Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

About time to certify sustainable wine in California?

Doing a little desk clearing (and it's a new desk, so that's not encouraging), and I found something I'm very interested in: wine. Not necessarily at my desk, but hell, we're reporters.

I come from a family of sniffers and swirlers. Not my dad the truculent Swede, but the Irish Catholic side. My grandfather was fond of a Sancerre now and again; my uncle invests in a magnificent winemaker's operation in the Russian River Valley, where he and my mom spent some summer vacations, and I've got some other cousins who make wines too.

Then a few years back I visited Napa for a friend's birthday, and we heard a lot about sustainability. A little less about organic, and biodynamic, but, for example, Robert Sinksey had folks who were knowledgeable and accessible during pourings. I love covering the environment. I love wine. You'd think I would have found an excuse to expense some stories by now.

Last year Oregon launched its own certification program last year. So it's nice to see California getting on board. The California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance has released guidelines for a pilot program for certifying wine as sustainable.

What the industry's doing here is voluntary. Participating wineries in the pilot project will get checked by independent auditors to verify that they follow enough environmentally friendly practices.

I'd imagine it's been tough getting this enterprise off the ground in California, since to a business owner and wine maker it might smack of yet another form of regulation. In fact, here's what Michael Honig of Honig Vineyards told Wine Spectator:

"Do we need more regulation as a winery? No, we already have the feds, state and county," said Michael Honig, owner of Honig Vineyard & Winery, one of the pilot participants. "But the average consumer feels better knowing there's some certification, versus people saying they are doing one thing and really doing another."

Given all that, I asked Allison Jordan, who directs environmental affairs for the Wine Institute, to answer a few questions about the program by email. Her unedited responses are below my questions in bold.

What does certification entail?
Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing (CCSW-Certified) is a certification program that provides third-party verification of a winery or vineyard's adherence to a "process of continuous improvement" in the adoption and implementation of sustainable winegrowing practices. CCSW-Certified wineries and vineyards must:

How high is that standard and how was it set at that height?

This question is more pertinent to other types of certification that seek to minimize the number of certified participants: 1) Practice-based programs set a bar based on the types of practices that are used, and often have a set of "do's and don'ts." 2) Performance-based programs set a bar based on performance metrics such as water efficiency or greenhouse gas intensity.

The California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA) developed a process-based certification because we wanted a program that met the most important principles of the Code, which includes the concept of continuous improvement tailored to the most critical regional and organizational issues, and a program that would be applicable across diverse regions and to both wineries and vineyards. After meeting 58 prerequisite criteria, companies use their own baselines to determine what areas need to be improved, focus their limited resources on practices that will make the most difference for their organization, and continually improve year after year.

What do you intend to accomplish? (If this isn't a label on the bottle, what's the point?)

The goals of the new certification program are to enhance transparency, encourage statewide participation and advance the entire California wine industry toward best practices in environmental stewardship, conservation of natural resources and socially responsible business practices.

There are many reasons wineries and vineyards may choose to be certified, including communicating with their customers. Although at this point the program does not allow for the use of logo or claims on the bottle, certified participants will be able to use a logo and/or claims on company web sites, secondary marketing materials such as shelf-talkers, and in certified winery facilities or vineyards. Many also think it will be a useful communications tool for them to use with gatekeepers such as restaurants and retailers who are increasingly interested in sustainable practices. In addition, CSWA will list certified wineries and vineyards on the CSWA web site, beginning with the certified pilot participants that are already listed at our site. Beyond their certification status, the certified participant section of the website provides a central place for wineries and vineyards to describe some of the sustainable winegrowing practices that are being used to demonstrate adoption and continuous improvement.

There is also a strong business case for using sustainable practices, including the long-term benefits for the future of their families, employees, businesses and communities, as well as environmental stewardship, high wine quality, and the economic savings of running a more efficient operation. Certification, and the focus on continuous improvement, can help identify areas where these benefits can be maximized.

Who's taking part and who do you want to take part?

Seventeen companies have received certification for some or all of their vineyard and winery operations after participating in a pilot program to test the certification requirements and offer feedback. They are: Clos LaChance Wines; Concannon Vineyard/Concannon Winery; Constellation Wines U.S.; Cooper-Garrod Estate Vineyards; Diageo Chateau & Estate Wines; Fetzer Vineyards/Bonterra Vineyards; E. & J. Gallo Winery; Goldeneye Winery; The Hess Collection; Honig Vineyard & Winery; J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines; Kunde Family Estate; Meridian Vineyards/Taz Vineyards; Monterey Pacific, Inc.; Roberts Vineyard Services; Rodney Strong Wine Estates; and Vino Farms.

The certification program is a voluntary option that became available to all California wineries and vineyards in mid-January, and we hope to see many of the current Sustainable Winegrowing Program (SWP) participants (those taking part in the self-assessment and educational aspects of the program) pursue certification over the next few years. Wineries and vineyards can still participate in CSWA's Sustainable Winegrowing Program without applying for certification. To date, 1,566 vineyard and winery organizations representing 68 percent of California's 526,000 wine acres and 63 percent of the state's 240 million case shipments have evaluated their vineyards and wineries with CSWA's Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices Self-Assessment Workbook. In addition, there have been over 9,000 attendees at educational events targeting sustainable winegrowing topics such as air and water quality, energy efficiency and integrated pest management. With a majority of the state's wine community involved in sustainable winegrowing, the certification program was the next step in the evolution of the SWP.

What's the long term plan?

While process-based certification is the approach that will be used at the launch of the program, CSWA is initiating a project to develop industry-wide metrics to measure and track sustainability performance. CSWA will develop metrics for water and energy efficiency, greenhouse gas intensity, and several others to be determined in order to baseline the industry's significant impacts and set targets for improvement. Once the metrics are in place, they will tie into the certification program and certified participants will need to consider industry-wide targets when creating action plans. The metrics will also focus on industry efforts around best management practice development and sustainability tool creation. As the certification program evolves to include performance metrics, CSWA may then move towards allowing the use of a logo on the bottle.

How will people outside the wine industry know if this program is doing what you want it to?

The addition of third-party verification is key to providing customers and stakeholders with assurances that the self-assessment scores are accurate and that the winery or vineyard is fully engaged in a process of continuous improvement.

Another important way to share progress is through Sustainability Reports and interim reports that allow the California wine community to publicly share improvements of the industry over time. Last month, CSWA released its 2009 Wine Community Sustainability Report measuring the California wine industry's adoption over five years of 227 best management practices. The report is available online.

So, there you go. If you drink wine: do you think this kind of certification would change your purchasing practices? Do you care if this happens?

AHA! An update!

UCLA's Magali Delmas has been looking at organic wines in California.

From UCLA's release:

"You've heard of the French paradox?" quipped Delmas, associate professor of management at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and the UCLA Anderson School of Management. "Well, this is the American version. You'd expect anything with an eco-label to command a higher price, but that's just not the case with California wine."

As I wrote to Don McEnhill below, I'm skeptical of eco-labeling of all kinds. Apparently the market is, too.