At first sight, rugged outdoor apparel and wine isn’t the most obvious of connections, but the core values of the clothing company Patagonia – build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, protect nature and be bound by no convention – are infinitely transferable. So when Yvon Chouinard, who founded Patagonia in 1973, approached Birgit Cameron ten years ago with the idea of setting up a food company, she was immediately interested.
‘The question Yvon put was, “What would a food company look like for Patagonia?”’ says Cameron over Zoom and from her company’s base in Sausalito, California. ‘That was the challenge, so I wrote the business plan and we started to progress it together, fleshing out the direction.’
The idea was to take the best ideas and core elements of Patagonia as a whole, and apply that to the food industry, says Cameron – whose background is in food startups in the US. So the food arm of Patagonia was born.
Patagonia Provisions started small, with a product aimed at the outdoors market: packs of smoked sockeye salmon jerky from sustainably harvested, fully mature fish. From there it has grown (at a rate of 40 to 50 percent year-on-year – they don’t publish any other figures) to encompass every type of food from buffalo jerky to organic pasta, Spanish anchovies, baby food, condiments and breakfast grains; there are some 50 lines.
From the start, Cameron says, ‘We have positioned ourselves to be “everyday, everywhere” food. That’s the most important thing: high-quality nutrition that is delicious, and that is good for the planet.’
The wine and beverage programme was launched at the end of 2021. The eclectic group of producers – from sake to cider to wine – is chosen according to each one’s environmental credentials. Patagonia’s Dogfish Head beer (launched in 2016), for example, is made from kernza wheat, a perennial strain which minimizes the need to plough, and so preserves topsoils.
Regenerative agriculture is key to Patagonia’s approach
Regenerative agriculture – a term that was first coined some 50 years ago but that has recently come back into fashion – is key to Patagonia’s approach. This system could be described as taking sustainability a couple of steps further along: while sustainable agriculture is about maintaining a level of health in the land, regenerative farming focusses on giving back, increasing the amount of nutrients in the soil. Wine scientist Jamie Goode, whose book Regenerative Viticulture has just been published, describes it as using ‘a toolkit of approaches to improve soil life, in order to get the soil working again and reducing the need for inputs’.
In setting up Patagonia Provisions, Cameron and Chouinard felt that ‘covering a number of categories was important to help the movement for change – we wanted to touch a lot of areas, wine being one of them.’
The six wines are eclectic: Château de Béru Chablis, two wines from Austria’s Meinklang estate (the second biggest biodynamic farm in the world, according to Cameron), a wine from the hybrid grape marquette from New York’s Hudson Valley, and a rosé and a nerello mascalese from Frank Cornelissen’s Sicily estate on the northern slopes of Mount Etna.
Cornelissen’s approach to farming, as set out on his website, encapsulates the Patagonia ethos: ‘avoiding all treatments on the land we cultivate, whether homeopathic, organic or biodynamic. Accepting and following nature is our guideline…’
‘I was very pleased they reached out to me,’ Cornelissen tells cluboenologique.com. ‘I love their stuff and their philosophy. The project is well worthwhile.’
The wine industry has been a little slow to adopt innovative and climate-friendly practices on a large scale
Cameron is taking part in Green Wine Future 2022, and in her podcast interview with the conference’s organiser David Furer and US journalist Elin McCoy, she sets out the aims of the Patagonia project. While ‘it’s important to show you can make a profit by doing good,’ according to Cameron, education is key. ‘We see ourselves as a centre for innovation, working with farmers and fishers and herders, using science as a compass for what we should do. It’s part of the whole Provisions goal to showcase a better path forward.’
She also makes clear that the wine industry has something to learn. ‘It’s been a little slow to adopt innovative and climate-friendly practices on a large scale. So it’s a part of that portfolio of stories, to look for better paths…adopt practices that are better for the planet and community.’
What of the future? Patagonia Provisions launches a new beverages line in autumn 2022, but Cameron is giving little away (she points out that the wine project has been running only six months). ‘We have no plans to set up a winery – but you never know,’ she tells McCoy.
She is slightly more forthcoming about plans for a whisky, though. ‘Let’s just say it’s in a good place in our minds. We’ve had much demand.’