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Press conference: In California, sustainability takes another step forward

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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.

  1. Steve,

    Thank you for your coverage of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Program and the new third-party certification program, and we’re glad you could join us yesterday. I wanted to respond to some of your questions about auditors. We issued a Request for Qualifications for auditors that certify recognized third-party certification programs such as organic or ISO 14001 or have other environmental or sustainability auditing experience. We are now reviewing those candidates and plan on releasing the final list of accredited auditors next month.

    CSWA will continue to offer educational workshops to all CA wineries and vineyards, and the new certification program is a voluntary option. It’s unlikely that all 1,500+ winery and vineyard organizations will opt to be certified, and certainly not in the first year. Over the couple of years, we will gauge the level of interest, and accredit and train auditors as needed to meet that demand. While auditors will be paid directly by the companies they audit, which is common practice in the certification world, we have a number of checks and balances in place to ensure that auditors are not beholden to their clients.

    It’s also important to mention that, while it’s true our five-year progress report includes improvements like the ones you mentioned – e.g. improvement in 35 of 38 pest management criteria – the report also very transparently reports on the criteria where improvements have not been made and additional work is needed. The other number you cite – a five-fold increase in the number of energy efficiency projects – actually comes from PG&E, which has been a key partner for our energy efficiency efforts.

    Thanks again for acknowledging California wine’s the hard work on this issue. I am personally very proud to work with such a forward-thinking industry.

    Regards,

    Allison Jordan
    Executive Director, California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance

  2. Why does California feel that it needs another layer of bureaucracy to market its’ wines in the name of environmentalism. It must be me, but why is it when an “association” takes control over something that is initially well done; the association ends up speaking for a few “members”, they corrupt the original idea, and the whole thing becomes self serving. Not to mention how credible is it when they are paying the “independent auditors” for certification. It’s a conflict of interest. I bet most grape growers and winemakers already do the right thing, and more will do so “organically”, without being forced to certify.

  3. Cesar, the leaders of the association said they are simply responding to consumer demand. Lots of people want to know how “green” or “sustainable” are the products they buy.

  4. Steve, thanks for writing this article, but I agree with Cesar. The county, state, feds, all have their hooks in us, and one more “thing” is one too many. I agree that most growers and winemakers are ALREADY doing the right thing, and being as organic and green friendly( i personally don’t care for the term sustainable—it was a poor choice of words)as possible. It just makes sense to treat the environment, the vineyard, the wines, with respect. Overfish and you get no more fish. Rape the land and you ruin it. There is much incentive for all vintners and growers to “go towards green”, which is my preferred phrase instead of “sustainable”.

    Initially, here locally, we participated in the original self assessment of a multipage questionaire, with 1000 points worth of answers. As someone who greatly respects the land, we scored some 950+ points. In other words, we were being super conscientious of the environment, soil, water, etc. Since then we have cut herbicide use by 90%, cut pesticide use by 75%, switched to organic acid fertilizers, increased use of anti erosion methods, stopped burning prunings and switched to flail mowing, cut water use by 75%, switched from noise pollution cannons and shotguns to bird distress calls…to name but a few. Nobody asked or told us to do these things. They were all the right things to do.

    And what did the local “sustainable ag ” group do? Well, they wanted an updated redo of the questionaire, with many points being given for initial water well readings (10 yrs ago), original soil samples from ten yrs ago, and a multitude of other questions that frankly we just couldn’t answer. We at Cerro Prieto have busted our backsides to go towards green, and work at it virtually every day. The “sustainable ag” group, however, played a game of “gotcha”, and in some cases, I could find absolutely no reason or way for us to conform to what they wanted. The time factor to get this information equated to roughly 2-3 months, and when I had gotten most of it together
    (we lost virtually all our records, not to mention dishes, glass, chimney, roof,etc , in the Dec 23, 2003 earthquake), it became apparent that the questions re: seemingly pointless responses, we couldn’t answer…nor could we attain a score of even
    500 points, when we had vastly made ourselves way more “green” than we had been some 11 yrs ago.

    Is Cerro Prieto 100% green, ie totally “organic”? No. Do we strive to become so? Bet your bottom dollar, we do. Is it helpful for “sustainable ag” groups to set agendas for going towards green, or can the owners of the land be better stewards of soil, water, air, and vines? I put my money with the growers and vintners. Why? Because we all, as a group , have so much to lose if we screw up our land…our environment. Are there some foul balls out there? Yes, and you and I know them. But they are not the norm, they are the exception. Going towards green is a thing anyone who has any love at all for the land, for the vines, would surely want to subscribe to. But to have 3rd parties come in, initially do things voluntarily, then create bureaucracies that govern how growers/vintners should do things…that is a bridge too far for me. If someone is polluting the air, the water, the land, heck, throw the book at them, fine them, and make them toe the line. But please, don’t have bureaucrats telling us what we “have to do”, when we already know it. And filling out reams of meaningless forms is not the way to go towards green. Real, meaningful changes in winemaking and grape growing are the test of “is one protecting the environment or not.”

    As for the rise of going towards green bureaucracies…count me out. I prefer to do what is right and what benefits my soil, my water, my land, my air, my vines…by myself. Like Cesar, I see no need for yet one more bureaucracy, one more county, state or federal agency telling us what is best. No thanks. But if I know of someone who is fouling our air, our water, our land, our environment…I will turn that guy over to the feds or state in a heartbeat. No mercy. As for the “sustainable ag” bureaucrats, I appreciate their dedication, their goal. But am I in favor of relinquishing my control over my land, my vines? No, nor will I ever be. I got enough government way long ago. To burden us with some more is not only unjustified, it is unwelcome. We who live on the land protect it and our vines better than anyone else. Let’s just leave it that way.

  5. Steve, when you state that “… nothing like it is being done anywhere in the world..,” how does this program differ in its implementation, review and authentication processes from such similar programs as Demeter, Salmon Safe, Oregon Tilth, etc.? It seems that any such certification program that is truly independent, and is a third-party adhering to agreed upon standards, should be akin to the CSWA program outlined here. Am I missing something?

  6. Sherman, that’s why I phrased it the way I did…”They said.” I can’t vouch for it. They were talking, I think, about statewide (or national) efforts concerning sustainability in wine. Lodi has something similar, but Lodi is not a state.

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