Larrissa Zimberoff, CIVIL EATS
The world-famous wine-producing county has a five-year goal of certifying all its vineyards as sustainable—but with pesticides including Roundup allowed under the program, their definition of sustainable is controversial.
Wine is usually a fun topic, but in the Golden State, the fourth-largest wine-producing region in the world, it’s also big business: 85 percent of domestic wine comes from over 600,000 acres of grapes grown in California. Operating at this scale means the wine business must also consider land stewardship.
Two of the state’s biggest and best-known wine counties—the neighboring communities of Napa, which has more vintners, and Sonoma, which has more growers—are both working toward achieving goals of 100 percent sustainability within the next few years.
What does it mean if a vineyard claims its grapes are “sustainably certified”? Definitions of the term are wide-ranging, and, unlike the concrete rules of USDA Organic certification, few farming products are expressly banned, and there isn’t one comprehensive list of standards.
Both counties have been lauded for their progress—after Sonoma County Winegrowers (SCW) in 2014 launched a goal to reach 100 percent certified sustainable, the county has reached 60 percent certified, while Napa County is at 50 percent. But if you peel back the label, you’ll find controversy brewing.
SCW uses three defining principles to determine sustainability: Is it environmentally sound, is it economically feasible, and is it socially equitable? The topics covered under those principles are vast––water quality and conservation, energy efficiency, material handling, pest, soil and waste management, ecosystem, community relations, and human resources.
Despite the goal of having every grape grower in the county earn the certification, SCW is facing resistance from farmers who don’t want to be told how to operate, as well as growers and winemakers using organic practices who oppose the fact that others in their field can still claim they’re “sustainable” while also using the controversial weed killer Roundup (a.k.a. glyphosate) and other synthetic pesticides.
Of Sonoma County’s million-plus acres, 6 percent of available land—58,000 acres—is planted with grapes. Between 1,400 and 1,500 growers farm that 6 percent of land; 85 percent of those growers are family-owned and operated, and 40 percent are operations of 20 acres or less.
This means that if you grow grapes in Sonoma, you know your neighbors, you’ve probably been in the business for a few generations, and you pay dues to the SCW based on tons of grapes sold. Grape growers vote to assess their grape sales every five years, and the resulting money––currently about $1.1 million a year––goes to operating the commission. If you don’t sell grapes, or your winery uses its own grapes, you don’t pay.
In 2013, Karissa Kruse, the president of SCW, received an email from Duff Bevill, both a Sonoma grape grower and a 1,000-plus acre vineyard manager. “Karissa,” he wrote, “what would it take to get Governor Jerry Brown to recognize Sonoma County grape growers as sustainable, and to recognize us as leaders?” While Sonoma was an early adopter of sustainability, county assessments were all over the map, so Bevill’s question was apt. Kruse, who also owns a vineyard, thought, “Holy crap. How do I respond?”
Kruse first brought up the goal of 100-percent sustainability at an SCW board retreat. Dale Petersen, a grower from a multi-generational Sonoma family and the vineyard manager of Silver Oak Cellars, recalled: “She pitched it to a group of farmers and we looked at her and we looked at each other.
”The reception was lukewarm at best. No farmer relished being told what to do. Eventually the board of directors approved it, and officially declared the goal at the January 2014 annual meeting, which typically sees around 500 growers in attendance. Despite the overarching decree, countywide sustainability is still a voluntary commitment.