This week, I met with some leaders of the Wine Institute who wanted a chance to rebut. Considering that I called their program "green-washing," I'm glad they broke bread with me over a bottle of Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc, rather than breaking said bottle over my head.
I like the concept of "sustainable" -- it gives organic aspirants a safety net, reasonable in a business where mildew or a moth could bring on bankruptcy. It also has a wider focus than "organic," taking in such issues as water and energy use.
But I'm a skeptic about defining "sustainable" rigorously enough to put it on a wine label. I'll concede them several good points on a few issues I hadn't thought about.
Here are my five original objections, followed by their rebuttals.
1) A "sustainable" label helps corporations sell their mass-produced wines to young shoppers, instead of helping smaller wineries who actually work closer to the land.
2) It's based on self-reporting.
3) Wineries can keep a good rating by "improving" on target areas, rather than achieving definite targets.
4) It's easier for a big company to find time to do the paperwork.
5) "Sustainable" is impossible to define quickly or understand easily.
The first point is a key one. As of right now, there are no plans to allow "certified sustainable" on California wine labels, says Allison Jordan, executive director of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance.
"Wineries can talk about your sustainable practices on the label, but you have to follow (federal label) rules," Jordan said.
Gladys Horiuchi, Wine Institute communications director, said that when the program was developed, it wasn't about labeling. Instead, beyond doing what's right -- I'm not so cynical that I won't give them credit for that -- the Wine Institute had a political agenda I hadn't considered: keeping heat off the industry in Sacramento and Washington.
It's easy to forget that just 15 years ago, the alcohol industry was constantly under attack from legislators, and has been for decades. The death of Strom Thurmond removed its biggest detractor in Congress. At the moment, even some of the country's leading conservatives are pro-alcohol -- Antonin Scalia is proud of his wine cellar, John McCain's
A large part of the Wine Institute's mission has been to fight for the wine industry in federal and local legislatures. That's why we see periodic press releases in California about wine's economic impact and the number of jobs it creates. Talking about an industry-wide move toward sustainability gives the industry political cover, especially with Democrats in charge. (When Republicans take over again, maybe we'll start hearing more about how we've got to defend our local grape farmers against those freedom-hating French.)
It's a very good point, but that cuts both ways; as consumers, we need to keep legislators apprised of the fact that we don't want a "certified sustainable" label authorized for a self-regulated program. Jordan said that's exactly what environmental groups they surveyed told them. But this story isn't over yet; keep reading.
2) About that self-reporting: The program is at an early stage right now, but Horiuchi says in the future there are plans for on-site third-party audits.
"There's a lot of flexibility for wineries, but they have to actually do what they say they're doing," Jordan said. Glad to hear it.
3) Regarding "self-improvement" as a standard (that's so Dr. Phil): The program is moving toward defining metrics, Jordan said.
"We'll probably start with five: energy use, water use, greenhouse gases, soil and or pest management, and social impact," Jordan said.
I couldn't help wondering if a system of verifiable metrics will lead to a "certified sustainable" label. Jordan said that it might -- but if there are verifiable metrics and we know what they are, the label issue wouldn't be as glaring. Let's not have the label without the metrics, though.
4) Jordan claims the paperwork can be done in a half-day. Of course, the IRS says that about tax returns, and I've never been able to finish mine in a half-day.
I recently spoke to a wine industry veteran -- a member of the ZAP board, in fact -- who says doing compliance paperwork for her small family winery takes fully half of her time each month. I'm sure she's not excited about adding another "half day" of paperwork, whereas a company like Gallo can give it to the secretarial pool.
Horiuchi defended the large-winery emphasis, pointing out, "Larger companies have the resources to help us develop these programs."
She added that some big companies (we talked specifically about Bronco and Constellation) see following sustainable practices as good for their bottom line, because they might learn ways to cut energy consumption, for example.
This plays into an ongoing debate about mass-produced organic products. Rarely is a company like, for example, Horizon, as "green" as a smaller organic milk producer. However, if you can get a big company to go more "green," you make a bigger impact on the environment than by appealing to a small farmer. The newfound packaging consciousness of Wal-Mart might be the most significant pro-environmental change of the past couple years.
I think my point is still valid, that this program is easier for big companies -- but it gets back to the labeling issue, because that's only a problem if Gallo can put "certified sustainable" on Wild Vines Strawberry White Zinfandel.
5) About that search for a simple definition: I left our meeting with a 172 page booklet and a link to the website. For pest management alone, there are 38 different points. There are 13 for water management, 16 for soil management, 14 for material handling. I could go on.
But Jordan did address this point with something I mentioned earlier: the potential development of 5 metrics.
So metrics are the key, and it will be important to monitor how they are developed.
That said, when it comes to keeping legislatures from picking on the wine industry -- already regulated up the wazoo in many states, because there's a lingering middle-American belief that wine is sin, not food -- I am wholeheartedly on the Wine Institute's side. Wine is good for our country and even better for California, and if the sustainability program helps industry leaders communicate that, it's a benefit. Just keep it off the label.