Making Sustainability Part of the DNA with Francis Ford Coppola Winery’s Lise Asimont

September 5, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re honored to have with us today Lise Asimont. She’s the Director of Grower Relations at the Francis Ford Coppola Winery. Welcome to Green is Good, Lise. LISE ASIMONT: Hello. Thank you so much for having me on. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, Lise, you’re doing just wonderful things in sustainability at the Francis Ford Coppola Winery, but before we get into speaking about those things you’re doing there, I want you to share with our listeners please the Lisa Asimont story, the journey leading up to becoming the Director of Grower Relations. How did that journey go and how did you end up there? LISE ASIMONT: Well, thank you so much, and it’s an interesting journey, actually. I am what you call a viticulturist, which is a $2 term for someone who cultivates wine grapes. That’s my study and I come from a long line of people who have nothing to do with wine or growing grapes or agriculture for that matter and I’m a farmer so basically, I didn’t want to be a doctor like my folks. My mother is from the Philippines. My dad is a third-generation American, but his family’s French and everyone is in the medical field and I really enjoyed science. I still enjoy science. I consider myself a scientist and I had the pleasure of trying to be a pre med student and part of the way through that, I had what I like to call a pre med student nervous breakdown and I called my mom and dad and said I didn’t want to go to med school and they said great because they didn’t have to support a kid to go through med school and they could retire early. Everyone was happy. They threw a party when I got home and my dad took me aside and that French heritage, it’s pretty strong and he said what are you gonna do? And, I said I’d like to get my undergraduate degree in anthropology or biological anthropology and he goes, okay, so what are you gonna do? And, I said well, I don’t know and he said you’ve drunk wine your whole like, it’s a part of our family lifestyle, we consider it a food at home and why don’t you check that out? And, I did and I ended up going to UC – Davis, got my master’s in viticulture, studied with some amazing people, and fell in love more with the farming of the wine grapes than with the winemaking because my whole life I’ve been a very outdoorsy person, grew up snow skiing and grew up in the mountains of Lake Arrowhead, California, where sustainability is exceptionally important to us there and preserving the beautiful environment that we have there and the beautiful blue lakes that we have and so it all kind of fit in together really well and eight years ago, I had the great honor and pleasure of being invited to join the Francis Ford Coppola winemaking team and ever since then, it’s just been an amazing, amazing journey and I gotta tell you, working for a company that cares so much about its employees it treats us like family and really sees the world in a different way than any other wine company I know of has been wonderful. They don’t clip your wings. They put your wings on and say go for it and it’s truly an amazing team environment. I’m very grateful to the Coppola family for that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is just wonderful, and you are the Director of Grower Relations there, right? LISE ASIMONT: Yes, and basically, grower relations is a part of the viticulture field where in the California wine industry, we are the viticulturists that work on behalf of the winery. We’re employed by the winery and our main job is to make sure that the relationships between the wine grape growers of California and the wineries is a successful and sustainable one for that matter and we are basically the consulting viticulturists on behalf of the winery to make sure that the level of quality and style of wines that we produce start in the vineyard so another way to kind of look at me is I’m the farming winemaker. I’m the winemaker of the field. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is just wonderful and I’m on your website now and for our listeners who want to follow along as we visit with Lise today, you can go to FrancisFordCoppolaWinery.com. I’m on the site now. It’s a visually gorgeous site. It just like invited you in. I feel like I want to walk into the winery just by being on the site so it’s just really special so tell our listeners and share with our listeners a little bit about the winery itself and give us a little bit of a visual tour of how it’s to be at the winery. LISE ASIMONT: Well, I alluded to it a second ago, where I said working for the Coppola family and working for the Francis Ford Coppola Winery, we’re individuals. We’re run by an artist. Francis Ford Coppola himself is truly an artist at heart, and family is the most important thing to this man so when you go to our winery and you look on the winery website, which is extremely beautiful and props to our web team and our website designers there who are artists themselves, it is unlike any winery you will ever go to in your life. I think the first thing you notice is that there’s swimming pools and what do swimming pools have to do with a winery and wine and all these things? Basically, our winery is a destination. It is a Sonoma County wine visiting center gem where basically, the Coppola family want you to come to our winery and spend the day. Bring your family. It’s not just for adults only. We have cabins that are for rent for the day and you can change in a cabin, lay down in a chaise lounge, enjoy some poolside service. The kids can swim. There’s lifeguards. We have a beautiful pavilion where we actually have local theater and musical performances. It’s truly an amazing place. We have two restaurants on site. One is our seasonal grill that supports our park, our pool area and the other one is Rustic, which is Francis’ favorite, which is a restaurant there and that is also very unusual. Rustic actually has its own garden so it supplies as much of our produce as possible for our cuisine. It’s a pretty amazing place too. You’d really dig Rustic, too. It’s really neat. They’ve actually structured all of their restaurant waste. All of the restaurant oil goes to a company that produces toiletries and soaps and they’re very beautiful, very high end, very nice bath soaps and lotions and such and all of our other waste is also composted. It’s a really neat restaurant. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wait a second, so really, what you’re sharing is not only is this a very family-oriented place to work and to the wine and the winemaking and food experience, but the Coppolas themselves are really into sustainability. This is a DNA and a culture thing so share with our listeners what was the epiphany or the tipping point or the catalyst, for that matter, for them to be so into making sustainability part of the culture and the DNA of your great winery? LISE ASIMONT: Well, you know, it’s from the top down. The Coppolas themselves, like I said earlier, family is everything to them and they love their family so much, their children and the grandchildren, and their main residence is about an hour from our winery, which is in Sonoma County located in Geyserville. It’s about an hour and a half north of San Francisco but their main residence is located on the Inglenook Estate and it was so important to them that their grandchildren could run free at this beautiful estate and never have to worry about chemicals. It’s a very reasonable thing. You know, you love your kids. You love your grandkids. You want them to run on the lawn and not worry about anything and that’s kind of where it sort of started. That was the seed. Their resorts, the Coppola family and Francis Ford Coppola Presents owns resorts. The first ones were in Belize, and in Belize these resorts actually have water-based energy sources, which is extraordinary and it was revolutionary at the time when the resorts were founded and created and engineered and outside of that too, first and foremost, it’s beautiful at the resort. It’s a beautiful place to come to. Hospitality is first and foremost when you go to our winery. We want you to feel like family, but we are a fully functioning winery. That’s what we are first and foremost and when you’re a winery, there’s a lot of practicality involved with waste management. You know, with wineries, we have pomace, which is when we crush the grapes, we have leftover pomace and what do you do with all those skins and seeds and leftovers from the fermentation? We have packaging and cardboard and what do we do with that? All of these things and out of sheer practicality and it wasn’t necessarily an environmental claim but just a practical what is the best way to manage our waste and the same regards, make that a sustainable situation for us? And that basically came to we compost all of our pomace, which is great, and then we use that pomace back in the vineyards. There’s 25 acres there and another 40 acres up the road from there that we use that to add basically a green manure back into our fields. All of our winery wastewater is actually recycled and that’s the water source that we use to irrigate all of our vineyards at the Francis Ford Coppola Winery Estate Vineyard so it’s a completely sustainable system and all of our packaging and compost for that, of course, is recycled. That was extremely easy but a lot of that kind of came from this seed of we love our family, we love our grandkids, and let’s do the best we can and it translated all the way down to well, you know what, I’m gonna turn the water on in the vineyard and it’s coming from recycled wastewater that we just washed a tank out with. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is just great. So, it’s through and through part of your DNA at the Francis Ford Coppola Winery so for our listeners out there who just joined us, we’ve got Lise Asimont on. She’s the Director of Grower Relations at Francis Ford Coppola Winery. You can learn more about them and all of Lise’s great work at FrancisFordCoppolaWinery.com. One question for you: We are one of the media sponsors and partners with the Green Festivals. How did your winery become part of The Green Festival? LISE ASIMONT: Well, you know, our team — and this is a lot of credit to basically our executive team here — but they learned about the festival and they really felt it was completely aligned with the Coppolas’ personal initiatives. It’s exactly what they were looking for. It’s such an easy partnership. It’s such an organic partnership with us with regards to every part of it makes sense and we’re really looking forward to the festival events this fall. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, will your wine be available for tasting at those festivals? LISE ASIMONT: I believe it is, and it’s very exciting to bring that to that festival and share, basically, a very exciting way to experience sustainability and practice to be able to literally put in your mouth and taste it and we’re very proud of our wine and it’s, again, to support the rest of our winery and I think there’s nobody way to drive a point home than do that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You’re not kidding. Let’s go back to sustainability and all the great things you’re doing. Talk about certifications. In every industry, there’s certain types of good housekeeping seals of approval and other types of certifications. What types of certifications do you have at the Francis Ford Coppola Winery? LISE ASIMONT: Well, we take our certifications very, very seriously and we’re very proud of it because it is a part of our DNA and it is a part of our heart and at this point in time, it’s a big source of pride for us to state that both the facility so the winemaking facility and our vineyards that surround the winery as well, are certified sustainable. I know that doesn’t sound like much perhaps to your listeners, of course. What’s the big deal about that? But up until about three years ago, there was actually no certification or third party certification available for sustainable practices in our industry and we have signed on with California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance and through a lot of hard work were able to have both our winery and our vineyards certified sustainable. We’re incredibly proud of that. Outside of that, there are quite a few certifications that we have that are also to our close to our heart directly. One of them is fish friendly farming. Very proud of that. That was started in, I believe, 1999 by Laura Marcus. It’s an entity over actually Napa County, which is one county over from us, about an hour’s drive, and fish friendly farming is a beautiful certification basically because for one reason selfishly. I’m a fly fisherman and my kids and my family, we live in that area as well and being stewards of the land tends to be an easy term that people tend to say but fish friendly farming takes it one step further where we’re not stewards of the land. We’re improving the environment and that’s huge. We are basically protecting the river, which for our watershed is the Russian River, which flows through Sonoma County and out into the Pacific Ocean and basically, fish-friendly farming are practices that protect the endangered salmon and steelhead trout, which are extremely important to us. What that means in practice for me at the vineyard as a viticulturist is that during a rain event, every single drop of water that leaves the vineyard is clear and that basically means that we’re conserving all of our soil and everything we can to make that we’re protecting those salmon and steelhead habitats and for me, that’s big and you know, my hat’s off to Fish Friendly Farming. It’s a wonderful organization to work with and we’re very proud of that certification and beyond that, we’re hobby beekeepers and European Honeybee is extremely important to us, especially in lieu of Colony Collapse Disorder that’s taking away so much from our food chain. I don’t know if you know this, John, but one-third of every bit of food that omnivores like ourselves take is the product of colonization and taking care of those bees is extremely important to us and all of the wasp species that are extremely important to us in agriculture so we are also Bee Friendly Farming certified as well. JOHN SHEGERIAN: It’s so interesting, Lise. On the top of the show, our first guest today was Cheryl Dahle, who is the Executive Director of Future of Fish, so we were talking about fish-friendly farming and the Future of Fish and the transparency and tracking of fish just on today’s show and we are gonna cover the issue of bees and the importance of bees in future shows. It’s not a subject we’ve covered, yet but it is one so important and I’m so glad you brought that up. We’re down to the last four minutes or so, and I want you to cover over back at the winery, the green team, what does the green team do and what are some of your initiatives there? LISE ASIMONT: Well, the green team is a voluntary group of our employees that meet regularly to implement sustainable and green practices at our business while also improving the moral and quality of life at the winery. It’s a really neat group. It’s beyond just being “green.” It’s really enforcing the sustainability aspect, which much of sustainability in our mind and our philosophical take on it has to do with the individual as their sustainability within the moral complex of a group so the green team, they do everything from they just recently did an initiative on if you carpool with any of our employees back into the winery, come to work, do a carpool, you record it. There’s initiatives if you record that. There’s prizes, there’s drawings, and there’s this wonderful good morale that’s associated with hey, get together with your friend at work, carpool in, get less cars on the road. The green team gave us all water bottles one year so we would eliminate the excessive plastic packaging at the winery so we all have our Coppola issued water bottles now, which is great, and there’s tons of fresh water everywhere to refill up your water bottle so we’re eliminating plastic use. They host an annual health fair. At the annual health fair, it’s everything from measuring your blood pressure and your current status of health to having several booths available with green vendors in the area to further educate our employees on how we can be greater ambassadors of sustainability in our own community and in our own homes. It’s a really neat group of people. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow, and talk a little bit about your grape growers. You have a partnership with about 150 grape growers and talk a little bit about sustainability and how you work with them in terms of making sure they’re all staying sustainable and things of that such. LISE ASIMONT: Well, the nice thing for me is for those 150 growers across the state of California, I don’t actually have to make sure that they stay sustainable. They do it themselves so it’s pretty impressive. Based on the region, grape growers, they’re farmers and they care for the land no matter what so one region that we source from in low dye, they started their own certified sustainable program about five years before California Sustainable existed so they have low dye rules. Central coast growers have the Central Coast Vit Team. They created that right about the same time as low dye and at this point in time, I’m proud to report that Sonoma County Winegrape Association just this year in 2014 has stated that they are aiming as a goal to have 100 certified sustainable for all of their wine growers in the region of Sonoma County by 2015. It’s really impressive so my job’s pretty easy. I’m learning more from them than I’m telling them to do it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Any final thoughts? We’re down to the last minute. Any final thoughts, Lise, before we have to sign off for today? LISE ASIMONT: Well, you know, on behalf of the Francis Ford Coppola Winery, I just really appreciate this chance to come talk to you today and I’m so impressed with the work that you do in getting the good work out there. I love your programming. I think it’s so important and valuable and pertinent, and thank you so much for having us. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, Lise, we think your work is so important as well and we’re so excited for the work you’re doing as are your colleagues at the Francis Ford Coppola Winery. To learn more about that work, please go to FrancisFordCoppolaWinery.com and enjoy their wines responsibly. To taste their wines at the Green Festivals, it’s in Los Angeles September 12th through the 14th, Chicago October 24th to the 26th and in San Francisco November 14th through the 16th at the Green Festivals. You can find your great wines there. Thank you, Lise, for being a viticulturist and sustainability leader and superstar. You are truly living proof that green is good.