Kendall Jackson Goes for Sustainability Gold

Jackson Family Winery
Vineyards owned by Jackson Family Wines.

The most interesting wines come from grapes that had to struggle a little bit. As with people, in the world of wines interesting is almost always good. You might recognize Jackson Family Wines (JFW) as the seller of the popular restaurant chardonnay: Kendall Jackson Vintners Reserve. It’s the best-selling restaurant chardonnay in the country. In the world of wine, small, unique and batch are selling points; many throw shade on K-J’s popular entry-level chards. Wine snobs should note that JFW also makes a lot of interesting-and-delicious expensive wines under a number of labels at dozens of wineries.  With $15 million in savings to date from sustainability initiatives, the company’s wine also got a lot more interesting for TriplePundit.

JFW’s founder, Jess Jackson, didn’t set out to start a business. At the ripe old age of 55, he bought some vineyards intending to be a gentleman farmer. In his second year of production, Jackson faced a buyer’s market and decided to make wine rather than sell his grapes at a loss. While his first batch didn’t come out so well, he caught the vintner’s bug and decided to become a winemaker.

Eighty-five percent of vineyards in Sonoma County, California, where JFW is located, are family owned, so it is no surprise that Jackson brought his extended family into the fold. His son-in-law is the CEO, his daughter Katie is VP of government relations and community outreach, and his second wife has served as chairman for over 25 years.

While he passed away several years ago, on a recent tour of several Jackson Family Wines properties, many employees shared fond memories of Jackson as if he was still at the helm. He built his company with a long-term view reminiscent of the Brundtland Commission’s simple definition of sustainability: “development which meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” With climate change and water constraints pushing all ag businesses to the brink in California, it is nice to see the Jackson Family Wines leadership carrying on a commitment to building a business that will last for generations.

It turns out conservation pays. JFW has saved $15 million through sustainability programs that include energy efficiency improvements. In addition to the financial savings, the firm has conserved an noteworthy 5300 megawatts of energy per year since 2008 by making energy efficiency a Key Performance Indicator (KPI). That’s an impressive 51 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions organization-wide.

Not content to stop there, JFW plans to invest these savings in a Tesla energy storage battery and put solar panels on all of its wineries. The company installed its first fleet of batteries at La Crema winery. The batteries store energy produced by the solar panels so that it can be used when the sun isn’t shining. The batteries also help manage costs by predicting usage patterns based on previous years and minimizing load spikes which keeps utility prices low and predictable.

By the end of 2015, JFW expects to be the largest solar producer in the wine industry with 6.5 megawatts providing about 30 percent of its current energy needs. The company has a goal to produce 50 percent of its energy needs from solar power by 2020. Over the 8 years since JFW began purchasing solar panels, the price has dropped by 80 percent, meanwhile utility costs have gone up 3 to 5 percent per year.

Of course, water consumption is a huge concern in any agricultural organization, and water conservation is at top of mind for the management of JFW. The industry as a whole uses and average 6 to 9 gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of wine. JFW is currently at 4.5 gallons for each gallon of wine, with a goal to get that number down to 3 gallons. “I look at the [California] drought as a tremendous opportunity to do things right,” Julien Gervreau, senior sustainability manager for JFW, explained during a site tour last week.

To make water savings a priority, JFW has put a price on water of 3 cents per gallon so that it can measure savings, even though the company uses largely well water which is currently “free.” The winemaker uses a variety of technical solutions to reduce water use like drip irrigation instead of  sprinklers or flooding. It is also trialling buried drip tape which can water the roots directly eliminating evaporation.

Delivering the perfect amount of water is easier said than done in the world of wine. Good wine grapes come from a careful mix of soil, sun exposure and local climate conditions, called terrior. The correct mix takes years of experience to perfect. Grapes grow well on the slopes of hills, which means the terrior can be different from one hill to the next, and the proper water mix might differ as well. By using new technologies like drones to take close-up pictures of the vineyards, JFW can adjust the water volume in near real time. Careful water management becomes a key to growing the grapes that produce interesting-is-good wine, and it saves a bunch of water at the same time.

Other water-saving efforts include triple-reuse in the bottle washing line, wind inversion props to send warm air to the grapes during a cold snap to keep them from freezing (instead of coating all the grapes in water to create an igloo effect), and sending dirty water from the bottling process out to reservoirs where it can find a second life watering the grapes.

Through these efforts JFW has an average water savings of 11 million gallons per year. But all the high-tech stuff doesn’t replace good old fashioned employee engagement.

As Mitch Davis, general manager at La Crema explained: “We’re a winery; we make a lot of messes. Our first and most effective water savings tools were a broom and a squeegee.” It’s a good reminder that technology can bring us a long way, but education and common sense are often the right place to start.

Image credit: Jen Boynton

Jen Boynton

Jen Boynton is editor in chief of TriplePundit and editorial director at 3BL Media. With over 6 million annual readers, TriplePundit is the leading publication on sustainable business and the Triple Bottom Line. Prior to TriplePundit, Jen received an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School. In her work with TriplePundit she's helped clients from SAP to PwC to Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA -- court appointed special advocate for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.