Recently, Jancis Robinson ran a competition on her website for wine writers articles on “Sustainable” vineyards. This is the feature on Mehofer and Stefan Mehofer, the young winemaker whom I have been working with for over 10 years now, importing their unique and beautifully created wines.
‘My name is Helena Jordan and I am 28 years old. I am from Austria, been trained as a sommelier in Vienna and have been working in the restaurant business for almost 10 years now. After some stations in Switzerland, Spain and the US I am currently working in Norway. I have been writing blogs on the side and also translated a couple of winemakers’ websites from German to English. My position at the moment could be easiest described as Consultant and Project Assistant for a seasonal company on Stokkøya called Stokkøy Strandbaren and Bygda 2.0. Sustainability has been a big part of my project work here for a small bakery, so this was a perfect match. I will be going back to restaurant work after the summer though, moving back to Vienna and working for Juan Amador as a Restaurant Manager Assistant.’ With her (unedited) entry to our writing competition, Helena takes us to a tiny family winery in Wagram, Austria. See this guide to the entries so far published.
In recent years we have seen a couple of positive changes when it comes to awareness of customers. Awareness and interest where their food or wine is coming from, if it’s good for their body, healthy and additionally environmentally friendly. Many industries are now trying to meet the need for this new market, the new aware generation of customers. And they are good customers. Happy to spend a little more money. Happy to stay faithful to a product they enjoy and believe in.
Hence, sustainability sells! Now when something sells, all the marketing managers of the world will not shut up about how important this or that trigger word is for their brand, their company. You know that thing that you want to hear. Was it organic? Yes, we do that. Sustainable? Sure! Let’s ask my friend Wikipedia here, to explain this more clearly. It says greenwashing is a form of marketing spin in which green PR and green marketing are deceptively used to persuade the public that an organization’s products, aims and policies are environmentally friendly and therefore ‘better’.
Why do I point that out? Because the true heroes of sustainability are the ones that cared about our planet and the environment long before it was hip to do so. Because – not only but very much so in the wine industry – greenwashing is starting to become – let’s face it – very common.
And this is where I want to ask Stephan Mehofer to join me on stage here. He is a shy guy, so I have to drag him in front of the heavy silk curtain into the spotlight for once. It’s not going to hurt, Stephan!
Let me tell you about Mehofer Neudeggerhof, a family winery in Wagram, Austria which is run by humble Stephan here, with the help from two full time local vineyard employees, one full time office employee, two to five seasonal vineyard workers and his sister Judith who is working on export markets, marketing and strategy. Together they work 23 ha vineyards in and around Neudegg. The winery has been in the family for ten generations and still uses the same house, cellar and vineyards like their forefathers. And like their forefather before, they think sustainability small. Small, like in family but also including direct community. The heating system that is 100% based on wooden chips produced from their own forest on the local mountain, heats not only the winery and their private home but also their direct neighbor’s house. Their own solar and photovoltaic systems combined produce a third of the energy the whole winery and private house needs. The plan is to be self-sufficient by 2022.
‘Sustainability is thinking in generations.’ Stephan said one time. So together with his family, he is making conscious decisions for the sake of his son Simon and all of his – many – nieces and nephews. They are between one and a half and nine years old and couldn’t care less about water usage or solar panels. Still, their future is his motivation. In the strong belief that his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents thought the same way about him back then. Talking about youth and the generation from tomorrow: never underestimate the power of education. The family made it a goal for themselves to educate people around them about the special environment in and around Neudegg. Reaching tourists and day guests through an interactive educational exhibition that is paired with art; but also, being part of different research projects together with the ‘Federal College and Institute for Viticulture and Pomology’. Lately Slow Food acknowledged their and their regions efforts to work on the local indigenous grape variety Roter Veltliner. The Slow Food Presidio Roter Veltliner Donauterrassen is now an official community that works together emphasizing and researching this old grape variety.
Certified organic since 1992, the family already have had some time to find their way in this complicated organic/sustainable/bio-dynamic wine world. ‘We chose to not put our efforts into satisfying different manifestos in order to get more certifications. We much rather find our own way, choose what we believe is necessary to be sustainable for our region and our winery’, Stephan tells me. ‘The question here again is: who are we really doing it for? Working sustainably that is. It is so obvious; I don’t even want to put a sticker on it.’
Additionally, to obvious choices like sustainable energy, thoughtful water usage and recyclable packaging material, a lot of thoughts go into the vineyard work. The vineyards on the beautiful terraces of the Wagram region go without irrigation all year and in summer everything around the grapevines blooms. A walk through the vineyards is almost like a walk in the park. Just with more wildflowers. And maybe more insects. Actually, the carefully selected seed mix for the cover crops is intending exactly that: different root lengths of plants to aerate the soil naturally and a mix of early and late blooming flowers to have as many insects living in the vineyard as possible. They love insects so much, they found it is better to roll or press the cover crop instead of cutting it. ‘When you cut or mulch the grass you lose 80% of the insect population’, Stephan explains to me. ‘Additionally, with rolling you save the floor from evaporation, meaning you keep the soil nice and moist and don’t expose it to the sun.’
Sustainability. What a word. It might seem clear in the beginning but when you take a closer look, it’s pretty complicated and hard to understand. It means different things to different people, at different places. It means leaving a safe and healthy world for future generations for Stephan and his family. ‘Sustainability is thinking in generations’ might be my favourite definition of the word and I wish more people would live after it.