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Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2009

Embracing Green Growth

L’eft Bank’s bio-fueled fleet

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Whether it’s in the form of government regulation, consumer demand or simply one’s conscience, concern about environmental sustainability is rearranging the way we do commerce. But making a strategic transition from traditional business to green business is fraught with challenges. Some companies fail to adapt to green growth while others embrace it with grace.

Mark Johnston started L’eft Bank Wine Co. in 1985 with little more than his trusty Ford Pinto and a few cases of Burgundy. The fine wine and spirits distributor christened his company “L’eft Bank,” as a multilingual and personal play on words. Johnston looks to the eft, a juvenile newt, as his totem animal. He added an “L’” from the French language to create what is basically “The Newt.” “The Left Bank in Bordeaux is famous for great cabernet wines,” Johnston says. “And the first place I rented a warehouse was on the left bank of the Sugar River. We thought of using ‘Grape Newts,’ but I thought we would get sued,” he adds with a laugh.

According to Johnston, when L’eft Bank began, his competitors in the distribution business had been operating since the end of Prohibition and were oriented around the large liquor brands. Meanwhile, the wine business was concentrating on jug wine, the liter-and-a-half and three-liter bottles of inexpensive California wines.

“I entered the business at a propitious time when the big guys weren’t paying a lot of attention to the fine wine end of the business,” Johnston says. “That gave us a few years’ head start on learning about and educating the market on fine wine.” L’eft Bank’s portfolio includes all the major wine-growing regions in the world with an emphasis on the fine wines of France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia, Austria and the United States About 10 years ago, Johnston began distributing a collection of specialty spirits from craft distillers.

Since its inception 24 years ago, L’eft Bank Wine Co. has grown to more than 40 employees and 1,200 customers. The distributor delivers to restaurants, clubs, independent wine and spirit shops and grocery stores all over Wisconsin, from Washington Island to La Crosse to Beloit. That’s a lot of highway. To minimize its impact on the environment, L’eft Bank started using biodiesel to fuel its delivery fleet in the spring of 2005. Inspired by the endeavor’s success, Johnston, along with several of his staff, set out to widen the company’s use of alternative fuels. L’eft Bank’s Jeffrey Johnston and Stacy Sandler led the effort to modify one of the company’s Dodge Sprinter delivery vans to operate on recycled vegetable oil.

L’eft Bank collaborated with Luke Matthews, lead mechanic at PrairieFire BioFuels Co-op in Madison, to design and implement the modification. Matthews installed a vegetable oil fuel conversion kit made by German company Elsbett, and an additional fuel tank designed and fabricated specifically for the Sprinter. According to the Elsbett Web site, their “2-Tank System” relies on diesel or bio-diesel to power the vehicle while the fuel, fuel-lines and motor warm up. “Once the engine is warm, it switches over, automatically or manually, to take vegetable oil from the main tank of the vehicle,” according to Elsbett.

L’eft Bank Wine Co. has partnered with several customers to remove their restaurants’ used cooking oil. For example, L’eft Bank delivers a case of 2004 Whitehall Lane cabernet sauvignon to one of Brian Zarletti’s restaurants, Rustico or Zarletti. When the Sprinter van leaves, it takes with it the cooking oil used to make Zarletti’s mouthwatering calamari ripieni. Back at L’eft Bank’s warehouse in McFarland, near Madison, the oil is filtered and stored in a secure fuel tank, ready for use. Johnston expects to convert one or two more Sprinter vans by March and ultimately strives to fuel L’eft Bank’s entire fleet with waste grease. “We can truly say we’re a customer-run business,” Johnston says.

L’eft Bank is located at 4910 Triangle St., McFarland. For more information, call (608) 838-8400 or go to www.leftbankwine.com.

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