Fabian Yukich is a wine industry stalwart, an environmental champion and a pretty decent concrete layer. In the first of a series celebrating Sustainability Guardians, Sophie Preece talks to the Chair of New Zealand Winegrowers’ Environment Committee.
To those in the Northern Hemisphere who first tried our wine, it was like waking to the refreshing feeling of an amazing holiday, in a place never visited before, with warm early morning sunshine, refreshing sea breezes, and magnificent ocean and landscape views. It was the outliers; the passionate wine enthusiasts, the New World wine champions and innovative wine writers, who ardently supported us and gave rave reviews about Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc to the small but growing audience for wines from our tiny New Zealand industry. It wasn’t until the 2000s that there was a massive groundswell of worldwide recognition of our unique wines and Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc became a “must-have” category on wine lists and supermarket shelves all around the globe.
During the 1980s, the world was also starting to wake up to concerns about the state of the planet. Again, it was the outliers; the green activists, and a select growing group of concerned scientists who raised the red flags about the risks of climate change, and other man-made impacts on the environment in a world where the rise of consumerism was the main economic and social driver. The predictions weren’t pleasant to listen to, and initially not that many listened.
Exports of New Zealand wine grew by more than 1,000 percent from $18 million dollars in 1990 to nearly $2 billion in 2020. The growth of the world’s awareness of our wines and the growing alarm about the impacts of climate change were like two parallel lines in our consciousness. Those lines are no longer parallel, and they are about to collide with potentially significant consequences for the massive investment we have in land, infrastructure and people working in our wine industry. We are fortunate that in our industry in the 1980s we also had the outliers - people like James and Annie Millton (see pg 28) who were growing organic grapes way back then. By the mid-1990s, the forerunner to New Zealand Winegrowers initiated what is now known as Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand (SWNZ).
Fast forward to 2020, and we are facing down some serious threats to our industry. The new generation of millennials is drinking less and questioning more. We are a long way from our biggest customers and that is starting to really matter in markets where, for all sorts of reasons, consumers are being encouraged to buy local.
Consumers truly don’t care that we have some fancy words about sustainability in our glossy brochures and we have ticked a few difficult to understand accreditation boxes. They want to hear stories, with authentic facts and figures, about what we have actually done, and continue to do, to help save the planet. From being a “nice to have”, the role of SWNZ, our industry-led environmental accreditation must now play an even more critical role for the future of our industry.
Across the wine industries of the world, SWNZ is generally regarded as the best certification system and the achievement of having nearly 100 percent industry membership is considered remarkable. Since its inception, SWNZ has had to constantly go where there is no blueprint, and then re-invent itself and redefine its role in a rapidly-growing wine industry and a world with snow-balling consumer interest about how we measure and report our impacts on the planet.
Since last year, SWNZ is aligning its goals with the United Nations Goals for Sustainable Development. We are making significant changes and, by the end of 2020 we plan to have revised the vineyard and winery scorecards around the five key focus areas: Water, waste, pest and disease, climate change and people. We plan to make significant progress on technological solutions that enable members to use the information they provide to SWNZ to inform their business decisions. We are initiating an award for sustainability at the New Zealand Wine of the Year Awards to recognise outstanding achievers in sustainability.
What this can mean for you is that you will be able to tell your customers and your consumers genuine authenticated stories about what you have done to reduce your carbon footprint, your water usage, your environmental footprint. The story of New Zealand wine can be as much about our wonderful quality, our unique aromas and flavours as it is about how we are playing our part to reduce environmental impacts.
Now about that amazing holiday… locally.
• Fabian Yukich is Executive Director at Villa Maria, and New Zealand Winegrowers’ Board Member and Chair of the Environment Committee.