TRAVERSE CITY — A soft mechanical whirr fills the air at Shady Lane Cellars' winery.
"Listen," said Adam Satchwell, Shady Lane winemaker and general manager. "What you hear? That's energy."
Satchwell leans against a wine barrel inside the winery. He faces a row of large, metal tanks that are cold to the touch. The temperature of the wine inside the tanks is carefully controlled. The tanks stay cold thanks to two chilling units, the source of the whirr and nearly constant energy use.
Satchwell is part of a committee exploring ways Michigan wineries could become more environmentally sustainable, a goal he considers valuable.
"There are different ways you can go through life," he said. "You can do it day-to-day, or you can be responsible. I like the responsible route."
The USDA awarded the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council $75,000 to look into putting together a program that would help guide state vintners and winemakers toward more environmentally friendly practices. Other wine regions have such programs, in which vintners and winemakers earn certifications for following environmental guidelines.
But the state's wine industry must support an environmental certification program before one can be created.
"This is not something that's possible without the industry," said Cam Brown, a consultant for 5 Lakes Energy. "There's the possibility they'll look at this and say 'we're not ready.'"
Brown is leading the project. He said a certification program likely would have guidelines for all steps of the wine-making process to help conserve soil and minimize pesticide, energy and water use.
Erwin ‘Duke’ Elsner, a small fruit educator with the Michigan State University Extension, said all businesses have environmental costs, not just wineries. This project could show the Michigan wine industry what changes could be made to save money and protect natural resources.
A program would have to have realistic and cost-effective guidelines, Satchwell said.
"If it doesn't work from a practical viewpoint, then it doesn't work," he said. "We have to live with it, we have to manage it, and if you can't do those things then there's no reality in the program."
Reducing Michigan wine's environmental footprint could reduce the cost of making it and help area wineries snag environment-conscious customers, too. Brown said those customers represent a growing consumer market.
Even raising awareness of environmental sustainability is helpful for the industry, said Robin Usborne, owner of East of Eden Vineyard in Beulah. Usborne wants to see the program address financial sustainability as well as environmental sustainability.
"This is a good way for us to be thinking about it," she said. "If we don’t do anything else, this is at least going to get it out there in our awareness. These are some things we need to be doing down the road that may be helpful to keep our industry growing."
Brown expects to finish his work in August. The council would then need to seek additional grants to design a program if Michigan vintners and winemakers support the effort.
Elsner considers the effort a worthy one.
"An industry that doesn’t try to move itself forward in one way or another isn’t going to make much progress on other things, either," he said. "It’s all part of the picture of being a responsible community, partner and industry that works in agricultural area."