On a cold, rainy Sunday in January, dozens of New Yorkers seek refuge under the roof of lower Manhattan’s City Winery: A bright, open event space decorated with wall-to-wall antique bottles, exposed brick, wooden pillars and sparkling glassware. This year, the space serves as host of Pinot Days, an annual gathering and celebration of Pinot Noir, poured by winemakers from several corners of the world. Beyond the red varietal, however, there seems to be a growing theme within the event: Sustainable agriculture.
Today, eco-friendly wine-making goes beyond organic certification. With every pour, various acronyms rise to the surface, each one standing for a different designation around sustainable agriculture within the wine industry.
Perhaps the most rigorous is SIP (“Sustainability in Practice”) Certified: A term echoed throughout the event that reflects standards set by a program based in Atascadero, California. “In order to qualify for vineyard certification,” states the SIP Certified website, “California growers must farm in a way that protects both natural and human resources as outlined in the rules,” which range from water conservation efforts to continuing education opportunities for employees. At least 145 vineyards are listed on the website as certified, including Wrath Wines and Hahn Estate, both of whom occupy tables at Pinot Days.
“On a basic level, the less stuff that you introduce into the vineyard, the better the grapes are, and hence, the better the wine is,” says Michael Thomas, Wrath’s co-owner and wine director. “But beyond that, we think it’s our responsibility to show that quality can come from responsibly, sustainably farmed grapes.”
That sentiment is echoed by Meredith Bell, assistant winemaker at Omero Cellars, which is currently incorporating biodynamic practices into its business and in the process of applying for organic certification.
“We’re very conscious of the impact that our vineyard and our winery have on the environment around us,” Bell says. “But, primarily, we believe that organic farming and, potentially, biodynamic farming contributes to higher quality grapes.”
Omero, along with its geographical counterparts, must also consider regional certifications, such as LIVE (“Low Input Viticulture & Enology”), a not-for-profit program that works to verify Pacific Northwest winemakers that conduct business “with the goal of protecting the farmer, the environment, and society at large,” according to the organization’s website.
Guy Davis, on behalf of the LIVE-certified Stoller Family Estate, speaks to the “marketing benefits” of sustainable agriculture, which have overtaken what he calls the “black mark” previously assigned to the quality of organic wines. It’s an upward trend within the industry, says Pinot Days organizer Lisa Rigisich, who notes that dialogue among winemakers is “moving more and more into biodynamics.”
“So many of them now are just trying to keep their hands off the wine as long as they can,” she continues, “so that whatever the earth is producing is preserved.”
With mounting anecdotal evidence that supports the correlation between sustainable winemaking and the quality of wine, it may seem counter-intuitive to continue any preceding systems that don’t fall within these ecological parameters. What, then, is stopping those who have yet to adapt such certifications and practices?
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Despite the growing conversation, community knowledge and resources on sustainability are still evolving and, to some, elusive. “A lot of people do what their neighbors do, because it’s known,” observes Bell. “If you don’t have a community that supports that kind of agriculture, it’s more difficult.”
Fundamentally, it boils down to financials. “It costs you more … and that’s normally passed onto the consumer,” adds Thomas. “If it’s a price-driven brand or a price-driven vineyard, it might not be in their economic interest to go that route.”
James MacPhail, a producer at MacPhail Family Wines, emphasizes that the wine business is, after all, just that: A for-profit trade. While MacPhail Family Wines, as well as its 22 vineyard sources, operates organically and utilizes such sustainable farming elements as composting and integrated pest management, acquiring actual certifications, especially organic, demands “time, money, cost,” he says.
It’s a conflict for “those wineries that do take the time and financial investment to become certified,” MacPhail explains. “If something was really ever to happen, some invasive species or pest comes in, and you can’t eradicate that pest organically, what do you do?”
Not all hope is lost, however, with Thomas noting that “the overwhelming majority of vineyards” in his region, near Soledad, CA, are SIP-certified.
“People there take it pretty seriously,” he adds.
We’ll toast to that.
Image: Amanda Zantal-Wiener
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