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Sonoma County ‘100% sustainability’ target is a red herring

Sonoma winemakers' plan to be the 'first 100% sustainable county' in the US is a well-intentioned but ultimately meaningless goal for most wine drinkers.

All Sonoma vines to be certified ‘sustainable’

Several media outlets ran with last week’s announcement that Sonoma winemakers and grape growers will unite to ensure that ‘consumers will be able to purchase any Sonoma County wine with confidence, knowing that all of the region’s wines are grown and made in the nation’s first 100% sustainable county’.

It’s apt timing given the current drought across California. But, while no one doubts the serious intent among Sonoma’s winemakers, grand declarations like this can be unhelpful.

As a concept, sustainability infers much but means little. The term is barely 25 years old and it is already one of the most hackneyed in the English language.

What Sonoma County Winegrowers means is that it plans to get all the region’s producers signed up to third party criteria on sustainable practices, drawing heavily on a comprehensive code written by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance.

It aims to do this by 2019 and it assumes that this is something consumers want to know about.

Yet, the idea that Sonoma wine will become 100% sustainable is a red herring. Firstly, sustainable development has no finishing line as such.

Secondly, the announcement invites us to compare levels of ‘sustainability’ between wine regions, and this is extremely hard because there is no one definition of the term, there are different certification systems and the degree of social and environmental challenges varies.

This was partly the point made by Beverley Blanning MW back in the November 2007 issue of Decanter Magazine. Parisian bureaucrats at the OIV, which sets international rules on winemaking, have drawn up guidelines on sustainable development, but these are seldom openly referred to.

Alongside these issues, there is a debate over what consumers need or want to know about sustainable development.

As a wine drinker, do you want reassurance, and evidence, that you’re buying wine from an estate with an environmental and social conscience? Or do you simply care about the winery’s ability to continue delivering top-drawer wines?

A greater commitment to environmental stewardship should be applauded, and Sonoma County deserves praise for its ambition. But, the concept of sustainability needs more careful consideration by all connected to the global wine sector if it is to be credible.

Written by Chris Mercer

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