Sonoma County Winegrowers double down on sustainability goal

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The Sonoma County Winegrowers trade group will be getting some outside help from academia and other business leaders in its quest to better differentiate the wine region from others in the competitive marketplace.

The nonprofit group, which represents more than 1,800 grape growers in the county, is establishing a Sonoma County Center for Ag Sustainability as part of its operation. It will function as a think tank, bringing in outside business professionals and others to help it refine its plans for the future, most notably the quest to make the county’s grape crop 100 percent sustainable by 2019.

“I look to frame it as Silicon Valley strategic thinking essentially meets the oldest profession in the world, agriculture,” said Karissa Kruse, president of the group. She made the announcement at the group’s annual meeting Thursday at the Luther Burbank Center.

“It’s absolutely turning upside down how we think and plan for our business,” Kruse added.

The center will bring in George Day, professor emeritus of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, to work on strategy for the two-year effort. The program will be mostly a volunteer effort, she said, adding the appeal of visiting Wine Country would likely lure participants. Kruse has an MBA from Wharton and has worked with Day in the past.

Participants will meet every four months to discuss issues that challenge the industry’s future and find solutions to deal with them. For example, local growers are currently grappling with a major shortage of field workers thanks to a curb in immigration from Mexico and competition for labor from other industries such as construction and cannabis.

Kruse noted American farmers have been pressing for immigration reform that would allow undocumented workers to come out of the shadows as well as make it easier to recruit from abroad. Their effort faces an uncertain future under President-elect Donald Trump, who made building a wall along the Mexican border to halt illegal immigration a campaign pledge.

“Do we need immigration reform? I don’t know,” Kruse said. “I think the better question is: How are we going to farm our vineyards? We may not need immigration reform at all. Maybe we need an army of robots.”

The initiative comes as the group gets closer to its sustainability goals. Sixty percent of the county’s 58,235 vineyard acres having been certified as sustainable by an independent third-party organization. About 85 percent of the vineyard acreage in the county has undergone an assessment, the first step towards certification.

Under the process, growers must meet benchmarks in numerous areas such as water and air quality, pest management, carbon emissions and even employment practices.

Corey Beck, president of the Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville, said that 60 percent of the winery’s grapes from the 2016 harvest came from certified-sustainable vineyards. By 2019, it should be 100 percent.

“You all started us kind of moving in this direction,” said Beck, who noted that the winery pays an additional $25 per ton for sustainable grapes. “People (consumers) are willing to pay more for it.”

Kruse has pitched the initiative to growers as a way for them to get more money for their crop. Growers who have been certified sustainable typically command a premium price.

But labels that reflect other standards are competing for attention on store shelves — including natural, organic and biodynamic — and can confuse wine consumers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates standards only for organic wine and organic grapes.

Geoff Kruth, president of the Guild of Sommeliers, said at the conference he thought wine industry professionals were more confused about the term “sustainability” than consumers.

“If you ask a wine professional, I think they are more skeptical because they have been bombarded in the last 10 years over so many Concepts ... because they know enough to be dangerous,” Kruth said. “I think consumers are very interested. It does require some education.”

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