This is What Sustainable Wine Certification in California Really Means

This is What Sustainable Wine Certification in California Really Means

Sustainable farming practices are critical to our planet. But sustainable wine certifications — like the ones in Napa County and Sonoma County California — aren’t quite living up to some growers’ sustainable standards.

Sustainable certification in Napa and Sonoma

Napa and Sonoma are two of California’s largest wine counties. Both areas are working to achieve 100 percent sustainability. In 2014, Sonoma County Winegrowers (SCW) launched a campaign to reach 100 percent sustainability by 2019. And in 2015, Napa Valley Vintners announced its goal to reach 100 percent sustainability by 2020. Right now, Sonoma is at 60 percent certification and Napa is at 50 percent. Each county’s certification process requires wineries to track and remain conscious of their operations.

The Napa certification process, called Napa Green Winery, requires wineries to become re-certified every three years. Certification is based on tracking energy and water use, as well as waste diversion and resource conservation, the North Bay Business Journal reports.

The Sonoma certification process, called Sonoma County Winegrowers, has three main principles. Wine makers must ponder if their winery is environmentally sound, economically feasible, and socially equitable. And the topics related to these principles are water quality and conservation, energy efficiency, material handling, pest, soil and waste management, ecosystem, community relations, and human resources, Civil Eats reports.

The sustainable certification catch

Although both certification programs have problems — some Napa wineries wonder if the certification truly matters and state that no single certification is all-encompassing — Sonoma County’s program is the one facing recent blowback.

The problem with glyphosate

Although the Sonoma program made efforts to help winegrowers review and revise their sustainable vineyard practices, attain certification, and prevent green-washing through third-party verification and certification, it’s not perfect.

Some Sonoma wine growers aren’t happy that an organization tells them how to do business and grow. But the bigger issue is that Sonoma’s sustainable certification process doesn’t ban synthetic herbicides. It allows growers to use Monsanto’s Roundup, which contains glyphosate. Many kitchen gardeners, a lot of the general public, and sustainable and organic farmers and winegrowers take issue with Roundup. Their concern is for good reason.

On July 7th, California officially added glyphosate to its cancer-warning law, also known as Proposition 65. In 2016, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer listed glyphosate as a possible carcinogen. The WHO came to its conclusion based on numerous studies. Monsanto maintains its product is safe.

Why some defend pesticide use

Although USDA Organic standards don’t allow herbicide or pesticide use, the EPA, the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA), the organization that created the Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing initiative in 2010, and some farmers and winemakers think that growing produce without pesticides and herbicides isn’t realistic.

Pablo Solomon, green designer, educator, and futurist, thinks that sometimes, organic farming isn’t a viable option. “Depending on the climate, and [the] cyclic plagues of bugs, fungi and other plant pests—it becomes economically impossible to make money without using chemical solutions,” Solomon says.

“On a very small scale, one can address various attacks in a truly organic way,” he adds, “but this is very labor intensive and can require expense alternatives.”

Solomon and Beverly, Solomon’s wife, live in Texas Wine country that’s northwest of Austin. He and several of his friends own vineyards and have discussed the chemical herbicide, pesticide, and fungicide issue at length. “I know vineyard owners who have spent huge money to get various technology to combat, for example fungi, only to find that these [things] only work under ideal conditions. When a real crisis hits, [they] have had to use traditional chemical methods,” Solomon explains.

“It is not an easy decision, but when you have huge money tied up in an investment, people to pay, loans to pay off, a family to feed, etc. — it is sometimes necessary to be as safe as possible, but not perfect.”

Moving sustainable certification forward

Many farmers and educators want to make sustainable certification more comprehensive, and easier to understand.  And for some, that change means using small amounts of chemicals, such as the fungicides Solomon suggests. But for others, that means going completely chemical-free.

Sustainability with limited pesticide use

Sustainability in Practice (SIP) Certified, an organization based in Atascadero, Calif., that helps farmers and winemakers preserve and protect resources, has a similar philosophy about sustainability.

SIP’s main difference from other sustainable and organic programs is its “high-risk pesticides” ban. SIP doesn’t allow its members to use Cholinesterase inhibitors, toxic air contaminants or known ground water contaminates.

So, although SIP allows some pesticide use, Beth Vukmanic Lopez, SIP certified manager, explains that SIP’s certification could help make some organic operations more sustainable. “[SIP examines] sustainable practices on every level. From farm labor to agriculture – from energy conservation to water quality,” she says.

“The program is based on science and expert input, independent verification, transparency, and absence of conflict of interest. The farming and wine processing rules are a ‘iving document’. As science, technology, and research developments become available, the Standards evolve with the expertise of a Technical Advisory Committee,” Vukmanic adds. The program is peer reviewed every five years to ensure its quality, too.

Better sustainable practices through education

Sandra Taylor’s main concern about sustainability is how its marketed. “Typically, consumers are confused as to the nature and meaning of sustainability programs. [They may] not understand the certifications that end up on wine labels,” Taylor, an expert on environmental sustainability, social responsibility, and agricultural supply chains, explains.

“My goal is to help consumers understand sustainability trends and for the wine industry globally to fully embrace and implement sustainable practices. This is important to the consuming public and the health of our planet.”

However, the sustainable wine market could move its evolution forward with a little work. Advocates in the sustainable farming industry could ensure sustainable certification standards are rigorous.

So, in Taylor’s opinion, a combination of pest-control options and sustainable farming practices is key. For example, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a great way to help combat pests. But Taylor thinks that organic production is not appropriate or feasible for everyone.

“Farmers need to have all the tools to help them be environmentally sustainable, socially responsible, and economically viable,” she says. “Sometimes chemicals are needed to save the crop and ensure economic viability, also saving jobs of vineyard and winery workers.”

Taylor says glyphosate is not an essential or critical tool for the viticulturist and that “it should be placed on the list of prohibited chemicals, given its effect on the groundwater and the resistance it can engender over time.”

Pesticide-free sustainability

Skipstone Wines, a Geyserville, California winery in the Alexander Valley, maintains CCOF Organic certification, and uses sustainable practices, too. The winery also chooses to maintain its organic certification because of its internal mission.

Therefore, winery employees think that if a pest destroys part of Skipstone’s vineyard, that area isn’t sustainable. “We recently had to pull out a vineyard, because we had a pest and we couldn’t deal with it, which isn’t very sustainable,” Emily Wines, former Skipstone general manager, says.

The sustainable label conversation is far from over. And even though there may not yet be a consensus among wine growers and farmers, at least the community is having these important conversations.

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