You stop by your local wineshop one evening and discover it's hosting an informal wine tasting. As you take a sip, the salesperson mentions that the winery is ecofriendly and farms its vineyards sustainably. But what does that really mean? And how do you know the winery is doing what it says?
Increasingly, you can pick up the bottle and find out. In the past three years, more wine labels have begun sporting seals of certification for sustainability, which encompasses environmentally sound, socially equitable and economically viable business practices.
Consumers trying to figure out if a wine brand lives up to its "green" claims are getting help from the wine industry itself, in the absence of federally run efforts such as the USDA National Organic Program. In the United States and other countries, winery and grower groups have been setting up voluntary certifications-backed by third-party audits-to better define sustainability and give it the weight of organic and biodynamic certifications.
"Do we need more regulation as a winery? No, we already have the feds, state and county," says Napa vintner Michael Honig, owner of Honig Vineyard & Winery, which participated in the pilot for a new California-wide program. "But the average consumer feels better knowing there's some certification, versus people saying they are doing one thing and really doing another."
Besides, Honig noted, certification allows winegrowers to demonstrate that sustainability isn't just a cop-out that allows them to occasionally use chemicals while saying they are "green"; a truly sustainable business may surpass the requirements of organic certification. "Where organic talks about pesticide use, sustainability goes to the next step and allows us to address things that don't get addressed in organic [certification]-such as wind power, water conservation, employee benefits, materials handling and providing natural habitat for birds and predators."
MESSAGE ON THE BOTTLE
Sustainably certified wines may finally achieve a substantial market presence this year, as close to 200,000 cases of U.S. wine bearing new certification logos are already distributed or being released over the coming months.
Oregon's wine industry may be the furthest along in market impact. Pacific Northwest vineyards already have a legacy of sustainability certification, handled by the nonprofit LIVE (Low Input Viticulture & Enology) since 1997. In 2009, the Oregon Wine Board introduced a statewide program called Oregon Certified Sustainable Wine (OCSW), which brings all the green growers under the same umbrella-with a single certification seal and unified marketing.
So far, 18 wineries have certified about 150 wines, totaling 129,000 cases from the 2007, 2008 and 2009 vintages-and more from the newest vintage are on the way. Another 10 wineries may complete certification for 2009 and 2010 vintage wines, and already-certified wineries are increasing the number of wines they submit for approval as they seek out additional certified vineyard sources.
"The more wineries that can get involved and get the logo on their label, the more power this is going to have in the marketplace for us," says Luisa Ponzi of Ponzi winery, one of the pilot participants, who added that retailers have responded well to her OCSW-certified whites as they seek simple ways to tell customers about ecofriendly wines.
California has close to 100,000 cases of certified wines reaching the market, split among two regions that helped develop sustainability best practices for the wine industry. Both the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission and the Central Coast Vineyard Team recently transformed established education and assessment programs (started in 1992 and 1996, respectively) into certifications open to winegrowers in all areas. Both are points-based systems that require growers to earn a minimum score on an evaluation of practices ranging from soil management to employee education and training.
The Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing certification got underway with the 2005 vintage. A workhorse appellation that produces more grapes than Napa and Sonoma combined, Lodi encompasses more than 100,000 acres of vines, of which more than 16,000 are now certified. The commission expects another big jump this year, driven by Bogle Winery, which offered growers a per-ton bonus to get their vineyards certified, according to program manager Stuart Spencer.
About a dozen wineries have produced a total of around 50,000 cases with the seal, and another 10,000 may be bottled this spring, but "we haven't reached critical mass yet," says Spencer. Much of the area's fruit is sold to large, outside producers such as Gallo, Beringer and Fetzer, and while such wineries may be interested in having their growers participate, "they may not be ready to put it on the label," Spencer notes. "Sourcing and blending from many growers makes it challenging."
The Central Coast Vineyard Team—300 farmers with 60,000 acres in appellations in and around San Luis Obispo, Monterey and Santa Barbara counties—introduced its Sustainability in Practice (SIP) certification in 1998. SIP now covers more than 11,000 acres of certified vineyards—including those of Jackson Family Farms, one of the area's biggest players—and 30 wines, from six wineries, totaling nearly 48,000 cases. Executive director Kris O'Connor says another 2,100 acres of vineyards are going through the application process, and the number of cases is expected to grow significantly as new wines are bottled and audited this spring.
Napa Valley Vintners also has a comprehensive certification program, called Napa Green, for certifying land (entire properties, not just vineyards) and wineries; about 33,000 acres of land are enrolled and 21 wineries certified, with another 10 in the pipeline. But consumers won't see labels on bottles at this point, though they may see them on winery Web sites and other marketing materials.
CALIFORNIA'S BIG PUSH
The certification movement got a boost this January when California's two largest winery and grower organizations unveiled the statewide Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing (CCSW) program.
Built upon the two groups' nine-year-old sustainability education program and the work of regional organizations, the certification was initiated to give wineries and growers "a means of credibly sharing their progress with customers," and thereby encourage the adoption of best practices, says Bobby Koch, president and CEO of the Wine Institute, which helped develop the program with the California Association of Winegrape Growers.
Over the past three years, the two groups-collaborating as the nonprofit California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance-worked with consultants to develop a flexible framework for evaluating businesses of all sizes and in all of the state's wine regions.
"We have a broad and diverse industry," says consultant John Heckman, director of FiveWinds International. A winery and a vineyard don't have the same energy needs, for example. And for Central Valley producers, air quality may be the biggest issue, while Northern California wineries near a salmon-spawning stream may need to focus more on erosion and water management. "It was a real challenge to maintain that inclusivity but have an objective way to communicate that to the public," he adds.
Wineries and vineyards evaluate their operations against 227 best practices-covering subjects such as air and water quality, water conservation, energy efficiency, reduced pesticide use, and preservation of ecosystems and animal habitat-and score themselves on a scale of 1 to 4 for each. To be eligible for certification, they must meet 58 prerequisites, but the focus is on a "process of continuous improvement." Unlike with Lodi Rules and SIP, CCSW participants don't need a minimum score for most criteria-as long as they develop a plan for improvement.
Just going through the 227-point evaluation shows a lot of commitment, says Honig. "It took a lot of time, but it was valuable, because it gave you that broad perspective. ... This opened our eyes to 'Hey, we could be doing this better,' or 'Hey, we're doing something really well and other people can learn from this.' "
An approved third-party auditor, paid by the company, must verify the accuracy of the scores and the practices. The audits are conducted annually-on-site the first year and every third year thereafter-to ensure that improvement is demonstrated each year, with objective evidence supported by documentation or photographs.
After participating in a pilot program to test the requirements, 17 wine companies-ranging from small family farms to industry giants such as E.&J. Gallo Winery, Constellation Wines U.S. and Diageo Chateau & Estate Wines-earned the CCSW certification in January for some or all of their operations. (See the full list, along with more details on the different certifications, at www.winespectator.com/053110.)
And the CCSW program has the potential to reach a much larger pool of participants. Since 2002, 1,566 vineyards and wineries have used the alliance's Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices workbook, which now serves as the basis for the certification evaluation, to assess the need for improvements within their businesses. In all, the self-assessments represent 46 percent of California's 526,000 vineyard acres and 59 percent of the state's 240 million case production.
However, the CCSW logo and claims are not yet approved for display on wine bottles. For now, those may only appear on certified participants' Web sites, secondary marketing materials and on information displayed in wineries or vineyards. "This is not a consumer-facing program yet; this is not about putting a label on a bottle," says Chris Savage, senior director of global environmental affairs for E.&J. Gallo Winery and current chair of the alliance. "This is to buoy the entire industry's sustainable profile."
The program is going to keep evolving and improving, says Honig, who chaired the committee to develop the original sustainability code and serves on the Wine Institute board. "We've come up with something we can be proud of. It's not perfect, but we'll make it perfect. We're not going to change things overnight, but we're getting people thinking about it. I'm still naive enough to think we can make a difference."