Two Central Coast vintners walked through a pristine-looking vineyard last fall—it had no cover crop, a usual sign of organic or biodynamic farming—explaining why they use herbicides.

“We need to do it to keep our business sustainable,” one said. The other added, “It’s important that we bring in a large enough crop every year. Otherwise, the winery isn’t economically sustainable.”

“Sustainable” has the potential to be the ultimate adjective in responsible winemaking. Unlike a rigid program like certified organic or biodynamic, a good sustainable wine program could allow farmers the option of rescuing a pest-threatened crop if unusual conditions really demanded it, while encouraging herbicide-free and pesticide-free farming most vintages. Such an option would encourage many currently conventional farmers to take the plunge and get certified.

Sustainability certification programs often take a much wider worldview than organics or biodynamics, including energy use, social justice, and other issues. In a perfect world, sustainable wines might be the perfect wines.

The problem is that “sustainable” means different things to different people. To some, it means what the vintners were saying above: running a business that can stay alive by making a profit, no matter what it takes.

The vintners were speaking on the record, but I’m not naming them because they’re not bad guys trying to hoodwink the public. They’re young and earnest and probably don’t realize that many consumers’ understanding of “sustainable wine” doesn’t include using herbicides to ensure bigger crops.

In fact, what consumers believe “sustainable” means, and what the wine industry believes aren’t in sync—and it’s the industry that gets to define the term.

Right now the market for sustainable wines isn’t large, says Christian Miller, proprietor of Full Glass Research. Sustainable is one of several “green” categories of wine, including “organic,” “biodynamic,” and “made from organically grown grapes.” According to Miller, there’s great growth potential in the “green” category, but consumer confusion is currently a drawback.

“Wine has a broadly green image. One out of ten people think almost all wine is organic or sustainable,” Miller says. However, he said a 2005 Full Glass Research survey showed 41% of consumers don’t buy “green” wines because they don’t see them in the marketplace, which surpassed “I don’t care” about greenness (33%) as the single biggest reason for not buying them.

“High visibility and reliable third-party certification would go a long way,” Miller says, as would some consistency in meaning.

Currently the West Coast has at least four major sustainability programs for wineries, and they’re so different that it’s hard to imagine one standard emerging.

The two most rigorous are the least known: Lodi Rules, and the Central Coast Vineyard Team’s Sustainability in Practice, or SIP. Both require adherence to minimum environmental standards as well as some measures taken in other areas of social import. But the former program is limited to Lodi wines; it’s unimaginable for a Napa vintner to follow Lodi Rules. SIP also has a geographic limitation, albeit to the wider Central Coast.

Then there are also two state-wide programs—which couldn’t be more different.

The Oregon Wine Board has a program that offers “sustainable” certification to wines that have already received certification from another program, such as Food Alliance or Demeter Biodynamic.

“Oregon did research a few years ago and learned only 1% knew who Demeter was,” said Miller. “That’s why they came up with the Oregon Certified Sustainable. They’ll unite them under one simple stamp.”

The largest sustainability program is run by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, a nonprofit set up by the Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers. It’s based on process rather than performance, and actually requires very little of wineries other than filling out a workbook and meeting with an auditor to discuss it.

By one measure, the California program is a huge success. CSWA executive director Allison Jordan said by email, “Since the program’s launch in late 2002, a total of 1680 distinct winery and vineyard organizations representing over 65% of California’s wine case production and nearly 70% of the winegrape acreage have used the Code of Sustainable Practices to evaluate the sustainability of their operations based on 227 practices.”

Note that word choice: “evaluate,” not “improve.”

Jordan says that the goal of the California program is to improve the sustainability of the state’s entire wine industry, and the CSWA has held almost 200 free workshops for vintners to discuss different aspects of sustainability.

But talk and action are different, and though 21 different wineries have been certified as sustainable under the program, that certification says almost nothing about the vineyard practices that might have taken place for any individual bottle of wine those wineries make. Herbicides of all types are still allowed under the CSWA program, with no requirement to show that they were needed because of environmental pressures.

Moreover, the CSWA standards are quite lax. There are 227 points, with four different categories of response required for each. But the lowest category is sufficient to gain certification on 219 of the 227 points; in most cases, that means an issue must be considered, but no action is required. As one example, it’s possible for a winery to dump its plastic waste in a river or ocean and still be considered sustainable if it reports this accurately.

It’s possible that states like Texas and New York will create their own sustainable wine programs, and will respond to their own environmental pressures. For example, Pierce’s Disease is a huge problem in Texas and thus pesticide standards there would understandably be more lenient than elsewhere. But a proliferation of different standards will only confuse consumers more.

Because of its size, the California program seems most likely to become the standard, mainly because “sustainability” lacks the type of national organization that organic and biodynamic certifiers can draw upon.

So today, when you see a wine listed as “sustainable” on a wine list or in a section of a wine shop, it might very well have been made by a winery that carefully considered the ecosystem and your health. Despite the minimal standards of the California program, the wineries that have taken the trouble to get certified are some of the state’s more conscientious businesses.

But unless you investigate the winery’s environmental practices yourself—a time-consuming act for all concerned—you really have no way of knowing that “sustainable” isn’t just a synonym for “profitable.”

Maybe “sustainable” could be the ultimate adjective, but as of now, competing definitions make it—on its own, without verification—a meaningless buzzword.


Wine writer W. Blake Gray is Chairman of the Electoral College of the Vintners Hall of Fame. Previously wine writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, he has contributed articles on wine and sake to the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, Wine & Spirits, Wine Review Online, and a variety of other publications. He travels frequently to wine regions and enjoys coming home to San Francisco.

About The Author

W. Blake Gray
Staff Writer

Wine writer W. Blake Gray is Chairman of the Electoral College of the Vintners Hall of Fame. Previously wine writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, he has contributed articles on wine and sake to The Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, Wine & Spirits, Wine Review Online, and a variety of other publications. He travels frequently to wine regions and enjoys coming home to San Francisco.

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  • http://www.siduri.com Adam Lee

    Blake,

    Nice piece…A couple of years back I chatted, very generally with Gary Franscioni and Mark Pisoni about looking into the possibility of sustainable farming, as I had more and more customers asking about it. Next thing you know they had enrolled all of their vineyards (Rosella’s, Garys’, Pisoni, Sierra Mar, and Soberanes) in the SIP Program. It definitely proved to be rigorous, more than just good intentions (on more challenging days they would call me up and joke that SIP stood for “Siduri Is a Prick”) — but now all of the vineyards are participating members and growing great fruit as well.

    Thanks for the spotlight on this subject.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines and Novy Family Winery

  • http://www.vinebalance.com Tim Martinson

    Hello –

    Sustainable programs and practices have to vary because all farming is local. The issues we confront in the East (rainfall and disease pressure) are formidable and quite different than those in Lodi or the Central Coast. But the evaluative and assessment programs (eg. CA Sustainable Winegrowing) are valuable, because they force growers to look at all their practices and see where they can make them better and more sustainable. Often the alternative to herbicides is… Lots of fossil fuel for frequent (especially here in humid east) passes with a grape hoe, and the tillage itself releasing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere and reducing organic matter in the soil.

    Simple, consistent standards are good for retailers and marketing, but often ignore the complexities of farming. And ‘green marketing’ often leads to ‘spin’ (eg. Demeter and biodynamics is the ‘uber organic’). I applaud the CA Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance for helping farmers to comprehensively evaluate their practices – for ‘real’ environmental impacts, and undoubtedly provoking many hundreds of changes in practices that have reduced environmental impacts, helped workers safety and well-being, and helped growers remain profitable.

    Farmers make hundreds of decisions affecting sustainability every year, and its hard to capture this complexity in simple standards designed to convince consumers of this.

  • http://www.sondrabarrett.com sondra

    Blake,
    Thanks for this most informative article. I always thought ‘sustainable’ was meaningless so now I know there are certifications for that as well. But does that limit the use of SUSTAINABLE to only those certified? Probably not.

  • http://www.vineyardteam.org Jim Caudill

    SIP’s program is actually available to wineries without geographic boundary. While it originated from the Central Coast Vineyard Team, the program can be adopted anywhere in California, and probably other states. It’s a solid effort to be sure.

  • http://lodiwine.com Mark Chandler

    Thanks for the nod, Blake. I would like to point out that the Lodi Sustainable Viticulture certification is available statewide. Thanks.

  • Jeff

    Really? “Green Marketing” and “spin”? I think Mr. Gray’s article demonstrates that there is actually a LACK of useful sustainable marketing for the consumer.

    What is clear, is that using herbicides in a vineyard is most certainly NOT sustainable. No matter what Monsanto or Syngenta tell us. Chemical dependency is a choice. Some farmers choose it, some farmers don’t.

  • Stuart Smith

    Blake,

    Nice presentation on the complex problems that winegrowers face when they want to be environmentally sensitive. I view current winegrowing as being in the middle of a very competitive fight as to which of the four farming paradigm will emerge victorious – conventional, sustainable, organic and Biodynamic.

    I believe in the concept of sustainability and farm in such a way that my land canl be viably farmed 500 years from now. With exotic pests, international competition, increased population and housing pressure flexibility must be integral to any successful farming method. Best Management Practices (BMPs) are constantly evolving with new science and new products.

    An example of the confusion and contradictions that exist: most people believe Organic and Biodynamic farming are done without the use of pesticides, which is not true. Both Organic and Biodynamic farming can use pesticides if they are derived from “natural” sources. For instance Py-ganic is a natural pesticide derived from the chrysanthemum and contains Pyrethrum, a chemical that is non-selective in what it kills and is very toxic to honey bees and aquatic life. I would rather use Round-up than Py-ganic.

    And then there is the contradiction that sulfur dust is allowed in organic farming even though it starts life as molten sulfur from the oil refinery. Both sulfur dust and Py-ganic use must be reported to the local Agricultural Commissioner’s office.

    Stu Smith

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  • http://www.sipthegoodlife.org Kris O’Connor

    Hi Blake – Thanks for the nice overview of the programs. We’ve been working on sustainable farming since 1994 and our SIP Certification program was part of our natural evolution from self-assessment, research, education & outreach. It is true that many assume that SIP is limited to the Central Coast, but the program is available to any eligible vineyard regardless of location. We currently have 15,000 certified acres and 160,000 certified cases of wine in the marketplace. It is an exciting time for us because we are finally seeing the SIP seal on the bottle and I’ve even spotted a few shelf talkers to help inform the consumer.

    I encourage anyone interested in the program, growers, or wines to visit our website at http://www.sipthegoodlife.org

    Cheers,
    Kris O’Connor

  • http://www.sustainablewinegrowing.org Allison Jordan

    I wanted to clarify that there are two different programs – both voluntary and both intended to drive continuous improvement in sustainable practices – offered by the CA Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA). The first is the educational Sustainable Winegrowing Program (SWP), launched in 2002, through which over 1680 winery and vineyard organizations have evaluated themselves using the Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Program Self-Assessment Workbook. Results of these self-assessments are reported in publicly-available Sustainability Reports. The most recent 2009 report showed measurable improvements in more than 60% of the workbook’s 227 criteria (available online at http://www.sustainablewinegrowing.org). More than 9000 CA vintner and grower participants have attended workshops focused on sustainability topics such as air and water quality, habitat conservation and energy efficiency.

    The second program is Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing (CCSW-Certified), a process-based certification option (akin to the internationally-recognized ISO 14001 certification) that requires annual evaluation of the 227 criteria using the Code but many other steps as well. Certified wineries and vintners have an annual audit by a third party auditor, must meet 58 prerequisites, identify areas of significant impact where they can take action and improve, and show evidence of those improvements.

    The comment about the program allowing the dumping of plastics is absurd. The SWP workbook is based an understanding that wineries and vineyards are meeting existing regulations and making efforts beyond compliance. Just as the other sustainability programs, as well as organic and biodynamic certifications, don’t specifically provide a list potential egregious and illegal actions that are prohibited, nor does ours. CCSW-Certified wineries and vineyards – as well as those participating in other certification programs and the SWP educational program – are some of the state’s most conscientious businesses, and they would not risk their reputation with this type of behavior.

    The fact that programs such as the SWP, CCSW-Certified, Lodi Rules, SIP-Certified, Napa Green, Fish Friendly Farming, the Bay Area Green Business Program, Organic and Biodynamic are being widely embraced by the state’s vintners and growers clearly demonstrates the California wine community’s commitment to sustainability.

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