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A green revolution in Argentina

The current political situation in Argentina is uncertain, but Kathleen Willcox discovers the country’s winegrowers are continuing their own special green revolution.

On 9 May, the day I was supposed to fly out of Argentina, a mass general strike shut down transportation across the country. The biggest trade unions in Argentina walked off the job, essentially freezing the country of 46 million, with schools shuttered because teachers couldn’t get to work, and banks, businesses and state agencies also joining the unions in protest.

This was the second nationwide union strike since the self-described anarcho-capitalist President Javier Milei took office last December. Protestors object to Milei’s austerity measures, which include laying off government works, overseeing currency stabilization measures that have caused annual inflation to hover near 300% and eliminating state subsidies for energy and transportation.

And yet, in Argentina’s wine country of Mendoza, which is responsible for growing about 70% of the country’s grapes, it was business as usual. But for many vintners there, business as usual entails engaging in their own political, economic and environmental action.

Identifying the cause of this widespread, if informal, movement—at least from the outside—is a fool’s errand. But what’s clear is that wineries are determined to do what they can within their sphere to uplift struggling people in the communities in which they’re located, improve the lives of their workers through educational and financial programs, and actively combat climate change.

Building Better Communities

Argentina’s financial struggles aren’t new. Since gaining independence from Spain in 1816, the country’s citizens have been riding a pendulum between democracy and military rule.

Today, unemployment hovers around 57.4%, compared with 11.5% in the US. And high school graduation rates are low in Argentina—about 55% in rural areas, according to the World Bank, which will make it harder to break that cycle of poverty.

Wineries in Argentina are beginning to take matters into their own hands.

“In the early years of Viña Cobos, our concept of sustainability was limited to vineyards and winemaking,” explains Paul Hobbs, founding partner and winemaker of the winery, which was launched in 1998. “However, with time and in sort of an organic way, the principles of sustainability slowly yet steadily infused into our ethos across all disciplines, all departments.”

Despite what Hobbs characterizes as initially “passive, zero strategy approach,” he was so impressed with the impact the team at Viña Cobos was having on the lives of the employees, he decided to not only expand and deepen the work, but strategically grow it.

Today, the 100,000-case winery has 65 full-time employees (with 23 extra people brought in every day during harvest), and a systemic approach to improving the lives of workers.

Breakfast and lunch are provided for workers, and every two weeks workers receive a bag of vegetables and two-dozen eggs, eliminating one financial strain, while also ensuring a nourished and healthier team.

Through an auction held every other year, they have also raised thousands of dollars to fund enormous (one delivery entailed 35 tons of dry pasta) food and milk deliveries to the soup kitchen Banco de Alimentos de Mendoza, technological equipment for students during the pandemic, when connectivity became essential.

“In another auction, we used the funds for food donations to Banco de Almintos, and to refurbish a sports space for Rinconcito de Luz, a social and educational activities center for the community in Perdriel-Lujan de Cuyo,” says Macarena Esteller, the winery’s marketing and public relations manager. “This is in a neighborhood surrounded by drugs, and this space helps the entire community to have a space to play basketball, football and take dancing classes.”

Bodega Santa Julia, another socially-minded winery in Mendoza, has also organized multiple recreational programs for their employees and the community at large.

“Every year, we organize a football tournament in Santa Rosa with the TV Channel TyC Sports,” explains Julia Zuccardi, head of tourism and hospitality for Santa Julia. (Her father, José Alberto, named the winery after her). “Our goal is to not only encourage the practice of sports, but also to encourage social inclusion and values development. More than 500 people have been part of the program since we started it four years ago.”

Santa Julia also opened two gyms and two libraries and computer rooms in Finca Maipu and Santa Rosa for their employees and members of the community. About 80 people use the resources regularly.

At Bodega Catena Zapata, Dr. Laura Catena, a U.S. trained emergency doctor turned managing director of her family’s Mendoza winery, explains that she is continuing the work started by her father, Nicolas Catena Zapata.

“We have 139 houses for workers because my father, and now I, know that people were a lot less likely to leave the country and move to the city if they had housing,” Catena explains. “And it allowed us to build a true community. Some people stay there for 30 years or more. About three years ago, we were able to bring in WiFi, which has been great. I love watching Netflix after work, and as it turns out, so does everyone else at the winery!”

Over the course of several decades, Catena Zapata has also donated lands and funds for community schools and community facilities.

Providing Resources for Women and Children

Wineries are also focusing specifically on providing opportunities and help for women and children.

Helping children is a no-brainer: they are the future. Helping women has become a priority because labour participation rates are still much lower in Argentina when compared with men (about 50.8%, compared with male participation rates of 71.1%, according to the World Bank), often due to childcare needs and logistical realities.

“I am continuing the work of my grandmother, who began creating cultural centers, first in Santa Rosa in 1968 from nothing,” Zuccardi explains. “She believed that you need to care for the people on your team and in your community and actively help them create a better life.”

Today, they offer a free daycare from 9am to 6pm for employees and members of the community. About 75 kids are there during the school year, and during the summer that number grows, and the winery helps care for kids up to age 12.

Santa Julia has also teamed up with schools in the community to help with the building upkeep and provide materials. Employees who want to finish their high school education are encouraged to, and given paid time off twice a week to attend school. At any given time, around 100 adults are enrolled in the two-year program, Zuccardi says.

Viña Cobos, meanwhile, created a scholarship program in 2021 that is open children of employees.

“It’s a financial incentive that parents manage for students to use according to their needs, like transportation, meals and school supplies,” says Esteller. “We also provide emotional support to these children by assignment them a godmother or godfather who is also an employee who volunteers to participate. They can share how their studies are going, seek advice and express their emotions.”

Combatting Climate Change

Climate change is already impacting Argentina’s wine sector. (Last year alone, the grape harvest was 21% lower due to extreme weather, according to the Instituto Nacional de Vitivincultura). But that is likely to get worse if strong action isn’t taken. Argentina is projected to show a 65% increase in the frequency of agricultural droughts, and sweat through heatwaves that will last 6,247% longer by 2050, according to the G20 Climate Risk Atlas.

Wineries are doing what they can to combat climate change within and around their vineyards in a number of different ways.

Santa Julia, which began certifying its vineyards and wines as organic in 2001, has become the biggest certified organic wine producer in the country. Currently, 964 of the winery’s 2,800 acres are certified organic, with an additional 20 acres being added each year.

At Zuccardi, vineyard manager and agronomist Martin di Stefano, is taking a rigorous, methodical approach to farming that he entails hands-off land-management and advanced technology.

“For years, vineyard managers committed ecocide,” he says. “They would come in and bulldoze, with no respect to the native plants and wildlife. We have decided no more ecocide. We work with the land, and by doing that, we have healthier vines growing in a biodiverse landscape.”

But he is not opposed to using technology to help the vines in their 590 acres of grapes make better wine.

“We began researching our own vineyards and terroir in 2009, and now we have a system,” di Stefano explains. “We analyze the topography of our soils by drone, then scan the soil by X-ray. Then we dig soil pits to really understand what’s going on in-depth.”

From that information, they create 150+ parcels—not blocks.

“Blocks are squares that people create for their convenience,” di Stefano says. “These are parcels with unusual shapes and are created according to what the vines need. They all have different water needs and must be harvested at different times.”

Parcels that are adjacent to each other but have slightly different soils may require drastically different watering and picking regiments.

“Some of our soils are irrigated once a week, some every 14 days, others in between,” di Stefano says. “The amount of irrigation is different in each case too. At harvest time I drive our teams crazy with color coded tape that marks each parcel individually so they know what to pick and when.”

This system is time consuming, but di Stefano insists that it uses fewer resources, while also making better wine.

Catena’s obsession

Catena has also tackled worked to increase sustainability in her own and vineyards and beyond, most notably with the Bodegas de Argentina Sustainability Code that she launched in 2010. Built on the standards at Catena Wines, it outlines everything from best farming to human resources practices. More than 200 wineries in Argentina have signed on.

But Catena confesses that she is currently “obsessed” with bottle weight.

“Bottles are responsible for up to 60 percent of a wine’s carbon footprint,” she says. “But yet heavier bottles are still equated with higher quality wine. We are already fighting an uphill battle in terms of perception being from Argentina. If a person has a choice between a heavy bottle of Napa wine or a light bottle of Argentinian wine, which do you think they’ll choose as being higher quality?”

But Catena knows that simply lowering the weight of bottles drastically improves the eco-friendliness of the wine, so she just introduced a 380-gram bottle of one its most popular wines, Catena Appellation Malbec. The previous weight was 700 grams. Il Catena brand wines have been reduced to 500 grams from 700, and Mountain Vines are slashed to 480 from 700. Currently, the average Catena bottle is 416 grams, with a reduction in carbon emissions of 21 percent, before transportation is factored in.

“The things I care about are people and the planet,” Catena says. “That is it. It’s simple really.”

The economy is out of our control. The climate is beyond our reach. Politics? What can we do? It’s easy to feel like the people in charge are asleep at the switch, and we’re all doomed.

But as these independent, creative people who are—amid almost unimaginable fiscal and logistical challenges—finding and implementing solutions to the pressing problems of social inequity and environmental degradation, while creating award-winning, terroir driven wines demonstrate, the future is in our hands.

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