Sonoma County Winegrowers seek 100 percent sustainability

Chris Rojas, left, and Abel Martinez remove debris from rows of vines at Rawah Vineyards, at Twomey Cellars, in Healdsburg on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)



A wine industry trade group set out Wednesday to make Sonoma County the first place in the nation where all of its grapes are grown with sustainable farming practices.

Sonoma County Winegrowers unveiled a plan to become the nation's first 100 percent sustainable wine region through a three-phased program to be completed within the next five years.

"We realized it was really time for Sonoma County to put a stake in the ground to be a leader in sustainability," said Karissa Kruse, president of the growers' group.

The group, which represents more than 1,800 growers, announced the plan at its annual Dollars and $ense trade show at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa.

"We've come up with a plan that will bring nationwide, even worldwide, attention to Sonoma County wine grapes and grape growers," said Brad Petersen, board chairman of Sonoma County Winegrowers. "We have the opportunity to be the first wine growing region in the U.S. to accomplish this feat at a time when producers, consumers, distributors and the media are all asking for it."

Today, about 60 percent of the county's vineyards, representing about 37,000 acres, are in the process of seeking certification under the California Code of Sustainable Winegrowing, known as CSWA, Kruse said.

"I don't necessarily care where we start, I care where we end up," Kruse said.

In the first phase, growers will assess their operations, examining more than 200 factors ranging from land use, water quality, energy efficiency and carbon emissions to their employment practices, including health care benefits and training for employees.

Within four years, the group hopes to have all of the county's 59,000 acres of vineyards under assessment for their sustainable practices.

In phase two, Sonoma County Winegrowers will work with vineyard owners to achieve certification.

In the final phase, the group will work with wineries to roll out sustainability assessments and certifications. Its goal is to have all growers and wineries certified as sustainable by 2019.

To ensure against "greenwashing," third-party verification and certification programs will be used. The trade group is reviewing which types of certifications, such as CSWA or Fish Friendly Farming, will be accepted.

"We're very excited about the initiative," said Katie Jackson, director of government relations and sustainability for Santa Rosa-based Jackson Family Wines. "We know a lot of farmers here are already farming sustainably."

Jackson Family Wines already was planning to work with its grape growers to obtain certification as sustainably grown, she said.

"Our sales team is always coming back with stories about how people are asking about sustainability and our practices," Jackson said. "As consumers become more interested, we're seeing that it is trickling over to retailers as well. Retailers like Wal-Mart, Sam's Club and Marriott are starting to develop these supplier sustainability indexes that rate products by how sustainable they are."

Sustainability was among the top five food and beverage trends listed in a recent report of the National Restaurant Association (NRA), said Emily Wines, senior director of beverages for Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants.

"That means that it's mainstream," Wines said. "If it's in the NRA, that means that this is a trend that's in Tulsa, Okla., not just San Francisco."

The California Code of Sustainable Winegrowing includes a checklist of 200 best practices, said Allison Jordan, vice president of environmental affairs for Wine Institute. The checklist covers environmental items like vineyard water management, pest management and energy efficiency, and also delves into community relations and labor management.

"It really is a tool that was developed by the industry for the industry," Jordan said.

Transparency will be essential to the program's success. The group vowed to publicize the industry's progress through regular updates, an annual report card and a real-time vineyard and winery tracker on its website.

Alongside the sustainability initiative, Sonoma County Winegrowers has uploaded fact sheets to its website that explain best practices for hot topics like frost protection, water conservation, labor concerns, invasive pests and other topics. The group also will be training growers to serve as "ambassadors" to talk with the media, she said.

"Whenever I get a media call, or calls from neighbors or concerned citizens, these are the topics that come up," Kruse said. "So we're going to have folks that tackle these specific topics and can be our go-to resources for that."