An aerial view of the Cakebread Winery in Rutherford. Cakebread was one of the earliest wineries to receive a Napa Green certification, according to president Bruce Cakebread. - Rocco Ceselin

Napa's wine industry to boost environmental sustainability

Napa Green has long been ahead of its time.

In recent years, in tune with scientific revelations around climate change and technology, global agriculture has increasingly turned an eye towards sustainability. Farmers and producers have pushed to cut back use of harmful pesticides, conserve water and electricity and practice stewardship of their land. Those are all pillars of Napa Green’s sustainability certification program, the earliest iteration of which formed in the early 2000s.

It was a time on the cusp of the environmentalism movement. Early Napa Green members were specifically concerned with the health of the Napa River watershed, according to Michelle Novi, who oversees Napa Green in partnership with the Napa Valley Vintners, which has taken the program “under its wing”.

“It was a group of industry stakeholders, environmental groups like the Sierra Club, local regulators, and those at the state and federal level as well,” Novi said. The applications of the program grew from there.

“Everyone saw it was an opportunity to develop something that could benefit the health of the valley. And that’s exactly what it’s done,” Novi added.

The Vintners, too, saw Napa Green’s potential. In a county like Napa, which has long emphasized land stewardship, the program was not only in keeping with trend, but tradition.

Feeling they had the resources available to grow Napa Green to the full of its potential, the Vintners became what Novi calls “champions-in-chief” of the program. In 2015, the group announced their 2020 initiative: partnering with Napa Green, they’d work to certify 100 percent of their eligible members by the end of this coming year.

Eligibility is fairly straightforward, Novi said: it includes all member wineries, and winegrowers with more than 5 acres of vineyard land. At the time of the announcement, less than a third of were certified. Today, the number is something close to 80 percent — not quite a goal yet met, but progress that Director of Industry Relations Rex Stults calls “massive strides.”

As the initiative approaches its final year, Napa Green is looking ahead and considering what is still to come, Novi said.

Expansion, for one thing. Program Coordinator Anna Brittain said Napa Green’s emphasis on winery certification is already a departure from the agriculture-only focus of most wine grapegrowing sustainability programs. Napa County currently accounts for 40 percent of certified sustainable wineries statewide, Brittain said. She thinks the program could reach further.

“We want to encourage more of the hospitality industry at large to be sustainable,” Brittain said. “We’re exploring the idea of helping facilitate certification for hotels, restaurants and (wine-related) events as well.”

The certification process for wineries is fairly extensive, taking into account everything from water and energy used in winemaking, landscaping, waste reduction and proper disposal of batteries and light bulbs. Just as that could be seen as challenging for the hospitality industry today, certification was a serious undertaking for many of the valley’s wineries when the program began, according to Bruce Cakebread, president of Cakebread Cellars. But, he said, it’s all about mindset.

Cakebread Cellars received its winery certification from Napa Green in 2008, making it one of the program’s earliest adapters.

“Go back 10, 15 years ago — things were really different than what we see today.” Cakebread said, citing recycling as an example. Cakebread Cellars doubled its recycling efforts from 48 percent of its total waste to 93 percent under Napa Green.

“In the early days, just getting that behavior change was kind of the thing everyone had to focus on,” Cakebread added.

Cakebread Cellars has used the idea of behavioral to implement sustainable practices elsewhere in its business model. Many, like usage of LED lights, are both environmentally and budget friendly—a trend that’s helped membership along, according to Cakebread.

Brittain pointed to incoming 2020 deadlines for new vineyard wastewater management requirements. Napa Green will be the easiest way for growers to achieve compliance, she said, and the program could serve as a similar vehicle toward compliance for wineries one day. On a broader scale, Novi added, sustainable wine grapegrowing practices will mean resiliency in the face of climate change.

Their progress hasn’t gone unnoticed; last November, the Vintners won the state’s top environmental award for their work with Napa Green. Cakebread, for his part, said he’s just as excited by what’s ahead of Napa Green as he is by what’s behind it.

“We’ve been through this for 10 or 12 years now. We’ve gotten this far: where do we want to take it?” he said. “I have no idea where that is, but as people come up with ideas and how to measure our impact — that’ll be pretty exciting.”

Making the commitment to third party certification takes time and effort, but it is worth it to demonstrate our commitment to the community and to protect our watershed, our land and the air we breathe.​

- Susan Boswell, Chateau Boswell Winery