Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sustainable wines and Whole Foods Market

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?

Again, ZERO.

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:
N/A: 32*
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.


Sophia Katt said...

I've just routed a link to this column off to Customer Service at WFM. It will be interesting to see what (if anything) they do with the info.

Anonymous said...

No, please keep writing about this when time permits. You covered today what I thought about when I first read about this. It's just mostly smoke and mirrors for the industry that is going to squeeze the little wineries in tough economic times.

Anonymous said...

It seems like they have been awfully cooperative with you so far. If they were using this for greenwashing, wouldn't they hide these details? Why have they been so nice? Is there any other explanation?

W. Blake Gray said...

Sophia: Thanks, that's why I put them in the subject line. I believe in sustainability, and I haven't given up on the CSWA putting together a real program, but for now, I want wine buyers to know what they're buying.

Anon: It's a fair question, but the answer is that they would raise more suspicions if they hid things. As it is, I'm just jumping up and down on the three-ring binder in my tiny corner of the Internet. Bigger print publications -- including ones I did and do write for -- don't want to come out and use provocative language like "greenwashing" without putting in the time to check every single point. Believe me, it was a lot of work, and I had to look up some terms I wasn't familiar with. The standards are there for the public to find, but you have to really want to do it, and I think the CSWA is counting on the fact that few people care that much.

All of that said, the Wine Institute folks are nice people. They're not Dr. Evil. Sometimes you have to take what's handed to you, and I think they're doing some of that.

Anonymous said...

Ok, thanks. I'll take a look at the certification deal. I've heard a lot about their program over the years and it looked like it's done a lot of good helping smaller vineyards understand what to do next. I think there's a report somewhere that talks about progress as an industry. I'll dig into their website.

Anonymous said...

Despite our best efforts to provide information and respond to your questions, your postings show a fundamental misunderstanding of the California Sustainable Winegrowing self-assessment program and the certification component recently introduced. We suggest that people check out for our program information. The facts will speak for themselves.

Allison Jordan, Executive Director
California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance

W. Blake Gray said...

Hi Allison, thanks for commenting.

I second your suggestion: Please check for yourselves, folks. I did.

W. Blake Gray said...

By the way, Allison, I think anyone reading these comments would like to see your specific objections to what I have written.

If I'm wrong, show me where.

Pinot Seller said...

California isn't the only wine entity to establish sustainability certifications. New Zealand has a goal of having all their wines certified sustainable by 2012 - It will be interesting to compare the programs.

Unknown said...

Nice work, Blake. As we just learned through the last two years, relying on self-assessment of moral hazard just doesn't work too well...

Anonymous said...

Apparently W. Blake Gray has an axe to grind and didn't what to let any facts get in the way. He also missed the entire point of the code in the first place. It is a starting point. For some wineries/growers they are already coming in with 3 and 4s in many or most categories. But for many others it is hard for them to get the 2s. The question he should be asking is where are similar codes for the mike, beef, tomato, peach, and all the other things we eat or drink. The answer is – there isn’t one for any of them. The wine industry is the first, and to my knowledge, the only agricultural industry to issue such a code. Quit throwing stones and give a little applause for and industry making the effort.

Sequoiagrapeboy said...

Great thoughts and I am so glad you took the painful but much needed time to decipher, digest and divulge this greenwashing.

Yes, sustainable can be beneficial but these regs make it possible for Monsanto to create a "green" wine.

How does that help the consumer to find wines that are made with the least impact on our environment?

W. Blake Gray said...

Anon: Please see the next post for the facts, all 227 of them.

A "starting point" gets a winery or vineyard the certification. It's nice if they improve, but in most cases they don't have to. Meanwhile, they can use the logo to hoodwink consumers.

There *is* a code for good practice in growing other food products -- it's called "Organic."

The point of having a certified sustainable program is 1) to address issues other than just farming, and 2) to allow farmers exceptions to organic rules when needed to save the crop.

You want applause for effort? Then do what I did, pal -- go through all 227 points and tell me where I'm off base.

Anonymous said...

As an aside, the fact that WFM proudly sells Vieux Papes an industrially produced French wine from huge negociant Castel speaks volumes about their wine buyers priorities.

Anonymous said...

W. Blake Gray,
I want to thank you for posting this article. The sustainable practices of most wineries these days is the claim that they "use cover crops", "we have built bird boxes", "see our solar panels" or "we donate a portion of our profits to charity", these are just a several of the things I have heard and all of those are examples of good gestures. The sustainability most wineries are using is "green washing" and their marketing plan. Unless a winery is certified organic or biodynamic it is not the business plan. Each of the "sustainable wineries" needs to show dedication, commitment and authenticity. Oh but wait, those wineries are the ones that want to sell to the largest green washers of all, Whole Foods. Have you seen the number of "sustainable" listings on wine lists? The restaurants are following along as well. Truth is, there are not that many authentic, true sustainable, or green wineries out there. Please help us comsumers and point out the wineries that truly are committed to responsible farming practices and business plans.

Anonymous said...

Organic! Surely you jest! Take a close look at what chemicals and pesticides are now allowed under the organic label and you’ll see that the Organic label has become just that, a label, which means higher prices and nothing much else. Under the new guidelines many items can even be labeled 'Organic' when only a small percent of the contents is actually organic. So Mr. Gray - that is the wrong flag to be waving in any high regard.

W. Blake Gray said...

Anon: You're taking my response to another anonymous commenter out of context (btw, my name is on the record because I'm willing to stand behind my remarks.)

I have written many times that organic is not necessarily the best possible system of agriculture; in fact, that's why I support the idea of sustainability. I just can't support this program as it's currently constituted.

Let me also point out something else I have written many times -- that many wineries and vineyards have great standards of ecological responsibility. I think those companies should be more insulted by this program than I am, because they're the ones who are doing the work, only to see other companies get the stamp of approval without making hardly any effort, other than filling out some paperwork.

Glenn Proctor - Puccioni Vineyards said...


I know you and I discussed this last year at Zintopia. I think that you have missed the mark and intent of the work of the CSWA. I have been involved with this program from the beginning. Both from a large company and small company perspective. It is not a greenwashing as you state. It is a very progressive program that brings together many parts of the industry. I would invite you to not just read the words and make biting comments - but to go to the vineyards and wineries and watch these practices being put into effect. Sometimes it is too easy to throw stones from the bleachers - you need to get your hands dirty. I have always appreciated and generally agreed with your writing - in this case I think you miss the point. Thanks

Anonymous said...

It's funny how wine "know it alls" always thinks the big guy is the bad guy. For years Gallo has been involved with a program called the "50/50 Giveback Program". This was a program designed where for every acre that is planted for a vine, an acre is set aside for the habiat. For you that are slow with math, it there is a 1000 acre vineyard, only 500 of those acres are planted and 500 are set aside for nature. Pretty impressive! I dont care how small a winery is, they would never do something like this.

Anonymous said...

The gallo 50/50 give back program only being run in Sonoma and Napa. The majority of Gallo's holding are in the Central Valley and there is no 50/50 program there. Keep in mind that a good portion of the 50/50 is due to the fact that they can't plant anything on the land Gallo "has given back" Gallo also has retention ponds, etc. that are needed for vineyard management

W. Blake Gray said...

Glenn: I appreciate your criticism.

I don't know that I write this often enough: the wineries involved are nearly all very caring about the environment. Most of the ones taking part in the pilot program are commendable.

My problem is not what these wineries are doing, but what other wineries could do and still get the logo.

If I were, say, Mike Benziger or Paul Dolan or Doug Shafer or any of 100 other environmentally conscious folks I could mention, and I saw my wine on the shelf next to some soulless product that had the CSWA's seal of approval on it, I'd be unhappy.

I'm not criticizing the wineries. I'm throwing stones at the standards.

Re Gallo: They're not the company they were in the '50s, that's for sure. I would trust them a lot more if they didn't treat the media like the enemy. It does always make you wonder what exactly they're hiding. Maybe nothing, but who can say?

Anonymous said...

Honest dialog is usually a good thing, so I thank everyone who has posted their honest views. I have learned a lot from Blake's research and the many thoughtful comments.

As a Senior Manager at a large public accounting firm, I know that industry standards take tremendous time and energy to form, usually involving many stakeholders. I expect that the standard will succeed or fail based on its value to consumers and shareholders, and that wide spread miss-use or cheating will likely cut its life short. The developers should think about their own sustainability by creating something that can be followed and audited, industry-wide that provides meaningful information to consumers. Like shareholders, if an audit is a rubber stamp, then the shareholder benefits of the audit are minimal.

Studies have shown that superior audit rules and tighter corporate governance models actually increase market valuations by raising investor confidence. If you look at accounting standards as an example, you have the basics, you have to have independent verification, but also a way to publish the exceptions.

An auditor's report of what is and isn't sustainable about a participant will be important and should be public. I propose that if this is not a public report, then it is green-washing, but if the report is published it will be a valuable tool.

That way a winery, if it has exceptions, can report them, just as audit findings are reported for publicly traded firms. Getting this right will take a lot of work, but I agree with Blake that an independent watchdog or public disclosure of points is necessary. Accounting standards have existed for hundreds of years, yet firms still try to manipulate them for greedy reasons, leading to Worldcom and Enrons, but we do not abandon them because they are the best thing we have to a shareholder watchdog.

Thanks everyone.

Cabfrancophile said...

Very interesting reading, both the original post and comments. I'm a firm believer "greenwashing" is rampant. When I see a Frito-Lay brand commercial touting "green" artisan products with images of fresh produce and grains on a sunny farm, and compare it to the reality of mass food production that only makes me more cynical.

I haven't seen one industry supporter of this certification offer an explanation as to why the standards are so soft. There have been multiple attacks on the author, however. I'm doing the math in my head. Looks like there is indeed something to hide here.