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When Rodney Strong Wine Estates announced last month that it had gone "carbon neutral," it became only the second winery in the nation and one of a handful in the world to lay claim to such green ground.

But consumers may one day see the wine aisle brimming with bottles making similar carbon claims as wineries strive to show shoppers their products aren't contributing to the destruction of the planet.

"It's going to be increasingly important for consumers to know that the wines they choose are participating in the green revolution that our planet is going to have to go through to survive," said Robert Nicholson, principal of Healdsburg wine consulting firm International Wine Associates.

The California wine industry, long at the forefront of the sustainable agriculture movement, is struggling to answer a host of new questions about its impact on the environment. Today wineries are as apt to be asked about their carbon footprints as they are about the scores their wines have garnered from critics.

As consumers become more concerned about global warming, retailers like Walmart are demanding more information from suppliers about the environmental impact of their products. Producers of everything from paper towels to pinot noir are facing a future where they must spend time and money trying to calculate their products' carbon emissions.

How quickly the wine industry reacts is anyone's guess. There are some signs the carbon neutrality trend may be gathering steam. Nearly 30 wineries in Oregon, for example, pledged to go carbon neutral last year. At least five are expected to announce achieving carbon neutrality by spring, according to Michael Kelly Brown, sales manager for Sokol Blosser winery in Oregon's Willamette Valley.

Other signs point to slower adoption. Paul Dolan's Parducci Winery in Ukiah declared itself the nation's first carbon neutral winery in early 2007. But over the next two and half years, while many wineries rolled out various green initiatives, none of the more than 6,000 U.S. wineries followed suit.

Rodney Strong owner Tom Klein believes the evidence of climate change is so compelling, and its possible impact on his industry and the world is so terrifying, that he needed to take the next step.

"I think the stakes are pretty high," Klein said. "I've got two children, 13 and 15, and I'd like them to have a planet to live on."

The winery's experience with going carbon neutral illustrates some of the challenges many other industries could face as they search for ways to reduce their environmental impact while still running a profitable business.

The Healdsburg winery could easily have rested on its existing environmental laurels for years to come. In the 1990s, it was one of the first wineries to adopt new industry guidelines for sustainable farming practices, such as using cover crops to reduce erosion, limiting the use of pesticides and encouraging wildlife to flourish in the vineyards.

In 2003, the winery spent millions to install a 766-kilowatt solar array on the roof of its barrel room. At the time it was the largest winery solar array in the world.

Along with that effort, the winery looked for ways to reduce energy consumption throughout the operation, from limiting water use to installing energy efficient pumps and lighting.

"We've done all the sort of obvious things you can do," Klein said.

Those efforts made a significant dent in the winery's energy use. But a 900,000-case winery using grapes from 952 acres of vineyards in 13 different locations is by definition still going to have a significant carbon footprint.

After accounting for the solar panels, which eliminate the need for an estimated 350 tons of greenhouse gases, and the vineyards, whose growth sucks an estimated 1,063 tons of carbon from the atmosphere, the winery sought to offset nearly 2,000 tons of emissions that remained by paying money to programs that have a beneficial impact on the atmosphere.

For example, the winery enrolled in PG&E's ClimateSmart Program. Each month, the winery pays extra on its utility bill, an amount calculated by PG&E to offset the amount of greenhouse gases it generates to produce the electricity and gas used by the winery.

Its payments to the Climate-Smart program, which supports a variety of greenhouse-gas-reduction programs including a forestry project in Humboldt County, will help remove 1,175 tons of carbon annually from the atmosphere, the utility estimated.

That left 750 tons of carbon the winery had yet to compensate for. The winery looked close to home for alternative energy projects to support, but it wasn't easy. The Sonoma County Water Agency, which has a number of such projects, was working closely with Rodney Strong on a deal to sell it carbon credits, but the agency couldn't get its projects registered in time, Klein said.

So Klein turned to a Vermont company called NativeEnergy, which sold the winery carbon offsets for three projects. Two are for existing methane gas capture systems at family dairies in Pennsylvania, which combined are expected to capture 74,000 tons of methane from manure, keep it out of the atmosphere, and turn it into energy.

The other project is a wind farm being constructed by John Deere in Greensburg, Kan., a community that was leveled in a 2007 tornado.

In all three cases, NativeEnergy's early investments in the projects, in the form of the purchase of future carbon reductions, were key financial components that made the projects pencil out, said Tom Rawls, vice president of sales and marketing.

"Our customers are making a payment that ensures a project that would not otherwise be built," Rawls said.

While difficult for some to get their heads around, the market for carbon offsets is an important tool allowing Klein, and anyone else for that matter, to extend their influence beyond operations under their immediate control.

"I can't build a methane plant. I can't build a wind farm," Klein said.

How well carbon offsets catch on may come down to how well they are understood and accepted by the general public. They've been likened by some to eco-indulgences that allow the wealthy to pollute guilt-free. The Federal Trade Commission has also investigated whether some carbon credits really deliver the environmental impact they claim.

Robert Larsen, spokesman for Rodney Strong Wine Estates, said the company looked at three criteria in deciding what projects its offset would support. It wanted them to be located in the United States, certified by a third party and support family farms, he said.

The winery declined to say how much it spent on its offset, but Rawls said his company's offsets generally sell for about $14 a ton, or about $10,000 for 750 tons. He declined to say what percentage of the offsets actually goes to the projects, noting that NativeEnergy is a private for-profit company.

Nick Loeb, of Sonoma-Loeb winery, questioned whether Rodney Strong can truly claim to be carbon neutral given that it doesn't take numerous factors into account, such as the carbon spewed by its suppliers, distributors that haul the wine cross-country, and things like travel by off-site sales people.

In May, Loeb announced the winery had purchased enough offsets to make his wine brand carbon neutral, inclusive of its transportation all the way to the retailer. The 10,000-case brand doesn't have its own winery, making comparisons between the two difficult.

Other wineries have taken half-measures on their way toward being fully carbon neutral down the road. Sokol Blosser winery's wine club just went carbon neutral, for example, after buying offsets for the shipping of its wines all around the nation.

But Brown said the purchase of offsets can be a murky business. The offsets Sokol Blosser is exploring are "high-quality" because they'll be invested in local, closely watched projects, he said. But it is possible for businesses to do little or no conservation, buy cheap carbon offsets of questionable value, and then declare themselves carbon neutral.

"The whole field is a little bit nebulous," he said.

Rodney Strong opted only to declare the operation of the winery itself carbon neutral, not the entire lifecycle of the wine, Larsen said. The winery decided to focus on its own operations because it can't control things like what kind of fuel distributors may use.

But the winery's owner welcomes such questions, and is committed to openly discussing what they are doing and why he hopes others will follow suit.

"I wish every winery in the world would go carbon neutral," Klein said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.

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