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California wineries and vineyards that prove they tread lightly on the land can now be certified as "sustainable" through a new program launched Wednesday.

The voluntary program, created by two industry trade groups, sets minimum standards for wineries and vineyards that want to tout their green accomplishments to consumers.

An outside organization would verify their performance on a variety of socially and environmentally responsible practices, ranging from installing solar panels, recycling corks, planting cover crops or reducing use of pesticides.

"We get requests for sustainability scorecards daily from restaurants and distributors," said Steve Smit, vice president of grape management for Constellation Wines U.S., which includes Clos du Bois in Geyserville and Simi in Healdsburg. "This certification helps us scale it down to something we can explain."

The state's wine industry has had a sustainable winegrowing program for years. The California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance was jointly established by the San Francisco-based Wine Institute and California Association of Winegrape Growers to improve the industry's environmental track record.

That program, a voluntary, educational self-assessment effort, has been a huge success, said Bobby Koch, president of the Wine Institute.

To date, 68 percent of the state's 526,000 acres of vineyards and 63 percent of the 240 million cases of wine it produces have participated in the program, Koch said.

The certification process is the next logical step in that effort.

"Third-party certification helps California's wine community speed efforts to create a healthier environment, stronger communities and vibrant businesses," Koch said.

The Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing program is open to all wineries and vineyards in the state, not just Wine Institute members. To be eligible, wineries or vineyards must meet 58 criteria and adhere to a "process of continuous improvement."

Kunde Vineyards, Rodney Strong Vineyards and Constellation Wines U.S, which owns Clos du Bois and Simi, are some of the 17 wineries that went through the pilot program and have been certified as sustainable.

Before becoming certified, auditors visited Clos du Bois' Geyserville facility to verify the winery was as green as it claimed, confirming everything from the use of composting piles and recycled water to the use of florescent bulbs, Smit said.

A key challenge in establishing the program was to figure out how high to set the bar.

"We wanted it high enough to make it not even have the thought of being greenwashing, but we want it to be low enough that we have a lot of people on board," Smit said.

John Heckman, a consultant who helped work on the program, said there was a "very spirited conversation" about the minimum requirements for certification.

Some winery owners have privately expressed concern the bar has been set too low.

A winery or vineyard can score a 1 on a scale of 1 to 4 in 53 of the 58 categories and still be certified "sustainable," as long as it has a plan to improve.

The bar was consciously set low to encourage a large number of participants and thereby get the largest amount of positive change in the industry, said Alison Jordan, director of environmental affairs for the Wine Institute.

"The idea is that they would show improvement year after year," Jordan said.

Members of the program would be able to use the designation on their marketing materials and Web sites, but not on wine labels at the moment, she said.

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