Press conference: In California, sustainability takes another step forward
It took me a long time to get interested in sustainability. My original experiences with organic wines, 20 years ago, were so traumatic, it prejudiced me against them and all associated practices for a long time. If the cost of being organic was dreadful wine, I thought, I’d rather have wineries be non-organic.
Then we hit a period in the 2000s when everybody was blathering about green and biodynamic and carbon footprints, but a lot of these people were making indifferent wine, so for me, that was strike two. The clock was ticking toward strike three and “You’re out!” when I got the invite to yesterday’s press conference in downtown San Francisco. It was sponsored by the Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers to announce the launch of a third-party verification system for members of their California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA), as well as to release the findings of their first five-year progress report.
This was the third phase, you might say, in WI’s and CAWG’s eight-year effort to persuade all the growers and wineries in California to engage in sustainable practices. I was at Wine Institute in 2002 whe then-chair/CEO John DeLuca announced the ideal, and I was there again in 2004 when his successor, Bobby Koch, presided over the formal beginning of the voluntary program. So it was fitting for me to be there again yesterday. The large audience (and the event was streamed live around the world) heard many exciting and stimulating things, but I left feeling that the initiative has many more roads to cross.
Crudely put, participation in CSWA up to now has been on the honor system. Their guidebook lists hundreds of ways for growers and wineries to practice sustainability in everything from pest control to energy efficiency to employee practices. What was new about yesterday was the official launch of CSWA’s third-party verification system, by which members can no longer simply claim to be in compliance with these things, but will be checked up on by independent auditors.
What’s exciting and important about this is that nothing like it is being done anywhere in the world (or so people at the press conference claimed). As the world’s fourth-largest wine producer, California “should lead in sustainable practices,” said Koch. CSWA’s five-year progress report contained impressive and optimistic numbers. For example, it claims 92% increased performance among members in pest management practices, in 35 of 38 criteria. It claims a five-fold increase in the number of energy efficiency projects, including solar initiatives. But once again, these figures are based on self-reporting.
How will the all-important third party certification work? Here, the devil is in the details. The auditors have yet to be hired. There’s no word on precisely what their qualifications will be or how many will be employed to police the 1,566 wineries and vineyard organizations that so far have self-assessed themselves. Nor is it known if the auditors will work fulltime, although it is known that they will be paid by the companies they audit. It’s also unclear how the auditors will verify, or not verify, hundreds and hundreds of individual claims by members, without spending a great amount of time poring over paperwork, tramping through vineyards and interviewing staff. For example, 21% of members claim best practices in managing aquatic habitats (such as taking measures to protect animals, reptiles, amphibians and birds along streams, rivers and wetlands). An additional 37% claim almost-best practices. How will the auditors verify these claims?
It’s true, as all the speakers emphasized, that “continuous improvement” is the goal. That means no organization is going to be 100% complete on all of the parameters of sustainability. Sustainability is a journey, not a destination. After the press conference, I started to tell Bobby Koch that it’s been hard for me to–
“–to get your arms around this,” he interrupted.
“Precisely.” I was almost apologetic, because the intellectual side of me has recognized the importance of sustainability for a long time, and there was a little guilt at not reporting about it as much as I might have over the years. “But,” I added to Bobby, “this press conference may have been a turning point for me, a game changer.” I came away from it impressed not only by the goal, but more fully aware of the incredibly hard work that so many people have voluntarily put into the effort for so long. Little wineries like Cooper-Garrod, big companies like Constellation and Gallo, and employees of several organizations have literally dedicated parts of their careers to make it happen. Although, as one of the speakers noted, “Sustainability is a difficult thing to measure, and means different things to different people,” California has made a good start. It’s one more thing for which we can be proud of our state.