When a group of winegrowers develops an eco-friendly certification program for their own region, one question you have to ask is: How serious are they? If the very people who have to live up to the goals are setting the goals, isn't there a possibility that they won't set the bar higher than they and their neighbors can easily reach? Does the certification hold everyone's feet to the fire or is it just a way to look good for the public?
That was a potential concern when four leading Long Island producers—Bedell Cellars, Shinn Estate, Channing Daughters and Martha Clara Vineyards—developed the first sustainability code and certification for vineyards on the East Coast in 2012 and launched the nonprofit Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing organization to oversee it. If you didn't personally know the sincerity and commitment of people like Bedell winemaker Rich Olsen-Harbich and Barbara Shinn, if you hadn't walked their vineyards with them, as I have, how sure could you be of what they were trying to do?
Modeled on New York state's VineBalance program, LISW customized those best practices to meet the needs of Long Island's maritime climate and fragile ecosystem. It requires participants to evaluate nearly 200 practices—including proper management of soil, nutrients, irrigation, weeds, pests and pesticides—and then pass an audit and demonstrate improvement each year.
Now that the first 10 vineyards, totaling more than 400 acres, earned certification in 2013, LISW's 18 winery and vineyard members and their customers have some additional assurance that they're doing the right things, that the program is set up correctly. Last year, in an unusual move, the not-for-profit group brought in an outside expert on sustainable winegrowing for a six-month review of its program—and in the interest of transparency has now shared the results with Wine Spectator.
"LISW is a robust and well-constructed program that compares well to other existing sustainable winegrowing certification programs, which are all located on the West Coast," concluded Clifford Ohmart in his report—the first time a third party has evaluated a sustainable certification in the United States. "Its goals are clearly stated and the farming practice standards are aligned with most of them."
Ohmart should know. While working for the Lodi Winegrape Commission in California, he helped develop a best-practices workbook for growers in 2000 and then the Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing certification, launched in 2005 and now encompassing 10,000 acres. Since 2009, he has been vice president of professional services at SureHarvest, which provides sustainability consulting, technological support and third-party certification for agriculture clients, including major wine companies and trade associations. He is also the author of the book View from the Vineyard: A Practical Guide to Sustainable Winegrape Growing.
With funding from a New York Wine and Grape Foundation grant, Ohmart compared LISW to four other sustainable winegrowing certifications in the United States (Lodi Rules, the Central Coast's Sustainability in Practice, Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing and the Pacific Northwest's LIVE), as well as two non-wine programs.
He deemed LISW "comprehensive" in its coverage of practices, which focus on the region's important environmental issues and challenges for growers. For example, the island's climate can be cool and humid, resulting in more disease pressure on grapes. However, the vineyards sit above the island's sole drinking-water aquifer and face the ocean, bay or river. So a big part of the program focuses on reducing pesticide use and using products that don't leach into the groundwater and into fish nurseries and oyster and clam grounds.
Ohmart also determined the auditing frequency—the first two consecutive years and then every third year—to be "appropriate to ensure rigor and at the same time a reasonable cost to the grower." Although LISW relies on an independent inspector, Allan Connell, formerly of the USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service, Ohmart did note that technically the certification isn't a third-party program, since LISW oversees its own members. However, currently no other certifiers exist on the East Coast that could oversee this program.
How could LISW be improved? The 20 pages of analysis get quite detailed, but among the key takeaways was to strengthen the language of LISW's 18 core criteria to improve their specificity and clarity. (For example, avoid using vague words like "appropriate" and "periodically.") The organizers have already made the recommended wording changes, said Olsen-Harbich, and are looking to develop their own standalone workbook instead of relying on VineBalance, another of Ohmart's suggestions.
Right now, LISW focuses only on vineyard practices. Sustainability looks not only at being ecologically friendly but also socially equitable—taking into account the well-being of employees and neighbors—and making sure businesses remain economically viable. To those ends, Ohmart suggested adding energy management, business management and social responsibility practices to the program.
LISW's organizers had already planned on adding a winery component as the next step. Olsen-Harbich has started work on this aspect, completing an energy-use review of cellar operations through the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute at Rochester Institute of Technology.
But before adding more practices, Ohmart said, the program should concentrate in the short-term on showing how it provides a return on investment for growers—whether that's cost savings through better farming practices, fulfilling regulatory requirements, higher grape prices, new markets for their grapes, or the satisfaction of doing the right thing.
So if you care about the long-term health of local wine regions, don't just take the winegrowers' word for it. For that matter, don't take Ohmart's word for it. Pick a weekend, head out to the North or South Forks, try the wines, take a vineyard tour, ask them about how they're farming and see for yourself.
Certified LISW Members:
Channing Daughters Winery
Harbes Family Vineyard
Martha Clara Vineyards
One Woman Wines & Vineyards
Sannino Bella Vita Vineyard
Shinn Estate Vineyards
Wölffer Estate Vineyard