourful, textural, and we want to drink during the common warmer days we see across the year. We find it very rare that we reach for a bold Cabernet in the heat of the summer, but a lighter-bodied red with refreshing acidity that can be chilled down and shared amongst food, family, and friends in the heat of the summer, alongside delicious bright whites wines. It’s all about creating a community around wine and being sustainable in the way we approach that goal.   

 

SL: In 2019, you eliminated the need for refrigeration during wine production. What effect did that have on your winemaking process and electricity bill?

NW: Massive impact on the bills—around 70% of our winery-based energy was slashed. Refrigeration, from a winemaking aspect, provides a few things—color to the wine and retention of aromatics. This can be done by putting grapes in fridges prior to fermenting to retain color in a method called “cold-soaking,” and retaining aromatics can be done by controlling the temperature of the ferments to lower levels. We’ve found that we can keep great color and aromatics in the wine by increasing skin contact in the fermentation process, particularly with white wines where we generally leave them on their skins at least overnight to get the color right and have the juice interact with more aromatic compounds for longer periods of time. The same can be done for red wines, but they are generally fermented at higher temperatures, and we leave them on skins for about a week at a minimum. So it really didn’t affect that winemaking process, we basically took a bit more of a red winemaking approach to our whites! It’s actually improved our white wines, as we’ve been able to build a lot more texture into the wines by doing this too!

Image courtesy, Unico Zelo


SL: You’ve been publishing your sustainability goals and initiatives out in the open since 2014. Why did you start? And what motivates you to keep going?

NW: For us, it’s really about transparency. We want to be able to prove that we’re being sustainable, and we’re ticking off boxes as we progress as a business so that our customers can see what we are doing as we’re doing it. Even better, we actually flag the ones we can’t find solutions to. If you have a look at our Sustainability Tracker spreadsheet that we update every few months, there are rows highlighted red so that if someone flicking through sees it and actually knows the answer, they can get in touch with us and help us solve the challenge we’re presented with. I guess that’s what keeps us going, is that there is always a way to do something better, and to involve the people that support our business in that is incredible and continues with that community-minded goal that we have. 

 

SL: You developed KPIs for each of your products. How does that ladder up to your larger sustainability strategy?

NW: The KPIs are mostly sustainability-based, so the growth of our sales and inclusion of new products have to meet these standards. It’s more of an internal accountability thing to make sure if we’re doing something new or making more of something, they need to stack up against those KPIs. They’re not sales targets or audience reach metrics, they’re making sure that everything we’re doing feeds back into our larger sustainability strategy. 


SL: One of the benefits you mention is community. What’s been the reception of your sustainability efforts to date?

NW: Overall, it’s been incredible. When we’re able to actually talk to our customers and showcase the things we do to further our sustainability mission, it’s amazing to see how much they care about it, from grafting Fiano and Nero D’avola over less suitable varieties to installing solar panels to the roof of the winery to reduce our carbon emissions, the response is generally great! We do often get critiqued for not being good enough, particularly since we don’t entirely source from organic or biodynamic vineyards—something we’d love to do a lot more of, but sadly there is a lack of organic vineyards with the varieties we work with—and honestly, getting those critiques is awesome. There’s always room to improve, and we’d love to be able to do more of that. Being held accountable by our peers means a lot, and we’re always taking it in and keeping it in mind as we move forward. 


SL: Could you shed some light on how you decide on what efforts are worthwhile and how you empower team members or departments to take on the initiatives in addition to the core parts of their job?

NW: Recently, we’ve made more of an effort to improve on this. We’ve put together a leadership group comprised of key members of each department—Winery, Distillery for the Applewood/Økar side of the business, Sales, Admin, Bar and our founders Brendan and Laura—to openly chat about the strategy and the way we’re moving forward as a business. Up until recently, it had been a two-person lead direction from Brendan and Laura, and that had been creating a lot of funneling and brain drain on their end, so we’ve decided to bring more people into that side of things to focus all our efforts onto three key areas: Sustainability, Culture, and Community. We as a group decide the things we are going to do to achieve these goals. It’s empowering to not only Brendan and Laura to then focus their efforts on the business side of things, but it empowers us to steer the ship we believe in the right direction and hold ourselves and each other accountable that we’re doing the absolute right thing. It’s early days in this aspect, but we’re all really excited to see where this will take us over the next few years! 

Image courtesy, Unico Zelo


SL: As a wine company, why was becoming a B Corp important to you? 

NW: Transparency and Accountability. We’re held to a standard that we have to keep improving on. We were absolutely stoked to get certified in 2019, but the works not done, as the way B Corp works, the level that you get certified at (over a minimum 80 points on their scale) is your new minimum. Even if you pass the minimum required level of certification when you get recertified, if you drop below your original certification point, you lose your B Corp credentials. So we’re actively incentivized to keep getting better. To our customers, we can also guarantee that we’re doing the right thing as an independent body has gone through our business with a fine-toothed comb to see that we’re actually doing the right thing and have been certified to avoid any semblance of greenwashing. So now for us, as we come up to recertification, we’ve gotta keep getting better at being better. 


SL: You conduct supplier assessments for companies you spend more than $50,000 with. What was the catalyst for that?

NW: B Corp has been the predominant catalyst for it as it’s one of those key things we’re measured on, but luckily the business is at a size where we’re able to make those decisions. We’d prefer to only work with companies that align with our values, so for the most part, we’re assessing their sustainability and their location, and the source of the products they supply us with. Ideally, we’d like to exclusively work with businesses that are situated in an 80km radius of our winery, and we do for 50% of our suppliers. 70% of all our suppliers being Australian-owned, but as a winery, it becomes a bit tricky when we talk about things like glass, oak, and corks. B Corp has been incredibly helpful with this stuff as well, as we’re able to use their network to connect with other companies that have been evaluated as much as we have—we recently switched banks to Beyond Bank as they’re B Corp-certified!

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The takeaway

• The biggest issue for not just the wine industry but all agricultural industries is our reliance on water.

• Unico Zelo uses its KPIs not as sales targets or reach metrics, but to ensure that everything the company does feeds back to its larger sustainability strategy.