By Elizabeth Hans McCrone
Sonoma County intends to be the first wine region in California – and throughout the US – to market its wines as 100% sustainable within the next five years.
In a joint press release issued January 15, 2014, the Sonoma County Winegrowers (SCW) and Sonoma County Vintners (SCV) announced a bold, three-phased initiative aimed at certifying the region’s 450 wineries and 1,800 growers by the year 2019.
“Our county’s grape growers and winemakers have long been at the forefront of creating and utilizing sustainable practices in the vineyard, in the winery and in running their businesses, so this is the next natural step in their evolution,” stated SCW President Karissa Kruse.
According to the release, the first phase of the program involves the assessment of vineyard practices through trainings and educational workshops. Those sessions will focus on “best management practices” regarding land use, canopy management, energy and water efficiencies, carbon emissions, employee healthcare and training and community-mindedness.
Once vineyard acres have been assessed, the SCW will work with vineyard owners to achieve actual certification. Phase three expands the vineyard assessment and certification to include wineries and winemakers, with the goal of 100% sustainability throughout the county’s entire industry by 2019.
Lise Asimont, lead viticulturist and Director of Grower Relations for Francis Ford Coppola Winery (FFCW) in Geyserville, welcomes the sustainability initiative with open arms. Pointing out that the California Sustainable Winegrowers and the Sonoma County Green Business Program have already certified FFCW’s vineyards and winery, Asimont says “ … as winegrowers in California, it’s our responsibility to not only care for, but to improve the environmental integrity of our communities. Every grape we grow takes something from the land … it’s our responsibility to give back to land so we can continue to grow wine into the future.”
Although Sonoma County is the first in California to attempt 100% sustainability, other regions throughout the state have worked for years to codify the term and apply rigorous environmental standards to their vineyards and wineries.
The Lodi region in Central California, in cooperation with other statewide programs, has embraced a number of different sustainability initiatives since 1992. The more recent Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing is said to be the state’s first sustainable winegrowing program requiring third party certification.
Stuart Spencer is the Program Manager for the Lodi Winegrape Commission. Spencer claims the term “sustainable” has never been defined at the national level, so it’s been incumbent on individual states and regions to do it for themselves.
“We’ve pretty much adopted the principles of the three “Es” Spencer says. “Practices that are environmentally sound, socially equitable and economically feasible.”
Spencer admits there’s a lot involved in the process of sustainability certification. For instance, The Lodi Rules encompass over a hundred different farming practice standards in six chapters governing: business management, human resources, ecosystem management, soil management, water management, and pest management. Certification must be done annually.
To date, 20,000 acres in the Lodi appellation have been “Certified Green” and, according to Spencer, between 20 to 25% of the Lodi-producing wineries carry the Lodi Rules seal.
Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand
New Zealand can claim to be the first wine-producing country in the world to get close to 100% sustainability. Under New Zealand’s Winegrowers Sustainability Policy, wine must come from 100% certified grapes, be created in fully certified winemaking facilities and be certified through an independent program.
The policy was launched in 2007, and reportedly, by the target date of 2012, approximately 90% of the wine produced was Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand (SWNZ) certified, with an additional 7% operating within other certified organic programs.
That high level of cooperation may stem from the compelling nature of the country’s program requirements. New Zealand relies heavily on export for its product. Although participation is voluntary, wines from vintage 2010 on must have been produced under one of the recognized sustainability programs in order to be included in New Zealand’s national and international marketing campaigns or award events.
California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance
One of the most well respected, statewide certification programs resides within the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA). The Alliance was established in 2003 by the California Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers to promote sustainable winegrowing practices in response to increasing urban pressure on traditionally rural farmland.
In addition to developing the Sustainable Wine Program (SWP), the Alliance administers a third-party sustainability certification program to assist vintners and grape growers in developing their own sustainability protocols.
Allison Jordan is both the Executive Director of the CSWA and the Vice-President of Environmental Affairs at The Wine Institute. She says although certification requirements are exacting, the idea of continuous improvement is at the core of the program’s success.
“Because of the diversity throughout the state, we look at individual wineries or vineyards about their most significant impacts and what they can do to improve,” Jordan says. “That’s what’s been so great about our code … (it’s) really a living document.”
Jordan says that in addition to sound, environmental stewardship, sustainability is becoming a real force in the industry marketplace. She notes that retailers like Whole Foods, Wal-Mart and Safeway are starting to ask about wine certification and indicating a preference.
“It started out as a ‘nice to do;’ now it’s becoming more of an expectation,” Jordan confirms.
Not surprisingly, she’s more than happy about Sonoma County’s initiative.
“Sonoma’s actions are exciting,” Jordan says. “They took a bold step for their region. With actions like that, it will help California overall.”