Last week, I got a phone call from an insider who told me why the Wine Institute came up with its certified sustainability program.
Some consumers care about sustainability, organics, etc. But most wine drinkers don't care.
However, wine buyers at Whole Foods Market, not to mention H.E.B., Central Market, Rainbow Grocery, European stores like Tesco and many smaller stores do care. They may not exclude a wine if it's not organic, biodynamic or sustainable, but they want a constant flow of wines they can label as such.
Hence the Wine Institute, which gets most of its money from large members -- Gallo and Constellation -- came to the rescue with its huge certified sustainability plan (my source calls it "the three-ring binder.") The idea was not to promote sustainability, but to give Gallo some green cover.
This was one source, and it's only part of the story. The people at the Wine Institute say they want to improve the whole industry's sustainability practices.
Yet now that I have done what I promised last week -- gone through the plan point-by-point -- I believe my source. This is not sustainability, it's greenwashing, and it's done just to get greenwashed SKUs for Whole Foods.
Moreover, I believe the plan was intentionally designed and written to confuse and bore people so that nobody will ever give it the critical analysis I just did. The idea was that consumers would see this logo:
and not realize that the wine was made by using Roundup and broad-spectrum, long-residue pesticides in large quantities without any pressing need -- perfectly acceptable under the guidelines.
One element of intentional confusion is in how many different points the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance uses for certification -- 227. Here's what one of them looks like:
Some of these are redundant. The washing of practically every room in the winery gets its own point, even though all have exactly the same requirement: a good hose.
I believe 60 of these points are completely unnecessary -- and that's not counting redundancies. Some are intrusions into winemaking decisions; others are touchy-feely happy talk.
That's nothing compared to what the CSWA thinks of its own program. Of the 227 points, fully 166 (including the plastics example above) have no requirements at all! What's the point of asking 166 questions when you don't care what the answer is?
I'll answer that: Instead of 61 points people might look at and criticize, you have 227. And what fool wastes his time looking at that? (Sigh.)
As you can see above, the CSWA helpfully separates potential responses to these 227 points into 4 possible levels (confusingly called "categories," another point of obfuscation, rather than an easier-to-summarize "levels," which I will use. Another deliberate muddying: the requirements for certification are in a different section of the booklet from the descriptions. Going through this program took me days.)
Level (or "category") 4 almost always describes admirable sustainable practices; see the plastics standards above. It's as if green winegrowing leader Paul Dolan and his actually sustainable Mendocino Wine Co. wrote the standards for level 4.
On how many points is level 4 required for certification? Try zero.
Level 3 is also usually good; for me, it was sufficient behavior to merit being called "sustainable" on 184 of the 227 points (including plastics).
In how many areas is level 3 required by the CSWA, out of 227 points?
Level 1 is the weakest; usually (but not always) "none" is the response. In other words, if you answered 1 across the board, you would be a craven anti-environmental corporation, possibly run by Dr. Evil.
For me, of the 167 points I thought worth addressing (with the proviso that I would have combined many of them), only on five -- 5 -- was level 1 adequate sustainable behavior.
For how many points is "1" or "N/A" sufficient for CSWA certification? 219! That includes the plastics example above, which means wineries can dump their plastic wherever they please and still use the logo.
In other words, I would have required level 2 or higher on 162 of the 227 points.
But for CSWA certification, on only 8 -- Eight! -- points out of 227 does a winery or vineyard have to do anything more than the minimal possible effort. And in those miraculous eight instances, all the winery or vineyard has to do is level 2, which in most cases requires just a discussion and no documentation.
Here is my point-by-point analysis. It's really long, so if you're just a casual reader, skip it. I put it online so that if Allison Jordan, executive director of the CSWA wants to use it as a starting point for making the program something other than Dr. Evil-designed greenwashing, she's welcome to it.
I promise to move past this issue soon and write about wines I like and why; that sort of fun stuff.
I also want to add that I'm not a tree-hugger. Environmental organizations would probably go through my suggested minimal standards and say I'm being too easy on companies. I recognize that wineries and vineyards face economic hardship, and unlike zealots, I am willing to allow them to fight pests with non-organic methods when necessary and still be called sustainable. In fact, I have been called out lately by some of said zealots for not being green enough.
I'm saying this to lay the groundwork for the astonishing numbers below.
Using the CSWA's own 227 points and descriptions, here's what I suggest is the minimum necessary for certified sustainability:
Why bother with this?: 60
Level 1: 5
Level 2: 49
Level 3: 70
Level 4: 35
Higher than level 4: 8
The CSWA requires:
Level 1: 187
Level 2: 8
Level 3: 0
Level 4: 0
* includes nine that are stated as being rewritten for legal reasons
In other words, somebody at the CSWA went to the trouble to spell out level 3 and 4 sustainable behavior on 227 different points, and then didn't require it from anyone on anything.
So, Whole Foods Market wine buyers, please ignore the CSWA certification. When you see this logo, know what it stands for:
Standards written by Dr. Evil.