Love the Vine You’re With: Sustainable Wine in the Pacific Northwest

  • wine grapes

grapes on a vine to demonstrate sustainable wine in the pacific northwest

When you hear the word sustainability, do you think of wine? Until last year, I simply enjoyed my wine, rarely wondering at the impact of my enjoyment on the environment. I never assumed the wine industry would consider it too. It turns out there are producers making sustainable wine in the Pacific Northwest who work hard to make their product kinder to the planet. I realized that sustainability is all-encompassing, relevant to every aspect of our activity in the world. Excluding human endeavor from its scope – even wine making – is just not good business for the planet.

This new line of thinking about sustainable wine began with a team assignment in a business class at my local college. Team member Caron Parker suggested that we interview her friend Tanya Woodley, the owner of SuLei Cellars winery in Walla Walla, Washington. Being a wine lover, I was very interested. Yet as we began discussing questions for the interview I noticed that we were focusing only on making money, and not to balancing business with concern for the natural world.

So I said: “Can we ask about ecologically sustainable wine making practices in her industry? It’s of growing importance to many consumers. It may be important to her as well.” Not surprisingly, this hadn’t been our first idea, perhaps because of the pervasive idea that in the business world, the bottom line must always come first.

We learned in my class that sustainability is a valid economic consideration for businesses wanting to remain in good graces with an increasingly ecologically-aware populace. But the novel idea that the public might actually award a business with economic success – simply because it’s the right thing to do – is still slow to dawn for some owners.

This seemed a potential learning opportunity for us all. So we decided to pose this question to Woodley, to see if she would be interested in addressing it. The idea was vindicated when we discovered sustainable wine practices are incredibly important to her. She is not just an entrepreneur interested in monetary success. She is also a conscientious human being concerned with her responsibility to the earth, and to society. Of the questions we posed, she spent more time on those dealing with sustainability, making her ecological ethic very clear.

Her wide-ranging answers to my questions provided a real education. First of all was the question: “Do you believe SuLei Cellars has a responsibility to produce a product sustainably?” This was her response:

“I do feel very responsible… in fact it drives me nuts: we have 130 wineries using glass, much of which goes into the land fill. I have a huge problem with that. As a human being, I’m aware of how my business practices impact my environment, because I live here too. The fire that is used to melt those bottles down has another environmental impact: the emissions go into our environment. It would be better to reuse it, and reuse it, until it’s no longer reusable.”

Sustainable Wine in the Pacific Northwest

SuLei Cellars is a small winery, working in stages toward meeting their long range sustainable wine goals. But there are some steps they’re already taking, such as the use of screw tops for their white wines. Red wines need to be aged in the bottle longer. Cork is a limited resource, but is necessary for now. But except for Rieslings, whites aren’t meant for bottle aging. Screw tops enable them to conserve this precious natural resource. New technologies will enable screw tops to do the same kind of oxygen exchange that corks do. This would enable them to use even less of this resource.

Shipping weight is of special concern, for the carbon footprint it produces. So they procure lighter weight glass. Whenever possible, they source it from companies that use recycled glass. They are looking into special washers that can sanitize, wash, and separate the bottles to reuse at the winery. This is of special importance in Washington, where glass recycling has decreased.

sustainable wine

They are also exploring keg wines, which bypass much of the waste related to glass, cork, and labels. This would mean onsite refills:

“You would bring your own growler, your own jug, and refill it. Then, take it home and drink it, sanitize it and bring it back. We might even give you an incentive for doing that. It would take a lot waste out of the process.”

This growing trend may even be coming to your town. In Portland, Oregon there are wine bars – such as Barrel Fine Wine + Tasting Bar – serving wine directly from the keg. Technology has improved, allowing keg wines to favorably compete on the basis of quality with bottle aged wines.

There are a number of other producers making sustainable wine in the Pacific Northwest incorporating ecologically sound practices. A notable example is Waters Winery in Washington, which has implemented a unique nine point plan in their building architecture. This approach conserves electricity, water, raw materials, and reduces both greenhouse gas emissions and waste output. As outlined in Sustainable Winery Architecture: Nine Ways to Save Money and the Planet:

“Key elements are reducing heat gain/loss, using more natural light, and using materials that help accomplish these goals.”

They use a novel approach to reducing electricity consumption:

“Place portions of buildings underground or partially underground to take advantage of the earth’s constant temperature. This usually eliminates the need for cooling.”

They plant trees and trellised vines that shade their buildings, also decreasing energy use. They even collect their wash-down water, adjust the pH level, and reuse it for irrigation.

There are many other good steps these wineries are taking. Their efforts are very important. Historically, wineries have lagged behind vineyards in the adoption of earth friendly practices. But they are in process of turning that around. As consumers, we can do our part by purchasing their wines. We can reward them for doing the right thing.

“More and more people are recycling, and interested in sustainability, what’s happening to our world. So they’re more willing to be part of the solution. They think ‘I’m willing to take a bit of a hit on this, because … I’ll know I’m doing the right thing.’ Because the consumer has a responsibility as well. I can make wine sustainably,  but unless the consumer makes a purchase, it does no good. We’re still in a pattern of educating on this.” – Tanya Woodley

Sustainable wine in the Pacific Northwest from SuLei Cellars

For further information about sustainable wine, check out the following:



Sam Bailey

Author: Sam Bailey

Sam Bailey is a web designer and freelance writer passionate about furthering the inclusive paradigm of Inter-spirituality to build bridges of understanding and co-create a more peaceful, just and sustainable world that works for all people. With a background in nutrition and the natural healing arts, Sam also enjoys contributing as a guest blogger at Hundredgivers, exploring issues of sustainability, social, racial and economic justice, as well how to live a healthy, beneficial life that is regenerative of the world we live in.

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