Once the 2012 bottlings have come and gone, Oregon's attempt to create a single brand for eco-friendly wines may quietly disappear along with the vintage. The Oregon Wine Board is dropping its Oregon Certified Sustainable Wine program (OCSW)—a proprietary credential that unified multiple environmental certifications under one label. Some winery members hope to find a new home for OCSW, but for now its future is uncertain.
Sustainability will remain a key part of the Oregon Wine Board's marketing efforts—it will support all the individual certifications: organic, biodynamic, sustainable under Low Input Viticulture and Enology (LIVE), Salmon Safe and Vinea. The $10,600 left in the OCSW budget has gone to LIVE—now the leading wine certification program in Oregon—as a one-time grant to help it start marketing its program.
Begun with the 2008 vintage, OCSW was meant to clear up consumer confusion over the myriad labels on Oregon wines. The message was meant to be simple: OCSW wines follow environmentally friendly farming and winemaking practices, which are verified by an independent, third-party certifier. (While 97 percent of the grapes in a wine had to be certified, that could be by any one of the approved agencies.)
"I think it's a great idea as a farmer who farms some vineyards LIVE, some organic, some Demeter and some all three," said Sam Tannahill, director of viticulture and winemaking at A to Z Wineworks and Rex Hill, and co-owner of Francis Tannahill winery. "While the internal workings can get confusing, I think the end message is very clear—it's Oregon, it's certified, it's sustainable."
The program launched publicly in 2009 with a good deal of enthusiasm and energy, an educational campaign for consumers and the trade, 11 certified wineries and more in the works. Among the supporters were some of Oregon's big names and those already known for green practices: Adelsheim, Amity, Anne Amie, Bethel Heights, Cristom, Montinore, Panther Creek, Ponzi, WillaKenzie, Willamette Valley Vineyards and Wooldridge Creek.
But the initial momentum petered out after the entire staff turned over and government grants ran dry. Of more than 460 wineries in Oregon, around two dozen were certifying via OCSW on a regular basis. "When the [Oregon Wine] board is funded by all the wineries in the state—we pay a tax on the tons we harvest or make into wine—and you look at a program with 20 or less wineries in it, you question how much staff time you put into this," said Tannahill, who also serves as a board member.
In the meantime, LIVE's presence was growing, as it added winery certification in 2008 and expanded in the Pacific Northwest. As of May 2013, 47 percent of Oregon's planted vineyard land—more than 9,700 acres—was certified organic, biodynamic or sustainable; 7,300 acres of that is under LIVE, along with 43 certified wineries in Oregon and Washington.
"If OCSW is not going to be in the picture, a lot of the principals will turn their attention to LIVE and that will give it more strength and credibility," said Pat Dudley, president of Bethel Heights, an OCSW pilot program member. "Unfortunately it won't include organic and biodynamic. We were trying to overcome having to try to explain all the distinctions."
"It's my hope personally that OCSW continues," said Tannahill, who suggests that either another third-party organization could take it up (LIVE was approached but ultimately declined) or interested wineries could create a self-funded organization to handle it. He expects wineries will continue to discuss possible next steps after the 2013 crush. "Let's not say goodbye. Let's say see you later.”