Thursday, April 15, 2010

Our turn: Let's define "sustainable"

What do you think "sustainable" should mean, for a winery?

Here's our chance to try to make an impact, instead of the big wineries that provide most of the Wine Institute's funding.

Allison Jordan, executive director of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, offered me the opportunity Monday to present her with my suggestions for what the requirements to use the "certified sustainable" logo should be.

I blogged yesterday at length that currently, the program's certification is meaningless. But it doesn't have to be. I am a believer in the concept of sustainable agriculture and think it has a place in the industry as an alternative to organic or biodynamic agriculture.

The problem with organic certification is that it's too rigid, not allowing exceptions in exceptional circumstances. I'm in Texas right now and just visited with two wineries that got no crops two years in a row. Try telling them that it's most important to follow organic rules. As for biodynamics, it seems effective but at its heart it's religion, not science.

However, as I wrote yesterday, if you're going to certify something, you need standards. So what should they be?

Rather than reinvent the wheel, I plan to look through the CSWA's existing guidebook, which is here ( -- sorry, for some reason blogger can't handle this link), and suggest what I think the minimum requirements should be on the points they already have listed.

For example, take point 12.12.9, "Shrink wrap and plastic." A winery can currently dump all of its plastic in the Napa River and still be certified sustainable. I don't know yet whether I would request the minimum be Category 3, which requires plastic to be recycled, or I would be satisfied with Category 2, in which plastic just needs to be "placed in a solid waste container." But Category 1, for which the plastic disposal requirement is, literally, "None," is clearly not good enough -- yet that's all the CSWA asks at the present.

I will consider the CSWA's political position, which is that it's more beneficial to get many wineries to improve a little, thus uplifting the industry as a whole. That's why I don't immediately say, "You have to recycle." But come on folks, if you allow "None" or "N/A" as a minimum standard on a point, why bother including that point at all?

I pledge to post next week on this blog my suggestions for the minimum standards for certification on each point the CSWA has already covered in its workbook.

In the meantime, can I ask you to help me? What do you think the minimum standards for these issues should be?

Let's take Jordan at her word. We can present these requests to the CSWA and say, "Here's what we think would make 'certified sustainable' meaningful."

People who care about wine and the Earth: Here's our chance to try to make a difference. Please post your suggestions in the comments section below.


Lexcamar said...

Organic and Biodynamic are very narrowly defined ideas for "improved" farming. In the days when chemical companies thought that making super strong and highly active pesticides was the answer, Organic had a real enemy to fight. These same companies are now making products that are far less active than some organic products and methods. Two examples: Lime-Sulfur is an organic product - this product is so active that you need a closed system to apply it (which I would never use due to the danger). There are many other solutions better than lime sulfur that are not so toxic - but not deemed organic. Another example is the destruction of weeds using mechanical methods or by burning. Both these organic methods are far more damaging to our environment than using a low reactive, fast degrading man-made product - they do exist. The idea that if it is man-made then it must be bad is old, narrow thinking.

Sustainable has the opportunity to be defined on a much bigger scale. It will also be more complex and difficult to nail down. That is not sufficient reason to throw out the concept.

We need boundaries for defining sustainable that are broader than what is used for Organic. For example: Many wineries are moving to alternative packaging (PET, Bags, metal). These lighter weight materials are great energy savers for transportation. They are also, for the most part, highly unsustainable in that they can not be easily recycled like glass. What is the better solution? Clearly lighter weight glass is in the right direction. Perhaps a "Sustainability board" could even provide some additional "sustainable" guidelines that make the used bottles even more recyclable (glue, color, shape).

Perhaps we need to take ideas from other complex regulation. Take the world of accounting - this is a very complex subject but one that has survived with strict rules for a long time and been able to adjust over time. They use a board of professionals that are charged with overseeing the process. Many on the board are professionals and college professors.

DO NOT GIVE UP on Sustainable: This could be the best thing to happen to farming and grape growing in our history.

Christian Miller said...

"In the days when chemical companies thought that making super strong and highly active pesticides was the answer, Organic had a real enemy to fight. "
Well put. Global warming and energy efficiency are two critical issues for our time that organic production does not necessarily address (although many organic producers do). Properly executed, sustainable production does.
Despite its complexity, consumer research shows that a large minority of core wine consumers already have a grasp of the basics and their demographics strongly overlap with "green" consumers generally. However, the opportunity on the demand side is slipping. Levels of confusion and skepticism are rising. The lack of reliable, visible, publicized standards for sustainability is a real problem.
The idea of FASB-style regulation for sustainability is an interesting one, I wonder why we don't hear about it more. Good Post.

Anonymous said...

Certification in of their nature are quarantees to the buyers- consumers and retailers. Organics achieves that. Consumers know and trust there are no toxics in their food.
Sustainability has has not achieved that level of contract with the consumer. What will be the promise and quarantee to the consumer? I don't believe we can use the term certification or the word sustainable until we can demonstrate some level of transparency and achievement.

Paul Dolan said...

My partners, Tim and Tom Thornhill and I set some of the highest goals in the industry, but they are within reach of every business. True sustainability is an achievable goal for the wine industry,

Here, where we craft Parducci and Paul Dolan wines, we believe we are doing the right things to create quality wines and a healthy environment: carbon neutrality, use of 100% green power, certified organic, Biodynamic® and Fish Friendly farming practices, support of local family farms and the Mendocino community, water reduction, reuse and recycling programs and earth-friendly packaging. We believe these are minimum requirements for a winery on the path of sustainability.

If we can achieve this level of sustainability at Parducci Wine Cellars, one of Northern California’s oldest wineries, every processor can. We challenge the industry to step up.

Brigitte Armenier said...

I appreciate your effort in trying to grasp what Biodynamics is at heart. Unfortunately, the statement that "Biodynamics is religion, not science" seems to ignore the nature of the predicates. Science is not scientism, and the scientific path of inquiry is not the reductionist answers of chemical farming. Similarly, religion at church is not experience and practice in the vineyard: all around the world, one will find biodynamists who profess all religions as well as atheism and agnosticism, while what they share is a universal (not global) knowledge and work with the Biodynamic preparations. To approach what lies at the heart of Biodynamics, one needs to read and work with Steiner's foundation work: "The Philosophy of Freedom," which came as the development of the complementary Hegel, Schelling and Fichte. From there on, the fact that "Biodynamics seems effective" becomes understandable.