A Recipe for Award Winning Sustainable Wine: Mix Vision with Equal Parts Passion & Courage

Southbrook Vinyards - Award Winnig Sustainable WIne from Niagara, Ontario

Southbrook Vineyards – Award Winning Sustainable Wine from Niagara, Ontario

“I hate the word sustainability.” This is how Bill Redelmeier, Owner of Southbrook Vineyards, began his presentation to the Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series (TSSS) on November 27, 2013. It’s not that Redelmeier doesn’t believe in the principles that many of us would attach to sustainability; he believes passionately in the importance of long-term well-being in economic, ecological, community and social dimensions.  What frustrates Redelmeier is the lack of third party certification and oversight for most sustainability claims, explaining, “It can be claimed by anyone for any particular reason.”

Stressing the importance of third party certification, Redelmeier explained that Southbrook offers wines that are not simply grown organically but are certified to be so by third party verification (e.g. Demeter, Pro-Cert Organic).  Similarly, Southbrook was the first Canadian winery to be Gold LEED® (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified. For Southbrook, deciding to build to LEED standards was the right decision both environmentally and economically – the expected timeline to recoup any extra construction costs is about 8-15 years, while the expected lifetime of the building is 50-100 years – the business case was clear.

Southbrook Vineyards is a business defined by its pursuit of quality while maintaining a long-term focus on environmental and social responsibility.  This is a reflection of Bill Redelmeier’s personal views; his vision and passion shape his business, and that resonates with both his employees and customers.  “I’m proud of making great wine. If you sell things cheap, your customer is loyal until someone else is cheaper.  If you make things well, your customer is loyal until you give a reason not to be.”

If you sell things cheap, your customer is loyal until someone else is cheaper.  If you make things well, your customer is loyal until you give a reason not to be.

Redelmeier shared with the audience some ‘show and tell’ during his presentation that illustrated how his convictions permeate both his personal and professional lives. As he held up bulbs of fresh garlic and a bottle of maple syrup, he explained that he’d just bought these products at a Japanese restaurant in the food court of First Canadian Place (office building where Bennett Jones LLP, host of TSSS is located.)  When he stood at the cash register and asked about the products, he was told that they were locally produced, on the restaurant owner’s farm.  And so he chose to support this local business initiative. He shared with the TSSS audience the value of the experience on many levels – from supporting local business, to the emotional connection of purchasing directly from the producer. In the same way, he sources his Southbrook employees’ uniforms from a Canadian manufacturer, using his dollars to keep manufacturing jobs in Ontario, believing that it is important to do the right thing, and to challenge others to follow your lead.

With a vision to produce great wine within an ecologically and socially responsible context, Southbrook Vineyards has grown into an Ontario agricultural success story.  As they explain it, it started simply enough in 2005, when Bill and Marilyn Redelmeier purchased their Niagara-on-the-Lake vineyard with a plan “to make the finest wines possible in a respectful, local, light-on-the-land fashion.” Southbrook takes a leadership role in the wine community by “mentoring, educating and sharing in an effort to encourage a growing understanding of organic and biodynamic methods.”

Grapes on the vineRedelmeier is a strong proponent of the value of education and leading by example.  “People, if they think about it first, are likely to do the right thing.  When they do the wrong thing, it is often because they don’t think, or they don’t know.” He asserts that Southbrook is the “first” biodynamic winery in Canada.  He could just as easily state that Southbrook is the “only” biodynamic winery in Canada, but he chooses his words carefully, hoping to encourage others to join him.  And it seems that his efforts are working.  Organic wines are one of the fastest growing Ontario segments at the LCBO.

Southbrook is committed to helping to answer the eternal question of environmentally and socially conscious consumers: Local or Organic?  Southbrook’s answer: “Why not both?”  Southbrook’s wines are made with Ontario certified organic fruit (some are even certified biodynamic), with closures and labels produced in Ontario, and bottles produced from recycled glass from the Ontario Bag-it-Back’ program. As Redelmeier explained, for a $15 Ontario bottle of wine purchased at the LCBO, $11.80 stays in Ontario, whereas only $0.50 stays in Ontario for a $15 imported bottle of wine. This is the kind of information that Redelmeier believes people must have so that they can make informed decisions.

…for a $15 Ontario bottle of wine purchased at the LCBO, $11.80 stays in Ontario, whereas only $0.50 stays in Ontario for a $15 imported bottle of wine.”

Explaining that land can’t be exported and agriculture is “the most sustainable business of all,” Redelmeier offered the TSSS audience another agricultural example.  He asked everyone in the room if they buy canned peaches.  Only one hand was raised.  He proceeded to explain that while Ontario used to produce significant quantities of canned peaches, this is no longer the case.  And many people are very upset over the loss of this farmland to other uses such as housing.  But, he asked, how can we expect farmers to maintain land use for crops if we as consumers either don’t or won’t buy? He took the audience on a nostalgic trip back to a time when fresh fruit could only be consumed “in season” – when summer’s start was announced by strawberries and the last sweet corn signalled the end of that season. He doesn’t believe that Ontario’s farmland can be saved through laws and regulations, but rather it must be saved by a shift in people’s actions and choices.  And he is optimistic that we can and will see such a shift, as we have seen in such things as impaired driving and smoking in restaurants.  Social change is possible, once people have the facts and decide to make choices for their own benefit, and that of those around them.

open spaces learning logo

After Redelmeier’s presentation, Leslie Bennett and Heather Shapter of Open Spaces Learning facilitated a dynamic breakout session for attendees.  In small groups, participants explored resistance to sustainability ideas within their organizations and how corporate culture can contribute to either the success or failure of a sustainability strategy. Groups explored ideas such as developing an inclusive sustainability narrative with a carefully chosen vocabulary so that language unites rather than divides stakeholders.  Additionally, the importance of not becoming complacent after achieving simple sustainability wins (e.g. double sided printing, recycling) was emphasized; discussion focused on exploring not only incremental change but also embracing transformative change through a corporate culture of inclusion and sustainability.

Bill Redelmeier is a man with a vision for his company, his industry, and the wider agricultural sector.  He understands the power of passionate leadership, long-term vision, and conscious decision making from both business and consumers. His vision has driven Southbrook’s success and continues to drive change throughout the Ontario winery industry.  As he explains, “What we’re trying to do at Southbrook is prove what’s possible.”

  • PeterBurgess

    I have a variant on Bill Redelmeier’s opening ‘I hate the word sustainability’ … I hate conversation about sustainability that has no numbers about anything in sustainability that matters. In my view we need to start putting numbers around things that matter.

    As a resident of North America, I am part of a society that emits more than 16 tons of carbon pollutant per person per year. This compares with an average of around 8 in Europe and just about 6 in France.

    It my be better to buy French wine because the wine is made in a more carbon efficient economy, but then getting it to North America has high carbon transport. How much I don’t know but I will be finding out.

    The local winery employs local people. Local people get wages that are used in the local community. Wages is a cost to the business but wages are the life-blood of the local community. This is a critical part of a healthy society, and of course missing in business profit accounting metrics.

    I can go on … but you get the idea!

    Peter Burgess – TrueValueMetrics
    Multi Dimension Impact Accounting