As a lifelong Manhattanite who spends every harvest season in Santa Barbara County to make wine, Alexander Katz is keenly aware of his travel schedule.
“Our picks for pinot kept backing up and up,” said Katz, who co-owned the brand Timbre Winery (formerly La Fenêtre) with his good friend Joshua Klapper from 2010 to 2019. “That was very apparent for me, because I’m scheduling my harvest trip, and every year it’s getting earlier and earlier. It’s making this connection in my mind: What’s going on here?”
Even mentors like Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen and Qupé founder Bob Lindquist, who’ve been making wine for four decades, were perplexed by how the wild and warming effects of climate change affected grape development. “This is not a normal thing,” said Katz. “This is not something they’ve seen before.”
After spending nearly a decade making and selling fine wine the traditional way — packaged in heavy glass bottles that are trucked to retailers and restaurants, adding three pounds of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere per bottle — Katz thought it was time for the wine industry to take a smarter tack.
“I was just starting to think about the impact of climate change on the industry and impact of the industry on the climate,” said Katz. “To ignore the fact that we have an impact on the climate when we 100 percent depend on the climate and environment seemed crazy to me. There’s a major shift happening, and it didn’t seem like people were paying attention or doing much about that.”
So after years of plotting, Katz parted ways with Klapper to start Protector Cellars, which he is positioning to be the world’s first “climate-positive” winery. “Carbon neutral didn’t feel like enough,” said Katz. “Getting to zero is not enough impact. We have to reverse the damage we’ve already done.”
Last spring, Katz released his first three wines, mostly from Paso Robles fruit, but processed at Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria: a white made from sauvignon blanc and a little viognier; a rosé, with a splash of sauvignon blanc; and a red, mostly cabernet sauvignon. The grapes come from certified sustainable vineyards — about 40 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions caused by a bottle of wine come from conventionally farmed vines — and all three come in sleek and lightweight 250mL cans (a third of a bottle), adorned with climate-focused art.
Unlike many canned options on the market, Protector’s aren’t just a trendy or bargain plonk play — the wines are fresh, textural, and clean in flavor, quite a counterpoint to the competition. They cost between $5 and $7 depending on quantity ordered, and a tree is planted for each can purchased, thanks to a partnership with Trees for the Future.
The shift away from bottles was the most critical move. “It became pretty clear pretty quickly that the glass bottle was the biggest offender,” said Katz, surprised to learn that 50 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions per bottle come from the production of that bottle alone.
He investigated the available options, such as bags and a still emerging fiber market (check out this beer bottle from Carlsberg), and found cans to be the best choice right now, as they do not seem to impact wine flavor. “My background is in making high-quality wines, so it was paramount that whatever packaging I used was not something that would have a negative impact on the wine,” he said.
But he is ready to shift to something better than cans when that’s available. “I don’t actually see it as a canned wine brand,” he said. “The fact that it’s in a can right now is because, at the moment, that’s the best ecological option for packaging. But I don’t see that as the endgame.”
And he readily admits that the bottle is still the right option for more expensive wines. “If I was making a wine that should be aged five to 10 years, I would still put it in glass — there’s no question for me,” said Katz. But given that the vast majority of wines are drunk within a week of purchase — some say as many as 90 percent — there’s plenty of room for alternative packaging. “The way we drink wine, and the way most wineries in California are making wine, is for immediate consumption,” he said.
Katz got into wine while studying at Cornell University but worked on the financial side of the magazine industry as journalism went through its own crisis in the mid-2000s. When Klapper — who’d been his best friend since their freshman year of high school in New York City — invited Katz to be part of the La Fenêtre launch, the timing was right. After working his first harvest at Au Bon Climat in 2010, Katz began coming to Santa Barbara for about four months every year.
He and Klapper parted ways so that Katz could start Protector in 2019, but they still work side by side.
Canning his first vintage of Protector Cellars in March 2020 as the lockdown landed was not ideal, and Katz could not return to Santa Barbara until October. “That was the longest time I’d been away from the winery in 10 years,” he said. It’s also been a tepid time to launch a brand that will depend on retail to survive, but Katz knows the market is there. “There are a lot of people out there who care about the environment and like wine,” he said. “There’s plenty of people who would like to have this wine if they knew about it.”
Whether the industry takes notice and makes meaningful changes is more of a question. “I know what it’s like to be a small producer, when it’s hard to see more than 10 feet in front of you,” said Katz. “There’s always some kind of emergency. It’s hard to have long-term planning.”
He appreciates that there is a lot of conversation now about how to survive through climate change, like planting in higher elevations or shifting to more heat-resistant varieties, such as planting mourvèdre in Burgundy.
“That makes sense, but it’s also missing the underlying issue,” said Katz. “You can only move so high in elevation. There are only so many heat-resistant varieties. At some point you have to address the problem, and I didn’t see that happening. I felt like there was an opportunity for me to step in and at least start the conversation.”
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