"Sustainable," that busiest of buzzwords, is taking on new meanings almost daily and — in the world of wine — is coming to mean not just organic, but wine that's made by people who view themselves and their wineries as part of a community and a global whole.
One champion of sustainable winemaking is Kara Olmo of Wooldridge Creek Winery in the Applegate, who defines sustainability as a way of life where "you do no harm, you create a business environment that attracts a long-term work force and you become profitable, so you can share proceeds with the surrounding community."
In other words, it's not just your grapes that must be sustainable, it's your way of life, your community and your planet — and because you're interwoven with the natural and human world around you, your profit is positive for everyone.
The principles of sustainability are visible in many aspects at Wooldridge Creek. Olmo and her husband and business partner, Greg Paneitz, scrutinize each cost in the winemaking process, including the cost to the planet. Corks cost a dollar. Labels cost a dollar. Bottles cost more than a dollar.
Such things tend to come from far away and burn fossil fuels (and create greenhouse gases) to get here. Then, because not everyone recycles, some end up in landfills.
It's a small step, but the couple decided to market their wines to regional restaurants in 5- or 15-gallon stainless-steel kegs with taps. Inert nitrogen fills the tanks' airspace, keeping the wine fresh. No bottles, no corks, no labels — and, says Olmo, restaurants can serve fine, local wine at $6 a glass instead of $9.
The grapes from the 200-acre Wooldridge Creek vineyard are organically grown, but with increasing awareness of human impacts on the planet, the word "organic" has shrunk in significance. Consumers now look for logos of certification programs that go beyond organic. Wooldridge Creek's vintages carry the seal of LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology), TerraVow, Salmon-Safe and Oregon Certified Sustainable Wine.
"Five or 10 years ago, you'd get the question 'Are you organic?' from people in the tasting room, meaning 'Do you care about the planet?' That's too narrow now. It's not just about what you put on the land.
"Now, the questions are much more complex," says Olmo. "They want to know how we farm, where our materials come from, what we do for the community and how long our workers have been here and how they live."
The four owners, including founders Ted and Mary Warrick, eschew synthetic fertilizers. Instead, they compost the seeds and skins of fermented grapes, augment it with cow manure from a dairy down the road and put it back in the soil. They recycle as much as they can but, without pickup service, must drive it to Grants Pass.
Barrel rooms are usually air-conditioned in the wine business, but the owners have underlain the room with 3 feet of small river rocks that they sprinkle with water. The evaporation fills the room to 80 percent humidity at 60 degrees, which reduces wine evaporation.
One elderly couple, stripping away excess limbs to give grape clusters more sun, has been working in the Wooldridge Creek vineyards more than 20 years. They are emblematic, says Olmo, of the goal of supporting a local workforce that's also tied into the community.
The owners contribute to more than 50 nonprofit organizations, with special focus on schools, health care and the arts. A recent black-tie fundraiser, done on-site and on the owners' dime, raised several thousand dollars for Applegate schools, which are hurting from declining enrollment, says Olmo.
Far from being considered pests and vermin, local animals are a respected part of the natural community, which includes hawks, turkeys, raccoons, deer, rabbits, skunks and a cougar or two.
"Bears are the most voracious of the local wildlife, consuming copious quantities of grapes and easily scaling and/or trampling any vineyard fencing in their way," says their Web site, www.wcwinery.com.
"After the blackberries are past their prime, the bears start on the grapes, moving from one variety to another as they ripen. The most effective deterrent so far has been to take the "offensive" and leave talk radio playing in the vineyard at a high volume through the night. Think Rush Limbaugh."
Being green doesn't mean blindly investing in everything that might shrink the carbon footprint of their business, notes Olmo, who serves as president of the Oregon Wine Growers Association and chairwoman of the Oregon Wine Board.
"If something doesn't make economic sense — such as spending thousands on solar when the return is $30 a month — that's not sustainable," she notes. "The number one thing we can do for our business is to stay in business. Otherwise the pressure is enormous to build subdivisions on 5-acre parcels out here."
Does all this sustainable, labor-intensive activity add to the retail price of their wine?
"It does. You tend to go through the vineyard more often, so there's more labor cost. But we tend to be more in tune with our vineyard. Customers, on an extremely regular basis, say they choose sustainable wine because they want to pay more attention to how they spend their money.
"They 100-percent support our business, and it's grown through this recession, so it's a reflection that we're doing the right thing at the right time for the right reasons."