Q&A: Fritz Meier, Sustainable Winemaker

Today we are talking with Fritz Meier, one of our seasoned Kendall-Jackson winemakers.  He is just one of the many Kendall-Jackson employees for whom sustainability is a way of life – at work and at home.

Good morning Fritz, thanks for talking with me today about sustainability.  Could you please start off by telling us a little bit about yourself, and how you ended up as a winemaker at Kendall-Jackson?

Certainly.  I grew up in a little village in Germany, right in the middle of the Black Forest.  My family had a small farm where we grew all of our own food, as well as a small brandy distillery and we would sell or trade our brandy with the other families in the town.  I grew up learning how to make wine from my father – but our wine never turned out well; we always ended up having to buy it.  Making brandy is much easier, the distillation process gives you a greater margin of error and is very forgiving.

I originally wanted to be a nuclear scientist, but my father made me a bet that I had to spend one year learning a trade, and if I still wanted to go to college he would pay for it.  I chose to work at a co-op winery in town, and after a year decided to stay at the co-op and become a winemaker.

I did eventually go to college for winemaking, where I met Dave Hastings, who is now a Kendall-Jackson winemaker.  He was in Germany on a study abroad program from California.  I visited him in California, and fell in love with it.  My goal was to live in here for a few years, then go back to Germany and open a winery with my father, but I’ve been here for 16 years.

Why did you first get interested in sustainability?

Sustainability is a natural interest due to my upbringing.  As I said, we raised all of our own food, so we were very careful about how we grew it and what we put on our crops.  We were not 100% organic, but we practiced IPM (Integrated Pest Management) before it was called IPM.  We built garden boxes to capture the sun’s heat and grow vegetables year round – we even had homegrown lettuce in January.  Everything we ate, we grew at home; I don’t think I had my first soda until I was a teenager.

We didn’t call it sustainability; it was just how things were. Keep in mind that my little village had existed in the mountains for 2,000 years before getting its first tractor or automobile.  We even butchered our own meat at the community freezer and traded with other farmers for the items we didn’t make at home.

How do you incorporate your interest in sustainability into your winemaking?

Winemaking and sustainability are very connected. Wine is a very natural product, with the exception of a little SO2, everything in the wine comes from the vines, and all of our waste products are compostable.  We are very conscious of how we tend our vines, and we have received both SIP and CCSW certifications for our sustainable farming techniques.

It does take a lot of energy and water to make wine though, so that is where I focus on efficiency and conservation.  Where I grew up we had to be careful with our water and energy consumption – [in the United States] energy and water are much too cheap, and the level of waste in general is much higher.  We have done a lot of conservation work. We’ve installed high efficiency barrel washers; we use a solar cogeneration system for heating water; we operate with 100% renewable electricity; and use our cleaned wash water to recharge the local aquifer.

All of this helps to significantly reduce the impact of winemaking.

I hear that you bring sustainability home with you, can you tell us a little bit about what you do at home to leave a lighter footprint?

I live in an old Victorian home, a beautiful building that was not built to be energy efficient.  We have done a lot of work on the house, including insulating the walls and roof, replacing all of our light bulbs and appliances with energy-efficient models, and installing a new roof to properly vent the attic and help keep the house cool.

Then we decided to install solar on the house – I liked the idea of “guilt free” electricity.  We have 40 panels, each rated to produce 175 watts of electricity.  Right now the system produces enough power for our usage throughout the year.  My goal is, when my children move out in a few years, we will have enough excess generation capacity to power an electric car.

As it is, I usually bike to work 4 days a week.  It takes me about an hour each way, but it puts me in a good mood and then I don’t have to go to the gym.  The only days I drive are when it is raining – I don’t mind getting rained on while I ride, but I hate starting out in the rain.

Thanks Fritz for sharing your sustainability story with us today.  There are lots of other Kendall-Jackson employees that live sustainably both at home and at work (at last count, I think I know 6 people with solar panels at home!)  We’ll showcase more of our sustainability-minded employees over the coming months – just one way to get to know the Kendall-Jackson team even better.