Tuesday, January 10, 2017

In the New York Times, Another Greenwashing Story About Wine: Why?

I always feel so sad when I see mainstream reporters (with no agriculture reporting background) write about the wine industry.

They have no idea how they are getting played in the industry's ongoing masterful greenwashing - but worse, the fundamental principles of reporting (i.e. using more than one source) always seem to go out the window. Why?

The latest piece in the New York Times about the wine industry - entitled "Falcons, Drones, Data: A Winery Battles Climate Change" by David Gelles, a business reporter for Dealbook - is not so much about climate change as it is a publicity puff piece for Jackson Family Wines. It's shockingly bad journalism.

Who created this story/opportunity? Was it pitched to the Times by a PR firm by Jackson Family? By the California Wines initiative of the Wine Institute? We don't know.

What we do know is that the piece violates many of the regular rules of the road for journalists, especially business journalists. I say this with a great amount of regret, as my first editor in the world of newspapers was a "Times man," (as they used to call them) - James P. Brown - who served on the paper's editorial board. A Quaker, he wrote all of the Times' editorials on the Middle East. He used to regularly have us over for summer evening cocktails when the Sulzbergers were in town. (He had by then moved from New York to coastal Maine, the site of his summer house, where he kept a boat in Georgetown, near Bath.) Together they instilled in our group of reporters (at the tiny, but vocal Brunswick Times Record) high standards on journalism.

The New York Times's pick of a winery to feature in a story about climate change:
Jackson Family Wines. It was founded by Jess Jackson, who was personally responsible
for cutting down thousands of oak trees (and bulldozing hilltops) in California to make hillside vineyards
As a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), I also shudder at the poor job this story exemplifies. Attending the professional association's conference in Sacramento recently, I was buoyed up by the fantastic reporting that so many in attendance were doing. And the list of award winning pieces selected by SEJ was totally inspiring. So sad, then, to see the talent pool as big as it is - in the world at large - and the reporting on this story as poor as it is.

Any responsible news organization would ask itself, or should ask itself, what are the biggest aspects of climate change and the wine industry? And then find a story angle that dovetails with that.

Or should the news organization go on a winery PR tour and then just write that down? Apparently the Times chose the latter. Low standards, my friends - low, low, low.

Gelles writes:
"The Jacksons are going beyond the usual drought-mitigation measures. They are using owls and falcons to go after pests drawn by milder winters," the story tells us.
Is this - the pests - i.e. gophers and voles - really the most pressing issue? If so, I haven't heard it reported in the pages of Wines & Vines or from county ag farm advisors.

Water, heat and soil are really the most pressing climate change ag issues, at the moment, and yet there's no mention of new state regulations on water use or state sponsored initiatives that incentivize the agricultural sector to sequester carbon in soils. The article is a jumble, making it sound as if every detail amounts to the same amount of benefit or investment. It's a potpourri, not a reasonable article highlighting the top issues and priorities.

We do hear a bit about cover crops, but those have been used before most people were focused on climate change - because they provide the cheapest and best fertilizer (as well as increasing organic matter and water retention). Due to these factors, not climate change, they've become a mainstream practice for probably half of the state's vineyards today.

(Decades ago it was only the organic growers who used cover crops, while conventional growers scoffed at the practice at the time. Fortunately times have changed. If a change saves money, so much the better. Nonetheless, half of the vineyards in the state don't use cover crops, utilizing conventional fertilizers that are made with very fossil fuel intensive processes.)

There's also no mention of why growers use irrigation ponds - as a way to stop drawing down the river water at peak draw times for frost protection (which has led to fish die-offs in Sonoma County and elsewhere).

In this story, you never hear a single word about the federal or state laws or enforcement on salmon or water issues. While salmon are endangered species, they fall under the federal government's protection at the moment. Presumably this is why Mr. Hines, from the National Marine Fisheries Services, is here (in the story) to check on the coho.

"Ms. Jackson offered to release water [from Green Valley Creek] in a bid to help the fish," Gelles writes. Was it purely a generous gesture? Or did the law require it? Or was it an action prompted by the voluntary deal that state and federal agencies offer wineries in the form of media promotional opportunities - i.e. good PR ops - for wineries who voluntarily comply with department directives?

In many cases, environmental agencies or NGOs have set up water monitoring stations to see how much water wineries are using. Some wineries are then quietly approached with information about what their water use is doing and given an option to do better. (This happened to Roederer last year).  It would be nice if this Times story informed us about such facts. The story leaves the impression that it was simply a magnanimous move by the winery.

In fact, the salmon situation is so dire that in the summer, marine fisheries staff drive to pick up stranded coho in low flow areas and physically bring them to locations that have water. Would there have been some negative implication for Jackson if the fish had suffered? Again, no context, no details. Just a winery acting like a good neighbor.

The story then proceeds,
"And since fossil-fuel consumption is one of the biggest drivers of climate change, they [Jackson] are trying to become more energy efficient, in part through the use of old-school farming techniques."   
It's true - there are significant efforts to reduce fossil fuel consumption, but mostly these also have a cost saving and a government policy assist aspect - not primarily old school farming techniques. (It's hard to tell what old school farming techniques the article is referring to - cover crops? owls and falcons? We don't know.)

When wineries convert to solar energy, the state chips in handsomely with tax credits. Good public policy and good for business. In addition, many leading edge wineries - like Fetzer/Bonterra - have converted to nearly all electric vehicle use, saving even more fossil fuel by going solar and electric.

Not so, Jackson Family Wines, where the reporter goes for a ride in a helicopter, to travel a distance that is probably less than 50 miles away. It seems in poor taste in an article about climate change. (Did they buy some carbon offsets for the trip?)

Later we learn,
"Mice, voles and gophers love vineyards. 'We're seeing more pest pressures due to warmer winters,' Jackson said, walking through rows of cabernet grapes. Another emerging issue: Grapes ripen earlier, and swallows and crows are eating fruit before harvest. 'It's a big problem,' she said."
Presumably, this is what the earlier mention of "old school farming" techniques is referring to - the one where the owl box is "part of an effort to control pests without pesticides."

Is it fair to ask the reporter to tell us just how many rodenticides were used on California vineyards over time and how many are used today? And how much has rodenticide use decreased at Jackson Family since they started using owls and falcons? A few facts wouldn't hurt. Jackson Family, like every other farming organization in the state, has to report those statistics to the county ag commissioner and the California State Dept. of Pesticide Regulation. And presumably since they write up quite a big sustainability report each year, there would be ample opportunity for them to quote from it.

Jackson Family, though better than most by reducing the burden of toxicity on its own vines, uses thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals. It also buys from growers who use more toxic chemicals, thus using even more indirectly.

On its own estates in Sonoma (it also has vineyards over many other regions in California), it uses Pristine fungicide, a combination of pyraclostrobin and boscalid, a bee killer. It also uses Quintec. And Roundup Powermax herbicide. And even a little Lorsban, one of the old-school organophosphate baddies - whose real name is Chlorpyrifos -, a chemical that even the EPA is trying to get out of California soils. Jackson reports using 16 gallons of it last January at its 13 acre vineyard at 405 Browns Lane in Petaluma, just outside of town.

So it seems somewhat misleading to claim that Jackson's reduced their use of pesticides by using owls and falcons. Or at least off putting, in terms of journalistic standards, to omit mention of the total amount of pesticides, fungicides, insecticides and herbicides the winery uses. (Again, not mentioned in the winery's sustainability report.)

The story mentions that Jackson is putting in better sensors for sap and more advanced irrigation systems, like many. (Are these sensors primarily in their upscale wine vineyards?) These are cost saving, in the end. They also promote preserving and re-using water.

Of course the most effective way to change a winery's practices to mitigate climate change is to adopt organic farming practices, but this story never touches upon that fact.

Read this story about Prince Charles joining the healthy soils program called 4 per 1000 if you want to know more about truly leading edge approaches to getting ag involved in slowing or ending climate change.

Or look at this article about a promising pilot in Scotland in which robots are being used for weed control. For now, it's just been tried in cabbage fields, but there's definitely going to be more to come.

In the 4 per 1000 program, climate change scientists are aiming to mitigate climate change by keeping more carbon in the soils. It's possible that Jackson Family Wines is implementing similar practices - it would be nice to know - but it's not mentioned in this story.


If this Times story was really about the pressing issues of climate change and wine in California, it would have - at the very least - included some mention of (if not a substantial section) - the work of the folks California Climate & Agriculture Network (CalCAN), the hub around which farmers - including the wine industry - have coalesced to get new legislation passed that's supportive of helping ag work to mitigate climate change, including giving growers financial incentives for better farming practices.

In fact, for most climate change reporters, paying attention to ag and soils is the most pressing topic. (In California, you can also add water use to the list of top concerns.)

CalCAN is the group, which is not controlled by the wine industry or the Wine Institute, that has succeeded in getting the Healthy Soils Initiative passed and funded in 2016. The CDFA, which will administer the program, has a web site and webinar describing the program's initial stages which you can read about here.


It's more than a little ironic to see the big photo of Jess Jackson, that accompanies the Times article, peering out from the page, as the patriarch he was. He was under siege for years by environmentalists, prompting lawsuits and skirmishes against him.

Jackson famously bought thousands of acres of mountainous land, cut down a lot of trees and bulldozed hilltops to flatten them out to be used as hillside vineyards. Deforesting hillside vineyards? I don't think anyone thinks that a good climate change move. And certainly not on the massive scale that Jackson did.

U. C. Berkeley Professor Adina Merelender has been studying the topic of vineyard development and its impacts on oak forests and biodiversity since the 1990s. Evaluating GIS data collected between 1990 and 1997, she found that 6,600 acres of dense oak woodland - in Sonoma County alone - was destroyed for vineyard development. This is during the time period when Jackson was very actively purchasing hillsides sites and developing them. And that's just in one county.

Jackson was also active all along the Central and North Coast regions. He got some very bad PR for cutting down 843 oaks in Santa Barbara County in 1998, which catalyzed a lawsuit against the county from the Sierra Club, as well as local citizens who launched a ballot initiative to prevent cutting down any more oaks for vineyards.

So is Jackson Family Wines really the best winery to pick to illustrate the impact of practices to combat or cope with climate change?

And, generously, assuming even that they were, don't we deserve to know the really impactful aspects of what they're doing and document those impacts?

I'm done carping now. I don't blame David Gelles for his ignorance, but I do blame the powers that be at the New York Times. Just what were you thinking?

It's clear you weren't thinking. And this is not the first time you've run a soft story that purported to be real news from the business journalism staff at the Times on the world of wine. Times people, please wake up. Get the facts, and get qualified reporters who know this turf.

Don't talk to us about owls and falcons, when California's wineries deplete our water and degrade our soil. Not to mention the way they pour hundreds of thousands of pounds of carcinogens, neurotoxins and more on soil, air and water - subjecting workers, residents and nature to them - in the pursuit of putting cheap plonk on shelves.

Jackson succeeded mostly by becoming the king of the $10-13 wine category and it got there by exploiting a lot of land, making wine grape monocultures across California (and now Washington and Oregon) and reducing biodiversity.

The industry overall is sealing its own doom, by growing grapes the way it does. We'll be remediating our soils for years to make up for the damage caused by 707,000 pounds of microbe-killing herbicides like Roundup in California alone.

So, editors, we need help to highlight the real problems and solutions that address those core issues in the wine industry. Not fluffy PR. As a Times subscriber, I'm ashamed of you. Grow up!

PS In all fairness, I see now that you did quote an "outside" source - the Napa Valley Vintners! A promotional wine group. More shame on you.

I can only imagine your next climate change and coal story focusing on the Koch Brothers' plant somewhere with an "outside" source comment from the American Coal Association. But you wouldn't do that, would you? When it comes to coal, you don't throw the rules of journalism aside. Well here in California, wine is a big crop - our biggest cash crop in fact. And it deserves to be treated like the real industry that it is when you write about it.

Get a grip on your wine reporting, New York Times! Or don't report on this subject at all. Owls and falcons and baby coho, oh my! It's just as bad as Donald Trump saying he kept all those jobs in the Midwest when in fact it was the unions who were actually the reason why jobs stayed. Here in wine country, it's our government, policies and tax dollars that are helping the wine industry cope with climate change - and getting no voice or credit whatsoever from our nation's most prestigious news organization.

NOTE: Jackson Family Wines has just put out a new Sustainability Report, touting their good works and none of their pesticide use, oak tree cutting, etc. etc. Just the facts, ma'am!

Note: Updated Jan. 11 - rereading the Pesticide Use Report, it appears Jackson applied Lorsban (chlorpyrifos) to 155 acres at Brown Road, not 13 acres as previously stated. 

Note: Updated Jan. 16, 2017 - When I attended the Sonoma Winegrowers annual meeting in June 2015, I reported
Speaking during the following Q and A, Katie Jackson, Family Representative of Government Relations and Community Outreach at Jackson Family Wines, said, "It's better for growers to cooperate and collaborate to get around the need for requirements. A voluntary agreement can exempt you from a conservation order. Everyone wants to keep curtailment on the back burner."


  1. I saw the original article posted on FB and it read like a mid-1990s puff piece on greenery, the kind of piece which would have made Jess Jackson immensely proud. So it's nice to see his kids carrying the family flame, owl boxes in hand, with a little help from an eminent "news" paper. In KJ we trust.

  2. Walkers and bikers on the Joe Rodota trail in rainy season in Graton CA will see acres of submerged Jackson grapevines in an area bordering an important portion of the threatened Atascadero wetlands. Local conservation groups have long sought (in vain) collaboration from the Jackson family in preserving these wetlands. Instead, vines with rotted roots are replanted in a place where there is no sustainable, environmentally sound way to grow grapes.