Forget dry January. Increasingly, the global trend has been pointing to a market decline in alcohol consumption, with millennials leading the way, according to the latest figures from a recent report. They are drinking less frequently, are more willing to experiment with different formats (rosé in a can, anyone?) and seeking lower-alcohol beverages.

A predilection for more restrained, balanced wines reflects changing consumer tastes in produce, food and generally what we put into our bodies. The numbers don’t lie. Low-alcohol and no-alcohol beverages are projected to grow more than 32 per cent from now until 2022, three times the growth of the past five years. Though this doesn’t necessarily spell general abstinence for the wine and spirits industry, it does require diversifying strategies as the industry seeks to appeal to a younger audience who are allocating more of their budgets to wellness and fitness in a quest for more a balanced lifestyle.

An example of a region looking to engage with consumers in a different way is Napa Valley. Oft associated with a uniformly hot climate (which is not the case), high-alcohol wines and tasting notes such as “big, bold and bright”, Napa is ready to come clean and wants wine drinkers outside its sunny Californian clime to take notice. After making a name for itself in the ‘90s with the help of wine critic Robert Parker for its big, oaky Chardonnays and bold, high-alcohol Cabernet Sauvignons, the region has admittedly struggled with convincing consumers that it has transitioned to more balanced winemaking, especially in international markets that are not exposed to the breadth of selection available to US consumers.

Napa Valley vineyards (courtesy Napa Valley Vintners)

Photo credit: Napa Valley Vintners

Along with other wine regions at the forefront of green and sustainable practices, including New Zealand, Australia and France, Napa Valley’s proximity to the heart of the organic and sustainability movement in California also means that its vintners have no qualms about taking a leadership position when it comes to initiating green and sustainable practices. Napa Valley Vintners, an industry trade organisation initiated in the early 2000s representing Napa Valley wineries, has committed its 550+ members to a Napa Green–certified winery programme requiring independent third-party certification, one of the most rigorous certifications in the wine industry. With 52 per cent of its winery members certified Napa Green, they have set themselves an aggressive target of 100 per cent certification by 2020.

While it may sound like marketing, the consensus is that these efforts bode well for consumers. “Healthy vineyards makes better-quality wine,” attests Abigail Smyth, export manager for Pine Ridge Vineyards in the famed Stags Leap District AVA of Napa Valley. “It’s part of the triple bottom line. There’s marketing and PR to it, but it makes good business sense. There are simple savings like water, energy and compost, but it’s also environmentally the right thing to do for future generations.”

“It’s more of a mindset – we have droughts in California and the cost of energy is ridiculous. We need to be able to find a way to be self-sustainable and work within our own walls,” says Brad Groper, vice-president of sales for Long Meadow Ranch. Self-described as a “holistic winery and ranch”, the family-owned winery utilises a full-circle organic farming system where every part of the farm contributes to another part of the farm, including the livestock and vineyards on its lands and its popular Farmstead restaurant.

Groper admits that when it comes to expansion plans, it’s not always easy to commit to being green. “It’s taking much longer for us because builders and commissioners have never seen this before and there are permitting issues. We’re breaking ground.” Amongst its many projects that will adhere to green practices is a new second Alexander Valley winery location and a 65-room lodge located next to its Farmstead restaurant, a comparatively low-profile project compared to luxury resorts such as Meadowood and Montage in the vicinity.

Napa Valley

Photo credit: Napa Valley Vintners

For esteemed Napa winery Silver Oak and its sister brand Twomey, sustainability and energy conservation are not merely labels on the bottle but principles that lie at the foundation of their values, extending to operations in the vineyard, winery and employees. According to Vivien Gay, the director of international sales, “We’re the only winery in the world that can say we are LEED certified at the platinum level throughout the winery. Other wineries say that they are, but it only applies to their tasting room. We also follow Petal certification, which includes benefits and wellness programmes for employees, including tracking how much water is saved… it’s all part of the certification.” Gay admits these efforts come at a cost, saying, “We’re not going to be able to pay off the new winery location for years, but it shows our commitment to be a steward for the land.”

Solar arrays in Napa Valley vineyard

Photo credit: Napa Valley Vintners

The issue for consumers remains how exactly to discern amongst all these qualifications, yet it’s clear that as with sourcing any food or beverage, it’s universally understood that with wine what’s good for the grapes is also good for us. “For consumers abroad in international markets like Hong Kong, we’re not sure if people care so much that it’s organic versus what they are putting into their bodies,” says Groper from Long Meadow Ranch. Despite the lack of consensus amongst vintners in how to uniformly convey this message to consumers, there’s an earnest sense of community and commitment to land preservation in Napa, which the region appears increasingly eager to communicate abroad.

Harvesting Chardonnay grapes

Photo credit: Napa Valley Vintners

Whether you’re a sceptic or die-hard believer, there’s no denying that wineries that commit to goals including water, energy and land conservation, waste reduction and implementing holistic integrated management solutions are good for the earth, vines and – bottom line – the wines that we consume. While the benefits may not translate directly to cost-benefit savings for consumers, there is satisfaction in supporting producers who are committed to ensuring the health and sustainability of their wineries for generations to come and, consequently, making wines that we have the good fortune to imbibe that reflect these practices.

Available in 2019 in Hong Kong, the following is a sampling of the latest releases from Napa Green–certified wineries mentioned in the article (by no means an exhaustive list):

  • 2017 Twomey Sauvignon Blanc: dry, subtle notes of green apple, pear with slight oak, pleasant lemon acidity and finish (Ponti Wine Cellars)
  • 2014 Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon: rich Bordeaux-style red blend, lush red and black fruits, soft tannins and balanced oak, still young (Ponti Wine Cellars)
  • 2014 Twomey Merlot: velvety, warm red and black cherries on the tongue, long finish (Ponti Wine Cellars)
  • 2016 Pine Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon: young and jammy, red fruit, raspberry, oak, cinnamon, spices (Via Pacifica Selections)
  • 2014 Long Meadow Cabernet Sauvignon: blackcurrant, red cherry, fresh fruit, medium finish, easy drinking (Kerry Wines)

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Working 9 to wine. Follow my wine & spirits adventures on Instagram @madame_toasst

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