After a long day poring over your plans for an eco-friendly prefabricated home or contemplating environmentally conscious carpeting, you might want to settle in with a glass of biodynamic, organic, sustainable wine. What is sustainable wine though and which are the best sustainable wines for 2020?
In short, there’s no single body stamping a sustainability label on wine, meaning that a variety of certifications have popped up, along with some downright sneaky labelling tricks aiming to fool wine lovers. We’ll look at these in a moment, but first, here are my top picks for 5 of the best sustainable wines you can buy right now. You can read about our unique research process here.
- Overall Winner
- What is sustainable wine?
- Sustainable wine certifications to look for
- The Best Sustainable Wines – in depth reviews
Below, we offer our top overall pick for sustainable wine. For more detail, scroll down for extensive reviews.
Best overall sustainable wine – Benziger Family Winery
Benziger Family Winery sets the bar high when it comes to sustainable winemaking. As a Biodynamic certified winery, all of Benziger’s wines have been certified organic, sustainable, and/or Biodynamic since 2006, and the winery is big on biodiversity as well as solar energy, water conservation, and other sustainable strategies for winemaking.
What is sustainable wine?
At its core, sustainable wine is wine created using eco-friendly growing practices and production processes that ensure the ongoing health of soil, waterways, wildlife, people, and the planet. In practical terms, this might encompass such things as avoiding the use of pesticides, using composting waste as fertilizer, conserving water, and both reducing energy consumption and switching to renewable, cleaner energy sources.
Given the breadth of sustainability, it’s not all that surprising that some wines that are certified organic or even biodynamic are not actually sustainable. And, vice versa, some genuinely sustainable wines don’t boast an organic or biodynamic label.
To illustrate how confusing things can be for growers, winemakers, and consumers, here are just a few of the current organic, biodynamic, and sustainability programs and certifications available for wine:
- USDA Organic
- EU Organic
- Demeter Association Inc. biodynamic certification
- EMS Environmental Management System (ISO 14001 / ISO 14004)
- SIP Certified (Sustainability in Practice)
- Certified Green (The Lodi Rules)
- LIVE Certified (Low Input Viticulture and Enology)
- California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance
- Salmon Safe
- Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand (SWNZ)
- Certified Sustainable Wine of Chile
- Integrity & Sustainability Certified (South Africa)
- Sustainable Australia Winegrowing (SAW)
- Bodegas de Argentina Sustainability Protocol
- Sustainable Wine South Africa (SWSA)
- Sonoma County Winegrape Commission label
I’ll take a look at some of these in a moment. First, though, what’s the difference between organic and biodynamic wine?
What is organic wine?
Organic wine is wine made with certified organic ingredients with few, if any, synthetic materials added. Depending on the organic certification, this may mean a wine contains 70%, 100%, or some other proportion of organic ingredients.
In the US, the most common organic certification is the USDA Organic label, although some vineyards and winemakers use Oregon Tilth Certified Organic (OTCO) as their certifying agent. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the body that oversees both USDA Organic and OTCO.
For a finished wine to achieve organic certification in the US, the grapes and the winemaking process must both be organic. This means that the grapes are grown without pesticides or GMOs and that anything that goes into the wine, including yeasts, sugars, etc., must also be organic.
Some winemakers balk at organic certification, claiming that non-organic additives help prevent wine from spoiling and that the quality of fully organic wine can suffer without such additives. That there are many delicious organic wines available seems to undermine such arguments, however.
In other countries, other organic certifications may be used, including Soil Association certified organic in the UK.
What is biodynamic wine?
Biodynamic wine is created in an organic, sustainable way that accounts for all the material and energy inputs and minimizes waste production. Based on a holistic farming practice originating with the Austrian philosopher and educator Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s, biodynamics is a far more comprehensive practice than just organic certification. For some, it also includes a spiritual element involving the phases of the moon.
To qualify for the Demeter Association Inc. biodynamic certification program, grapes and any other ingredients have to be grown in a healthy ecosystem that conserves and regenerates natural resources, using animal manure or other natural inputs to enhance soil fertility and natural methods to control weeds, pests, and diseases. The criteria for this certification are quite strict and include setting aside 10% of acreage for a biodiversity preserve, and entirely eliminating the use of synthetic pesticides and herbicides.
Because biodynamic wines contain no artificial additives, they offer a unique opportunity to explore the taste or a particular terroir or place of origin. A few of the additives typically used in winemaking include sugars, tannins, acidifiers, and clarifying compounds like isinglass (parts of fish), animal blood, egg, and pea protein.
Choosing biodynamic wine offers a degree of reassurance that the wine itself doesn’t contain toxic chemicals (with the exception of alcohol, of course) and that the creation of the wine may actually support the health of the environment. Look for Demeter Certified Biodynamic, Demeter, or Biodynamic on the label.
The downside of biodynamic wine is that nature is rather unpredictable, so wine from the same vineyard may vary in quality and taste from year to year. That said, some wine enthusiasts love this about biodynamic wine, because it keeps things interesting! A vintage from a cooler year may be more acidic, for instance, or a wine may have more natural tannins and taste dryer in hotter years where shade crops haven’t fared as well.
Sustainable wine certifications to look for
To choose a good quality, sustainable wine, one of your best options is to get to know your local winemakers. This way, you can ask direct questions about growing practices and winemaking processes, often over a wine tasting, so you can see for yourself the effects of different agricultural methods and conditions.
Barring that, it’s good to look for credible third-party wine certifications and labels. Here are a few of those I suggest favoring. Organic and Biodynamic are a good start but going that bit further can help ensure great-tasting wine for years to come. Oh, and it’s almost always a good idea to stay away from very cheap wine. If a wine is on sale, great, but wine that is always very low price is likely mass produced with little, if any, mind paid to sustainability (or quality).
LIVE is a non-profit organization that certifies winegrowers in the Pacific Northwest. To receive LIVE certification for sustainable wine, vineyards must maintain up-to-date farming records that reflect biodiversity, irrigation, and fertilizer use, while winemakers must provide records showing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, water management, and labor condition at production facilities.
LIVE is an internationally accredited standard with 344 vineyards and 42 wineries currently certified. The certification has been around since 1999 and the organization provides regional education to preserve natural and human resources within the wine industry.
To qualify for LIVE certification, vineyards and wineries must also meet Salmon Safe criteria. This means the vineyard does not use pesticides or other chemicals that may be hazardous to salmon and other aquatic life. Salmon-Safe works with West Coast farmers, developers, and other entities to reduce watershed impacts and there are now 350 vineyards certified Salmon-Safe (and a host of craft brewers too!).
The California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance
The California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance offers education and certification opportunities to winemakers in the state and has seen a 50% increase in the number of certified vineyards in 2019 and a 4.2% increase in the number of certified wineries.
This certification program provides verification by a third-party auditor that a winery or vineyard implements sustainable practices and continuous improvement. The certification is based on a concept of sustainability encompassing winemaking practices that are:
- Sensitive to the environment – Environmentally sound
- Responsive to the needs and interests of society at large – Socially equitable
- Economically feasible to implement and maintain
The CSWA not only offers certification, it helps educate those in the winemaking business. Specifically, the CSWA offers a Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices workbook which includes 15 self-assessment chapters to translate sustainability principles into winegrowing and winemaking practices.
As of March 1st, 2020, there were 2,180 vineyards in California that were Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing (CCSW) and 157 wineries with CCSW. This amounts to 189,463 acres of certified sustainable vineyards, which is 30% of the 637,000 total California acres. For 2017, 2018, and 2019 vintages, 4,025,384 cases of wine were produced by Certified California Sustainable Wineries, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find one you like (though I wouldn’t advise testing all of these wines…).
If you’re buying wine from California and it isn’t CCSW, contact the company to find out why! Unless the company is certified by Lodi Rules.
LODI Rules was created by the Lodi Winegrape Commission, a group of farmers who came together in 1991 with the shared goal of adopting a more sustainable way of farming that ‘meets the needs of today without compromising the ability of future generations to create their own livelihoods.’ These farmers live and work in Lodi, California, (near Sacramento) where nearly a fifth of California grapes are grown.
LODI Rules is a sustainability certification tied to a grassroots education program intended to encourage farmers to reduce pesticide use by adopting an integrated pest management system that thinks in terms of the entire vineyard ecosystem. LODI Rules itself arose in 2005 after more than a decade of input from farmers, viticulturists, and environmentalists and the ‘rules’ are a set of over 120 farming standard practices divided into six categories: ecosystem management, water management, soil management, pest management, business management, and human resources.
LODI Rules is accredited, certified, and audited by an independent third party, Protected Harvest. Vineyards are certified annually, and wineries may use the LODI Rules seal on a label if at least 85% of the grapes are from certified vineyards. Wineries like Bogle and Michael David have helped promote sustainable winegrowing by paying significant bonuses to vineyards providing LODI Rules certified grapes.
There are now more than 1,000 vineyards certified by LODI Rules, including wineries in California and in Israel. Indeed, the organization recently unveiled new seals especially for wineries outside of Lodi, including California Rules and a universal rules seal. All of these seals emphasize environmentally and socially responsible practices, while keeping economic feasibility in mind for long-term business success.
There are LODI Rules wines made from over 50 different grape varieties, and if you need help with a recommendation, you can call the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center at 209-365-0621 or go for a tasting tour!
Napa Green is a sustainability certification program that takes a soil-to-bottle approach to environmental stewardship. This program requires wineries and vineyards to demonstrate continuing excellence and continual improvement for certification renewal.
Napa Green Land is an umbrella program focusing on watershed stewardship and recognizes two regional, third-party vineyard certification programs that assess environmental compliance. The program is open to vineyards and farms that meet criteria for preventing soil erosion, reducing harmful inputs, conserving water, and protecting and restoring habitat.
The Napa Green Winery program offers soil-to-bottle certification to wineries that implement more than 100 sustainability and stewardship standards. These standards encompass such things as energy and water conservation, waste prevention through recycling, composting, and purchasing policies, emissions reductions and carbon footprint, and social equity. Unlike some certification programs, Napa Green Winery certifies the whole facility, from production to administration, to hospitality.
SIP is Sustainability in Practice and is a certification launched in 2008 with 3,700 acres of certified vines. Today, there are 43,600 acres of certified vineyards in California and Michigan, as well as two SIP certified wineries. SIP estimate that they have certified more than 43 million bottles of wine.
To qualify for SIP certification, a vineyard or winery must satisfy criteria in the areas of:
- Social Responsibility
- Water Management
- Safe Pest Management
- Energy Efficiency
- Always Evolving
SIP wines are often organic and/or biodynamic, but SIP certification goes beyond these labels to look at whether farmers are doing such things as minimizing tractor usage, switching to renewable energy sources, providing habitat for raptors as pest control, and minimizing water waste, in addition to ensuring good working conditions and community relations.
EMS ISO 14001 / ISO 14004
You might see wine labels that mention Environmental Management Systems (EMS) ISO 14001, especially for wine from Chile, Australia, and a handful of other countries. EMS focuses primarily on waste reduction and minimizing environmental impact, including ensuring that winemakers have policies and procedures in place to properly handle waste-water so as not to contaminate the local environment.
Sustainable Wine South Africa
If you’re buying wine from South Africa, look for a postage stamp-sized label on the bottle neck bearing the country’s national flower, the protea, and a declaration – “Integrity & Sustainability Certified.” This label also features the website swsa.co.za and some numbers that let you track the wine and find out more about its sustainable origins.
The Sustainable Wine South Africa certification seal was launched in 2010 as a partnership between wine markets, makers, environmental authorities, and ethical trade organizations. The seal certifies that the vintage, grape variety, and the origin of the wine is correct and that the wine was produced sustainably by producers who are audited by the government and assessed for worker conditions, chemical and pesticide use, resource management, and energy efficiency.
A staggering 92% of South African winemakers used the seal in 2018, with the country’s wine industry quick to adopt transparency and sustainable practices. The result is better quality wine and access to a growing market of eco-conscious wine lovers.
Sonoma County Winegrape Commission
To use the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission label on a bottle of wine, the wine must have been made using a minimum of 85% certified sustainable wine grapes from Sonoma County. This is getting easier for winemakers in the region because the group managing the label claims that over 90% of vineyards are certified sustainable.
California Green Medal
Although not a certification, the California Green Medal is a good sign that a winery is doing things right in terms of sustainability. These awards are presented by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, California Association of Winegrape Growers, Wine Institute, Lodi Winegrape Commission, Napa Valley Vintners, Sonoma County Winegrowers and the Vineyard Team.
Four Green Medals are presented annually in the following categories: Leader, Environment, Community, and Business.
The Best Sustainable Wines – in depth reviews
Benziger Family Winery (Overall Winner)
Highlight: Demeter Biodynamic certified winery big on biodiversity, solar energy, water conservation, and other sustainable strategies for winemaking. All wines have been certified organic, sustainable, and/or biodynamic since 2006!
Benziger Family Winery was founded in 1980 and takes a Biodynamic, organic, and sustainable approach to tending vineyards and making wine. This means enhancing and maintaining biodiversity with carefully constructed wetlands that filter water and offer habitat for a multitude of species. The winery has recycled millions of gallons of water and, in addition to water conservation, Benziger generate electricity using solar panels and use energy efficient equipment in their wineries.
Based in an old volcanic bowl in Sonoma, California, this family wine business knows all too well the impact of climate fires on local residents and the local economy. Indeed, the 2017 wildfire burned through one of the company’s wineries and climate change has forced Benziger to use shade cloth to protect the vines from sunburn.
Benziger has also led the way in helping others in the wine industry to take greater steps towards sustainability. This includes creating a third-party certified-sustainable vineyard program with the help of Stellar Certification Services and CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers), through which Benziger has helped winegrowers achieve certified sustainable and certified organic status, as well as certified Biodynamic status.
This winery emphasizes environmentally sound growing methods, such as biodiversity, soil revitalization and Integrated Pest Management (IPM). All four of the Benziger estate vineyards are Demeter-certified Biodynamic, having begun the transition themselves in the mid-nineties and achieved certification in 2000. This means there are no synthetic chemicals and that the vineyards operate with a closed nutrient system, relying on composting, natural predator-prey relationships, and a genuine love for sustainability.
Highlight: Family-owned CSWA certified sustainable winery focused on world-class winemaking, biodiversity, energy efficiency, water conservation, and good employment practices.
Ferrari-Carano has been CSWA certified sustainable since 2015 and was awarded Sustainable Producer/Maker of the Year at the 2019 Sonoma County Harvest Fair. The winery, located in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley has been practicing sustainable winegrowing practices for years was the first winery to release wines bearing the ‘Sonoma County Sustainably Farmed Grapes’ label.
With its origins in a 30-acre plot of grapes bought in 1979, the company now encompasses 24 certified sustainable estate vineyards totally 1,400 acres. Thought Ferrari-Carano has grown in size, their goal to make world-class wine while being good neighbors, good employers, and good stewards of the land hasn’t changed.
The vineyards are carefully managed with water use efficiency, soil and nutrient management, a trellis system and canopy management, integrated pest management, biodiversity and wildlife conservation in mind. The company also pays attention to energy efficiency and greenhouse gas mitigation, human resources and fair labor practices, and soil waste management. This strategic approach involves the use of 19 million gallons of recycled water to carefully irrigate vineyards in such a way as to reduce evaporation and water run-off. The company also uses wind machines which help save an estimated 23.5 million gallons of water.
As for the soil, Ferrari-Carano uses strategic cover crops to add nutrients, builds up soil naturally with worm castings and liquid compost, and uses discarded grape stems as mulch. They also maintain olive tree orchards, wildflowers, and herb gardens to encourage healthy soil and biodiversity, encouraging natural pest management by attracting advantageous insects like bees, ladybugs, and butterflies.
Since 2015, Ferrari-Carano has maintained 560 acres of certified Fish Friendly Farming land and has participated in restoration projects to support the health of the Russian River, Dry Creek and Dutcher Creek. The vineyards also installed hawk perches and owl boxes, as well as insectary gardens with drought tolerant plants.
One fun feature at Ferrari-Carano’s vineyard ranches is their innovative use of tree sap road paving! Instead of the typical asphalt, gravel, and concrete, the company uses lignin sulfonate, a by-product of pulpwood processing, in combination with crushed rock excavated from their own land to pave the roads. This helps to suppress dust and is biodegradable, meaning no toxic run-off.
The vineyards also host cows and sheep as part of their closed-loop approach. Specifically, they have Baby Doll sheep grazing in the vineyards where the sheep (an ancient breed that grows only to two feet in height) can’t reach the grapes but do take care of the grass and weeds below. This is a win-win for the winery, with the sheep helping to eliminate the need for pesticides and artificial fertilizers all in one.
Ferrari-Carano also built a new production building in 2017 that met Cal Green requirements. This building is energy efficient and has the potential for solar panels to be added in the future.
Ferrari-Carano provides rent-free housing for more than 100 vineyard employees, has a wellness program for staff, and takes an active role in firefighting in Alexander Valley and Sonoma County more widely. The company also owns Lazy Creek Vineyards, a CSWA certified winery and vineyard, as well as Vintners Inn, a Santa Rosa boutique hotel that is California Green-certified at the Environmentalist level of certification.
Highlight: An award-winning CarbonNeutral® winery with a long history of supporting sustainability.
Cono Sur has been my go-to for sustainable wine for at least the last decade, if not longer. The distinctive bicycle logo makes it easy to spot this CarbonNeutral® wine, and the company offers a good selection of reds, whites, and rose (the pinot noir is my current favorite) in addition to being committed to worker rights, a safe and healthy workplace, and a greener way of making wine.
Cono Sur currently manages over 300 hectares of organic vineyards, was the first winery in the world to obtain CarbonNeutral® certification, way back in 2007. Also in 2007, the company’s estates in Leyda and Peralillo received organic certification and in 2008 Cono Sur worked with the Ecology and Biodiversity Institute (EBI) at the Campo Lindo vineyards in the San Antonio Valley to launch the “Wine, Climate Change, and Biodiversity” Project.
In 2010, Cono Sur became the first winery in the Americas and third in the world to be ISO 14064-1 certified, demonstrating a commitment to environmental stewardship. Cono Sur is also certified to international standards ISO 50001, Energy management, and OHSAS 18.001, Management of occupational health and safety.
Cono Sur is award-winning. In 2011, Cono Sur Vineyards & Winery won Green Company of the Year, awarded by the British magazine Drinks Business at their “Green Awards”. Then in 2017, Cono Sur became the first winery to receive the Gold Medal in Energy Efficiency from the Chilean Ministry of Energy.
2018 was also a big year for the company, with Cono Sur achieving For Life certification. This certification goes beyond Fair Trade as a Social Responsibility Certification that ensures safe and fair working conditions, monitors a company’s environmental performance, and looks at its role and impact on the local community.
Cono Sur are one of the only winemakers I’ve found that publish a sustainability report. Sadly for me, it’s in Spanish – a language I don’t know. I’ve reached out to the company to see if there’s an English translation, but in the meantime, if you’re Spanish-speaking and have any insights to share, I’d love to hear from you!
Highlight: The greenest of the green, Silver Oak is a LEED Platinum certified family-owned winemaking business with Living Building status and a raft of eco-friendly accolades.
Silver Oak was called “California’s Most Eco-Conscious Winery” by The San Francisco Chronicle, won the California Green Medal Award for Leadership in Sustainability in 2019, and in April 2020, the Silver Oak Alexander Valley winery was certified as a Living Building by the International Living Future Institute. This means that the building gives more than it takes, creating a positive impact on the human and natural systems that interact with them. Silver Oak’s winery is only the 26th building in the world to receive full accreditation and the only manufacturing facility of any kind to ever to receive the recognition.
Silver Oak’s Napa Valley and Alexander Valley wineries are also the world’s first production wineries to achieve Platinum certification from LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environment Design), the highest certification available from the U.S. Green Building Council. The company also boasts a number of other LEED Platinum certifications for various parts of the business.
This family-owned, multi-generational winery has long had sustainability in mind from soil to bottle. Their approach has helped reduce irrigation needs by 86% and indoor water use by 26% at their Oakville winery. That winery also houses nearly 1500 solar panels, which produce half its energy needs, and in Alexander Valley the 2,595 solar panel array produces 105% of energy needs!
With smart green building techniques, the wineries make use of night-air cooling, thick insulation, and natural lighting to regulate temperature and reduce the need for energy-guzzling air-conditioning and cellar lighting. There are also electric vehicle charging stations at both wineries, so you should probably stop to ‘recharge’ on any road-trip through California.
Other green strategies employed by Silver Oak include using salvaged lumber for wood siding in building projects, which they calculated reduced total project embodied carbon by 3%. They also used reclaimed oak barrels to create the winery’s main staircase, and materials used for the interior underwent rigorous testing to ensure limited emissions over the life span.
As for the wines, Silver Oak began in the 1970s with the vision to focus on varietal, Cabernet Sauvignon, aged exclusively in American oak and intended to cellar for decades to come. The inaugural 1962 vintage saw just 1,000 cases made, and that dedication to Cabernet Sauvignon continues today. In the last few decades, however, Silver Oak has acquired or created new brands including Twomey, Timeless, and Ovid, with Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc now part of the family cellar.
Highlight: Award-winning winery and vineyards with a clear commitment to sustainability, including using solar power, promoting biodiversity, and strict sourcing policies.
St. Supéry won a Green Medal in the Environment category at the 2018 Sustainable Winegrowing Leadership Awards, and for good reason. Achieving Napa Green Land certification in 2008 and Napa Green Winery certification in 2012, St. Supéry has more than 1,595 acres of land, two thirds of which they leave untouched, so as to promote biodiversity.
The winery has installed more than 100 bird boxes in their vineyards to encourage Western bluebirds, owls, and other birds to make their homes at St. Supéry. This is just one part of the natural approach the company takes to pest control, with the birds helping to eat mosquitoes, gophers, and other critters that cause vine-killing diseases.
St. Supéry has a Green Team dedicated to supporting employees in making greener choices. The company has a strict purchasing policy of only using materials that are at least 50% post-consumer waste and encourages carpooling for employees.
Between 2015 and 2018, the winery reduced water usage by half, and solar panels cover 80% of the company’s electricity usage, helping to save 923 tons of CO2. St. Supéry also recycles all winemaking, bottling, and winery materials.
A culinary garden was planted in 2012 and is fed with compost created from winemaking pomace. The garden provides fresh food for meals served at the winery and for local restaurants and farmers markets.
St. Supéry Estate Vineyards and Winery is also involved in philanthropic endeavors, including local, national, and international community outreach. The company is particularly engaged with health awareness and children’s charities.
All in all, St. Supéry is a winery that has long demonstrated a clear commitment to sustainable winery and farming operations with a mandate to protect the land and environment for future generations.
In addition to making a wide range of delicious wines, St. Supéry also make craft brandy. And if you’re having a hard time deciding on any one wine, check out their wide range of tasting kits – perfect for a backyard picnic!