By Kiley Jacques
Sonoma County’s wine region is on the verge of a new identity—the first of its kind.
Two years ago, Sonoma County Winegrowers (SCW) put forth a comprehensive sustainability initiative—one that aims to position the county as the nation’s first completely sustainable wine region. The county’s wine industry has always been a forerunner when it comes to sustainable farming. This latest move is a prime example of regional winegrowers’ efforts to ensure agriculture remains the vanguard of the local economy. A 100-year business plan—thought to be the first of its kind in the global wine industry—outlines the ways in which they will protect agriculture into the 22nd century.
Karissa Kruse is the president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers.
Originally known as the Sonoma County Grape Growers association, SCW pushed for commission status in 2006. At that time, 1,800 growers voted to impose a self-assessment on the sale of their grapes, which meant that any vineyard in Sonoma County selling 25 tons or more would pay half of 1 percent to help fund SCW. “When the growers voted to do that, it became state legislation to create the commission, and growers vote every five years to continue the referendum,” says Karissa Kruse, SCW’s president, noting that the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) oversees the commission.
“From the very start, a lot of [SCW’s] marketing efforts and initiatives have revolved around the preservation of agriculture in Sonoma…. historically, this has been a farming community,” Kruse adds. Only in the last 60 to 70 years has the economic driver become viticulture, and many local growers have long family histories as farmers of prunes, dairy, apples, and other fruit trees. A major emphasis of the initiative is on continuing that legacy.
SCW thinks of sustainability as leaving the land in better condition than it was initially, including protecting rivers, wildlife, and biodiversity.
Top: Many of these growers have long family histories as farmers of fruit trees. Only in the last 60 to 70 years has the economic driver in the region become viticulture. Middle: The vineyards use a drip irrigation system, which is more efficient than conventional watering. Bottom: Shone Farms’ vineyard in Sonoma County
According to Kruse, the SCW thinks of sustainability in three parts: leaving the land in better condition than it was when initially settled, which includes protecting rivers, wildlife, and biodiversity so that it can be farmed long term; treating employees and neighbors with respect; and making it a sustaining business venture. “We want to be good members of the community and we want to give back,” says Kruse. “[The initiative] takes a triple-bottom-line approach to sustainability.”
To start, they looked at applicable existing programs. “We didn’t feel that we needed to start our own program from scratch. The best thing to do is use programs that have been well vetted by experts and already have a lot of credibility,” explains Kruse. Ultimately, they chose the model used by California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA), which consists of 138 assessments (questions) or best practices that a grower must address. The program considers things like water conservation, soil and canopy management, protection and promotion of biodiversity, energy efficiency, employee benefits and training, and external communications, to name a few.
The initial phase of this effort focuses on helping grape growers ascertain and assess sustainable vineyard and business practices already in place. Then, a third-party auditor conducts a site visit to confirm they are doing what they claim to be doing. Those auditors are chosen by CSWA, and tend to be educated in fields like environmental science and biology. Once they approve a property—indicating it meets the sustainability criteria—the grower is certified as sustainable. To maintain certification, they must repeat the process every year. Of third-party participation, Kruse says: “It’s not enough for us to just say we are doing these practices. Instead we wanted to make sure there was an independent [auditor] who was reviewing what our growers were doing on their properties.” It confirms that what is happening on the vineyards is in keeping with the initiative’s goals.
Kruse stresses that transparency is critical to the initiative’s success, which will be accomplished through regular progress updates, an annual “sustainability report card,” and monitoring with a vineyard/winery real-time tracker on SCW’s website. The plan is to assess 15,000 vineyard acres per year for the next four years until every acre of planted vines is under assessment for sustainability status.
In two years’ time, approximately 60 percent of the vineyards have gone through the assessment process (it’s a five-year plan). In other words, Sonoma County’s vineyards have reached the halfway mark to becoming 100 percent sustainable by 2019. “We are way ahead of where we thought we would be at this point,” says Kruse. “Almost half of our vineyard acreage is certified sustainable. It’s pretty incredible.” She is quick to recognize the board and staff for their commitment to pushing the initiative through.
In general, Kruse says growers are very supportive. Any resistance is usually because they do not understand what is being asked of them. Typically, once things are made clear, they find they are already doing many of the things that qualify as sustainable. Other times, it is a lack of awareness or the fact that they may be less engaged in the grape-growing community, which requires greater outreach efforts on SCW’s part.
SCW sustainability efforts apply to both the vineyards and the wineries. “We took the lead on this from the start because if you want to have a sustainable wine, you have to start with the grapes…. That’s why there’s been such a strong push toward the vineyards,” explains Kruse. They have begun working with wineries, too, which have a different set of assessment questions based on energy efficiency, packaging, emissions standards, building materials, solar power, etc.
In terms of progress, SCW has been recognized globally for its efforts and has been invited to speak at some prestigious industry events including Wharton’s Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership’s Annual Conference. In time, Sonoma County labels will be synonymous with sustainably grown and made wines. “As a region, it has allowed us to become leaders in sustainable growing in the global wine industry,” says Kruse proudly. “We are really starting to be the example of how you commit to sustainability and make it happen.”
The weather station is located within Shone Farms’ vineyard in Sonoma County. The device monitors the rainfall totals, wind, humidity, temperature, and other aspects of weather conditions within the vineyard and sends the data to grape growers to help them make important sustainable farming decisions.