By Barbara Barrielle
Over the holidays, I stopped to taste the extraordinary array of wines at Castoro Cellars in Paso Robles and almost tripped over the SIP certified sign at the entrance. This winery is proud of their role as an early adapter of Sustainability in Practice (SIP) and the principle of sustainable practices don’t stop with a sign.
Ask Greg at the tasting bar, and he will let you know that they are so green (and love rock and roll) that the weekend summer concerts have equipment and generators run solely by solar power. Castoro, a unique and historic winery with a frisbee golf course set among their vineyards, has never wavered from the SIP guidelines and has proudly exceeded them, stating that with time sustainability has become profitable.
Encouraging growers and wineries to address their practices and become SIP Certified has been the role of Beth Vukmanic Lopez for the past 10 years. After a degree from Cal Poly and a job with Malcolm DeMille, the designer of high-end golf trophies, Lopez answered an ad for a position with The Vineyard Team. Little did she know that the fledgling program called Sustainability in Practice (SIP) would soon become the model for green programs in vineyards and wineries across the U.S.
A professional harpist and physical trainer, Lopez puts that same focus into spreading the word and increasing the exposure of SIP, a program that started on the Central Coast but has moved throughout California and even into some other states, most notably Michigan.
Sustainable agriculture is based on the three P’s of sustainability; in the vineyard and winery, managers must address the People, Planet, and Prosperity. And an important theme of integrated wine production is the ability for winegrowers to evaluate their practices as a whole – from block to bottle.
Lopez began SIP with 3,700 acres between Santa Barbara and Monterey including pilot vineyards at Castoro Cellars, Hahn Family Wines, Halter Ranch, Jackson Family Wines, Laetitia Vineyard & Winery, Paragon Vineyard (Niven Family) and Pomar Junction Vineyard & Winery and Wolff Vineyards. That number has now grown tenfold to 43,600 acres of vines and over 36 million bottles of wine.
“We are a small but mighty team at The Vineyard Team,” says Lopez. “We use outside experts to continue improving given practices and techniques. SIP certification is considered a living document. Sustainability does not have a finish line!
“And we are not stopping at vineyards. Other crops like citrus and row crops as well as cattle are looking at SIP certification.”
The business Lopez helps achieve certification appreciates the work and care she puts into making them more sustainable. “Beth has been an incredible partner as we have developed our sustainability program. From guiding us through the SIP certification process to training our staff she has made a real impact on our company, and we are all smarter as a result,” says Andy Niner of Niner Wine Estates. “She is a leader in the sustainability movement in our area and I feel very fortunate to work with her.”
Sustainability in Practice (SIP) Certified is a measurable and recordable set of practices which encompass fourteen chapters. The SIP program is unalterable and strict, and the guidelines are rigid but with reason.
“It takes a unique person to manage our diverse stakeholders. From growers to press to retailers, Beth handles everything with integrity and enthusiasm,” says Kris Beal, executive director of Vineyard Team. “It’s due to Beth’s vision that the SIP Certified Sustainable program has grown to what it is today. We are so fortunate to have Beth leading the SIP Certified program and look forward to what the next 10 years brings. Yes, I’m her boss.”
Some of the most famous vineyards on the Central Coast and elsewhere rely on Lopez’s direction in their sustainability planning. “Beth is the consistent force behind the success of the SIP Certification program as she guides growers through the process while at the same time advocating for those growers and wineries in the marketplace,” says Julian Malone, Director of Vineyard Operations at Sea Smoke and Rita’s Crown. “Her commitment to SIP and the those who participate will continue to propel SIP into a position of distinction for sustainability certification.”
As far away as Michigan, Chantal Lefebvre, Owner of WaterFire Vineyards in Kewadin, was looking for a stringent accreditation program for certifying her vineyards as sustainable. The first SIP certified vineyard outside of California, Lefebvre underscored Lopez’s influence on her green practices. “When I began looking for a sustainability certification program for our vineyard in Michigan, SIP emerged as an option that did not appear to be state-specific, even though at the time all their certified vineyards were in California,” says Lefebvre. “Beth was very open-minded to the idea of expanding SIP beyond the state’s borders and we began working together immediately, making adjustments for climate and other considerations particular to the Midwest. Her ongoing support was, and remains, central to our SIP certification and we are grateful for this meaningful program.”
SIP is the original certification program that many other programs have grown out of. Taking the helm of a program in its infancy and growing it to the leading sustainability certification program in the state of California has been the strength of Beth Vukmanic Lopez and there is no indication that the program will do anything but spread. Adjusting to the climate conditions of other states and regions means that SIP has the opportunity to be the backbone of sustainable certification in the United States. It means a lot of work for Lopez but, aside from time out to play music and train fellow athletes, she is not slowing down from keeping SIP certification ahead of the curve in sustainable leadership.