The Sustainability Warrior

Young, female, fun and refreshing. 

Those were my first thoughts upon meeting Ella. She introduced herself as sommelier. We had the typical exchange about the food our group was ordering and the type of wine we enjoyed.

Ella went beyond tannins, acidity and pairings. She spoke of a wine region’s commitment to sustainable practices. A winery measuring the carbon footprint of every bottle produced. A winemaker-owner committed to paying each worker a year-round living wage.

Ella thinks differently about wine curation. She asks different questions of vintners and distributors. She cares less about awards and accolades, and more about the earth and people. 

She holds a different vision of success—for herself and winemakers.

I love people like this.

We asked Ella about her story. She was an actor in Chicago who fell in love with wine while working in a restaurant before moving with her husband to Santa Fe. A self-proclaimed geek, she immersed in the science of wine the same way I’d imagine she’d research a character role. 

You wouldn’t think there’d be a connection between being an actor and a wine curator.

But Ella found the link—people.

I’m pulled by Ella’s story and sustainability mission. She’s introduced me to cool new wines from around the world. Her ideas inspired me to road trip to Mexico’s Valle de Guadalupe. As wine director at La Casa Sena Wine Shop, Ella has elevated their approach to wine to leading-edge 21st-century heights.

Ella and I connect on the sustainability lens—her main application is wine, and mine is investing. Wineries and companies that invest in the care of the environment and people are our heroes. We add them to our portfolios; we share their stories.

We’re passionate about educating and inspiring others. We believe in the collective power of individual choice—how we each choose to spend money, invest, eat, drink and travel.

I gathered 20 smart, caring, doer-type friends for a wine tasting with Ella. Traveling the globe over five incredible wine stories, we listened, laughed, sipped, asked questions and shared ideas.

Here’s what we learned.

“Wine is about people. Wine will always be about people and the environment.”

Ella welcomes each guest with a glass of Unico Zelo Sea Foam sparkling wine.

The Australian winery’s motto is fitting: Wine for the People

Unico Zelo is crafting drinks for the next generation of wine drinkers—in the most sustainable and non-impactful way.

Their website is atypical—no fancy photos, no wine award ribbons. They have a whole section on Sustainability

Ella makes a great point—if the vintner doesn’t highlight sustainability on their website, they don’t focus on it. Sustainability is a conscious effort that requires a significant investment of time and money. If it’s a priority, they will talk about it.

I need to start viewing winery websites.

Unico Zelo’s site even has a Sustainability Tracker. It’s a Google doc that tracks company goals, improvements, and works-in-progress. It’s honest. It’s transparent. That they share it makes me feel more like a partner than a retail wine consumer.

Beyond environmental goals, they also address business practices—governance, community and employees. Their greatest achievement is becoming a Certified B-Corp, meeting the highest standards of social and environmental impact. There are currently over 5000 B Corps globally; only 50 are wineries. 

Ella opens another bottle and points out its crown cap. Cheap and easy to open, it’s the ideal closure for a sparkling wine.

We can save the corks for the aged wines.

“So I asked the winemaker “what are you doing for your people?”

Based in Rutherford in Napa Valley, Frog’s Leap is a familiar label for our group. As Ella pours a Frog’s Leap Sauvignon Blanc, she asks the group if anyone can define dry farming.

I’m not surprised by the friend who answers correctly. While she has a prestigious career, I happen to know she grew up on a New Mexico ranch.

Dry farming relies only on annual rainfall rather than irrigation. That dry farming could take place in Napa—the land of drought and wildfires—seems shocking. But these dramatic environmental changes are exactly why it should be a focus.

Frog’s Leap has been dry farming since its 1981 inception. They make wine from organically grown grapes. Choosing and continuing these sustainable methods is a business decision—better grapes produce better wine.

But among their most sustainable practices relates to employees—providing year-round employment and health and retirement benefits. We nod, knowing that this is unheard of in seasonal businesses in the U.S. 

The last sip of Sauvignon Blanc tastes that much sweeter.

“I could get emotional talking about Salcheto.”

Ella profiles Salcheto in her wine certification thesis as they perfectly define the three pillars of sustainability—environmental, social and economic. I pull up the Salcheto website.

Instead of flashy Wine Spectator rankings, they emphasize different numbers—the measure of saved greenhouse emissions over their first 10 years as a sustainable winery.

Another Certified B-Corp, Salcheto publishes an annual Sustainability Report, reporting on its carbon and water footprint. They are the first company in the world to have certified the carbon footprint of a bottle of wine. It’s a quick calculation a consumer can do on their website by selecting a bottle and the location where it’ll be uncorked.

Ella passes around a now-empty bottle of Salcheto Nobile di Montepulciano. She explains the lengths Salcheto took to build one of the lightest bottles in the industry.

Salcheto has expanded its focus to social sustainability. They proudly introduced the first welfare plan for vineyard employees in Italy. They host children from local schools at the vineyard with the goal of turning them into sustainability ambassadors.

It’s the same hope Ella and I have in hosting our group.

“Guímaro is Spanish for rebel.”

In Ribeira Sacra in Galicia, the slopes are steep and the slate landscape rugged. Growing grapes here is described as “heroic winemaking.”

Cultivated since Roman times, the area is enjoying a resurgence from producers like Guímaro’s Pedro Manuel Rodríguez. Since taking over his family’s winery, he sought to reduce yields of the overcropped Mencía grape, eliminate chemicals, and reclaim old-fashioned winemaking methods.

Visit in the Fall and you’ll find harvesting done manually with grapes trampled underfoot reminiscent of “I Love Lucy.” Fermentation takes place in wooden cones using wild yeast from the vineyards before being aged in used barrels.

Rebels don’t rest. Pedro is working towards full organic certification and is planting indigenous grape varieties at the highest elevations in the region.

Rebels attract rebels. It’s no wonder Ella finds Guímaro heroic.

“Carménère is a grape originally from Bordeaux…it’s also the wine we served at our wedding.”

Ella has a deeply personal connection to Carménère. And the Bordeaux grape has a deep connection to Chile.

Casas del Toqui was born as a Bordeaux and Chilean partnership in the 1990s. Located about 100km south of Santiago, the winery is world-class in eco-sustainability–and yes, there’s an entire section on their beautiful website that tours you through their onsite efforts in water conservation, waste management, power generation, organic farming, and eco-friendly bottling materials.

Caring as deeply about people as planet, Ella gets emotional as she ends with the story of how the descendants of Chile’s Indigenous Toqui people bought back land from the French and now operate the winery. In a country where 9% of the population self-identifies as Indigenous, that a Western product imposed by conquerors can provide a gateway to community survival is a big deal.

Per Wine Enthusiast, it’s part of a broader Chilean Indigenous wine movement.

“It takes all of us to care about the future to make change. It is conscious and thoughtful choices that propel us forward.”

Ella’s biggest piece of advice is that we ask more questions, find our resources, and make better choices as consumers. 

She reminds us wine is not solely made from grapes. In the U.S., there are 80 permitted additives to wine—from copper sulfites to non-vegan agents. 

And wine scores don’t consider your values—environmental, social or otherwise. 

Finally, wineries might not lead with their sustainability story. Not wanting to come off as preachy, they might prefer someone to just fall in love with the wine for themselves. 

Says the general manager of Frog’s Leap “Honestly, you can spend your whole day in here drinking our wine, but unless the customer opens that door him or herself and shows inquisitiveness about how we grow the grapes, we leave the topic of sustainability alone.”

I’m visiting Frog’s Leap during my next trip to Northern California. 

You can trust I’ll be pushing open the sustainability door.

It costs more to be a sustainable wine producer. But if you broaden your scope, you’ll find outstanding sustainably-produced wines the world over at reasonable prices. The average cost per bottle for the wines above from La Casa Sena was $28 USD.

I highly recommend following Ella Raymont (LinkedIn, Instagram). And if you don’t yet subscribe to my posts (which include priority notice for upcoming Venture Travel) click here.

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Jodi Morris Written by:

Venture Guide to High-Achieving Seekers. Success Coach. Venture Travel Curator. Impact Investor. Traveler. Writer. Global Connector. When we connect to others' stories it changes our own. Let's Venture!