CNC Hits Its Stride

By Mat Elmore

Several years ago, Andrea Durbin began reading about climate change's potential impact on the international wine industry. The news was not good. By one estimate, 81 percent of wine growing regions in the United States will be unsuitable for premium grape production by 2100. As executive director of the Oregon Environmental Council (OEC), her thoughts naturally drifted closer to home to Oregon's young but burgeoning wine industry. OEC decided to host a symposium about climate change and its effects on the Oregon wine industry. The symposium was well attended, but left wineries wondering what they can do as an industry to reduce their own carbon footprint and overall environmental impact.

Several months later, the Carbon Neutral Challenge was born, one of the first collaborative efforts in the world by a bloc of wineries measuring and reducing their impact on the environment.

"We started this initiative because these wineries knew that they were the canaries in the coal mine and they wanted to do their part to reduce carbon emissions that contribute to climate change," Durbin said.

The initiative has come a long way since its inception in 2007.  The initial timeline for completion of the program was 18 months, but it was quickly evident that this would only be possible with the purchase of carbon offsets entirely, without making significant energy efficiency improvements. While the purchase of carbon offsets is an important aspect of the program, the emphasis is placed on cost-effective energy efficiency investments and making reductions in carbon footprints.

Fourteen wineries completed the first year of the program in April, representing approximately 20 percent of the wine production in Oregon. The participating wineries are: A to Z Wineworks/Rex Hill, Abacela, Adelsheim Vineyard, Chehalem Winery, Cooper Mountain Vineyards, King Estate Winery, Left Coast Cellars, Lemelson Vineyards, Mahonia Vineyards, Sokol Blosser Winery, Soter Vineyards, Stoller Vineyards, Willamette Valley Vineyards and Winderlea Wine Company.

"This is a significant achievement, considering that only two wineries in the United States have claimed carbon neutrality to date, and there are fewer than 15 worldwide who have completed similar programs," Durbin said.

While participating wineries know that the modifications they make will not alter the course of climate change, they are aware that the wine industry has the resources to be a model for carbon reduction and sustainable business growth. Michael Brown, direct sales manager for Sokol Blosser Winery and member of the CNC's steering committee since 2007, says that participating is about being a model both for the wine industry and other industries.

"We not only have an opportunity to stand out as leaders by measuring and mitigating our green house gases, but we also, and maybe more importantly, have an opportunity to educate our customers.  The wine industry is the only sector of agriculture that is also a billion dollar tourism industry. Our guests will learn from us and take that knowledge back to their respective businesses."

The process CNC wineries complete each year may look like a few simple steps on paper, but participating can be time-intensive and complicated, especially during the first year. For those wineries involved since the beginning, however, the required steps have slowly become incorporated into their daily business operations.

The first step for a winery interested in reducing its greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impact is to complete an energy audit of facilities and operations. Energy audits identify cost-effective investment opportunities, including lighting retrofits, tank insulation, space portioning in the cellar, on-demand water heaters and solar panels, which half the CNC wineries have installed.

Once the audit is complete and the winery has a better understanding of its energy usage, they calculate the greenhouse gas footprint using a specialized accounting tool for the wine industry developed by Ecos Consulting, which allows wineries to annually track and input their carbon emissions. The tool is based on international wine protocol and adheres to national and international standards for greenhouse gas reporting. At the end of each year, Ecos processes the reports and returns a simplified version to the wineries, making it easy for them to determine where additional energy efficiency investments need to be made.

The third step requires membership in a national greenhouse-gas-reporting organization called The Climate Registry (TCR). The Climate Registry sets transparent standards to calculate, verify and publicly record greenhouse gas emissions into a single national registry. This national registry has over 420 members, many as large as the University of California and Shell Oil. CNC wineries are the largest bloc of businesses that have joined The Climate Registry as a group, which is no small achievement, considering the yearly membership cost is $600.

The final step requires wineries to take responsibility for those greenhouse gas emissions that could not be cost-effectively reduced by investing in a regional and verifiable carbon offset project. The CNC decided on purchasing offsets from projects managed by the Bonneville Environmental Foundation and wanted them to be in the agricultural sector.  Wineries will be investing in a methane biodigester at ThreeMile Canyon dairy farm in Boardman, Ore., and another dairy farm in Idaho.

While the process may seem extensive for many joining the initiative, it has been a smart business decision. Luke McCollom, winemaker for Left Coast Cellars near Rickreall, recently joined the initiative and completed the carbon neutral program in April. 

"The benefits of tracking and measuring our greenhouse gases have been huge," McCollom said. "One of the first things we noticed was that our power company forgot to credit us 400 kilowatts of energy produced by our solar panels. We also recently installed meters on our diesel and gasoline tanks, which has led to nearly $3,000 in savings in a short time."

McCollom sums up his overall experience by saying, "This program holds you accountable, encourages you to make plans and goals associated in reducing your emissions, and really makes you think critically about your resource consumption. It's better for the bottom line and the environment."

The CNC has already generated a similar initiative with the Oregon Environmental Council called The Climate Friendly Nurseries Project; its aim is to assist Oregon's largest agricultural export industry, the nurseries, in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.

Asked whether she has her eye on other agriculture industries, Durbin replied, "Yes, there are other sectors, like dairy, that have an even greater impact on climate change; but what is really important is these initiatives show that industry sectors can collaborate and reduce their environmental impact while also improving their bottom line." 

Changes will be happening to the CNC program soon as it transitions to a permanent home at the sustainable vineyard organization L.I.V.E., where Durbin will help it transform into one of the first, if not the first formal, certification organization for carbon emissions in the wine industry.

For more information about the CNC, go to:

Mat Elmore is a freelance writer living in the Mississippi neighborhood in northeast Portland. Find him at a local wine bar or at


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