Surrounded by water, stretched out along the east end of an island sticking 120 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean, Long Island wineries are confronted by environmental challenges on all sides. Their vines sit atop the island’s sole drinking-water aquifer. Soil erosion and chemical runoff can spread via creeks into the estuaries that support fish nurseries, migrating birds and oyster and clam beds. Where they don’t face a river, bay or ocean, the island’s North Fork and the Hamptons appellations bump up against the suburban sprawl of New York City.
In an attempt to protect that fragile ecosystem and set an example, a group of producers—Bedell Cellars, Channing Daughters, Martha Clara Vineyards and Shinn Estate—have banded together to create a Long Island-specific sustainability code and certification. The program will be overseen by a newly formed non-profit organization called Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing, Inc. (LISW).
“We’re in a pretty sensitive area … the watershed is important,” said Bedell winemaker Richard Olsen-Harbich. Inspired by sustainable wine certifications in West Coast states such as California and Oregon, the group wanted to create a local program—the first in an East Coast wine region—that reflects the best practices in use. “We’ve taken it upon ourselves to bring it to the next level with certification.”
For the first year, 11 winegrowers are participating, with the core four joined by Harbes Family, Palmer, One Woman, Paumanok, Peconic Bay, Roanoke and Wölffer. It’s possible that the first certified wines, bearing the LISW logo on the bottles, could come from the 2012 vintage and be released for sale as early as 2013, but a vineyard would have had to be following many of the practices already to earn certification the first year.
Following international standards, the program will evaluate winegrowers on environmentally and socially responsible practices. While the focus now is on vineyards, the group hopes to expand into certifying winery operations, perhaps in 2014. Earning certification is “not an end game,” noted Olsen-Harbich, and education will be an important part of the program, which was developed in conjunction with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. “It’s a pathway of constant improvement. As an organization, we can work together and help each other continue to improve and operate with the best possible practices.”
Many Long Island winegrowers have been following a New York state-recognized program of best practices called VineBalance, developed in 2004 with Cornell, the New York Wine & Grape Foundation and New York Farm Viability. But Olsen-Harbich said Long Island needed guidelines to deal with their unique conditions. “The type of grapes we grow are different from a lot of the rest of the state—European varietals exclusively in a maritime climate.” The guidelines for New York state cover many practices geared to native and hybrid varieties, or to juice grapes, along with some practices to protect vines from winter freezes that are of less concern on Long Island.
Among the big concerns are preventing pesticides and excess nitrate-nitrogen from fertilizers from leaching into the groundwater, then harming the health of the island’s estuaries and bays. The organization also stresses preserving local biodiversity while ensuring high-quality grape crops for future generations.
While you’d be hard-pressed to find a Long Island producer who doesn’t want to support those ideals, most of the region’s 56 wineries are holding off on joining the certification program for now, waiting to see how it evolves and how customers respond to it. “I think it’s a terrific idea,” said Rosamond Baiz, owner-winemaker of the Old Field Vineyards in Southold, a family winery that follows many of the VineBalance sustainable practices. “But we’re not sure some parts of the program suit our property as much.”
For example, the program stresses that at least two-thirds of the vineyard must have permanent cover crops rather than bare soil—grasses, legumes and flowers help minimize erosion, improve soil health without chemicals and support beneficial insects that fight pests, among other things. But Old Field is the farthest east of any Long Island winery, right next to the water, and their site tends to be one of the coolest, so they’ve chosen to have less extensive ground cover directly around the vines. When they let the grasses grow tall, Baiz said, it makes the ground cooler and more humid, resulting in more disease pressure on grapes and less heat reflected from bare soil to warm the vines. On the other hand, mowing more often would compact the soil and use more energy.
In addition, smaller wineries are concerned about the cost and whether consumers are willing to spend more to offset the extra expenses. Right now, Baiz said, she’d rather use the combined $800 in membership and inspection fees to purchase some new needed equipment.
“The number one reason we’re not participating is that I typically buy my pesticides for the coming season at the end of the year [to save money], so I had already committed to purchase things that they don’t allow in the program,” said Sam McCullough, vineyard manager for the Lenz Winery. While he cited fungus control as his big concern in Long Island’s humid climate, he felt the sustainability program provides enough options to deal with any problems that might arise and didn’t think the required changes would be onerous.
Still, McCullough has yet to decide about participating next year. “I think it’s a fine idea, but I don’t know that there are really that many genuinely harmful practices out here. We’re all pretty responsible. I see it mainly as a perception issue and a public relations act rather than changing the way we take care of the environment, but anything that helps market our product is a good thing.”
To qualify for certification, participants must complete the VineBalance Workbook self-assessment and earn a qualifying score, with special emphasis on 18 core requirements, such as having a plan to mitigate runoff, use and storage of pesticides and a plan to create ecological areas on the farm for insects, native wildlife and plants that are not crops.
The group hopes its logo on labels will draw green-minded consumers.
Accompanying that are detailed score sheets for weed management, disease management and insect control. Some herbicides, fungicides and insecticides are prohibited altogether because of their tendency to leach into and persist in the water. Others are limited to use once or twice per season. Reduced-risk, bio-pesticides or organic materials are allowed, and in the case of fungicides, must make up more than half of applications each season. For fertilizer, the program requires that at least some of it be organic, such as compost or mulch.
Participants must then undergo an independent, third-party inspection—involving an on-site visit and a review of all records—earning passing scores on all criteria, and create an action plan for future improvements. The following year they must show progress on that plan. A winery has to be certified the first two consecutive years, and then the inspections take place every third year, in keeping with organic and Demeter biodynamic standards.
Long Island has been growing European grape varieties since the late 1700s, when a nursery company set up there and began selling vines. But the modern industry got underway in the early 1970s, with the founding of Hargrave Vineyard in Cutchogue. The region underwent a boom in small farm wineries in the 1980s and ’90s, with an investment spike around 2000, when some pioneering producers were sold for huge sums. Today, Long Island vineyards encompass about 3,000 planted acres and a wide range of grape varieties, dominated by Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
Olsen-Harbich said the sustainability code is a natural next phase in the region’s evolution, after more than three decades of learning how to work with their terroir, expanding plantings and coalescing as an industry. “It’s the time—we're looking at fine-tuning, trying to make better and better wine. The one way we do that is to create conditions better for the environment, our surroundings and the community.”