Sustainability at Villa Maria Wines

July 2014

Villa Maria has a long history of sustainable thinking for grape growing and wine making

Since the mid-90’s, Villa Maria has had a strong focus on environmental responsibility and sustainability driven by its owner, Sir George Fistonich, and his desire to leave a better business for the next generation. This focus has resulted in many improvements in energy use and a reduced footprint for many parts of the business. The company achieved CEMARS certification in 2010 and has won a number of environmental awards for reducing its impact on the environment and improving efficiency.

The company has organic vineyards in Auckland, Marlborough and Hawke’s Bay. The first was BioGro certified in 2007 and Villa Maria was the first large producer to get full Biogro certification from the vineyard right through to the winery, bottling line and export warehouse. 

Fabian Yukich is executive director of the company and has responsibility for the assets of the business and also for sustainability. He says Villa Maria was one of the founding members of Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand as it is known now and by 1998 “we were doing things like designing heat recovery systems for our wineries in Auckland and Marlborough.”

“Back then we didn’t use the word ‘sustainable’. We used to talk about being ‘environmentally responsible’. That was one of the key goals for these projects and it focused us on doing things in a sustainable manner.”

Over the years the company has taken many steps towards greater sustainability. For example, they protected the quality of storm water going into the local creek and into the Manukau Harbour by installing a large pond, grass swales and a series of underground storage tanks with weirs that slow the flow of water and allow sediment to settle and be trapped. The tanks also serve as a safety measure so that if a chemical spill were to occur, there would be enough storage capacity to contain it.

Another example in Auckland is the warehouse, which is cooled by ‘night air’. When the air outside is colder than inside, it is sucked in through large ducts and circulated around the building. The thermal capacity of the wine means that the cold is “stored” and keeps the warehouse cool during the day. Back-up cooling is needed only in the height of summer.

In 2009 the company signed up to the Certified Emissions Measurement and Reduction Scheme (CEMARS). The scheme offers large organisations a framework to measure their greenhouse gas emissions, put in place plans to reduce them and have both of these steps independently certified.

“CEMARS is pretty comprehensive. It looks at all the emissions or CO2 emission equivalents of our operations from the vineyards, winemaking right through to sales reps and air travel, packaging etc.” says Fabian.

“Initially setting up for CEMARS was a lot of extra work for many people, getting all invoices and tracking all our fuel use etc to set up in the base year. We tried not to increase our costs too much while we were doing that, but now we have put in a software system that monitors all our electronic invoices plus we now have electricity meters all over the business. The system measures energy use on a real-time basis and gives us monthly reports so we know how we are tracking and we can make adjustments as necessary.”

“Since we started CEMARS our audited carbon emissions from fuel and electricity per litre of wine produced have dropped by 25%. Some of that is probably due to improvements in the scale of operation, but a lot has been through the initiatives that the whole staff has taken to drop our carbon emissions.”

As part of its sustainability focus, the company established organic vineyards in the early 2000’s. The first BioGro certification was gained in 2007 for a 21 ha block in Hawke’s Bay. In 2009 the company was the first large wine producer to achieve full BioGro certification from that vineyard right through the winery and the bottling line to the export warehouse. Subsequently more vineyards in Hawke’s Bay, Marlborough and Auckland were also certified organic.

Brett Donaldson, manager of the Auckland vineyard, says they have an organic block of Verdello grapes in its third season of certification.

“Verdello is a Portuguese variety from the island of Madeira. It is very resistant to botrytis because of its thick skin and so it produces well in the Auckland climate and we can keep diseases under control by spraying when necessary with BioGro certified sulphur and copper minerals,” says Brett.

“We drench the soil with fish and seaweed fertilisers in spring and once more during the growing season. At times we apply worm casts and worm ‘pee’ (there is a restaurant at the winery and so food scraps go straight into the worm farm). We also make compost here and sometimes buy more in from organic compost producers.”

Herbicides are out, so Brett’s team uses a special under-vine duo-cut mower to cut kikuyu grass and weeds down within and between rows. The cut foliage acts as mulch.

Many operations are done by hand – winter pruning, leaf picking prior to harvest and the harvest itself. The grapes are used to produce a reserve table wine.

No pesticides are used in the organic block, and only one (a winter spray against mealy bugs) is used in the conventional blocks. Brett says that recent monitoring of both areas for insects resulted in none being found on the conventional blocks – no pests but no beneficial bugs either – while in the organic block there were ladybirds, whirligigs and other beneficial insects.

He says that he was apprehensive when they first started towards BioGro certification but now believes that having the conventional and organic blocks side by side has had benefits.

“It has resulted in the conventional blocks becoming more ‘sustainable’ because the under-vine mower is also used on them rather than herbicides, and because the same organic certified sprays are used to prevent botrytis,” he says.

The continuous focus on sustainability has resulted in awards for Fabian and the company:

  • In 2010 Fabian won the Sustainability Champion Award at the New Zealand Sustainable Business Network Awards, recognising his efforts in embedding sustainable business principles at Villa Maria over 12 years.
  • In 2012 the company won the Green Ribbon Awardfrom the New Zealand Government, recognising its ongoing contributions to protecting the environment. It also secured the Large Business Leadership category, which recognises large organisations that demonstrate an ongoing commitment to environmental best practice.
  • In 2012 Villa Maria also took out the Supreme Winner trophy at the Sustainable Business Network Awards, also being named the Northern Sustainable Business of the Year.

The company has more recently embarked on a ‘Lean thinking’ and ‘continuous excellence’ approach that ties in well with the sustainability programme, says Fabian.

“It is all about reducing waste in the business and it has shown real benefits in terms of sustainability because if you reduce waste, whether it be packaging or the extra mileage a forklift travels or whatever, you reduce your use of resources,” he says.

“For example, we are part of the Glass Packaging Forum recycling initiative for bottles to get them to go directly to recycling rather than being mixed up with all the other recyclables. We invite people to bring back their bottles for direct recycling. We also generally use low emission vehicles.”

“Being sustainable is not like turning on a light switch. It is a journey and we try to get better all the time. We are trying to make the whole of the business lean and make sustainability part of the culture. Even when we go to buy a new piece of plant we need to do an environmental analysis of what the impact of that plant is, so if you are buying new tractor you’ve got to look at the emissions and not just the price and usefulness.”

“Being a family business and not necessarily looking to next year’s profit, but looking towards the next generation, means we can put things in place to build a more sustainable business and that is what we are really all about. It is an advantage to have an owner who is driving sustainability himself and is keen to approve these types of initiatives, and that makes a big difference.”