As the world takes an ever more environmentally conscious turn, many wineries are now trumpeting their use of “sustainable” practices. This had led to a lot of confusion among consumers, and even trade members, about the definition of the term. Most people understand it to have a faintly green tinge, but what does “sustainable” actually mean?
In the wine world, the concept of sustainability is based on something called the Global Wine Sector Environmental Sustainability Principles (GWSESP), set down by an international trade group. This set of guidelines aims to help wineries and growers take care of the environment, their employees and the community’s interests, along with the vineyard.
According to the GWSESP, the pursuit of sustainability involves constant evaluation and improvement of the way a vineyard or winery operates – including such factors as energy efficiency, human resource management, biodiversity and vineyard chemical use.
While sustainability often involves aspects of organic or biodynamic farming, the overall concept is different in that it doesn’t necessarily mean foregoing synthetic chemicals in the vineyard (as in organics) or viewing the farm as a whole living organism (as in biodynamics).
Until a little over a decade ago, wine producers pursuing sustainability used self-assessment programs to determine which areas of their businesses to improve, and how to go about it. Most were (and are) sincere and honest in their efforts, but the lack of outside monitoring – as in certified organic and biodynamic systems – led some people to question the term’s legitimacy.
To clear up some of the confusion, third-party organizations developed certification programs for sustainability. Once certified, a winery can include a special logo on its bottles or labels that lets consumers know about its sustainable principles and practices – that is, if they can keep all the different certifications straight.
There are now more than a half-dozen sustainable certification programs, from regional programs like Napa Green to statewide efforts like Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing. (As of yet, there is no nationwide certification program for vineyards or wineries.)
To help you decipher the various “green stamps of approval” that are starting to appear on wine bottles, here’s a primer on the major sustainability certifications:
Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing (CCSW)
This certification program grew out of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Program (SWP), which was created by the Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers in 2002.
To qualify for certification, wineries and vineyards must first meet a set of 58 prerequisites. Then they agree to annually evaluate the sustainability of their operations through self-assessment, prove to a third-party auditor that they’re using their stated practices, identify key areas in which they can improve, and create and implement annual action plans to accomplish these improvements. (The book detailing the program’s best practices and standards is thicker than most telephone directories!)
Because each operation is different, the specific practices they adopt – from energy-saving measures to irrigation strategies – will vary from producer to producer.
For a list of participating wineries, see the SWP website at www.sustainablewinegrowing.org.
The Lodi Rules certification program was launched by the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission in 2005 to complement the Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing Program, created in 1992.
For a vineyard to get certified, its farming practices must meet Lodi Rules standards in the areas of ecosystem management, education training and team building, soil and water management, vineyard establishment, and pest management.
Each vineyard must qualify for certification every year, with an independent audit or inspection of the vineyard to ensure compliance.
See www.lodiwine.com for a list of Lodi Rules participants.
The Sustainability in Practice (SIP) Certification program was developed by the Central Coast Vineyard Team, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting sustainable winegrowing practices since 1994.
The certification’s main requirements cover: clean water (reducing erosion and filtering storm run-off), energy efficiency, safe pest management (using only reduced-risk pesticides, if any), water conservation, protecting wildlife habitats, and social responsibility (offering competitive wages, medical insurance and education for workers).
Experts from the Environmental Protection Agency, University of California, and Natural Resources Defense Council (among others) review the SIP standards, and audits ensure that participants are meeting the requirements.
To use the SIP logo on a wine bottle, at least 85% of the grapes must come from sustainably certified fruit. The first SIP-certified wines hit store shelves in late 2009.
Participants are listed at www.sipthegoodlife.org.
Napa Green Certified
Initiated by Napa Valley's agricultural community, the development of Napa Green involved a collaborative effort between local vintners and growers and representatives from government agencies and environmental organizations.
The Napa Green Certified Land certification program operates in partnership with Fish Friendly Farming, National Marine Fisheries Service, the Napa County Department of Agriculture’s Department of Pesticide Regulation, and the Regional Water Quality Control Board (among others).
The program’s goals are to ensure compliance with all local, state and federal environmental regulations; implement best management practices and promote sustainable agriculture and ecosystems; improve water quality and aquatic habitat; implement restoration and soil erosion control projects; and expand community awareness of responsible management practices by grape growers.
Its companion certification program, Napa Green Certified Winery, was created in 2007 by the Napa Valley Vintners association, in cooperation with the Napa County Department of Environmental Management (DEM).
The certification’s checklist of sustainable practices – an updated version of the winery-specific guidelines created by the Association of Bay Area Government’s (ABAG) Green Business Program – includes standards for water conservation, energy conservation, pollution prevention and solid waste reduction.
The names of Napa Green participants can be found at: www.napavintners.com.
LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology) offers third-party certification to vineyards and wineries in Oregon and Washington. It got its start certifying vineyards in 1997.
The program’s objectives are: To see the vineyard as a whole system, to create and maintain economically viable viticulture, to maintain the highest level of fruit quality, to minimize the use of agricultural chemicals and fertilizers, to promote biological diversity in the vineyard, and to encourage responsible stewardship of soil health, fertility and stability.
Winery members are inspected for compliance in their first year of participation, and every third year after that. Vineyard members are inspected on-site in their first and second years, and every third year after that on a random basis.
LIVE’s certified member list is posted at: www.liveinc.org.
With the growing number of certifications available to wineries and growers, nobody really expects wine-lovers to keep all of them straight, or to remember the specific practices used (or not used) by the participants of each program. The idea is to assure consumers that the wineries and grape growers that spend the time and money to get certified are not just “greenwashing” their operations to sell more wine.
Whether we’re talking about CCSW, Napa Green or SIP, certification isn’t an easy process – and it’s on ongoing one. You can bet that those who choose to participate are serious about taking care not only of their own businesses, but of the environment and their communities.