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Sustainable vineyards can be good for NC wine business

It’s not easy for winemakers to stand out in fabled Sonoma Valley.

The region is home to more than 200 wineries that are acclaimed for their popular, high-quality products. And by 2019, it aims to become the nation’s first wine region that is 100 percent sustainable – meaning all wineries employ a range of best practices involving land use, energy efficiency, water quality, carbon emissions and other key factors that affect the environment.

Still, even in this landscape of high performance and even higher ambition, Benziger Family Winery sets itself apart. Its calling card: taking environmental stewardship to new levels by utilizing the most advanced kind of organic farming in the world. And its success offers valuable lessons for North Carolina’s own rapidly expanding ventures into winemaking.

The 80-acre winery is perched on a bucolic hilltop north of San Francisco, about 35 miles east of the Pacific Ocean. Many of its fellow wineries are pursuing certification for being “sustainable” through the use of fewer and less powerful chemicals and fertilizers.

Others aspire to certified “organic” status, in which no artificial fertilizers are permitted. Benziger has gone a step further by earning “biodynamic” status, the most elite level of environmental certification. It requires using strictly natural systems to manage disease and pests and to revitalize the land. Benziger was the first winery in Sonoma to reach this designation. The result, Benziger officials say, is wines of a quality that can only be achieved with grapes grown in entirely natural surroundings.

Customize for region

That’s something for North Carolina’s wine industry to remember. Two years ago, UNC-Greensboro’s Bryan School of Business and Economics prepared a five-year strategic plan for our wine and grape industry. The study found that our wineries, now numbering more than 150, support nearly 8,000 jobs and generate about $1.3 billion annually in economic impact – making North Carolina one of the nation’s top 10 states for wine and grape production. From Surry County’s Shelton Vineyards and Asheville’s Biltmore Winery to Noni Bacca Winery in Wilmington and Cloer Family Vineyards in Apex, wineries are popping up in every corner of the state.

The strategic plan, funded by the N.C. Wine and Grape Growers Council and the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, explores how to capitalize on that momentum. Quality, marketing, and research all factor prominently into the plan’s recommendations – as does sustainability. In encouraging the industry to embrace innovation, the plan calls for funding for education on best practices in growing grapes and making wine, with a focus on “zero negative impact” on the environment.

Because North Carolina’s wine industry is very young, it’s still too early to tell what environmentally sustainable practices will look like here. North Carolina gets significantly more rain than Sonoma, and the soil is different, as is the overall climate. So best practices need to be customized for our region, and experiments are already under way. Mocksville’s RayLen Vineyards, for example, uses solar panels extensively to cut energy costs.

It’s helpful to look west for inspiration, and highly intentional design is critical to Benziger’s success. The winery is home to 300 species of plants that provide the specific minerals and compounds the soil needs. It has 30 species of birds that are carefully selected to control insects. Watering is restricted to force the roots of the grapevines to grow deep. All organic material at the winery is composted, returning billions of growth-supporting microbes to the soil. Sheep control weeds and help till the land as they walk, while also providing natural fertilizer. Crops help prevent erosion.

Biodynamic winemaking isn’t cheap. Benziger has 50 full-time employees and another 50 who work part-time. Other similarly sized wineries with less green methods might need just a third as many workers. But, for Benziger, the process drives results: more than 30 varieties of wine that are sold nationally and consistently win praise from critics, not to mention financial success. Last year, Benziger was purchased by The Wine Group for an estimated $90 million to $100 million.

Naturalist John Muir once noted that “if you tug on a thread of nature, you will find it is connected to the rest of the world.” Benziger and other green wineries can help our state’s wine industry understand that fostering those intricate connections isn’t just good for the environment – it’s also good business.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin is deputy chief of staff at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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