How a biodynamic weed winery inspired a transatlantic journey to net zero
We could all stand to be more conscious consumers, but it’s not easy to differentiate “good” from “bad” when you can pretty much claim whatever you want on consumer product labels without much accountability.
Beyond official regulated labels USDA and organic, terms like “never ever,” “free range,” “antibiotic and hormone-free,” and “all natural” are, in regulation terms, meaningless. Yet, these terms are plastered over everything we eat, drink, and soon, smoke, usually implying a certain code of conduct or justify a higher price point as a marketing point of differentiation.
Greenwashing, or the practice of misleading consumers into believing a product is environmentally friendly when it is not, remains a major problem across all industries. Coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986, the term emerged to address widespread consumer ignorance as a result of “ad-enabled companies presenting themselves as a caring environmental stewards, even as they engaged in environmentally unsustainable practices”—a practice that has continued to evolve as other PR-bolstered forms of superficial corporate social activism emerge.
Since former President Donald Trump withdrew U.S. participation in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation on the basis that it would "undermine" the U.S. economy, and put the U.S. "at a permanent disadvantage," it has placed a certain onus on the eco-minded consumer to make informed purchasing decisions. Without state and federal regulation, it’s up to individuals to galvanize and weaponize free market capitalism to hold businesses and government representatives accountable.
It might surprise you, then, to learn that the nascent environmental-dependent cannabis industry—a segment that should be ahead of the curve addressing an impending climate crisis—often lags in terms of its corporate responsibility to sustainability. (Actually, that might not come as a shock).
For an industry that frequently throws around eco-conscious terms like “green,” “plant energy” and “health and wellness,” there’s a lot of side-stepping around a product’s origin, quality, and ethical practices, so that many consumers might overlook inconvenient facts. Among them: indoor growers are often a huge energy suck, disposable vape pens generate tremendous waste, and that ubiquitous state-mandated child-proof packaging armed with the accessible complexity of Rubik’s cube often relies on legally-mandated plastics (as if a child cannot easily twist off the top of a vodka bottle—but that’s another issue).
Which means, every time I meet some ambitious cannabis entrepreneur who steps into New York City with a dream business, I have to ask a series of delicate questions that they are often too tepid to speak candidly about (particularly if their hands are legally tied on which language they can use to describe the cannabis or hemp product), assess the quality of the product itself if I even have access to it, and try to not sound like a complete asshole to well-meaning individuals who are not dedicated farmers, necessarily sustainably motivated or even have the financial means to invest in building a sustainable product line with competitive branding.
Trying to ascertain this quality amid a surplus of brands and products operating on state-by-state legal status, internal practices, and sourcing within the framework of dispensaries can be exhausting. Becoming an expert requires using ones’ body as a human guinea pig, all the while bearing witness to a lot of digital mudslinging from disgruntled former employees and bad actors amid a struggling market with very limited collaboration. All of this can make answering consumer questions honestly a challenge: who do you co-sign? (Makes me miss the simplicity of Jia Tolentino’s former vape life chronicles).
Much like the cannabis industry, the wine industry deals with its own corporate transparency and accountability issues to address water waste and greenhouse emissions (among other issues), where an educated palate is an empowered palate. It isn’t simply enough to have a product that tastes as good as it says it is, but that its producers go the extra mile to set a standard for others to follow and consumers can feel good purchasing.
Which is why I am incredibly excited about Chateau Maris, a small label rethinking sustainability across every checkpoint of its supply chain without sacrificing quality, while conveniently tying cannabis into the conversation in an unexpected way. From using regenerative farming practices to revitalize its pesticide-damaged land into a world class biodynamic and organic winery to leveraging hempcrete to erect a sustainable, biodegradable and carbon-neutral wine cellar (or, as I am calling it, a weed winery), Chateau Maris is embarking on an incredible new journey: using wind energy to transport its product via cargo sailboat with a partnership through Grain de Sail.
Buzzword to Buzzkill
The farm-to-table movement, led by renowned chef and activist Alice Waters of Berkeley, California’s Chez Panisse in the 1970s, became the rallying cry for the restaurant industry to wield its power as strategic decision makers to operate as sustainable stewards of the land, from educating consumers, building on-site gardens, composting and diligently working towards waste reduction to forming locally sourced partnerships with small farms and artisanal producers to build edible communities with a greater environmental impact.
Like most feel-good, altruistic movements, the phrase “farm-to-table” slowly devolved into a corporate buzzword buried under a tidal wave of social media influencers bolstered by ad money and eye-rolled by food writers who felt the term either fell out of fashion or didn’t go far enough.
Frustrated with industry gatekeeping, problematic figureheads, and self-cannibalizing amid a comprehensive funding problem, otherwise well-meaning people have become less collaborative and forced to operate as individualistic self-marketers (a lone complaint notably vocalized via my personal Substack platform). As a result, these hurdles have made it even more challenging to help educate consumers and hold industries accountable, which is why climate activists keep throwing food at museum art for attention.
While some might give GMO practices a pass for their more positive contributions, such as providing scalable, climate resilient produce at a more affordable price point that can feed the masses, the globalized supply chain has a downside: wide-scale environmental damage with herbicides and mainstreaming inferior products lacking taste and comparable nutrients. Therefore, it is truly up to the producer to go the extra mile, getting creative with razor sharp margins to encourage a consumer buy-in for products they believe in, and spread word-of-mouth loyalty. The absence of cannabis within the larger agricultural foodways conversation is glaring given its increasing environmental impact.
Recognizing the growth potential of localized agricultural economies and the importance of environmental sustainability, New York’s Farm Bill law, in particular, helped cement ambitious policies that rewarded farms for reducing their carbon footprint by engaging in cooperative business with other in-state producers and supporting small businesses so that 15% of all food products purchased by state agencies are New York-based. Plus, the expansion of New York’s loan forgiveness program for young farmers, the establishment of the office of urban agriculture, an increase of farmers markets and educational materials for farmers to use agrivoltaics and solar power on active farmland, etc. In short: these tax incentives to do business locally are good for the local economy, land, and product innovation.
Presently, this bill is among the forces shaping the future of New York cannabis. But other states invested in reducing their ecological footprint, empowering small producers, and increasing an economic state advantage would do well to consider this example that has created pathways for otherwise struggling small farms and orchards to transform into flourishing artisanal cider houses, distilleries, craft breweries, and wineries co-signed by Michelin-backed restaurants.
Ideally, the New York cannabis industry is intended to fold into this model. Whether that will be the case remains yet to be seen.
The Green Rush for Green Backs
While it’s tempting to give a generous leash to the cannabis industry’s underlying financial and legislative woes as it sorts out individual state guidelines, it is also very challenging to enthusiastically co-sign a multi-billion-dollar agricultural industry whose environmental impact and practices are beginning to look like Monsanto. The handful of farms earning distinction courtesy of the Regenerative Cannabis Farming awards or “Clean Green Certified” are not widely recognized or distributed, operating on a small scale model that is not necessarily accessible at a time when individuals are still fighting for the right to grow a backyard plant or two.
Every industry is laden with greenwashing issues, but some put their money where their mouth is, and benefitted by partnering with likeminded brands interested in genuinely green technology through hemp textiles, construction, and other sustainable plant byproducts. Among them: Hudson Hemp, Raw Garden, Aster Farms, Stone Road, and Papa & Barkley’s, to name a few.
As the great “Green Rush” starts thinning the herd amid the never-ending battle among legacy, single-state, and multi-state operators for land and longevity, the future demands higher standards of accountability of quality, production, diversity and sustainability. This should be the case for all industries, of course, but one that requires constituents to these considerations as part of newly drafted state-by-state laws and regulations.
Wine and Weed: A Winning Combination
“Climate change is the biggest failing of my generation,” says co-owner Jacques Herviou, who walked us through their ambitious sustainability journey of Chateau Maris, a biodynamic wine producer and first B-Corp certified winery in Europe situated between Toulouse and Montpellier in the Minervois La Livinière region of south France.
Secrets of the bottle include the wild terrain of La Livinière and the Causse de Minerve, a limestone plateau facing the Pyrenees peppered with fig trees, thyme, and olive trees among the sandstone, shist and shale—the type of biodiversity only possible through a holistic strategy to regenerate land previously saturated with harmful pesticides (all quite affordable, I might add).
Owner Robert Eden didn’t originally intend to implement biodynamic viticulture at Château Maris, but disappointing yields in 1997 and 1998 required a lengthy restoration to support the vineyard ecosystem. The biodynamic method calls for weed witch-like practices such as horn-manure preparations and herbal teas that energize the soil to align with solar and lunar cycles. Not only does this heal the land for future generations, but it tends to produce higher-quality, more expressive wines.
Today, the winery biodynamically farms and hand-harvests its 79 acres to craft natural wines made with native yeasts, stored in 9.000-square-foot winery is made entirely from hempcrete bricks using a combination of hemp straw from Toulouse, limestone, and molasses. Ironically, the hempcrete caused the most trouble because it’s entirely biodegradable—clearly a proposed liability for insurers, but well worth the effort for their overall mission. To take things a step further, the winery recently began working with Grain de Sail, the world’s sole commercial exporter of fine wines via sailboat.
Among the coolest parts of this completely voluntary and altruistic initiative is that it fits within the UN’s race to net zero emissions. In addition to the sustainable methods mentioned above, Chateau Maris is among Grain de Sail’s select vetted partners (organic, biodynamic, and natural wineries) included within 1,500 total cases transported from Brittany to New York. Twice per year, its stunning 80-foot schooner cargo ship spends about three weeks at sea, relying solely on wind energy to power it and renewable energy sources onboard to power all electronics including HVAC equipment, such as mini wind turbines, solar panels, and hydrogenators.
But that’s not the end of the journey. After resting in New York, the ship heads south to the Dominican Republic, carrying medical supplies, then picks up chocolate to take back to France (because of course). It should also be noted that this is a very, very pretty boat. Enough so that they had a bit of a wait being towed to the Brooklyn harbor because the towboats were fighting over who would get the honor to help it dock.
Most importantly, it serves as an example others can learn from. Which is that it is entirely possible to rethink the entire supply chain beyond your brand from “soil to shelf” (sorry), collaborate, and take matters into your own hands to create sustainable change.
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