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Linda Murphy April ’10 column – Sustainability, but softly, softly

California has a new programme in which wineries and grape growers can earn sustainable certification if they meet requirements set out in the official plan. It’s all good, yet it comes with asterisks.

First, the background – and concentrate here… Launched in January, the CCSW (Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing) programme expands on a self-assessment trial begun in 2002 by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA), in which growers and winemakers used workbooks to chart their own sustainable paths.

The new CCSW programme adds independent, third-party verification to the mix, requiring that certification applicants meet 58 requirements and adhere to a ‘process of continuous improvement’ in the adoption and implementation of sustainable winegrowing practices.

Certification criteria cover the planting of cover crops to prevent erosion and host beneficial bugs, reduced chemical use, recycling efforts, energy efficiency, water quality/conservation, preservation of wildlife habitats, and more.

Here’s the asterisk: the CCSW plan is voluntary, established, as its creators admit, with a bar set low, to encourage more growers and winemakers to participate. Those seeking certification must pay for the costs of inspection, and at the time of writing, there was no plan in place for training and certifying the potential certifiers.

In effect, CCSW is about options, not orders. And those achieving certification won’t, for the time being, be allowed to put a sustainable seal of approval on their wine labels, although they can use the information in marketing materials.

The programme won’t identify or punish environmental offenders, nor will it appeal to producers contemptuous of rules and regulations. It is a Californian wine industry move to regulate itself, before governmental and environmental agencies do it on their own terms.

Still, CCSW is a solid push toward a more healthy way of winegrowing and treating employees, and appealing to consumers who care about how the wines they drink are grown and made.

It aims to validate growers and vintners who create safe, healthy conditions for their workers and pay them sustainable wages, and minimises production impacts on non-agricultural neighbours. Those who build homes next to vineyards and then complain about the noise from frost fans and bird cannons may be naïve and not worthy of sympathy, yet the wine industry doesn’t need to ruffle feathers if thoughtful actions can prevent it.

Most consumers still don’t understand the concept of sustainability, even though they might know a bit about organics (no chemicals) and biodynamics (organics with quirky add-ons).

Sustainability is more difficult to comprehend, and too many Californian wineries abuse the term, pointing to their installations of solar panels and owl boxes, and their recycling of corks, as ‘commitments to sustainability.’ CCSW certification will separate the wheat from the chaff of fraudulence in such claims.

The CCSW programme will have to become more strident if it is to be truly effective, and its supporters say it will. The crucial thing now, they say, is to be all-inclusive, educating the broadest number of growers and winemakers on the long-term benefits – including financial – of sustainable practices. For now, they say, it’s important to offer options, rather than give orders.

Without a national standard for wine industry sustainability (and I can’t imagine there being one in my lifetime, due to the myriad variables of viticulture conditions, winemaking traditions, employee rights, state laws, emissions controls, recycling capabilities, politics…) California’s efforts might at least make its own wine industry a greener place, with certified standards. How they might mesh with international standards is a headache, but also a bridge to cross at a future date.

It should be noted that other certified sustainable programmes in California, such as those developed by the Lodi Winegrape Commission, the Central Coast Vineyard Team and the Napa Sustainable Winegrowing Group, were models for the CCSW programme.

The Parducci winery in Mendocino County was the first in the US to go carbon-neutral in 2007, and Rodney Strong Vineyards in Sonoma followed suit in 2009. Fetzer Vineyards/Bonterra, also based in Mendocino County, began farming organically long before most Americans knew what the term meant.

It will be important for CCSW to incorporate smaller, regional alliances within the state to make its overall programme effective. Many companies at the moment are taking baby steps towards sustainability, including CCSW. It will be interesting to see the infant grow up.

Written by Linda Murphy

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