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How Green is Our Valley: Efforts in Sustainability
— Napa, Sonoma, & Marin


There is no better example of sustainability — that is, the balancing of people’s needs, the planet’s needs, and profits — than the beautiful Zen garden spa retreat named Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary. Situated on what was once a junkyard, Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary opened in 1985 in Freestone, a tiny town nestled among the golden hills of western Sonoma County. Ever since, owner Michael Stusser has been shaping his heartfelt vision for a sustainable wellness retreat. Some 30 years later, his attentive ministrations are manifest: Osmosis is a magical place of peace, beauty, mindfulness and connection.


by Lori Warner


There is no better example of sustainability — that is, the balancing of people’s needs, the planet’s needs, and profits — than the beautiful Zen garden spa retreat named Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary. Situated on what was once a junkyard, Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary opened in 1985 in Freestone, a tiny town nestled among the golden hills of western Sonoma County. Ever since, owner Michael Stusser has been shaping his heartfelt vision for a sustainable wellness retreat. Some 30 years later, his attentive ministrations are manifest: Osmosis is a magical place of peace, beauty, mindfulness and connection.

From the beginning, Osmosis’ raison d’être has been the signature Cedar Enzyme Bath, a relaxing and restorative heat-based body treatment that Stusser discovered while studying in Japan in the early 1980s. Osmosis is the only U.S. day spa to offer the treatment, which uses the heat from natural fermentation of a finely ground cedar mixture to warm, de-stress, detoxify, activate and purify the body. The spa’s eco-friendly mindset is also apparent in its exclusive use of organic and nontoxic products for massages, facials and skin care treatments. The Osmosis experience goes well beyond spa services, as guests are encouraged to bask in the healing energy of serene Japanese-style gardens conceived and created by renowned Japanese garden expert, and Stusser’s friend, Robert Ketchell of England. The Kyoto-style meditation garden instills deep peace and invites contemplation. Stusser views the gardens as a place for wellness and transformation, a natural extension to the spa offerings.

The beauty of Osmosis is not just skin-deep. Stusser has incorporated many behind-the-scenes green initiatives in day-to-day operations. For example, the spa uses solar-heated hot water and has a facility- wide carbon-filtration system that removes chlorine from all water streams. One small change with far- reaching implications was the decision to stop providing bottled water, an idea that is catching on globally. Since Americans consume 50 billion bottles of water annually, the waste reduction potential is remarkable. At Osmosis, both purified water and its signature metabolic tea are served in ceramic cups, which also reduces paper cup waste.

One of Osmosis’ most impressive green projects is in water conservation. The spa saves nearly 1,000 gallons of water a day with a plumbed system that captures grey water from showers and sinks, and then flows it into constructed wetlands on the property. There, the inflow is naturally filtered by wetland plants and biological organisms before being pumped to an underground irrigation system used to water the gardens.

Sustainability is predicated on continuous improvement, so Osmosis has new projects in the works as well. They include upgrading its composting system and expanding community outreach and engagement. Long-term, Osmosis envisions having organic gardens and orchards substantial enough to supply fresh, wholesome vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers to the business.

Stusser’s green leanings and environmental commitment reach far beyond Sonoma County and the peaceful retreat that is Osmosis. He is, in fact, a founding member of Green Spa Network (GSN), a multinational nonprofit trade association formed in 2002 to educate and guide the spa industry in adopting sustainable practices. Officially incorporated in 2007 out of Stusser’s tiny office in Occidental, GSN began with twelve North American “seed spas” selected by Stusser to provide leadership and financial resources. In little more than a decade, GSN has grown to more than 1,400 members who are committed to promoting green practices in the wellness industry. For more than ten years, GSN has generated educational materials, assessment tools and resources for its members, and has promoted sustainability throughout the spa world.


And more is in store from GSN, Stusser reports. At this year’s annual congress, GSN made an important commitment to shift from education to active measures that produce tangible results. GSN’s inaugural “Action Initiative” is to mobilize the GSN community to plant one million trees by Earth Day 2019. The project was conceived in response to the critical, urgent need to regenerate the earth and reverse climate change. More and more, active regeneration, not just sustainability, is being recognized as a necessity if the planet is to regain its health. Regenerative measures are aimed at correcting the damage already done to soils, forests, watercourses and the atmosphere rather than simply sustaining those resources in an increasingly degraded condition. At its heart, regeneration means developing a restorative relationship between humankind and the ecosystems which support us.

To implement its first Action Initiative, GSN has partnered with WeForest to plant those one million trees. WeForest is a science-based international nonprofit in Belgium, France and the United States that specializes in sustainable reforestation projects to control global warming. According to WeForest, healthy, growing forests are the best known “technology” for removing excess carbon dioxide from the air and thereby cool global temperatures. In Stusser’s words, planting the right kind of trees in the right places can have a measurable effect on the earth’s temperature.

The GSN project will support tree planting in the Mata Atlantic in Brazil, one of the world’s top five “biodiversity hotspots,” whose rainforests have been decimated by decades of clearcutting and deforestation. (A biodiversity hotspot is a geographical area that is both biologically rich and deeply threatened. To be a biodiversity hotspot, in fact, the area has to contain at least 1,500 unique vascular plant species and must have lost more than 70 percent of its natural vegetation.) Because conservation efforts in biodiversity hotspots can have an enormous impact on global biodiversity, initiatives like GSN’s “million trees” project directly impact and help regenerate the health of the environment. That is something to be excited about.


From celebrant of the first Earth Day in 1970 to present-day green spa owner and regeneration advocate, Stusser has epitomized deep and abiding respect for nature and a clean environment. Stusser’s story, while unique in its details, might be viewed more generally as representative of the collective consciousness of Californians. If Californians have one thing in common, it is a steadfast commitment to the environment.

California was green before green was a thing. California has long led the nation in environmental conservation and environmental consciousness. Its environmental awareness is reflected in the forward- thinking laws and regulations the state government has passed during the last 60 years. For example, California was first state to recognize that vehicle emissions were a major cause of air pollution. In the late 1950s, California passed the first air quality standards to control smog caused by motor vehicles. Ten years later, these standards became the basis for the federal Clean Air Act (CAA), enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1967.

The CAA imposes national air quality standards on all states. By the time the CAA was passed, California already had laws to deal with air pollution, specifically smog conditions caused by California’s unique combination of weather, topography and vehicle emissions. Consequently, California was allowed to continue to enforce its own air quality standards, as long as they were at least as strict as the federal standards. California is the only state that is authorized to set its own air quality standards, though other states can opt to follow California’s standards in lieu of federal standards. Despite the fact that they are tougher than the federal standards, fourteen other states have now chosen to follow California’s vehicle emissions standards.

California has also been a front runner in recognizing the importance of energy efficiency, long favoring renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and geothermal over conventional coal-, oil- or gas-fired power plants. Due in part to these early policy decisions, California recently ranked as the top all-around clean energy performer in a Clean Energy Momentum State Ranking study by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The study looked at twelve metrics, such as job creation, pollution reduction, renewable energy and state policies to advance clean energy. California dominated in electric vehicle adoption and received high marks in several other categories, including total installed residential solar, energy savings, clean energy jobs and percentage of in-state power generation from renewable sources. These efforts and the whole host of California’s energy and pollution laws put California on track to achieve its legislative mandate to generate 50 percent of its energy use from renewable energy sources by the year 2030.


The commitment to sustainable practices is just as strong in the wine country as the rest of the state. The abundant rooftop solar panels and solar arrays along wine country highways and byways attest to its support of clean energy. In the last ten years, solar power use throughout the Sonoma and Napa regions has skyrocketed, and it is making an impact on energy use and cost.

With wine production dominating the region, it is no surprise that both Sonoma County and Napa County have robust sustainability programs aimed at improving environmental stewardship throughout the wine sector. In Sonoma County, sustainability efforts are spearheaded by Sonoma County Winegrowers (SCW), a trade association representing 1,800 growers. SWC wants Sonoma County to be the nation’s first 100 percent sustainable wine region, a goal they are on track to reach by 2019. Under SCW’s guidance, every acre of planted vines in the county will be assessed as part of the certification of winegrowers and vineyards. Wineries and winemakers have sustainability criteria as well, giving full industry coverage. To ensure the integrity of the program, third-party verification is used to certify sustainability achievements. The program has racked up impressive results: in four years, more than 90 percent of vineyard acreage was assessed, and more than 70 percent was certified sustainable. In its sister region, Napa Green is the certification program for Napa County vineyards and wineries. Championed by Napa Valley Vintners trade association, the program touts soil-to- bottle sustainability based on independent third-party certification of growing and winemaking operations. Napa Green is on track to certify every eligible vineyard and winemaking operation covered by the program by the close of 2020.

Operating a sustainable wine enterprise is more than feel-good environmentalism. There is also a distinct economic advantage, as noted by Charles “Chik” Brenneman, the winemaker and facilities manager for the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California at Davis (UC Davis). “Because the wine industry is a large energy consumer, significant savings can be realized with improved energy efficiency,” he says.

Brenneman identifies two drivers for sustainability in wine production: water and energy. Water is vital for growing grapes, of course, but it is also instrumental in the cellar, in particular for barrel washing and tank cleaning. “It takes five to ten units of process water for every one unit of wine produced.” Anything that optimizes, recaptures and recycles water, therefore, not only benefits conservation efforts, but also improves the balance sheet. As for energy use, refrigeration is the component that requires the most. “Refrigeration is necessary to keep the fermentation cool so that the yeast behaves in a predictable way,” he explains. And, of course, well-behaved yeast ferments grapes into the delicious wines we love.


When it comes to energy conservation in wineries, Brenneman knows what he’s talking about. He is responsible for all winemaking and vineyard operations for the viticulture department. (Brenneman also has direct involvement outside of the university. He is the winemaker and managing partner for Baker Family Wines, a boutique label that specializes in high-quality, small lot production wines.) He explains that part of UC Davis’ leadership role in the industry is to demonstrate water and energy conservation strategies.

The Jess J. Jackson Sustainable Winery Building at UC Davis is LEED Platinum certified by the U.S. Green Building Council and showcases many sustainable practices. Solar panels supply all energy needs for the Winery Building during harvest, when energy use spikes. The building also uses night-air cooling instead of conventional air conditioning. At night, it captures the building’s cool air and then uses a fan system during the day to blow it across the concrete floor. The Winery Building uses natural lighting almost exclusively and relies on captured rainwater for landscape irrigation. Upcoming projects include increasing solar capacity and installing a solar-powered ice maker. While UC Davis has resources available for green projects, Brenneman points out that, in practice, feasibility depends on the individual winery. “A winery must consider not just what it would like to do, but what it can afford to do,” he says.

Sustainability to some wineries, such as Silver Oak, Odette and Frog’s Leap, means becoming LEED certified. But sustainable practices in the wine industry entail a range of options: dry farming, biodynamic growing, certified organic farming, bee friendly and fish friendly farming, as well as water use management, composting and recycling, and even installation of electric vehicle charging stations. Cover crops are also common, as are efforts to cultivate habitat and build structures for the birds and bats that aid in insect control. There are as many combinations of sustainable practices as there are wine production facilities.


Not surprisingly, solar energy is a major player in the sustainable winery. In 2004, Shafer Vineyards became the first U.S. winery to switch completely to solar power. It achieved this by installing enough solar panels to meet all of its power needs. Another first in solar was Far Niente’s floating solar array. Having no land to spare, it installed the equipment on an agricultural pond, thus creating the world’s first significant grid-connected floating solar installation. Other wineries are following suit, moving toward 100 percent solar and net-zero use of electricity.

Countless wineries throughout the region use solar as part of their sustainability practices. The region’s favorable climate and abundant sunny days make it ideal for solar power. Tax incentives, rebates and reduced utility bills also make going solar a smart move for wineries and one that’s good for the planet, as well. And as solar technology has improved, solar panels are becoming both more efficient and cheaper to install. According to U.S. Department of Energy, the cost has dropped by 80 percent in the last seven years, with average installation cost dropping by nearly 75 percent overall.


Favorable economics means wineries can afford to realize their sustainability dreams, and affordability is driving growth in the solar market right now. “Renewable energy is abundant, available, affordable and easily accessible,” says Dusty Baker, legendary baseball player and manager, and founder of Baker Energy Team, a boutique renewable-energy developer company. “Solar and wind are the two most abundant renewable energy sources on the planet today. With solar so affordable, we need to commit to increasing the amount of clean energy we use in this country,” says Baker. “Clean energy lets us take better care of the earth for our kids and our kids’ kids.”

Baker Energy Team fills a unique niche: as an “energy concierge,” it tailors renewable energy solutions to each client’s needs. In addition, it is a registered veteran- owned business, and it is certified by the National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC) as a minority-owned business enterprise (MBE). The NMSDC certification is considered the platinum standard in supplier diversity. Baker was motivated to pursue NMSDC MBE certification after noticing how few women and minorities were in the renewable energy field.

Baker’s company provides start- to-completion project development, rimarily for high energy demand commercial clients. Business has been strong the past year, with both domestic and international projects. Motivated by an interest in social parity, Baker’s team has also been conferring with churches, philanthropic organizations and historically black colleges and universities.

Even with business up, Baker isn’t seeking to grow Baker Energy Team too rapidly: he has several other projects in the works. High on the list is a collaboration with Robert “Kool” Bell of Kool & The Gang to take clean power to Africa, a project that had Baker touring Ghana recently. Always on the move, Baker is a favorite speaker at industry events, and he is active in trade groups and on boards, including the Green Sports Alliance and the Centre for Energy Environment Resource Development.

Solar is the cornerstone of almost every renewable energy project because the economics make sense. It is one reason Baker Energy Team consults with wineries about clean energy solutions. More and more, wineries are making the investment to add solar to their energy mix. And there is a growing interest in floating solar projects too. With solar configurations capable of being installed on water, valuable land surface is saved for growing. In wine country, clean energy means a lower- cost harvest and a smaller carbon footprint, a win for both the wineries and the planet.

Baker’s interest in sustainability and solar-powered wineries is dear to his heart and to his home. In Placer County, near Sacramento, he has his own home vineyard — two acres of syrah grapes — as wellas fruit trees and an extensive vegetable garden. Both in the garden and in his home, which has been solar powered for more than a decade, he enjoys firsthand the cost savings and personal satisfaction of living sustainably. Because Baker has roof-mounted solar panels, a ground-mounted array installed behind the vineyard, a solar water well, solar water heater, solar pool heater and similar clean power upgrades, his energy use is close to net-zero. His latest energy efficiency upgrade is switching to LED lighting in his home, which he views as “the easiest energy upgrade with one of the best returns.” Along with all of the other benefits, taking care of the earth for future generations just makes him feel good. “I invest my money where my heart is, and I want the customers that Baker Energy Team serves to experience the same passionate feelings I have about the earth and renewable energy.” A worthy goal indeed.

People have the power to change their world. And these everyday champions are showing us how it is done, one eco-friendly move at a time.

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