I haven't done the math, but I'm sure I spent more time traveling to and from Marlborough, New Zealand, than I spent visiting Yealands Winery, the reason I flew to the land of the Kiwis. The travel was worth it. I saw beauty all around, drank excellent wines and met people with a deep passion for caring for the environment.
"Think boldly. Tread lightly. And never say it can't be done," is the motto of Peter Yealands, the owner of the 8-year-old winery that was Carbonzero certified from its inception. Yealands is determined to be the most sustainable wine producer; he believes sustainability has no end point. But he's also determined to make quality wines. From everything I saw and tasted in my time in New Zealand, he's accomplishing both goals.
Animal employees: Babydoll sheep, kunekune pigs and chickens
Yealands employs Southdown Babydoll sheep to help mow between the vines and provide a natural fertilizer for the vineyards, reducing the use of fossil fuels and carbon emissions. The animals' work in the vineyards is mutually beneficial since they're an endangered breed and Yealands gives them a safe place to breed and thrive. Southdown Babydolls are as "scarce as hens teeth," according to Yealands; there are only a few thousand in the world. The flock at Yealands contains 1,500 of these rare animals.
Kunekune pigs pull double-duty in the vineyards. The work alongside of the Babydoll sheep to keep the grass trimmed between the vines and help reduce weeds. Like the sheep, they are miniature so they can't snack on the grapes. They're also part of Yealands corporate waste reduction program. The food waste goes to feed the pigs, and when employees know this, they're much more likely to separate scraps to feed these adorable vineyard workers. I didn't get to visit with these friendly little guys when I was there. (They're currently taking a little vacation from the vineyards, but they'll be back early in the new year.)
Over 120 rescued battery hens have free reign in the vineyards. They come to Yealands in bad condition, not laying and with major feather loss. Most of them start to lay again within a few weeks of coming to the vineyards, where they can roam to their heart's content. Some go between the vines keeping the bugs at bay, some hang out by their coops, and some chill out on the top of a nearby hill, enjoying classical music.
Pachelbel's "Canon in D" was in the air during my tour of the vineyards. Peter Yealands believes that playing music to the vines helps promote vine health and growth. There's an unexpected bonus to this music: The chickens in the coops situated near the areas where music is played lay eggs that are 20 percent larger that chickens elsewhere on the property. (And they aren't just making this up; They've had an independent analysis done to prove it!)
The recent installation of solar panels covering the entire northern side of the winery is the largest solar panel installation in New Zealand. The 1,316 panels produce up to 505,000 kilowatt hours a year, the equivalent of annual power for 86 New Zealand households. The panels aren't just meant to provide some of the power for the winery; they're meant to inspire others in New Zealand to install solar, too.
"This is proof that solar is viable in New Zealand," said Yealands.
Some of the vineyard prunings from Yealands 1.6 million vines are baled and put to good use. They're used to build shelter belts, which is what you see in the photo above. About 5 percent of the prunings are baled and burned for energy in specially installed burners. This is the only winery in New Zealand that uses these burners as an energy source. The process eliminates over 180 tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year.
Looking after the land
He uses both established and creative ways to take care of the land, promote biodiversity, and fulfill his vision of creating the most sustainable vineyard in the world. Here are just a handful of the additional sustainable initiatives Yealands uses.
- Over 25 wetlands have been developed at the vineyard to boost flora and fauna diversity, and rare birds now make their homes there.
- A compost program that addresses an industry-wide landfill problem creates 50,000 tons of compost a year. Along with their own grape marc waste — marc is the solid remains of grapes or other fruit after it’s pressed for juice — Yealands partners with the aquaculture and forestry industries, which add bark, sawdust, mussel shells and seaweed to the mix. The compost is both carbon sequestering and a chemical-free fertilizer.
- Bee boxes situated around the vineyards and Swan plants encourage bees and monarch butterflies to make their home there, bringing beneficial pollinators to the land. There are well over 200,000 native plants on the property.
- Sleeves wrapped around each vine trunk keep weta, enormous bugs endemic to New Zealand, from climbing up the trunk and destroying the emerging buds and leaves in the spring. This greatly reduces the need for chemical pesticides. (See photo below.)
A simple solution for a large insect problem. These plastic sleeves keep the weta from climbing up the vine. When the vine's trunk grows thicker, the first row of staples can be torn out so the plastic sleeves don't need to be replaced. (Photo: Robin Shreeves)
And don't forget the wines
New Zealand is known for its Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, and Yealands does them both very well. The Sauvignon Blanc has ripe fruit and a lovely acidity, incredibly friendly with seafood. The Pinot Noir is elegant yet full of bright flavors with a hint of spice. In the U.S., Yealands sells both the Sauvignon Blanc and the Pinot Noir, along with a Pinot Gris. The wines are very affordable, usually under $20. Look for the label at left in the New Zealand section of your wine store.
New Zealand isn't exactly a quick trip, but for anyone who's visiting the Marlborough region and wants to visit one of the regions wineries, consider putting Yealands on your itinerary. You'll find genuine sustainability, passionate people, excellent wines and beautiful scenery — and Yealands makes it easy to navigate the property. They've created a free self-guided app for their Yealands Estate White Road Tour. After touring the vineyards, end up at the Cellar Door where you can taste the wines for yourself and see if you agree with my opinion.