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ASB Farmsmarts: Sustainability not just a label for Yealands

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This story originally appeared on The Country as part of the ASB Farmsmarts series with NZME, and the NZ Herald.

You know sustainability is a way of life, and not just a buzzword, when a leading vineyard examines how best to recycle the labels on its world-class wine.

On the surface, it doesn’t sound like an enormous environmental/sustainability concern. The adhesive on wine bottle labels leaves behind a residue and a silicate which can prove a challenge when recycling bottles.

So, as Yealands Estate Wines global marketing manager Avram Deitch says, the winery enlisted the aid of some of our best student brains from the University of Auckland Business School’s ‘Solve It’ challenge, run by their Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

The students came up with a way to process the PET plastic backing from wine labels into a plastic-based synthetic diesel fuel – and Yealands are now pursuing that as a way of lessening the impact on the environment.

“When you look at the label issue across an industrial scale, it does have an impact,” says Deitch. “Our concern was that the material residue and the silicate would build up over time in landfill, so – as we always do – we challenged ourselves to try and find a way to improve what we are doing.”

What they are doing is pretty much leading the world in vineyard and winery sustainability.

They have long been known as leaders in sustainability, with an enormous list of environmentally-conscious practices and processes that have helped their rapid and acclaimed growth of exports to over 80 countries round the world since operations began in 2008.

Their sustainability drive is exhaustive, across all stages of the business from the vineyard, to the winery, to distribution and marketing. You name it, they’ve done it – adopting some sustainability measures most of us would never think of.

Like Babydoll sheep. These tiny creatures are miniature sheep, standing only 60cm high at most. So they can’t reach the vines – but they do a terrific job on grass. That’s right, miniature sheep as lawnmowers (along with some Kunekune pigs), meaning no tractors are needed – meaning Yealands’ carbon footprint continues to fall lightly on New Zealand. Hens roam the grounds as natural pest controllers.

If it’s nature we are talking about, Yealands also brought in the butterflies – the first winery to do so. They planted hundreds of swan plants to attract Monarch butterflies. This has two functions – the winery is transformed into an orange and black kaleidoscope every autumn and, even more importantly, the butterflies help pollinate with biodiversity.

 They've also planted over 200,000 native scrubs and bushes across their 25 wetland areas, promoting biodiversity and attracting many native bird species like tui, fantails, royal spoonbills, black swans and teal.

But it’s industrial processes in high-volume production that shapes as the biggest challenge for any winery – and it has long been the vision of evangelical founder Peter Yealands that his winery be the most sustainable in the world.

Measuring that is not easy but there is absolutely no doubt Yealands are setting the global pace.

One of New Zealand's largest solar panel installations generates more than half a million kW/hours per year. Three wind turbines produce another 45,000 kW/hours per year. Yealands is almost self-sufficient, its electricity savings are significant and provide a third of the winery’s power needs; they generate enough power for 86 average NZ homes.

They use a portion of their annual vine prunings for heating – instead of mulching them, they store them to heat their hot water, saving about $250,000 a year.

Yealand is also home to one of the largest composting operations in the country – with over 50,000 tonnes distributed among the vine rows each year. The compost is made from the industry waste ‘grape marc’ – the residue of skins and seed from the winemaking process – and waste from local mussel farming, wood processing, olive oil and meat processing industries.*

All their wines have a carbon zero footprint – the first winery in the world to win that accolade – and they are also spearheading a 100% recyclable bottle. 

Yealands is now the sixth largest wine producer in New Zealand, the fastest growing supplier and has won more than 1300 international wine awards, including the world’s best sauvignon blanc at the 2012 London World Wine Challenge. The UK and US are their two biggest export markets.

And while sustainability is its own reward, Deitch says the company’s avowed focus on that quality brings rewards when it comes to marketing as well.

“Sustainability is part of our brand,” he says. “People continue to tell others what we are doing in that space; our customers like it and our consumers like it.”

The consumer drive for environmentally- and sustainability-conscious products is part of what fuels Yealands to challenge themselves to “find new and better ways to improve,” says Deitch: “It’s a great point of difference with our customers and consumers.”

*Peter Yealands and his son’s company GrowCo are facing charges under the Resource Management Act relating to the discharge of grape marc onto land or water. Yealands and GrowCo deny the charges and have chosen a trial by jury.

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