Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing: What does it mean?

I missed two important points last week in writing about the Wine Institute's sustainability program, and looking into them has made me queasy.

1) The Wine Institute is already certifying wineries and/or vineyards as sustainable -- 17 have been certified
2) Any wineries that pass a third-party audit are able to use this logo:

Wineries will not, at least for now, be able to put this logo on wine labels. They will be able to put it on marketing materials like shelf talkers and websites.

So what's the problem?

To use the Wine Institute's wording, this is a "process-based" certification. In other words, it's not "results-based." In meaner words, you don't have to actually meet standards.

Here's why I'm queasy: I spent a couple hours plowing through the 152-page certification checkbook. Then I spent an aggressive 30 minutes on the phone with Allison Jordan, executive director of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance.

I'll say here what I said on the phone -- the program is greenwashing.

There are some good companies taking part, and they do good things. The CSWA is lucky to have them. But I credit the general do-gooder nature of the wine industry. Spend any time around wineries and you find many people who care about the environment and their neighbors.

But as it stands, a craven company can easily get certified as sustainable and use the same logo as the well-meaning ones.

There are lots of categories that wineries have to self-report on to get certified, and the topic areas sound impressive, encompassing everything from toxic materials to energy use.

But when you actually read what's required ... well, let's go to the official checkbook.

Let's talk about plastic, because that's easy to understand. If a winery scores itself as Category 4, the most sustainable, it must recycle its plastics and require that its vendors do so as well. Good stuff.

But Category 2 just requires "plastic is placed in a solid waste container" (as opposed to what -- the Napa River?) And Category 1 has no requirements at all (look out, river).

So you could, in 2010, dump all your plastic in the Napa River. You could list that and write yourself down as Category 1.

Plastic is considered a "high priority" for the auditor. So when the auditor arrives, you might have to prove that you're dumping your plastic in the Napa River, just to show you're not lying.

And then ... you could display this logo on your website and shelf talkers!

Because it turns out the minimum requirement to get the logo for plastic disposal is Category 1, which doesn't even require a solid waste container.

And in 2011, you could put all your plastic in a trashcan along with leftover pork ribs and all those Wine Spectators you were meaning to read -- and now you're Category 2! You have improved!

Jordan said, "I don't think anyone that's dumping plastic in the river is looking at using certification." I'm sure she's right, today. But they COULD get certified, and nobody at CSWA could stop them.

But enough about plastics. Let's get to the heart of the matter: herbicides.

Here are the minimum requirements a winery would have to follow in herbicide use to get certified:

Herbicide Choice:
Receipts of purchased mixes of catch all (sic) herbicides to manage weeds in vineyard.
(In other words, you can use Roundup, as long as you keep your receipt. I'm not kidding.)

Herbicide Leaching Potential:
Receipts of purchased Simanize, diuron, norflurazon.
BUT you have to have an Action Plan, and you have 1 year to get to the next level, which requires:
Discussion with auditee confirming that Simanize, diuron, norflurazon are used with discretion to locations of water tables.
In other words, in year 1, you don't even have to talk about it. The next year, you do. Progress!

Timing of Herbicide Treatments for Perennials:
FINALLY we get something stringent. This is the ONLY herbicide category where you have to have an action plan if you're not Category 3, and you must move to Category 3 within a year. So it must be important, right?
You be the judge: Here's Category 3:
Discussion with auditee about process to spray perennial weeds when they are big, but before they are full of seeds.
Wow, that's really holding these companies to the fire! They can spray any herbicide they choose, as much as they like, but if they don't spray early enough, they better be ready for a process discussion, or else they won't be able to use this logo:

And where can you spray these herbicides? It just so happens that there's a point called "Area Treated With Herbicides."
Category 1 requires "Explanation from audit about process to treat entire vine row with herbicides. In addition, auditee tolerates very few weeds."
In other words, you can spray the hell out of your land, scorching the earth with weed-killer -- and maybe sending a few squirts into the wind just for good measure -- but you'll have to tell the auditor that you just don't like dandelions.
But while Category 1 is the minimum required for most points (on many the Category 1 requirements are, literally, "None"), companies get a pass on "Area Treated With Herbicides."
A vineyard manager can write "N/A" -- meaning, "We don't know where we sprayed all that Roundup. But we have the receipt." And that company can STILL use this logo:

It sounds like I'm making this stuff up, but check for yourself: the guidebook is here, and it, not my sarcasm, is the real joke. I could write the same blog post about the requirements for pesticides or energy use, because it's not much different.

I asked Jordan why the requirements are so weak.

"There was a debate about this," Jordan said. "Do we set a high bar and ask people to strive to get there? The vintners and growers who put together the program didn't want to tell people what they could and couldn't do."

I'm not going to mince words here -- that's wrong. Period. If you want to be certified in something -- whether it's Tae Kwan Do or driving a motor vehicle -- you have to accept that somebody is going to tell you what you can and can't do. Otherwise, that certification is meaningless.

Which is exactly what this logo is: Meaningless.

However, I did have a very interesting ending to my conversation with Jordan -- who is not the villain here, only the person placed in charge of trying to herd some companies who don't want to be herded, and have the power to cut off funding if they don't get their way.

I will save Jordan's request for the next post. In the meantime, think about what YOU think a company should have to do to be considered "sustainable," because there is going to be a quiz.


Jon Bjork said...

Blake, you might want to contact Markus Niggli, winemaker and vineyard manager for Borra Vineyards ( to see what qualifying for Lodi Rules is actually like. He's in charge of certifying their vineyard holdings in Clements, and said to my yesterday, "If you need anything from me, let me know now, because it looks like I'm going to spend every spare second I have on this Lodi Rules project."

King Krak, I Smell the Stench said...

If they had just put an "UN" in front of "SUSTAINABLE", 1) It would then be Honest and Correct, 2) 99% of Consumers wouldn't notice/care.

The wineries who will use this logo have no shame.

It will be interesting to see if you find these wines turn up at Whole Foods. I'm betting Yes.

Todd Trzaskos said...

The sad truth is, that corporations, by their very nature, have a responsibility to meet the needs of their shareholders which exceeds all others. Corporations have no incentive towards consumer protection, or environmental stewardship, unless their shareholders demand it. As such, a "certification level" or standard, negotiated and set by he corporations themselves, is merely an advanced marketing strategy. Consumers do need to take reponsibility and identify these tactics for what they are. I do not question the good intentions of some of those involved, but the process itself seems flawed. Thanks very much for your continued research, and for plowing through that guide.

Kay said...

Blake's right: there are lots of good guys in the mix, too. And we all know the Lodi Winegrape Commission's "Lodi Rules" program is among the best, if not THE best, in the state.
But I think Cliff Ohmart would tell you that it takes a lot of very hard work and long hours to convince constituents of the real benefits of accepting this global responsibility. It can't, and won't, happen overnight. It's a lifestyle change and the wine industry is traditionally slow to change. But we will not have the luxury of time when state and federal regulations on these practices are eventually imposed. Better to be prepared.
CSWA is taking on a monumental task, and they should be applauded for their initial efforts. After all, no matter how small or inconsequential the required tasks for certification may seem now, this movement is forcing everyone to pay more attention to their actions and the impact of those actions, and that can never be bad. Just like in winemaking; anything that forces you to pay more attention to the process will ultimately improve the product.
These are the industry's first steps and there will be difficulties. We will continue to improve, but only if we continue to pay attention to the processes: that's what these programs do. The rewards will be immeasurable.

tim said...

Thank god someone looked under the sheets. This is greenwashing in the most ugly way- that is on the backs of those who have a lot of integrity and who warned the winecommunity not to go down this path. They had the opportunity to go down the high road but chose to bend to large corporate interests.
It is a good thing we stlll have the integrity of organics and BD.
Let's hope this will get sorted out before real damage is done.
Where are the other journalist who were duped by this maskerade.

Steve McIntyre said...


My name is Steve McIntyre and I am one of the CSWA cetified vineyards. I know there is a lot of confussion regarding sustainability but perhaps you could call me at 831.596.6201 and i can explain why it is vital that sutainabilty be process based rather than standards based.


Shelley said...

Thank you for your in depth analysis and research Blake. Being a small, family-owned vineyard/winery who has been certified organic for over 20 years now, we appreciate you helping to educate the consumer on the myraid terms that continue to flood (and confuse)wine buyers surrounding this topic. Job well done!

Anonymous said...

Scott says: Hmmm, Not a peep from the CCOF?