Log In / Join Now

Sonoma Wine Industry Makes Big Strides in Sustainability

Growers look to next 100 years following productive first year of ambitious certification program
Francis Ford Coppola Winery will be among those paying Sonoma growers more for certified sustainable grapes.
Photo by: Chad Keig
Francis Ford Coppola Winery will be among those paying Sonoma growers more for certified sustainable grapes.

Dana Nigro
Posted: January 16, 2015

Exactly one year after Sonoma County's winegrowers and vintners committed to becoming 100 percent sustainable by January 2019, the Sonoma County Winegrowers (SCW) commission has announced it is already one-third of the way to its goal.

Along with its first annual sustainability report, part of the organization's promise to be transparent about the process, SCW also unveiled the creation of a 100-year plan to preserve agriculture overall in the county, not just wine grapes. The wine industry will work with other agricultural, business and community groups, as well as government agencies, to find long-term solutions to potential problems, such as water and labor shortages, and determine areas of focus for research and innovation.

"The two actually go hand in hand," said Karissa Kruse, president of SCW. "It seems like a big new initiative. But the 100-year plan could only happen if we came out and committed to sustainability first. The way to preserve agriculture is to be sustainable with the land—so this makes sustainability the means rather than the end goal."

Sonoma aims to be the first U.S. wine region to have all its vineyards and wineries audited and certified sustainable by an independent third party. In doing so, it hopes its growers and wineries will earn better prices and capture the attention of consumers, retailers and restaurant buyers looking for products made in environmentally and socially responsible ways.

Sonoma's sustainability initiative—coordinated by SCW and the nonprofit Sonoma County Vintners—is voluntary, and with more than 1,800 growers and 450 wineries in the county, the 2019 target date seems audacious. But SCW has gotten off to a fast start thanks to the energetic Kruse, an ambitious board of directors, chaired by Silver Oak and Twomey vineyard manager Brad Petersen, and numerous enthusiastic members involved in outreach.

Of the county's 59,772 vineyard acres, 33 percent, or 21,491 acres, are now certified, mostly under the Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing designation (CCSW), but also Lodi Rules and Sustainability in Practice (SIP). Bringing total participation to 43 percent, another 4,500 vineyard acres in 2014 underwent the first step, completion of a comprehensive sustainability self-assessment of 138 farming and business practices, such as water management, pesticide use, energy efficiency, carbon emissions, employee safety and community relations.

Sonoma wasn't exactly starting from scratch in 2014. Since the statewide California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA) introduced its Code of Sustainability workbook in 2002, about 37,000 acres in Sonoma went through the voluntary assessment at least once during those dozen years, so many growers were familiar with the best practices. About 15,000 acres earned the CCSW certification after it was introduced in 2010. So in 2014, Kruse estimates, about 6,500 acres were newly certified, on top of the annual certification renewals.

To get growers on board with the program, SCW hosted 26 sustainability workshops and meetings in 2014, while eight of the 16 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) within Sonoma held their own workshops—attracting about 950 growers in all. Friendly competition among the AVAs is being encouraged; the small Bennett Valley AVA, with two wineries and 35 growers, is aiming to be the first to reach the 100 percent mark, in 2017.

"With this great momentum in the first year," said Kruse, "we think we'll have a snowball effect."

SCW hired a sustainability manager, wine-industry veteran Robert LaVine to help growers with the process; he assisted with 25 individual assessments in 2014 and, in the first half of January 2015, has started the process with another 2,000 acres. Since more than 40 percent of Sonoma's vineyards are fewer than 20 acres, the commission has established a $100,000 budget for grants to offset certification costs, which can be $1,500 for a single site—a cost that smaller growers could find prohibitive. Ten small Sonoma growers worked with a CSWA pilot program to identify ways to reduce barriers to certification.

The grower and vintner organizations have also encouraged wineries to offset growers' certification costs; at the SCW's annual Dollars & Sense meeting at which the 100-year plan was announced, Francis Ford Coppola Winery's president and director of winemaking, Corey Beck, announced that the winery will pay growers more for certified sustainable grapes.

As further encouragement, participating growers were recognized at the meeting with an honor roll that will also be promoted in local newspapers, and those who earn certification receive a Sonoma County Sustainable sign to place in their vineyard.

One year in, is the hard work out of the way or only just beginning, as SCW reaches past the early adopters to those harder to convince? "A little of both, I guess," laughed Kruse. "There are still growers in this county without Internet and who rarely come off the farm. So at some point, there's some door knocking we'll have to do." But while Sonoma was fortunate to have large early sustainability supporters, such as Gallo, Jackson Family Wines and Rodney Strong, she said, "To get the momentum to get to 43 percent, that was the hard part. There were so many levels of awareness we had to build. To achieve our goals, we had to communicate out to the community and to consumers to see if it resonates."

Not only did Kruse, the SCW board and their ambassadors spend a lot of time speaking to growers one on one, Kruse became a frequent speaker at local business and community meetings, along with hosting regular radio segments, to explain to residents what sustainability means, what the wine industry's goal is, why it's important, and why their program is legitimate. "Now the heavy lifting will be on the 100-year plan," she said.

In California, about 30,000 acres of agriculture land are converted to non-agriculture uses each year, according to the American Farmland Trust. So the growers thought it was important to put out a vision for what they would like to see in 100 years and work in collaboration with other agencies, elected officials and all stakeholders in the community on the use of natural resources, regulations and other issues. As they start those conversations over the next several months, the group will set one-year and five-year benchmarks to meet.

"Most of the folks on my board talk about being in the vineyard with their parents and grandparents and wanting to have the same experience with their kids and grandkids. So 100 years is a tangible time period for most people," Kruse said.

Sonoma's nearly 60,000 acres of vineyards only make up 6 percent of the county's 1 million acres of land, much of which is forest and pasture along with urban sites. SCW surveyed growers and found respondents also farm an additional 8,639 acres of crops: almonds, figs, hay, hazelnuts, lavender, limes, oranges, pears and walnuts. "The important thing about the 100-year plan is that grapegrowers are first committed to being farmers. They all grow grapes today because Sonoma has proven to be a world-class place. But if something happened—water shortages, climate change …." Kruse, who rarely breaks her speaking stride, trailed off for a bit.

"Let's try to do our best to preserve grapegrowing," she resumed, "but acknowledge we want to live on the land and preserve agriculture."

Would you like to comment? Want to join or start a discussion?

Become a WineSpectator.com member and you can!
To protect the quality of our conversations, only members may submit comments. Member benefits include access to more than 315,000 reviews in our Wine Ratings Search; a first look at ratings in our Insider, Advance and Tasting Highlights; Value Wines; the Personal Wine List/My Cellar tool, hundreds of wine-friendly recipes and more.

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 365,000+ ratings.