Sonoma County aims to be the first 100 percent sustainable wine region in the U.S.

OK, here’s a word that sounds good: Sustainability. But what does it mean? Even the dictionary is of little use: “The property of being sustainable.” All right, let’s go to the root. Sustainable: “Able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.” Anyone want to look up “certain”? Certainly not.

But sustainability is exactly the state that the Sonoma County Winegrowers (SCW) aims to achieve within the next five years. The goal is for our county to be the first 100 percent “sustainable” wine region in the U.S. under the standards and practices set out by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Program (SWP).

And here’s what the SWP says: “At present, there is no legal term or official category for ‘sustainable wine.’” Oy vey.

What becomes clearer as the muddy semantics fade is that the goal is not only good for people, it’s good for business. A promotional plan conceived in tandem with the Sonoma County Vintners and the Sonoma County Tourism Board, SCW will have Sonoma County be known—and actually truly become—the first 100 percent sustainable winegrowing and winemaking region in the nation. Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, commented in the SCW press release, “It’s a unique branding position and I wish them great success.” Success is already at hand, of course, with wine pouring $13.4 billion into the economy in 2012, some $200 million of that hitting home in industry philanthropy.

But the goal of sustainability in grape production and the vintner’s art is multipart; it’s more than just money. A dictionary isn’t needed to understand that it involves ecological stewardship, says SCW president Karissa Krause.

I don't care where we start. I care about where we end up. Karissa Krause

“Natural resources are critical,” Krauss says. “Water management, soil analysis, being energy efficient, pest management, erosion control, using the least amount of resources to have a successful crop.”

But, Krauss stresses, like the Food Action Plan, there must be a strong focus on social equity and taking good care of people.

“There are a lot of programs that don’t talk about the people piece and that’s huge when you’re thinking about farming and agriculture,” Krauss says. “It’s really about ensuring that the people who work for you are safe, have the right training and the ability to keep learning, and have some mobility in the organization, whether that means starting as a picker with the opportunity to work up to foreman or starting as a cellar rat and working your way up to winemaker.”

The project has a five-year arc and is based on self-reported assessments that are overseen by SWP as an independent third party. “That’s a really important part,” Krauss says, “to have that validation, so it’s not just us saying that everything’s great.”

SWP established its sustainability project in 2002, but it wasn’t until Krauss became SCW president last year that the agency really considered it. Krauss had only been on the job for a few weeks when board member Duff Bevill urged her to study its implementation.

“He said, so many of our growers have been sustainable for years, how do we take it to the next level?” she says. “He threw out this challenge and I put him off for four or five days because I wasn’t sure how to respond. It seemed daunting at first. But the marketplace is asking for it and the more we considered it, the more it seemed like something we should be doing.”

She adds, “Consumers really care about how products, food and beverage, are produced—and how they’re farmed is really an important part of that.”

Free workshops and webinars are already offered for wine grape growers to use as educational tools as they begin moving toward certification. Including winemakers into the process will start next year, and Krauss anticipates hiring a sustainability expert whose sole job it is to help growers and vintners make the transition.

“The program looks for continuous improvement,” Krauss says. “Every year, we want to put out a sustainability scorecard that would have the number of assessments and where we are in those assessment codes. The following year, our goal is to improve on that.

“I don’t care where we start,” she says firmly. “I care about where we end up.”

Those are words that everyone can understand.

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