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Sustainability: Sonoma County Winegrowers

Author: Bonnie Durrance
August, 2015 Issue

“Sustainability, ensuring the future of life on Earth, is an infinite game, the endless expression of generosity on behalf of all.” —Paul Hawken

 
The Sonoma County Wine Country, fertile lands of rolling, vineyard-covered hills bordered by woods, cooled by ocean breezes, with a river running through, is about as varied and idyllic a setting as one can imagine for raising the fruit that fills a glass of world class wine.
 
Perfect as the picture is, Sonoma County Winegrowers (SCW), a nonprofit marketing and educational organization dedicated to the promotion and preservation of Sonoma County as one of the world’s premier grape growing regions, wants to go one step further. It wants to secure the health of the land, the culture, the business—now, and for the future. In 2014, after careful deliberation and with passionate support from key stakeholders, SCW’s board of directors  announced to the world its goal to make Sonoma County the nation’s first 100 percent sustainable wine growing region.
 
“It’s an exciting goal,” says Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena). “I think if anybody can do it, Sonoma County can. It’s really set the mark on environmental issues over the years, from power generation to stream protection. It’s a game changer—not just for Sonoma County, but for wine communities and agricultural communities across the country.” And thanks largely to the energy and vision of SCW President Karissa Kruse, it’s already passed the half-way mark. “Going from inspiration to results is a bigggggg jump,” says Ben Stone, director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, “and she’s getting it done.”
 

Already half-way there

“When she and Duff Bevill, of Bevill Vineyard Management, presented the idea at our board retreat in 2013,” says Brad Petersen, chairman of SCW’s board of directors, “the look around the room was kind of shocked disbelief. She’d only been president for about six months, and here she comes up with this off-the-wall idea of having the whole county certified sustainable.” But as they discussed it, they realized it was absolutely the right goal for Sonoma County. Farmers want to be farmers, and sustaining the land and the farming business is basic to that.
 
“You don’t get into farming because it’s easy and you can make a fortune at it,” says Petersen, himself a farmer from a multigenerational farming family. “Every year is different. Every year, you’re at the mercy at Mother Nature and what happens out in the vineyard. The people who are out there farming are really concerned about their land,” he says. “They’re farmers. Many of them have been out there many generations. While there are some very large property holders in the county, the people who are farming really care for their land and their neighbors. We don’t want to see our resources damaged.”
 
Kruse, with a strong marketing background, could see that, given today’s worldwide competition for fine wine, without smart marketing, the local industry would suffer; and without sustainable farming, the product itself would suffer. Putting the two together made complete sense—but to accomplish it would be a stretch.
 
“Our goal seemed wildly assertive when we launched it,” admits Kruse, “but now that we’ve reached more than 60 percent participation, it seems the growers are embracing this, believing in it, supporting it and wanting to do the right thing.”
 
Farmers remind her that they’re the original environmentalists, she says. “Because if they aren’t stewards of the land and streams, then they’ll lose their livelihood and will have nothing to pass on to the next generation.” Many growers, especially those who’ve been farming in Sonoma for generations, tell her that farming sustainably—that is, with the health and future of the land in mind—is what they’ve been doing all along as part of their natural desire to keep their land productive so they can pass it along to their children and grandchildren.
 

Starting out on the same page

The first step, for Kruse, was aligning objectives. “We had this really interesting conversation with our board,” she says, “and I asked them a couple questions: ‘Are we preserving vineyards or are we preserving farming and agriculture?’ and ‘Are you grape growers or are you farmers?’”
 
As they mulled the questions, she offered a hypothetical scenario: “I said to them, ‘Say one day we couldn’t grow grapes or for some reason, nobody wanted Sonoma County wine. What would you do? Put on a suit? Would you go work at a bank or try to get a job in an office?’ And they were like, ‘Oh my gosh, no! I want to be on my tractor! I want to be on the land! I want to wear my boots! I want to walk my property as a farmer!’”
 
The group came to the solid conclusion that grape growers are farmers, first and foremost. And the dual mission of the Winegrowers—to ensure the sustainability of the land and to promote the distinctiveness the brand—supports farming by maintaining the value of Sonoma County grapes, so grape growers can continue farming their land, for generations to come, as farmers. Kruse sees sustainability as a key part of the equation.
 

What do we mean by sustainability?

“Sustainability is a very complicated process with a very simple result,” says Kruse. “It’s about minimizing our impact on the land and being environmentally conscientious. It’s about treating people—our workers, our community and our neighbors—with respect, and engaging with them in the process. And we must ensure our businesses are economically viable, long-term. If we can’t pay the bills, it doesn’t matter what we do for the land.”
 
Mike Rowan, a long-time small producer in Dry Creek Valley, explains: “Geographically, Sonoma County has a unique environment that can’t be duplicated by interior locations. It’s tempered by the ocean and has very moderate climate. The difference in grape quality is recognizable in the glass. Because of that, we have an advantage as wine producers.”
 
As a farmer, he knows that advantage is in his hands to preserve and protect—or to lose. “It’s our job to make sure we preserve the integrity of our soil,” he says, “and that we try to incorporate practices, as we learn them, that will help us conserve the soil.”
 
He’s seen the intention remain the same since his family came to Sonoma County and began farming in the 1950s. But the conditions, challenges, technologies and best practices have changed and evolved. “I remember even in high school,” he says, “there were members of the Soil Conservation Service who’d come out and tell us how to conserve our soil.”
 
Now, the sustainability program SCW is bringing to growers respects the cultural integrity of the past and adds to that the advantages of many advances in technology, viticulture and conservation that farmers can adopt as appropriate. “For instance,” says Rowan, “I keep a cover crop in alternate rows in my vineyard. The cover crop I planted last September is now being mowed. In planting it in the soil, it provides erosion protection. It increases the organic material in the soil. It provides habitat. It keeps down dust—which encourages mites. This is an every-year practice that we’ve now done for the last 10 to 15 years, and that we didn’t do 30 years ago.”
 
The whole idea is about having a greater awareness of the ways in which to steward the soil and the land. “It’s about, ‘What can I do to make this endure?’”
 

How it works

Farmers, a notoriously independent species, wouldn’t take kindly to a program that comes in and starts telling them what to do, and SCW knows that. “That’s not what the program is about,” says Petersen. Rather, it starts with an assessment. “The sustainability program is about finding out where you are now,” he says, “what kind of farming practices you’re using, as they relate to the industry, and then improving on those practices.”
 
When a farmer expresses interest, SCW Sustainability Manager Robert Levine goes out and sits down with him or her and presents them with a big, five-pound binder. It contains 138 assessment questions pertaining to a wide range of sustainable vineyard practices, ranging from farm-specific practices such as water conservation of energy, water, carbon emissions, pest control and fertilization and extending to the social realm of worker health care, safety training and community relations, as well as business planning.
 
“It’s a very comprehensive assessment of our farming practices,” says Petersen, “from water use, chemical use, fertilizers, your personnel practices, where you source your materials from—all the different aspects of farming. So you have a report when you get done, and you have a score for each of these questions.” The idea is that you can’t begin to improve unless you know where you already are. As with most anything, the difficult part, he says, is then, “Where can we improve?”
 
For the farmers, these assessments mean taking a good look at the business and evaluating each of their farming practices, understanding where there might be room for improvement as well as where they might be already exceeding the standard. “It’s great from a marketing standpoint,” says Kruse. “It’s great for the region and, possibly, over the long run, it’s going to save growers money, too. Because the more efficient you are with your resources—and a lot of this is about efficiency—the more money you’ll save.”
 

Strength in numbers

Growers who participate enjoy the added benefit of being able to share with each other and learn from one another as well as from the experts the Winegrowers bring in. “We do around 50 grower education programs during the year,” says Kruse. “We want to make sure growers have the resources, current research, tools and information they need to be able to farm sustainably to the best of their ability.”
 
The idea of sustainability she’s putting into practice is deep and extends beyond farm-specific practices to the whole range of communications and relationships that make up the community. That there needs to be a program addressing this is a relatively new concept.
 
“The farming sector is getting smaller and smaller,” says Rowan, “and we’re a very visible part of Sonoma County. We can’t expect that our neighbors can intuit what we’re doing. So it’s our responsibility to offer as much explanation as is useful to them.”
 
Where farming and community used to be synonymous, an effort must now be made to bridge the two worlds of agriculture and non-agriculture residents. “We used to rely on the fact that people just naturally understood we’re in an agricultural county,” says Kruse, “and we realized, in the last couple of years, especially through making this commitment, that we really should do a better job of educating the community on what we’re doing and all the positive contributions we make every day. It’s critical to preserve the agricultural character of Sonoma County.”
 
They all want the community to share in the pride of the place and to work together with the winegrowing and winemaking community to understand, value and preserve the agricultural legacy that makes the region famous.
 

Third-party certification

After the assessment is complete and the growers have their plans in place, vineyard owners will work with a third party auditor, who will visit their vineyard property and review their information to validate that they’re doing what they say they’re doing. Once that’s validated, they receive certification. This is important validation for the grower, the wineries buying the grapes and, as the whole region becomes 100 percent sustainable, for the Sonoma County brand itself.
 
“We’ve been very lucky and people have been very supportive,” says Petersen. “We’ve been working with two wineries so far, Coppola and Kendall-Jackson, who’ve pledged to pay a little bit more for sustainable fruit.”
 
Corey Beck, president and director of winemaking at Francis Ford Coppola Winery, says sustainability has always been important to the winery, and to its customers, and shows his appreciation in the extra he pays for sustainably raised grapes. “These [sustainable practices] are things they’ve been doing for many years, anyway,” he says. “So now that there’s a body certifying this, it’s confirming.”
 
The Coppolas certified their 300-acre vineyard in Rutherford as organic in 1994, and that’s been part of their company culture since. Now, at Chateau Souverain, the family wants its grapes and winery to be certified sustainable. “It’s a cultural practice,” says Beck, “and I think it’s extremely important.” People look to them to uphold standards, not just for the taste of the wine, but the whole culture in which it’s produced. People understand about threats to the environment, and they appreciate an offering of wine that’s sustainably produced.
 
“Now,” he says, “with water being such a big topic, we’re on stage, and we have to be able to show the industry and our neighbors that we’re doing the right thing for the land for many, many years to come. I think that’s extremely important.”
 
What started as a discussion about preserving farming has evolved into a comprehensive mission to do the right thing—for the business of farming, for the health of the land, for the people who farm it and for the community that shares, in various ways, the experience and rewards of a farming culture. With the spirited encouragement of Sonoma County Winegrowers, sustainability is catching on as not only a technique for ensuring sustainable production of world class grapes, but as a way of thinking comprehensively about the future and all that makes Sonoma County—its land, its people and its products—one of the unique places in the world.
 
As Kruse says, it’s a win-win all around.
 

It’s Just Good Business

“We’re becoming smarter farmers,” says Corey Beck, president and director of winemaking at Francis Ford Coppola Winery. “We’re able to grow extremely high-quality fruit, maximize our resources, be good stewards and good neighbors, and make the world-class wine. It’s exciting to be able to put all of those together.”
 
“It’s just good business,” says Ben Stone, director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. “Wine’s our calling card. Knowing we have this sustainable approach, through Karissa’s leadership, is a game changer. It can only create more tourism, increase income and lead other groups to pursue her good example. It’s where the world is going. So, to be a leader in that is just tremendous.”
 

After the Growers, the Wineries

A natural follow-up to having growers certified sustainable is having the wineries certified as well. Whereas growers have 138 assessments, wineries will have 103 questions, all of which focus on the production side of winemaking, such as, “Where did your bottles come from? How did your package your wine? What’s your water use in your winery?”
 

Added Benefit

“When we came up with this idea,” says Brad Petersen, chairman of SCW’s board of directors, “we knew it would be a good direction to go in, and we knew it would be a good thing to do for Sonoma County. It seems like, every couple of months, there are new things that come up that we hadn’t even thought of that represent advantages.” One thing became immediately appealing: Getting ahead of the regulators. “It’s being able to have the data to go to regulators to be able to say: ‘Hey wait a minute, we’re already monitoring these things!’—in particular, storm water runoff plans like the Regional Water Control Boards are implementing. Hopefully, they’ll be able to accept this sustainability program as a farm plan to satisfy their rules.”
 

Flexibility Is Key

SCW President Karissa Kruse acknowledges that every vineyard site is different. So what you’d do on a five-acre property on an Alexander Valley hill is different from what you’d do on 58-acre property on the Sonoma Valley floor. “So what the sustainability program is trying to do is not say: ‘This is good practice,’ or ‘This is a bad practice.’ It’s better to say, ‘Here’s how you become more and more sustainable.”
 
And that’s the crux of the program: Every year, the growers do these assessments and, every year, they have to say where they’re going to improve. “The program is focused on continuous improvement,” she says. “You have to make progress.”

 

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