Toxic Shock

Toxic Shock

Illustrations by Melody Klaffke

Martin Reyes: What color do you want the clouds? Do you want them white or do you want them orange?

CampestreMAG: Purple.

In 2020, even casual banter about Zoom backgrounds can get heavy. But the disaster in question is only one dissonant melody in the cacophony that is our current year of Covid-and-then-some. It should be one of the loudest. Settling into our virtual conversation about the sustaining alarm of climate change with a flippant icebreaker, celebrated Master of Wine, Martin Reyes, sets the tone perfectly. White clouds our careful past, orange clouds our tyrannical present and purple clouds? In the words of Reyes, “what the fuck are you trying to do?!” Purple is not an option.

Neither is ignoring the signs. The wine industry has been happy to skirt the edge of the debate, oftentimes playing the victim of climate change’s constant jabs. Reyes dares to ask, who started the fight? and follow-up questions, like, what do we do when we can’t stop the change? What do we do now? Today, he’s coming in hot. “Climate Crisis. No more euphemisms. We’re in the middle of a crisis right now and it’s important to call it what it is.” Reyes has seen the wine industry from the inside-out, which gave him an education on just how many moving parts there are, and just how many opportunities there are for waste. In addressing his own obligation to climate change, “I can say that in all honesty—not green-washing myself—I’d say for at least 10, maybe 15 years as an adult…I was annoyed at the amount of waste that I saw. It was born out of a desire for finding ways to be efficient.”

Reyes’ post-MW career has seen him assume the role of winemaker at Peter Paul winery in Sonoma. And this year has been an education. “It was almost a sucker punch from Nature. Like, I’m not gonna burn you guys the way you think. I’m gonna burn you but I’m gonna burn you this way,” he said of his entire crop of 2020 Pinot Noir being taken down by lightning, of all things. The Glass Fire engulfing Napa and its storied wineries is just the most extreme example of these now-expected calamities. But it’s the day-to-day weather that’s more insidious.

St. Helena’s Spottswoode Estate winery, where Reyes leads the charge in their sustainability initiatives, was featured in a September 2019 USAToday article as a prime example of how the pressure of climate change is spurring actual change within the winery’s farming practices and overall carbon footprint. At Reyes’ behest, both owner, Beth Noval Milliken, and winemaker, Aron Weinkauf, are making immediate tweaks to their growing process. They’ve planted drought-resistant rootstock and laid shading over the vines, acting as a sunscreen for delicate grapes in order to delay inevitable, heat-induced over-ripening. Will it work? Only crossed fingers and the weather gods will tell.

That’s the known danger. Piggybacking on calling a spade a spade, in terms of the crisis, Reyes emphasizes, “language is very powerful and very important, and especially when it is used to be more precise.” Language is very important to Reyes—in fact, he speaks five of them. So, he knows a thing or two about definitions. The two paramount to his approach are “mitigation” and “adaptation.” “Primarily, there’s two ways to look at the crisis. One of them is mitigation, one of them is adaptation. Well, first of all, adaptation would be, how do we engage what we cannot change?” Essentially, mitigation is real-time damage control and adaptation is forging new technologies and practices for the future.

Here’s one word Reyes is not a fan of: sustainability. “Sustainability is a word that is its own worst enemy. It’s a shitty marketing tool. There’s competing definitions,” he laments. For Reyes, this word seems to be both a panacea and mea culpa for any winery tentatively dipping their toe into the waters of environmental responsibility. The reason that sustainability is the first word on press release headlines (think “organic” circa 2005), is that it lacks a unifying definition, which is perfect for a business who wants to remain profitable while being held accountable only as much as they’ll allow or reveal.

“You have to view the entire system and all into question. Everything you thought you were doing for the right [reasons]… It was a business, it was yields, and it was dollar signs, and it was a business plan. It’s irresponsible for those who know it shouldn’t be and it’s a blind spot for those who don’t know it’s irresponsible yet.”

Well, then. How to not be irresponsible? Lynchpin regions like Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne are already doomsday prepping. “You’ve already seen Bordeaux… accept a whole new slew of indigenous or forgotten grapes to future-proof their region… [T]here’s some obscure ones: Manseng Noir, Marselan, Arinarnoa.” These measures are both romantic and business-minded. The goal of both is to maintain the prestige of the most famous region in the world. If Bordeaux is willing to change its rigid, historical laws, there’s hope that other regions will follow suit—whether out of necessity or altruism. With the hope that one will lead to the other. 

Underscoring the way that running a profitable business can negate the value of going green, Reyes opines, “[t]here are frameworks that exist that take time to get educated about and to learn about. While the challenge is trying to run a successful winery, which is already hard enough. So, the distraction of running your business is a very valid reason to not get into this conversation and, yet, how do we make it easy and engage and to start?”

Enter the wine drinker. Oenophiles are on both sides of the vines, but the consumer creates the demand and is the industry’s life support. As the world turns its focus to clean, organic goods and decreasing individual carbon output, natural wine is the obvious ambassador of the as-of-now fictional “green wine” movement. But are they (and by proxy we) practicing what they preach?

It seems self-important to say that natural wine is in its second or third wave (or 57th if you consider pet nat was first made by 16th century monks in Limoux), but it has been sold in the U.S. for the past 20 years. And its recent popularity has made it… sell out. In this case, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The millennial palate has changed to appreciate that “alive” feeling in the glass, but also the idea that these wines are somehow more pure. It’s opened people’s eyes to what they are putting in their bodies and galvanized them to pay attention to the process.

“Natural wine producers have built their own demand by transparency, and also I think about the ethos, the chemistry, the chemicals, and fake shit and non-manipulation and everything. It’s forced the industry to react positively.” But does that transparency parlay into being accountable for their negative impact in terms of climate change? “Natural is a winemaking philosophy. It is not sustainable. It is ‘we want to produce a product under a certain philosophy’. Natural actually isn’t a farming practice.” It’s no surprise that a generation awash in green guilt (and activism for some) has been seduced by the word “natural”. Much like “sustainability”, “natural” is a buzz word that makes the consumer feel good about their buying power. The bone Reyes has to pick with the swelling natural wine community is this. What is more important? The taste, the cool factor or the actual ethos?

Reyes goes head-on to every natural wine drinker’s secret fear: being called out. “Is it for your own fucking household so you feel precious and special and that you are supporting small, artisanal producers? [T]he problem is much bigger than that.” Though biodynamic and dry farming are tentpoles of growing natural wine, Reyes wants the consumer to demand the philosophy of “natural” go outside the bottle. Natural wine drinkers “are asking virtuous questions, honesty, transparency, real, reality, authenticity… We are driven by our conscience to make good decisions and to follow wineries and companies who make good decisions to create their products. I would say the natural wine movement could say, ‘Yup, that’s what we do.’ What we need to do is fucking extend that and say conscientious and virtuous for whom and for what?”

Reyes starts an impassioned role-play. He’s pouring his wine at a trade event. In New York. There’s a posse of five socially relevant New Yorkers holding out their glasses in front of him. He knows what questions they’ll ask. 

“They’re gonna be asking, ‘What is your parts per million SO2?” ‘Did you use native yeast or did you inoculate?’”. Fast forward five years, this is what Reyes’ demands from those same drinkers. “I want to be asked, ‘Ooh, hey, what does your glass weigh? Is it under 400mg? Is your cork recyclable? Is your paper label recyclable… Why are you still using foil? Foil, you know, has great greenhouse gas emissions. That wine is too inexpensive to be in a bottle, it should be in a tetra pack!’ Like, THE FUCK. Okay, yes! Give me those questions because those are the questions that fucking matter. Don’t ask me what my fucking yeast is. Ask me what type of lighting I’m using, motherfucker!” 

With that, Reyes lifts a glass with his own 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon swinging it into his mouth with a fluid cheers to the screen. It’s unclear whether this is a triumphant sip, or a much-needed drink.

The devil is in the details. 

“The elephant in the room here is, however you want to say it: packaging and shipping and supply chain and restaurants and retailers and distributors. Once the wine leaves, more than half of a footprint of a bottle is when it leaves the winery. What are we gonna do about that? And is the winery responsible? Is it the consumer’s responsibility? Is it the supply chain’s responsibility? … It’s not just viticulture.” 

Nor is it just protecting the standards of the wine. It’s protecting our global future. “[It’s t]he idea of trade-offs. Trade-offs are where the battle and the future of the conversation of greenhouse gas emissions and adaptation strategies and mitigation strategies [begin] in the wine industry and even beyond.” So, where do we go from here?

Reyes is a founding member of the Porto Protocol, a type of Geneva Convention for climate change in the wine industry, replete with its own ‘Letters of Principle.’ “Porto Protocol is a community that I think is addressing, filling the need, where there is space. There is collaboration, there’s dissemination, there’s sharing of information.” Born out of Climate Change Leadership conferences from recent years, Porto Protocol is a non-profit fueling climate change initiatives within the wine industry worldwide. It’s a think tank that’s taking action to revolutionize the way we make, get and drink wine. Reyes has been vocal about getting anyone in the wine industry to join as a member. Reflecting on what his peers say of Porto, “[n]o one is doing what you’re doing and yet you have a long way to go. That’s how fucked up the conversation is. That’s how early we are in the conversation… like duh.” For Reyes, asking the questions leads to change and he has faith that Porto Protocol will be the launchpad.

 “Nobody here can answer all these questions, I’m just saying put a spotlight on them.” Even if there’s no clear hero in this fight right now, there certainly is a passionate devil’s advocate.