Five questions with Frog’s Leap general manager Jonah Beer

by Karen on April 18, 2007

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The Cork Board could’t think of a better way to celebrate Earth Day (Sunday, April 22nd) than to raise a glass to a winery that practices “being green”. Frog’s Leap Winery, located in Rutherford, has taken a “grass roots” approach (pun intended) to winemaking. From installing photovoltaic panels as a means to convert sunlight into an energy source to avoiding the use of pesticides in its vineyards, their method of winemaking is progressive in hopes of achieving traditional, high-caliber wines. Frog’s Leap General Manager, Jonah Beer, generously shared with us his thoughts on sustainable winemaking, the impact of global warming and more. Enjoy!

CB: There are certainly a bevy of common misconceptions about running a “green” winery (such as sacrificing the quality of the wine by not using pesticides or conventional irrigation systems). Can you talk to us about the true challenges of running a sustainable business?

Frog’s LeapBeer: A great question – and oddly enough, it’s also the answer. In many ways, one of the biggest challenges to running a business the way we do is in correcting the misunderstandings about the “limitations” of organic farming. In truth it is the practices of organic and dry-farming allow us to grow grapes in a healthy, vibrant and traditional way…meaning it’s not about what we CAN’T do it’s about what we DON’T HAVE to do. “Conventional” vineyards use Round-Up to control weeds, weeds that are a result of irrigation. They use pesticides to control pests, pests that are a result of a lack of biodiversity. Simply put, today’s problem was yesterday’s solution. If you avoid irrigation, then you don’t need herbicides. If you avoid herbicides then you don’t need pesticides. And if you avoid them all you can easily attract and retain great employees to work the vineyards. The true challenges that face Frog’s Leap are those that any small, estate winery faces: maintaining quality, struggling to be heard amongst larger competitors, consolidation in the marketplace, etc. Ultimately our approach towards sustainability saves us headaches, it doesn’t cause them.

CB: Over the past several years Frog’s Leap has invested in solar power and geothermal heating and cooling systems, which have obvious environmental benefits and fit perfectly with the winery’s mantra. Talk to us about these systems and what benefits they ultimately bring to your customers.

Frog’s Leap 1020 solar panelsBeer: In a nutshell these systems are both of great benefit to us from an ecological impact point of view as well as a financial point of view. Take the Photo Voltaic System for instance. The cost to purchase and install the 1020 solar panels that power our winery was $1.2 million. Now that seems like a lot of dough…and it is…but here’s how it was paid for. PG&E, our local utility company, paid $600,000 of the cost up front through a statewide rebate initiative. After state and federal tax credits and accelerated depreciation our actual cost dropped to the point that the system will pay for itself in less than seven years just by saving us an electric bill. Since the system carries a 25-year warranty we can look forward to about 15 years of free electricity!

What does this and our other cost-saving, green practices mean to the average fan of Frog’s Leap? Well, more stable wine prices for one…but more importantly, ultimately better flavor and more character in our wines. This may seem like a stretch—and maybe it is—but here the concept of terroir is much more encompassing than simply, “soil based flavors in wine.” Yes, terroir is about the flavors of wine that are indicative of place, but it also about the people, culture and traditions of those who have spent their lives to bring life to a wine. The true terroir of Frog’s Leap isn’t just the Rutherford Dust but it is the people and the belief of the winery behind it. And that means bottling wines that are vibrant, alive, free from chemicals and winemaker manipulation and truly reflective of our belief that man should work in concert with Mother Nature instead of steadily against her.

CB: Global warming has become a hot topic recently (no pun intended). How do you think it is impacting the wine industry – particularly in Napa County?

Beer: The Purdue University/NASA Study that has inspired articles like, “A Scorching Future” (LA Times, January 23, 2007) did a great job of putting a face, namely the Napa Valley, on the problem of global warming, but let’s not kid ourselves, global warming is just that…global. If this study and others cited in An Inconvenient Truth are even remotely accurate then, in my opinion, drought throughout the Corn Belt, increased devastation from storms and melting icecaps will be problems much more troublesome than if Napa can still grow great Cabernet.

Here’s the point…instead of wasting time pontificating if Carneros will be the future home of Cabernet lets talk about what we–and that includes you, dear reader–are doing today to combat the global problem. Here at Frog’s Leap we’re focusing on things like, solar power, geothermal heating and cooling, ‘green’ construction and bio-diesel fuels. And I encourage each reader to replace just one incandescent light bulb with a compact fluorescent one…a simple act that if it were duplicated by all Americans would reduce CO2 emissions by an equivalent amount of those created by one million cars.

CB: Going green has certainly become the ‘thing to do’ of late across many industries. Are you seeing more of this in the wine industry at this point in time? If so, is there a concern that for many this is just another passing fad as opposed to a deep-rooted change in running a business?

Beer: Sure, there is without a doubt a lot of ‘green-washing’ going on in the wine business and in business in general. And to a certain extent it is annoying for folks like us (and other pioneers like Sinskey, Benziger, Shafer and of course, Fetzer) who truly strive to do the right thing. However, at the end of the day, it is our hope that if the posers out there keep talking green that eventually they will have to follow through on their commitments. Some see Wal-Mart’s push for ‘green’ as a sign that the ‘movement’ has lost something. The way I see it is different…I’m excited by their efforts, because if a giant like that becomes even 1% green, they could have more global impact than 100 Frog’s Leaps. For those of us who adopted early and for whom this isn’t a fad we can take comfort in the fact that we enjoy a sincere place in the hearts and minds of our customers for our genuine concern and willingness to act. Evidence of the push for sustainability can most easily be seen in Inc. Magazine’s latest ‘green’ issue. There are great things happening in all industries from carpet manufacturing to skateboards, beer and wine.

CB: As a result of the growth of the wine industry over the past several years, the marketplace has fragmented into various niches. On one hand you’ve got Beringer and Robert Mondavi Winery and on the other, you have smaller, more home-grown labels competing for mindshare with consumers. Where do you see Frog’s Leap fitting into the marketplace? What is your target demographic and how do you market to them?

Beer: Well we’re a hell of a lot more home-grown than we are corporate-like. That is not meant to take anything away from the big and powerful; it simply means that unlike most we are comfortable with our size. In fact when we look over the past 10 years of Frog’s Leap our winery hasn’t really grown at all. This has endeared us to many of the distributors who have been selling our wine for most of our 26-year history. They–like many consumers–have tired of the consolidation, tired of the endless push for ‘more’ by wineries and find satisfaction in the simple goal of Frog’s Leap: to make great wine and have a great time doing it. As far as marketing and all that jazz, well we just don’t do a lot of it. Here we gain wisdom from the official “Frog’s Leap business manual” the Tao Te Ching: “He who tries to shine dims his own light.”

CB: Thank you Jonah!

[techtags: Napa, Napa Valley, Frog's Leap, Jonah Beer, green, sustainable farming, Earth Day, Robert Sinskey, wine, winery]

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About the Author

has written 195 posts on The Cork Board. She's lived in the heart of the Napa Valley for nearly a decade and is a foodie with a love of photography. Follow her on Twitter @KRJ99 and visit her website.

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