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Jackson Family Wines collected another award recently, but it wasn’t for a cabernet sauvignon, or a pinot noir, or any particular wine at all this time. It was for their commitment to sustainability and conservation.

The Luther Burbank Conservation Award was presented to the company on Thursday, July 13 at Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s Love of the Land event held at Richard’s Grove and Saralee’s Vineyard in Windsor, adding to its collection of certifications and awards for its practices and commitment to sustainability, a program that Jackson Family Wines (JFW) -- which owns wineries throughout Napa and Sonoma counties -- officially launched in 2008, but has been unofficially practicing since founder Jess Jackson started the business in 1982.

This most recent award comes after receiving the 2016 California Green Medal Leader Award, the most prestigious sustainability honor in the California wine community, given for sustainable leadership and excellence in balancing environmentally sound practices, social equity and economic viability. The Green Medal Award is presented by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, Sonoma County Winegrowers, and Napa Valley Vintners, among other leading industry organizations.

Last year JFW released a sustainability report that examined the family’s approach to sustainability both environmentally and in social equity using 2008 as a baseline for comparisons and to evaluate the program’s success rate. They released the report not because there is some rule or regulation in place that requires such a report, and it’s not that they have to prove something to shareholders, because they’re a family-owned company. Basically, they do it because it’s the right thing to do, said Katie Jackson, vice president of sustainability and external affairs.

“We’re trying to be leaders in the industry, and actually beyond industry if possible. My parents felt, when we started the program in 2008 that we really will try to be the best within the industry in terms of being environmentally responsible,” Jackson said. “They kind of set a high bar for us there, but that’s what we’ve been striving to do. We’ve really looked comprehensively at everything that we can possibly do to become better both in terms of farming and the wineries and beyond that what we can do to model (sustainable practices) that other people in the wine industry or other businesses can do. Hopefully we can get to that level.”

Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, said the family was the first in the county to step up to start paying a premium for sustainably grown grapes, a “pretty unique” move.

“People forget they’re still a family owned and run business. The things they do really convey their values,” Kruse said. “Even though they’re this global player they’re still rooted in a family business. It’s really nice to see a big player willing to support the small farmers.”

Since JFW started paying top dollar for sustainable farming, others followed suit, including the Francis Ford Coppola Winery, and “that started a great leadership trend,” she said.

JFW seems to be a “forward-thinking company,” a philosophy that is embedded in the company culture whether it is in terms of farming, winery operations, energy savings, or their employees, JFW invests in sustainability “across the entire operation,” Kruse said. They continually seek out, research, test and adopt innovative technologies and practices, and encourage employees to be creative thinkers, too.

Placing a family member – Katie Jackson – in a key role managing sustainability and external affairs shows the family’s commitment, she said. “They took one of their key family members” to “lead the charge.”

Jackson sat on a panel with Kruse and the Winegrowers association when the group made a commitment in 2014 to be the first 100 percent sustainable wine region in the United States by 2019.

“She was literally sitting at the table with us” when discussions were taking place and it was “great to have one of our larger family wineries” showing partnership and collaboration, Kruse said.

JFW laid out its own goals in 2008 and continues to adjust and challenge themselves. Every year Jackson said they target one conservation project and she’s particularly proud of one that connected dry reaches of a tributary creek to the Russian River that was designated as a critical stream for local and endangered fish.

Through an onsite reservoir at one of their properties, they had captured a good deal of water during the winter. They partnered with such agencies as National Marine Fishery Service and the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and other nearby landowners, to release some of that water into Green Valley Creek.

“The two years that we did it, the stream was going dry, we were able over the course of three months” to release water so that “it actually allowed the stream to remain connected so the fish could continue” on their path, Jackson said.

“It’s one of my favorite personal projects that I’ve worked on,” Jackson said. Though she didn’t get the chance to see the fish swimming in those once-dry reaches, she was thrilled to see the creek connected and flowing again.

Wildlife plays an important role for JFW; they plant vineyards so that corridors for movement are open and they do not engulf the land they own – one property has 15 percent of the land planted to vines -- they install owl boxes and use falconry to control rodents, birds and other pests, and they have a bear with a fine palate.

“We’ve got this one property where we have this bear, and we know when the grapes are ready because this bear comes down and starts eating the grapes, and he likes the best grapes on the property,” Jackson said.

The bear is eating grapes that go into one of their higher-priced wines, Verite, that sells in the $450 range, Jackson said. “The bear loves the same grapes that (winemaker) Pierre Seillan does so we know as soon as the bear appears it’s time to harvest and we get up there pretty quickly so that he doesn’t take the best grapes possible.”

Sustaining the land is one of the three pillars of sustainability that Jackson said her family embraces.

Pillar One: Sustaining their lands

By maintaining healthy soils through cover crops, controlling soil erosion, creating a habitat for beneficial bugs, and creating a supportive surrounding ecosystem, great grapes are possible. To be stewards of the land for now and generations to come requires using responsible practices and a long-term commitment. Among their goals is that half of their winemaking operations will use power generated by renewable energy.

“Right now 35 percent of our winemaking operations are powered by solar,” Katie Jackson said. “We’ve put in 6.5 megawatts of solar since we started putting in solar, an initiative we started a couple years ago. Now we’re the largest solar user in the U.S. wine industry,” she said, which is resulting in annual savings of about $2 million. And there are others who are making a big commitment too, she said.

Using 2008 as a baseline for water and energy use, the company is also tracking its greenhouse gas emissions. When the sustainability report was written in 2015 (it was published in 2016) the company has reduced its water intensity by 41 percent. They use a metric to calculate water intensity rather than water use because of fluctuations in harvest and expansion and the addition of wineries. Ultimately they are looking at how much water it takes to make a gallon of wine, she said.

“We’re trying to get to another 33 percent reduction in water intensity,” Jackson said.

Some of that water use reduction was achieved by working with Tom Beard Company, a barrel washing equipment business with a system that reuses water up to three times before sending it down the drain, and now Jackson said they are testing using the water up to five times. The technique uses about six or seven gallons of water per barrel, saving 700,000 gallons of water each year. This project earned a Top Project of 2015 honor from “Environmental Leader.”

Using a clean-in-place technology for tank washing reduces water consumption and cleaning solutions, and after filtration the water is used for irrigation, which is monitored through technology such as soil probes, leaf porometers, sap flow, and weather satellites to determine the water needs of the vines.

Pillar Two: Crafting their wines

Their sustainability report contains a number of goals set for 2021 that will be reported on every two years.

“We wanted to create a public-facing document that would be very transparent that would set five-year goals that we could then report upon every two years to explain how we were achieving our goals or any hiccups we may be having. We set those goals to be hopefully achievable but we also wanted them to mean something,” Jackson said.

“We want to be an example to show by what we’re able to accomplish what is possible for others in the industry and outside of it. I think it just speaks to how committed my family is. We wanted to achieve these goals anyway and we are going to try our best to get there so we thought we might was well serve a greater purpose by being open about it and have the conversation with others,” she said.

Proactive measures such as this and a company culture that supports employees in innovative ways sets the company apart, said Kruse, referring to their living wage policy and volunteer programs that encourage employees to give back to “organizations that they are excited about and passionate about.”

“They don’t get the recognition they deserve,” Kruse said.

When talking about sustainability, Jackson said the first thought is environmental, then there is the economic side because “sustainability forces you to think about how viable it would be to do something long term. The third area it forces you to think of is social equity.”

“Lately we’ve been thinking about how we can be an employer of choice … through our sustainability program we’re looking at how we can be a better employer, a great neighbor, a great community partner, so we’re looking at how we can build that program so that we contribute to social well-being as well.”

The North Bay Business Journal honored JFW in 2015 as one of the “Best Places to Work.”

The last couple of years JFW the company has paid employees to go out two days a year to volunteer at whatever nonprofit they want to support. The company also organizes larger group volunteer days, such as partnering with Redwood Empire Food Bank in Santa Rosa, and working with an organization that cleaned up areas of the Russian River where homeless encampments had been abandoned.

“The amount of tonnage (of garbage) that our teams hauled out was really impressive,” Jackson said.

One team, “made up mostly of some guys on our farming team who are really strong,” hauled out old cars, she said.

Another goal in the report is to get to 75 percent participation in the volunteer program by 2021; the first year they had 50 percent participation.

The family also “created a fund to support employees who go through unexpected hardships in life. We wanted to allow anyone who works for the company to be able to donate to this fund if they want to.”

Employees can sign up to automatically contribute a set amount each pay period, or a one-time donation.

“It was great because a lot of coworkers know of someone who is going through something difficult and they wanted to have some way to support each other. My family puts in about 50 percent of whatever our goal is for the year, and our executive team, out of their own pockets, puts in an additional 25 percent, and we hope that people who work for the company will meet that gap of 25 percent. At the end of the year if there haven’t been enough people who have needed financial assistance, we take the remaining money and we support scholarships for our employees or their children or grandchildren,” Jackson said.

“The first year we did it the Valley Fire occurred and we were able to support eight different employees who either had lost their homes or had close relatives affected by it.”

In trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent they are looking at transportation and use of tractors. Through a grant from Bay Area Air Quality Management District they were able to change out 21 tractors for new lower emission tractors.

A 2021 goal is to have zero-waste tasting rooms, and initiatives have been put in place at wineries to double their solid waste diversion within the next five years.

The sustainability team had plans recently to go to a Napa property and “go dumpster diving with goggles,” gloves and the works “and do an assessment about how much garbage is actually going into recycling and how we might want to fine tune that,” Jackson said. “And they’re inviting anyone at the facility to join and actually there are a couple of people who want to do it,” she said, adding that if she weren’t pregnant she would suit up and dive in, too.

Pillar Three: Advancing the field

JFW’s reputation as a leader in sustainability and environmentally friendly business practices grabbed the attention of Tesla, the electric car and energy storage company.

“(It) was really gratifying because they actually reached out to us,” Jackson said. They were looking for different industries to pilot their new commercial-size batteries and had heard that JFW was doing “some really sustainable things” and contacted the Jackson family.

“We were the first and only winery at the time to test their technology,” she said.

They have batteries at six different wineries in California, mostly in Sonoma and Napa counties. Three batteries at La Crema take energy off the grid at night when there’s low demand and store the energy for use during the day when demand and electricity use increases. The system automatically takes the winery off the grid and uses the batteries’ stored power.

“It helps us cut down the amount of energy we use at those really high peak demand times. It has complex algorithms that calculate how to modify its behavior over time based on what it sees us doing at the winery, so it’s just getting better and better at what it does,” Jackson said.

At some point they would like to power those batteries by solar, which would further their goal to one day be completely energy self-sufficient.

In that vein the company partners with UC Davis to test new technologies that are innovative that others in the industry may one day adopt. They also worked with UC Davis to bring their winery to a LEED Platinum certified level.

“My parents donated about $4 million to establish this building, the Jess S. Jackson Sustainable Winery Building, named in honor of my dad. Unfortunately he passed away before he saw it built,” she said.

Students have the opportunity to test different technologies and from there they can take those experiences and knowledge with them when they go out into the industry “and further advance the whole industry in terms of what we know we can do. We’ve tested some things in conjunction with them, but haven’t fully adopted anything yet.”

Another goal is to get the building to net-zero, and incorporate a rain water capture infrastructure so that the winery can completely run off water it collects.

At Saralee’s Vineyard they wanted to do a groundwater recharge project to see how much water they could let percolate down into the aquifer. It was based on some research they’d read about that Helen Dahlke, an assistant professor in Physical Hydrology at the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources at UC Davis, was conducting in trials with farmers in different areas of the state including an almond farmer in the Central Valley.

“When his trees went dormant in the winter he took some water and flooded his orchard and was able to demonstrate that the aquifer was being replenished by a significant amount. So we’ve been talking a lot about groundwater since our groundwater levels are being depleted in various areas of the state. It would be great if agriculture, which has a lot of land, could be able to contribute to recharging somehow,” Jackson said.

Though this winter’s rains were a welcome relief from the drought, it didn’t allow Jackson to get the data they needed to test their own recharge project. This fall they hope to set up a project with some neighbors and agencies in Alexander Valley and Dahlke and others at UC Davis.

Other experimental projects include grape pomace composting and carbon sequestration.

“Our sustainability programs have earned the endorsements of a number of international third-party certifications and awards including recognition as the 2013 Green Company of the Year by The Drinks Business, Europe’s leading beverage industry trade publication. They honored us for our longstanding track record of environmentally friendly business practices with a clear vision for the future and far-reaching commitment to sustainability,” Jackson said.

Included in their certifications are California Code of Sustainable Winegrowing (CCSW) – all their vineyards and wineries were certified in 2010 – and Sustainability In Practice (SIP) – they began certifying in 2008 and all vineyards were certified in 2011.

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The Weekly Calistogan Editor