Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Winery with a Mission:
Fetzer Vineyards Husbands the Earth's Resources

By Miriam Schulman

  • We are an environmentally and socially conscious grower, producer, and marketer of wines of the highest quality and value.

  • Working in harmony and with respect for the human spirit, we are committed to sharing information about the enjoyment of food and wine in a lifestyle of moderation and responsibility.

  • We are dedicated to the continuous growth and development of our people and business.

There are mission statements, and there are missions. Fetzer Vineyards, whose mission statement is reprinted above, appears to have converted what might be just a piece of paper into a real program of action where ethical considerations help guide company policy.

Fetzer President Paul Dolan comments, "When the first words of your mission statement are environmentally and socially conscious, it opens up new perspectives on how to operate the entire business."

Environmentally conscious? Fetzer's own acreage is 100 percent certified organic. Under the Bonterra label, the company produces wine made entirely from grapes that are grown without chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or fertilizers. In addition, the winery's energy-conservation efforts have been so successful that Fetzer won recognition from the White House in 1994.

Socially conscious? As one example, Fetzer offers English as a second language to its Spanish-speaking workers as part of a comprehensive employee education program.

The ESL program is typical of the way Fetzer operates. Last year, a lab technician with a background in ESL began a pilot project with employees in the winery cellars. The group met twice a week, half on company time and half on their own time. The project was so successful that a team was set up to assess the ESL needs of other departments, and the winery is now putting together a companywide program.

Many divisions at Fetzer have initiated their own socially and environmentally conscious programs. One makes polylaminate, fully recyclable capsules, allowing Fetzer to eliminate the lead capsules traditionally used to cover corks. And Fetzer's Valley Oaks Farm, with its experimental organic garden, regularly donates surplus produce to Plowshares and the Ukiah Food Bank.

Besides instituting socially and environmentally conscious programs in its own facilities, Fetzer has encouraged other companies to go the organic route. Through its Club Bonterra project, Fetzer shares information with its outside growers about organic techniques.

If all this sounds a little too good to be true, the reasoning behind it is hardly warm and fuzzy. Andy Beckstoffer of Beckstoffer Vineyards, a member of Club Bonterra, explains, "It's good business to preserve your land; it's good business to produce a healthy product. We think the more alive the ground and fruit are, the better the varietal character of the wines will be."

Fetzer, the sixth-largest premium winery in the United States, has profited from taking ethical responsibilities seriously, according to Dolan. "That's the way the industry will go, and we'll have been there first," he says.

"The impetus is coming from consumers. In most surveys, 60 to 80 percent of the public says they're interested in the environment."

As for Fetzer's social commitment, the company's director of human resources, Barbara Wallace, says those programs also help the bottom line. "With corporate downsizing and reorganization, many companies are not getting the same sort of loyalty they used to. But our company feels that developing people's capabilities strengthens the organization. It's a way of creating loyalty."

Not that social responsibility is always profitable. Dolan likes to use the word sustainable. "The big question," he says, "is, Will the consumer pay for environmental changes? If we take a position that we will only buy organic fruit, that can be touchy because we don't know what the costs will be. We may have to pay more for the grapes." This would make the product less competitive.

"We need to figure out how to make the changes sustainable," he says; "that is, to make decisions that are both environmentally conscious and economically viable."

Sometimes, the environmentally conscious policies save money. Organic farming, for example, has meant fewer "inputs," according to Dolan. "We don't have to use as many chemicals. We don't have to keep driving through the vineyards to check on the chemicals."

Other environmental programs are more of a wash economically. Composting, for example, saves the company money in landfill dump fees, but it exacts more time from employees.

On the social end of things, employee-education programs can be very cost-effective. "The more educated the work force, the better decisions they make," says Dolan. "Our education programs allow us to push decision making down to where it should be — to the fields or the bottling plant or the sales force. That allows us to respond quickly to the needs of the marketplace."

But Fetzer, and its parent company, Brown-Forman, are also committed to social responsibility for its own sake, according to Wallace. "It does help us in the workplace," she says of the English-as-a-second-language program, "but there are so many areas where communication is important - in the family and in the community. Shared understanding between people is important to us."

Miriam Schulman is the editor of Issues in Ethics.