Sustainability Can be Marketed, Trefethen Just Never Bothered

Sustainability practices didn’t start when Jon Ruel started at Trefethen, but the then vineyard assistant certainly had an impact on it.

“They were doing things before then, because it felt like the right thing to do,” the now CEO of the company explained to Vintner during his cover story interview for the January/February 2021 issue. “They just never marketed it.”

Founder Gene Trefethen had reservoirs put in during the 1970s.

“They put in a water recycling system at the winery, so that every time we wash a tank or barrel, — even the rainwater off the roofs, the pavement — we catch all that water. We filter it, we send it out to the vineyard reservoir, and we use it for vineyard irrigation. So every bit of winey water is used at least twice.

“We’ve been doing that since the 70s. If somebody did that today, they’d put out a press release, like they invented it,” Ruel said jokingly. “We reuse water, we did that 40 years ago, we’ve been doing it every year since like, what else do ya got?”

There are many other examples of the winery taking serious thought and care with the land in Napa Valley they use to cultivate.

Ruel did drive to be a Certified California Sustainable Vineyard & Winery along with boasting Napa Valley Green Land and Winery.

Ruel said he really brought his ecological thinking forward in that.

“I wasn’t always a vineyard guy and wasn’t always a farmer,” he noted. For many years, Ruel was a research scientist, specifically in ecology and environmental science.

“What you learn in ecology is that everything is related. Nothing exists in a vacuum,” he said. “So whether it’s a butterfly, a bear, or a cluster of grapes, it depends on other organisms and the natural environment around it. And it’s the interactions between those species and the climate of the soil that determines the outcome of any one species.

“So you can’t just be like, I got grapes, I gotta make grapes. Grapes are in the context of fungal pathogens, insects that want to eat them, nutrition that’s needed in the soil, how much does it rain this year? How much is it sunny, what variety of grapes for the kind of temperature you have? You begin to see those variables and the humans come in and they pull some leaves off, or they leave some leaves on or they cut the shoots.”

Ruel began to think about the parts of the system and didn’t limit it to the vineyard.

“One of my challenges in academic science was that nature was always held up as this thing that existed without humans,” he said. “There’s nature, that’s the natural world. And then there are humans. And that’s not natural. But humans are natural. We’re part of the world. Sure we build buildings. And that’s different from a tree that grows, but if we’re natural we built so it doesn’t our building affect the trees?

“I have a hard time with nature without humans. Through my own ecological research, I got to go all the way to Antarctica. There’s evidence of humans in Antarctica in terms of what we see: markers in the atmosphere and in the ocean, and impacts on species. So globally, we’re all connected.”

But sustainability works in the people, as well.

“The employees here have always been well taken care of,” Ruel said, harkening back to his start in 2004 and working with people that had been there since the 70s and now he’s been a part of the company for the past three decades.

“That culture definitely predates me,” he said.

Photos courtesy Trefethen

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