This is What Sustainable Wine Certification in California Really Means

This is What Sustainable Wine Certification in California Really Means
iStock/Stohler

Sustainable farming practices are critical to our planet. But sustainable wine certifications — like the ones in Napa County and Sonoma County California — aren’t quite living up to some growers’ sustainable standards.

Sustainable certification in Napa and Sonoma

Napa and Sonoma are two of California’s largest wine counties. Both areas are working to achieve 100 percent sustainability. In 2014, Sonoma County Winegrowers (SCW) launched a campaign to reach 100 percent sustainability by 2019. And in 2015, Napa Valley Vintners announced its goal to reach 100 percent sustainability by 2020. Right now, Sonoma is at 60 percent certification and Napa is at 50 percent. Each county’s certification process requires wineries to track and remain conscious of their operations.

The Napa certification process, called Napa Green Winery, requires wineries to become re-certified every three years. Certification is based on tracking energy and water use, as well as waste diversion and resource conservation, the North Bay Business Journal reports.

The Sonoma certification process, called Sonoma County Winegrowers, has three main principles. Wine makers must ponder if their winery is environmentally sound, economically feasible, and socially equitable. And the topics related to these principles are water quality and conservation, energy efficiency, material handling, pest, soil and waste management, ecosystem, community relations, and human resources, Civil Eats reports.

The sustainable certification catch

Although both certification programs have problems — some Napa wineries wonder if the certification truly matters and state that no single certification is all-encompassing — Sonoma County’s program is the one facing recent blowback.

The problem with glyphosate

Although the Sonoma program made efforts to help winegrowers review and revise their sustainable vineyard practices, attain certification, and prevent green-washing through third-party verification and certification, it’s not perfect.

Some Sonoma wine growers aren’t happy that an organization tells them how to do business and grow. But the bigger issue is that Sonoma’s sustainable certification process doesn’t ban synthetic herbicides. It allows growers to use Monsanto’s Roundup, which contains glyphosate. Many kitchen gardeners, a lot of the general public, and sustainable and organic farmers and winegrowers take issue with Roundup. Their concern is for good reason.

On July 7th, California officially added glyphosate to its cancer-warning law, also known as Proposition 65. In 2016, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer listed glyphosate as a possible carcinogen. The WHO came to its conclusion based on numerous studies. Monsanto maintains its product is safe.

Why some defend pesticide use

Although USDA Organic standards don’t allow herbicide or pesticide use, the EPA, the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA), the organization that created the Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing initiative in 2010, and some farmers and winemakers think that growing produce without pesticides and herbicides isn’t realistic.

Pablo Solomon, green designer, educator, and futurist, thinks that sometimes, organic farming isn’t a viable option. “Depending on the climate, and [the] cyclic plagues of bugs, fungi and other plant pests—it becomes economically impossible to make money without using chemical solutions,” Solomon says.

“On a very small scale, one can address various attacks in a truly organic way,” he adds, “but this is very labor intensive and can require expense alternatives.”

Solomon and Beverly, Solomon’s wife, live in Texas Wine country that’s northwest of Austin. He and several of his friends own vineyards and have discussed the chemical herbicide, pesticide, and fungicide issue at length. “I know vineyard owners who have spent huge money to get various technology to combat, for example fungi, only to find that these [things] only work under ideal conditions. When a real crisis hits, [they] have had to use traditional chemical methods,” Solomon explains.

“It is not an easy decision, but when you have huge money tied up in an investment, people to pay, loans to pay off, a family to feed, etc. — it is sometimes necessary to be as safe as possible, but not perfect.”

Why Sonoma wants to promote sustainable wine

Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers (SCW), has been dedicated to improving Sonoma’s sustainable wine standards since she was promoted to her current position in May 2013.

“Within six weeks of taking over, one of my SCW board members, Duff Bevill, founder of Bevill Vineyard Management in Healdsburg, approached me with a question on how Sonoma County grape growers could get recognized as leaders in sustainability,” Kruse says.

“I began a 6-month exploration process with my Board of Directors to understand the history of sustainability in Sonoma County and what it would really mean to be leaders in sustainability.”

After deliberation, she and the board decided the only way to earn recognition as sustainability leaders was to just actually do the work and become leaders in sustainability. So, the SCW made a commitment to help Sonoma become the nation’s first 100-percent sustainable winegrowing region by 2019.

Kruse acknowledges that one of the most critically important tenets of any sustainability program is continuous improvement.

“In addition, the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance program, now in its third edition, is reviewed and updated as new information and innovation supports better or different practices so our program will continual to evolve,” she adds.

How the CSWA laid the groundwork for the SCW

SCW based its sustainability program off of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance’s (CSWA) standards. The CSWA was established by California’s vintners and growers in 2002 to implement an education program that would continuously improve sustainable practices in the state’s vineyards, wineries, community, and with the industry’s employees.

In 2010, the CSWA introduced its voluntary option of Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing (also known as Certified Sustainable).The certification program provides third-party verification that a winery or vineyard chooses to adopt. Once implemented, the winery or vineyard owners must employ stringent, sustainable winegrowing requirements based on 200-plus best practices.

How SCW creates sustainable wine

The SCW’s program aims to help grape growers grow healthy grapes — because without sustainable grapes, there’s no sustainable wine. To maintain this standard, the organization employs a sustainability manager who supports growers and helps them understand SCW’s sustainability goal via sustainability assessments. The organization has also partnered with wineries and AVAs (American Viticulture Areas) to host sustainability workshops, offers a $400 voucher toward certification, and presents growers with a “Sonoma County Sustainable” sign for their vineyards upon completion of the sustainability program.

And now that the county’s SCW sustainable grape growers are established, the organization has shifted its focus to working with winemakers on its triple bottom line approach to sustainability. “Today, more than 40 wineries [out of 433, currently] have been certified sustainable,” Kruse adds.

SCW on glyphosate

Still, the SCW does, at least for now, allow growers to use glyphosate. “Growers can use any approved products as long as those products are applied legally and in accordance with all use requirements because farmers need to have all the tools to help them protect their crops,” Kruse says.

“The federal EPA says Roundup has ‘low toxicity’ while the State [California] intends to require warning labels at the point of sale. Clearly, there [is] a difference of opinion [that] exists between the two government agencies about possible risk that hopefully can be resolved.”

Moving sustainable certification forward

Many farmers and educators want to make sustainable certification more comprehensive, and easier to understand.  And for some, that change means using small amounts of chemicals, such as the fungicides Solomon suggests. But for others, that means going completely chemical-free.

Sustainability with limited pesticide use

Sustainability in Practice (SIP) Certified, an organization based in Atascadero, Calif., that helps farmers and winemakers preserve and protect resources, has a similar philosophy about sustainability.

SIP’s main difference from other sustainable and organic programs is its “high-risk pesticides” ban. SIP doesn’t allow its members to use Cholinesterase inhibitors, toxic air contaminants or known ground water contaminates.

So, although SIP allows some pesticide use, Beth Vukmanic Lopez, SIP certified manager, explains that SIP’s certification could help make some organic operations more sustainable. “[SIP examines] sustainable practices on every level. From farm labor to agriculture – from energy conservation to water quality,” she says.

“The program is based on science and expert input, independent verification, transparency, and absence of conflict of interest. The farming and wine processing rules are a ‘iving document’. As science, technology, and research developments become available, the Standards evolve with the expertise of a Technical Advisory Committee,” Vukmanic adds. The program is peer reviewed every five years to ensure its quality, too.

Better sustainable practices through education

Sandra Taylor’s main concern about sustainability is how its marketed. “Typically, consumers are confused as to the nature and meaning of sustainability programs. [They may] not understand the certifications that end up on wine labels,” Taylor, an expert on environmental sustainability, social responsibility, and agricultural supply chains, explains.

“My goal is to help consumers understand sustainability trends and for the wine industry globally to fully embrace and implement sustainable practices. This is important to the consuming public and the health of our planet.”

However, the sustainable wine market could move its evolution forward with a little work. Advocates in the sustainable farming industry could ensure sustainable certification standards are rigorous.

So, in Taylor’s opinion, a combination of pest-control options and sustainable farming practices is key. For example, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a great way to help combat pests. But Taylor thinks that organic production is not appropriate or feasible for everyone.

“Farmers need to have all the tools to help them be environmentally sustainable, socially responsible, and economically viable,” she says. “Sometimes chemicals are needed to save the crop and ensure economic viability, also saving jobs of vineyard and winery workers.”

Taylor says glyphosate is not an essential or critical tool for the viticulturist and that “it should be placed on the list of prohibited chemicals, given its effect on the groundwater and the resistance it can engender over time.”

Pesticide-free sustainability

Skipstone Wines, a Geyserville, California winery in the Alexander Valley, maintains CCOF Organic certification, and uses sustainable practices, too. The winery also chooses to maintain its organic certification because of its internal mission.

Therefore, winery employees think that if a pest destroys part of Skipstone’s vineyard, that area isn’t sustainable. “We recently had to pull out a vineyard, because we had a pest and we couldn’t deal with it, which isn’t very sustainable,” Emily Wines, former Skipstone general manager, says.

The sustainable label conversation is far from over. And even though there may not yet be a consensus among wine growers and farmers, at least the community is having these important conversations.

This article was updated on July 25, 2017.

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