Thursday, April 8, 2010

A defense of "sustainable" wines

A few months ago, I wrote this beat-down of the Wine Institute's program to create a certified sustainability program for California wineries.

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 bankroll wife is a beer distribution heiress, and Ken Starr has left the probing of presidential fellatio for the Free the Grapes campaign (FYI: If you never took the time to enjoy the Starr Report, pornography we taxpayers paid for, click here. Hint: search for the word "cigar.") But this is the nation that passed Prohibition, and even now, whenever there's a budget crisis, teetotallers and hypocrites start agitating to increase the excise tax on wine.

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.


Mike Wanless said...

Blake:Thank you for entertaining discourse on you article, it is refreshing to see the news media actually try vet the "facts".
Several comments-
1.While the CSWA does not have a bottle certification process, there are three programs that cover most of the nations wine industry, the Lodi Rules, SIP from the central coast and Oregon Live. I apolgize if I missed others. These programs are all very robust and based on mostly scientificly based criteria that were passed through boards comprised of many different environmental groups plus scientists. Growers that participate in these three are all inspected by outside auditors to insure that the growers are complying with the procedures.While the procedures are mostly prescriptive, they are based on what is thought to be the "best" practices as agreed by the aforementioned boards. IF you follow the program you will "learn".
2. Grape growers are as you said "telling and documenting what we do" so folks don't think we "do nothing" or worse. "do bad". For the most part, grape growing is envirommentally, a very low impact crop. Just ask the deer what there dream habitat is.
3. There is a process under way to create and define a national "Sustainable Agriculture Standard" that would be based on scientific and measurable criteria under the auspices of the American National Standards Institute, the people who validated the LEEDs' certification program for buildings. The idea being that there would be "one" standard for groweres to meet as opposed to the multiple requiremnets put out by buyers such as Walmart or Sysco etc. To that end, another group (Sustainable Index for Specialty Crops) is testing the performance metrics they are developing. However, if these programs are to be accepted by growers, they will have to be, as you indicate, not a huge paperwork burden. That is why having the Wine Institure and CAWG create the working process that is digestable by us in the field is so important.
4.Large companies are most likely the opposite of your premise, the economies of size enable them to afford to be less impactful and Organic growers thus "more green". Think about the ability to provide health insurence or a hundred small trucks delivering milk vs one effiecient big one.
thanks, Mike Wanless,

Jon Bjork said...

Thanks for bringing up Lodi Rules, Mike.

As mentioned, there are a number of Lodi wineries that have already released wines with the Lodi Rules certification logo on the label.

To obtain TTB COLA approval, the certificate of sustainability issued by Protected Harvest for a single vineyard must accompany the label approval request. (I know because I forgot to include it once and was rejected!) So TTB is watching over this process carefully.

With the Lodi Winegrape Commission, a bunch of us wineries had broached the subject of objectively setting a bar for wine quality if a given wine is to be approved for certification, but that is a very messy can of worms that touches on wine style among other things. We've seen how the Bordelais and Chianti Gallo Nero group have struggled with this!

If you're not too weary of this topic yet, you might want to check out the foundation of the Lodi sustainability movement by flipping through our workbook available at Amazon:

You could also just call Stuart at the Winegrape commission and tell him Jon Bjork says you should get a free copy.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the discussion. I have a few questions and comments from a growers perspective. Will a winery be able to be certified sustainable if it is importing large amounts of bulk wine from around the world? What are the environmental and industry impacts of this practice? The carbon foot print must be huge. This has also been ruining the domestic wine grape market. There is a lot of discussion about worker social justice, but what about the growers who are having to implement these costly new programs in order to market their fruit, but are not compensated for it. I am in favor of these programs. I have ccof and other certifications already, but have never heard any meaningful discussion about sustainable returns to the grower. How can we develop stability for our workers when we do not have the money to pay them. I am a 5th generation wine grape grower in California and I think about sustainability all day. Then there is the issue of out right criminal activity and lying about the variety that is being sold. Is that a sustainable practice. Are we so naive as to think these wine experts had no idea what was going on.

Todd Trzaskos said...

Thanks for clearly parsing the situation, posing great questions, and being organized in presenting the ideas. These are really important concepts for folks in the northeast to consider as we manage the birth and development of a local wine industry. The scale that you folks are dealing with is astronomical compared to what is just budding here.
I saw what happened to the original small organic farmers in this area, when larger interests reset the bar, and although I respect the work and results of some bio-d producers, I see that label being potentially co-opted as well. There are always those that will be swayed by a label. However, I have to believe that the value of labels is changing. At one time the label was simply the mark and basic info about the source, and the winery's reputation preceded it. Now, people expect them to be artful or entertaining to look at, possibly informative. I think the level of discussions like this, and the many other data sources on the vinternets, provide any marginally interested consumer with the transparency to figure out what is inside the bottle (box, tetra-pak, cans now...dear god), and support accordingly.

Lisa said...

Ya think the "wine = sin" equation comes because we're down on the Frenchies (Freedom Fries, and all that?) Will it always be Bud and Sam Adams, for us?

Thank you for reminding us of Mr. Starr's report BTW -- our very own governement-sponsored porn.