The California wine industry is about to institute a code of practice for sustainable growing that should become standard practice for the entire wine community.

The Wine Institute of California has spent the last two years putting together a ‘Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices’ that ‘will promote farming and winemaking practices that are sensitive to the environment…and are economically feasible.’

The Code – a 300-page document together with an equally-detailed workbook – is intended to be adopted voluntarily by winemakers in California and elsewhere. It has been written together with a comprehensive group of universities, government departments, vintners and environmental institutions. It is similar to the ‘Guide Pratique’ to viticulture raisonnee adopted in Champagne within the last year.

The Wine Institute hopes to have the Code ‘in the hands of growers and vintners’ by the beginning of November, director of communications Kari Birdseye told decanter.com.

It will be free to all members of the Institute, and the California Association of Wine Grape Growers (CAWG), and it is likely to be rolled out free to all interested participants after that, Birdseye said.

‘This is the biggest project that vintners and growers have ever worked on together,’ she added. No other states have been involved so far, although grape growers and other farmers have shown interest from Washington, Oregon, New York, Missouri, and as far afield as Thailand.

The Code has the support of a broad coalition of California winemakers, from the biggest operators like Gallo, Beringer, Fetzer and Buena Vista – which sets great store by its environmental and organic credentials – to smaller producers like Sonoma’s Dry Creek.

‘We’re very proud and excited for the future,’ Dry Creek winemaker Don Wallace said, ‘We’re taking the lead to develop the best environmental plans.’

Under the terms of the code winemakers and growers agree to monitor viticultural practices including soil management, water management, pest control, human resources and energy use. They will fill in worksheets which will be sent to the Wine Institute for assessment.

‘This is the first time measurements will be taken and assessed from the ground to the bottle,’ Kari Birdseye said. ‘Use of water, electricity and other energy will be measured at all stages, from which we will be able to compile statistics on energy use.’

Wineries in California, and Napa especially, are facing a good deal of legal resistance from environmentalists who claim mountainsides are being shorn of their topsoil and streams polluted by indiscriminate planting while California is heading toward a grape ‘monoculture’.

Gallo winemaker Jeff Lyon – who has been instrumental in setting up the Code – is enthusiastic about its possibilities, and stresses winemakers’ dedication to good stewardship of the land. Gallo, he says, pioneers a ’50/50 giveback’ policy in which 50% of vine land is returned to its natural state. Many wild animals can be found in the vineyards as a result.

‘Monoculture is not the way to go’ he said. ‘We now have quail, coyotes, wild waterfowl, heron, wood duck and kingfishers. If you can explain the benefits of what we are doing, people will listen.’

Written by Adam Lechmere25 September 2002