What’s a Sustainably-Produced Wine?

It is time to take this subject by the horns. (Those of you who are deep into the biodynamic wine movement will appreciate that pun). Every other winemaker you talk to will boast that his or her wine is natural or organic or sustainably produced or biodynamic. What’s it all mean?

First, let me tell you that there are no standardized definitions for these terms. That is part of the problem. But since wine drinkers will be encountering these terms more and more, here we go. We broached the topic a bit talking about wines at Pacific Crest Grill in Truckee, which has a long list of organic, biodynamic, and sustainably grown wines.

A BIODYNAMIC wine can be quickly defined as one that is made from a vineyard that uses the principles of biodynamic agriculture, which includes ethical-spiritual considerations. This type of viticulture views the farm as a cohesive, interconnected living system. This topic, as well as ORGANIC wines, both require separate columns.

Today, let’s dip into the SUSTAINABLY-GROWN wine topic. A sustainably-grown wine is not necessarily organic wine, but it also does not exclude this definition.

There’s been a lot in the press recently about sustainability. The California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA) recently introduced a statewide certification program that provides third-party verification of a winery or vineyard’s adherence to a "process of continuous improvement" in the adoption and implementation of sustainable winegrowing practices.

This CSWA certification program is a voluntary option, and this process requires applicants to meet 58 prerequisite criteria to be eligible for the program, to assess winery and/or vineyard operations, to create and implement an annual action plan and to show improvement over time. The prerequisites include practices that protect air and water quality, conserve water, promote energy efficiency and reduced pesticide use, and preserve ecosystems and animal habitat, among many others.

To date, 1,566 vineyard and winery organizations representing 68.1 percent of California’s 526,000 wine acres and 62.5 percent of the state’s 240 million case shipments have evaluated their vineyards and wineries using CSWA’s workbook. Seventeen companies have already received certification for some or all of their vineyard and winery operations. They include many names that are well-known: Clos LaChance Wines; Concannon Vineyard/Concannon Winery; Constellation Wines U.S.; Cooper-Garrod Estate Vineyards; Diageo Chateau & Estate Wines; Fetzer Vineyards/Bonterra Vineyards; E. & J. Gallo Winery; Goldeneye Winery; The Hess Collection; Honig Vineyard & Winery; J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines; Kunde Family Estate; Meridian Vineyards/Taz Vineyards; Monterey Pacific, Inc.; Roberts Vineyard Services; Rodney Strong Wine Estates; and Vino Farms.

Other states have programs like this too. And within one state, there are competing programs, which makes it all a bit difficult to unravel the who’s who of responsible wine grape growing and winemaking. For example, The Sustainability in Practice (SIP)™ Certification program, another California initiative, provides a way for vineyard’s to verify their attention to integrated farming practices through a commitment to environmental stewardship, equitable treatment of employees, and economic stability. Developed by the Central Coast Vineyard Team, a non-profit dedicated to sustainable winegrowing since 1994, it has been in place for quite a while. They’ve gone a long way toward making these topics consumer-understandable. Take a look at their website, http://www.sipthegoodlife.org/

To learn more from an industry point of view, cruise through http://www.wineinstitute.org/ This is the website for the Wine Institute, headquarted in San Francisco. On the left is a big click-through called “Sustainable Winegrowing.”

I know this is a bit academic. But if you put it in your mouth – and hopefully that’s what you are doing with some nice wines! – you might want to know what goes into the product.


Thank you to the Wine Institute of California for the photo!

© 2010 Barbara Keck

This article appeared in my Tahoe Weekly Newspaper column "It's Grape" in April 2010.

Watch for my forthcoming book, scheduled for publication in early Summer 2011, "Wineries of the Sierra and Its Foothills."

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