Throughout Sonoma County we see green and white signs that say “Sonoma County Sustainable” posted next to vineyards. What do they mean?
In January 2014, Sonoma County Winegrowers announced a commitment to make Sonoma County the first 100 percent sustainable winegrowing region in the nation by 2019. This five-year program reached out to farmers and wineries, to help them attain sustainability goals. A green and white sign posted at a particular vineyard or winery means that the owners have made the sustainability commitment.
Will sustainability be the law of the land in Sonoma Country?
Not exactly. The Sonoma County Winegrape Commission (aka Sonoma County Winegrowers) is a trade association that has oversight by California Department of Food and Agriculture, but the sustainability initiative depends on the willingness of stakeholders in the business of growing grapes and making wine to make it happen.
So how’s that going?
Very well. According to the Winegrowers’ 2017 Sustainability Report Card issued in January 2018, 72 percent of the county’s vineyard acres were already certified sustainable by a third-party audit, and 92 percent were accounted for by the initial self-assessment. That's up significantly from the 2014 report, which noted that 33 percent were certified sustainable by a third-party audit, and 43 percent by self-assessment.
Does sustainability matter to people who drink wine?
Wine market research commissioned by Sonoma County Winegrowers reports that 44 percent of respondents said “they would be more likely to purchase or support Sonoma County because of these sustainability efforts.” Consumers around the world are increasingly concerned with the sustainability of the products they buy.
What was that about a self-assessment — how do we know that saying “sustainable” really means sustainable?
It all starts with a sustainability self-assessment that comes in the form of a heavy binder with hundreds of pages of guidelines developed by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, also available online. Vineyard managers answer questions on pest management, energy efficiency, and many other categories, scoring themselves from “Category 1” to “Category 4.”
For example: too many Category 1 answers such as “runoff occurred in the vineyard during rain” instead of Category 4 answers such as “preventive techniques were in place” mean that the grower needs to address these concerns before seeking certification.
Certification follows self-assessment and has the teeth: an independent auditor visits the property to verify sustainability goals. There is a high fee for the audit, but Sonoma County Winegrowers provides a voucher to help offset the cost for the many small-scale growers in this county.
What’s the difference between sustainable and organic grape growing?
There is a healthy debate between proponents of sustainable and organic certification, but they share many of the same practices and goals. For instance, the use of organically produced compost and pest species management that doesn’t involve chemicals are emphasized in both models.
Many would agree that organic certification is more focused on use of non-synthetic materials on plants and soil, generally, while sustainable certification includes issues like energy use, waste management and water conservation, and human resources.
The Sonoma County certification program does include a prohibition of certain “red listed” pesticides and other materials, and a “yellow list” of discouraged but allowed materials.
The official statement from the Winegrowers explains: “Sonoma County Winegrowers take a triple-bottom line approach to sustainable practices that measures a grape growers’ commitment to being socially responsible in how they treat their employees, neighbors, and community, environmentally conscientious with their farming and winery practices, and economically viable as a business.”
Where can I see grape growing sustainability in action?
There’s a self-guided vineyard tour program organized by the Sonoma County Winegrowers called Sonoma County Vineyard Adventures. Currently, eight wineries in six Sonoma County viticultural areas are hosting Vineyard Adventures.
The tours are free, and are easy walks or light hiking of a mile or less on flat terrain or gentle hills. Sights include a fish and wildlife habitat restoration project along Dry Creek at Amista Vineyards, water-saving frost protection at St. Francis Winery & Vineyards, and lavender fields at Matanzas Creek Winery.
Learn more about the free vineyard walking tours.
Written by Sonoma Insider James Knight