We've screwed up "organic" already, "biodynamic" is weird religion, and "natural" is vague. So I had hopes that the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance could learn from previous mistakes and give us a useful term that would, in a nutshell, help consumers identify the good guys.
I am naive. The definition came out yesterday, and it's nearly worthless. Moreover, almost all of the 17 companies that already qualify are big corporations, including E. & J. Gallo Winery and Constellation Brands, the nation's two largest wine companies.
That means both Arbor Mist Strawberry White Zinfandel and Wild Vines Strawberry White Zinfandel are sustainable, but Adam Lee's single-vineyard Pinot Noirs at Siduri are not. Sean Thackrey's outdoor-fermented wines are not. Basically, almost all small-production wines made by people who care about the vines are now officially "not sustainable."
It's green-washing, plain and simple. The Wine Institute, which gets its funding from members based on their size, has chosen to allow 3 Blind Moose wines to wear a "sustainable" label so they can sell better to young shoppers with a twinge of social consciousness.
This is disappointing because in theory, "sustainable" is the most logical term for Earth-conscious wine production in the US.
"Organic" has two big flaws: you can't call a wine "organic" if it includes added sulfites, which are necessary to preserve its fresh fruit. And, unique to wine, if it's really rainy one year, a farmer might have to choose between spraying a little anti-mildew chemical and losing his organic certification for years, or losing his crop.
I actually prefer "biodynamic" to "organic" for US wines because it allows farmers a few mildew-control options, but at the same time, it is essentially a religious belief that demands farmers follow the cycles of the moon, bury cow horns full of dung, and that sort of thing.
"Sustainable" is perfect in theory for wine, in that it allows farmers to use minimal intervention in good years and take necessary steps in tougher ones. But with 3 Blind Moose wines already "sustainable," the term is compromised before it ever becomes a label sticker.
What does "sustainable" officially mean now, exactly? That's a good question, and not one to which the Wine Institute can provide a good answer (and I have asked, repeatedly). There are 227 "best management practices" on which wineries are supposed to grade themselves, as well as 58 "prerequisites."
I've plowed through some of these areas in what's available online and there are definite good points about the program. Wineries are required to examine their performance in areas they might not have considered before, like energy efficiency and ecosystem management. The basics, like soil management and pest management, are in there as well. I'm probably the only person who's going to write negatively about this program, because improving performance in all these areas -- from air quality to human resources -- is a good thing.
But the big problems just won't go away.
1) It's based on self-reporting.
2) You can keep a good rating by "improving" weak areas, rather than achieving definite targets.
3) It's easier for a big company to find the time to do the paperwork, and that's obvious by the list of giant companies that were in the pilot project. There are a few exceptions (good job, Honig Vineyard & Winery, Kunde Family Estate and Cooper-Garrod Estate Winery). But most of the list is behemoths*, including Diageo Chateau & Estate Wines, Meridian Vineyards and Concannon Vineyard (owned by The Wine Group, the 3rd largest US wine company).
* Conspicuous by its absence is Bronco Wine Company, makers of Two Buck Chuck, and easily the largest company not to participate. Owner Fred Franzia doesn't get along with the mainstream of the U.S. wine industry, having lost some nasty lawsuits, and that may be why. But a test of the usefulness of this initiative is whether there will be any pressure on Bronco to join the party.
4) The biggest problem of all is that "sustainable" is now impossible to explain quickly or understand easily. I have big problems with "organic," but I know basically what it means, and so does everybody else. Here's my best shot at quickly interpreting the new meaning of "sustainable" (feel free to use this, Wine Institute):
"Sustainable" means a wine company must document its attempts to continuously improve its performance in 227 areas, including some related to farming, the environment and community relations.
In other words, "sustainable" is well-meaning corporate-speak. That's not what I'm looking for when selecting a wine, and I suspect that most of America is with me on this. If you want a wine made by a winery that cares about the Earth, you'll have to stick with "biodynamic" or "organically grown grapes" (sigh) for now.