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How California’s wineries are leading the U.S. in sustainable wine

Wine lovers may pay more attention to variety, vintage and what color goes with which dish, but some are also giving more thought to where and how the grapes were grown. Sustainable agriculture doesn’t have a fixed definition in the way “organic” has had since federal organic standards were finalized in 2000, but a growing number of consumers are seeking sustainably produced wine, and third-party certification programs are infusing the term with more meaning.

The wine industry has been open to collaborating on sustainability issues, perhaps more so than other agricultural sectors that haven’t had to band together as much in the past, said Executive Director Allison Jordan of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, an educational program formed by the Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers that launched a statewide sustainability certification program in 2010.

Last year, the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission committed to becoming the country’s first 100% sustainable wine producing county by 2019.

“There are some other agricultural sectors that have developed programs, like the Almond Board in California, for example, but I think for wine some it stems all the way back to prohibition,”  she said. “The trade association goes back over 85 years, and there’s just the understanding that on certain issues, we really need to cooperate as much as possible. When it comes to best practices, there’s a long history of being willing to share information.”

Unlike organic which can typically command a premium at retailers and restaurants, sustainable certification isn’t giving producers stronger pricing power. A number of wineries are now paying certified growers a bonus, said Lodi Winegrape Commission Program Director Stuart Spencer, but that hasn’t necessarily translated into higher prices for the wine.

Just as wines in general run the gamut from cheap to ultra-pricey, sustainable wines can be found at all the price points, said Jordan.

“It’s not necessarily the same in the case of organic wine or wine made with organically grown grapes,” Spencer said. “With sustainable, it’s not clear yet whether people will be able to pay more.”

That said, growers and producers still see financial benefits from sustainable production, in the form of cost savings and enhanced reputation.

“Sustainability is part of your story, it can help build brand allegiance,” Spencer said. “At the trade level, it can help open doors for you. Many restaurants and retailers are more concerned with the products they’re carrying and selling, and that can help create business opportunities. But in many cases, too, for larger companies, sustainability is more a risk-management tool. They’re more worried about the downside of not being conscious of these issues.”

In the U.S., sustainable wine certification efforts began in California.

“We started our program back around 1991, when our organization was first started,” said Spencer. “At the time, it began as an integrated pest management program, and over the years, that evolved into a pretty comprehensive program. Around 2000, we did a self-assessment workbook and let growers score themselves.”

In 2005, the commission launched the state’s first third-party sustainable certification for vineyards and wineries. The focus is on balancing the environment, the employees and the economics of the operation, he said.

“I think in Lodi in particular, there’s a sense of community that’s greater than in other parts of California, so we have been able to accomplish a lot. A lot of our farming families are fourth and fifth generation, so there’s a kind of long-term outlook that helps with a program like this,” Spencer said.

About 100 sustainably certified Lodi growers were farming about 21,000 acres as of last year, according to Spencer. The program includes about 101 different standards, from pest control to water conservation to financial solvency. Each standard is evaluated and growers are qualify based on their total score along with whether they’ve stayed under a specified threshold for pesticide use over the course of the year.

“Our system is a scientific-based system that quantifies the pesticide use in the vineyard. There are five indices we looked at, including acute risk, chronic risk, avian risk, bees and aquatic life. Different pesticides rank higher or lower on the different indices, and a model was developed,” Spencer explained. “Wine grapes here in California are relatively benign when it comes to pesticides. The biggest impact comes from sulfur, which is organic and is used as a mildew control tool.”

Lodi’s program set an example for others, including the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance.

Today, the Alliance has certified vineyards that grow grapes on about 17.5% of the state’s 570,000 wine-grape acres, and 87 wineries that produce nearly 66% of the 240 million cases of wine made in the state annually, said Executive Director Jordan. Between this program, Lodi’s program and other third-party certifications, about a quarter of the state’s wine grape growing acreage is certified sustainable, she said.

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