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All Eyes on Sonoma

Author: Juliet Porton
October, 2016 Issue

Sonoma County Winegrowers (SCW) has long been advocating for the county’s winegrape growers, while educating the community on the importance of protecting and preserving Sonoma County as a winegrowing region. Now, in the third year of its ambitious five-year plan to have 100 percent of the county’s winegrapes sustainably grown by 2019, the organization is garnering national and international attention for its efforts, promising to increase both the visibility and the profitability of its grapes.
 

A new story to tell

SCW is governed by the California Department of Food and Agriculture and funded by an assessment on each member’s yearly grape yield. For many years, it was headed by Nick Frey, a well-respected figure in the region with a Ph.D. in plant physiology. In 2012, Karissa Kruse was hired as the organization’s marketing director, transitioning to president in 2013 when Frey retired.
 
At the time, SCW was in the middle of a joint branding effort with Sonoma County Tourism and Sonoma County Vintners, with whom SCW also shares office space; the organization was also looking to increase its outreach. Kruse, who has an MBA in marketing and experience both in and outside the business of agriculture, brought her own history as a small vineyard owner and farmer’s granddaughter to the role and has proved a perfect match for the job.
 
Within six weeks of taking the helm, Kruse was approached by Duff Bevill, a SCW board member and founder of Bevill Vineyard Management in Healdsburg, with a question about how Sonoma County grapegrowers could earn recognition for their sustainability efforts.
 
“I thought it would be meaningful, especially locally, if Governor Brown recognized us as sustainability leaders,” says Bevill.
 
Kruse sat down with Bevill and the recently retired Frey to talk through the history of sustainability in Sonoma County and how SCW had partnered with the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA) program in the past. Kruse then brought an idea to the board. Duff recalls her pitch: “The only way ton get recognized as sustainability leaders is to actually become sustainability leaders. We need to make a bold commitment that includes all grapegrowers in Sonoma County.”
 
With unanimous support of the SCW board of commissioners, in January 2014, SCW committed to becoming the nation’s first 100 percent sustainable winegrowing region by 2019. [For more on this, see “Sustainability: Sonoma County Winegrowers,” Game Changers 2015.]
 
“We made this big commitment and it sparked something way beyond what we thought could happen,” says Kruse. “All of the sudden, we had a really great platform to talk about grape growing in a way we hadn’t been able to before.”
 
As of the end of 2015, 64 percent of Sonoma County vineyards had been self-assessed as sustainable, representing more than 37,000 vineyard acres. Kruse estimates that number had reached 70 percent by July 2016, with final tallies to be completed at year’s end. In the last two years, major players like Jackson Family Wines and Francis Ford Coppola Winery have agreed to pay a bonus per ton to growers for certified sustainable grapes.
 
In a show of support, SCW members recommitted to the voluntary grape assessment in 2015, giving SCW an 88 percent approval rating and approving the commission’s status until 2021. Bevill says that, as he talks to his friends and neighbors, he still encounters some farmers concerned that the changes will cost them money. He counters that it may cost more, but as more wineries start marketing sustainable wines to consumers and as stores like Whole Foods demand certified products, it may become harder to sell Sonoma grapes that aren’t raised sustainably.
 

All eyes on Sonoma County

In January, Bevill’s vision of Governor Brown taking notice came to pass when SCW was presented with the Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award (GEELA), given for leadership in conserving California’s natural resources and building public-private partnerships. Sacramento isn’t the only place taking notice. Kruse is now frequently asked to share Sonoma County’s stories not only at wine or alcoholic beverage events, like last year’s FIVS Global Trade Policy conference in Brussels, Belgium, but also at national and global environmental and sustainability conferences. With more than 40 assessments related to water and water quality in the sustainability checklist, many people want to know how sustainability is helping farmers deal with drought conditions. Others question how Sonoma County has been able to make such progress with a voluntary program.
 
“I always joke that I have lots of carrots and no sticks,” says Kruse. “You can’t force someone to be sustainable. It has to be a way you think about the world and how you see your business.”
 
In October 2015, Kruse was one of 15 Americans awarded the Marshall Memorial Fellowship, an international leadership development program focused on improving transatlantic relationships and partnerships. She spent five weeks making connections throughout Europe and spreading the word about Sonoma County and its winegrapes. Back at home, Kruse is also beginning to entertain visitors from around the world, who come here to learn more about our sustainability practices.
 
“Six years ago, we wouldn’t have been considered the place to come to learn about sustainability and farming,” says Kruse. “Not because we weren’t doing these things, but because no one knew about it.”
 

Wine Vision

Last December, Kruse was invited to give a presentation on sustainability at Wine Vision, a wine business summit for the global wine industry. Founded in 2013 by William Reed, a publishing and events business, the conference gathers more than 200 high-level wine executives each year for educational and networking opportunities. It had been hosted in London its first two years, then moved to Bilbao, Spain, in 2015.
 
After her presentation, the conference organizers approached Kruse to share the positive feedback they were receiving on her presentation and ask whether Sonoma County would consider hosting the event next year. She was able to tell them that SCW already worked closely with Sonoma County Tourism, which could help with planning events, and with Sonoma County Vintners, which could help with the winery connections.
 
“I have to say that Karissa’s was one of the most applauded presentations at last year’s Wine Vision and sparked a lot of interest in the subject of sustainability, which we’re keen to respond to when we visit Sonoma,” says Andrew Reed, divisional managing director at William Reed. “Wine Vision isn’t exclusively a sustainability forum, of course—we cover a lot of ground in a very comprehensive program—but we’ve created special space in our 2016 agenda to look at it in-depth.”
 
The Wine Vision conference will take place December 5 through 7 at the Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel in Santa Rosa, with additional networking lunches and dinners planned at area vineyards like Francis Ford Coppola Winery, Rodney Strong Vineyards, E. & J. Gallo and Jackson Family Wines. Among the sustainability efforts spotlighted at these events, Jackson Family Wines will introduce its large-scale, stationary energy storage systems, a battery system developed by Tesla that works in conjunction with the company’s onsite solar electricity generators. For the conference’s opening reception, Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville will host a Prohibition Party, celebrating the 83rd anniversary of the end of Prohibition in the United States—and promising other surprises.
 
“We feel Wine Vision parallels our core messaging about vision and changes and who we are as a winery,” says Corey Beck, director of winemaking at Francis Ford Coppola Winery. “There were no winery members from Coppola at the event last year in Europe, but moving forward we plan to play a larger role.”
 
Sonoma County Winegrowers is working with the conference organizers and local wineries, growers and other Sonoma County attraction to put together travel packages and an itinerary of events meant to encourage attendees to stay a few days after the conference to explore more of what the county has to offer. The themes for this year’s Wine Vision include global dynamics, future packaging, innovating for success and, of course, sustainability. Kruse expects there to be a lot of discussion around mergers and acquisitions, as well, given the number of high-profile sales in our region in the last few years.
 
“Really, it’s about inspiring the industry to look at itself in a critical light so it can explore how it can become more relevant to more consumers and therefore have a sustainable future,” says Reed.
 
Since naming Sonoma County as this year’s host location, Wine Vision organizers have already seen a noticeable increase in pre-registrations and interest. According to Reed, participants will be coming from all corners of the globe, “from the ‘old world’ of Europe to emerging markets like China.” Ray Johnson, a SCW board member and executive director of the Wine Business Institute at Sonoma State University, sees this exposure as a tremendous opportunity for Sonoma County.
 
“The most important thing is that we’ll have all these influencers and gatekeepers from all over the world coming here for an immersion in the region,” says Johnson. “They’ll fall in love with it and tell that story when they go back home. It gives us a lot of leverage and that directly translates into the value of the grapes and the value of the wines. It’s a real net plus for everyone.”
 

The 100-year plan

For the grape growers of Sonoma County, the 100 percent sustainability goal isn’t a marketing campaign, but rather a way to keep agriculture environmentally and economically viable for their children and grandchildren. In looking to that future, the SCW board has also been hard at work on “The 100 Year Plan,” which was originally drafted in December 2014 and presented to the winegrowing community (in January of 2015) as a blueprint for the key drivers and partnerships necessary to support agriculture in Sonoma County for the next 100 years. The plan was based on discussions of how agriculture has survived here the last 100 years and recognizes that grape growers are, first and foremost, farmers. The crops have changed over the years, but the farming families have continued to evolve to preserve their farms. Kruse and the SCW executive committee met again this summer to review “The 100 Year Plan” two years later, update it and develop actionable one-year and five-year goals that will be presented to SCW members in January 2017 at its annual Dollars & $ense meeting.
 
“The real intent is the long-term preservation of agriculture in Sonoma County,” says Kruse.
 
To this end, she also sat on a board that advised the director of the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department on key land use and policy decisions affecting the region’s growers, particularly around the issue of winery events. Made up of both wine industry representatives and rural residents concerned about the growth of wine tourism in their neighborhoods, the board was tasked with striking a balance between the needs of the community and one of its largest industries. Kruse says she gets the energy and motivation she needs to do this job from the grapegrowers she works with every day.
 
“I want to share their stories and their practices and let the world know they’re doing the right things and being good stewards,” she says. “I want them to be proud to be farmers in Sonoma County.”
 

On the right path

Beyond the premium paid by some wineries for sustainable grapes, it will take awhile to calculate the economic effects of SCW’s commitment to sustainability, but the demand side looks promising. According to Kruse, Sonoma County had three of its biggest vintages in 2012 through 2014, coming off two low years. Many were afraid winegrape prices would fall with the high inventory, but instead they steadily increased and continued to rise in 2015. One thing does seem certain: The world will be watching as Sonoma County’s grapegrowing community leads the way.
 
“This is becoming the go-to region for the global wine industry, and the reason I can say that with confidence is that we’re leading in the vineyard, we’re leading in the winery, we’re leading in the boardroom and we’re leading in the classroom,” says Johnson. “And we’re doing it in the state that’s the driver for the nation when it comes to the wine industry—in the country that’s the biggest wine market in the world.”
 
Interest in sustainably grown wines is increasing around the world, particularly among younger, urban consumers. In December, when hundreds of the world’s top wine executives visit Sonoma County to learn from our local growers, winemakers and wine business professionals, they’ll take the stories of our products and innovations home to share with that new crop of wine purchasers and with their colleagues in the wine industry.
 
It’s a nice reminder for our winemakers, growers and owners that we’re on the right path, and it’s an honor for Wine Vision to embark on our region,” says Beck. “Having a strong leader who’s committed to sustainability will only entice others to follow.”
 

Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation

SCW’s sustainability checklist measures not just how growers treat their land, but also how they treat their employees. To help tackle the larger social issues that vineyard workers and their families face, the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation (SCGGF), which originally formed in 2002, was relaunched in January 2016. Its mission is to help growers do collectively for their workers what they aren’t able to do on their own.
 
As a public agency, SCW isn’t allowed to lobby, support political candidates or donate funds to social causes. As a separate nonprofit, run by a management services agreement and with its own board, SCGGF doesn’t face all the same constraints.
 
The foundation began by inviting vineyard employees of varying ages, both men and women, to a series of feedback sessions to answer questions about what issues are worrying them and their colleagues the most. These sessions, conducted in both English and Spanish, focused on the pillars of the foundation—health care, affordable housing, childcare and education, along with other topics of concern.
 
Several more sessions are planned with the results to be presented at the SCW annual meeting in January. Kruse says that board members and growers have already been surprised by what they’ve heard. Many expected access to health care to be the top concern, but more workers cited finding affordable housing and childcare that could accommodate their unusual work schedules as their main struggles. These responses reflect how much the demographics of farm workers in Sonoma County have changed over the last decade.
 
“We estimate that almost 70 percent of our [vineyard] workforce here in Sonoma County is families now, with children in our school systems,” says Kruse. “That changes the dynamic completely.”
 
After spending more time listening to concerns, in November foundation members will be inviting representatives from local nonprofits and county agencies to a planning summit. The goal of this work session is to bring the community together to help decide how to bridge the gap between agricultural workers and existing programs, as well as identify where new programs might be needed. SCGGF will then have a better idea of the types of short-term pilot ideas they may be able to fund, or long-term projects that will require additional fundraising.
 
Foundation member Lisa Wittke Schaffner says she’s excited to be a part of SCGGF because, through her work with the John Jordan Foundation, she’s seen the power of combined local investment leveraged against a community’s most needed programs.
 
It’s shining a light on what workers’ challenges are and how we can best impact them collectively,” she says.
 
No one was expecting the Foundation to choose a project until after the November planning summit, but recently the board was approached with a crisis it couldn’t ignore. California Human Development, a local nonprofit that assists farmworkers and their families, was in development on Ortiz Plaza, an affordable family housing development for farmworkers in Santa Rosa’s Larkfield-Wikiup area. The group had hit a funding gap and would miss out on a large federal grant if it couldn’t raise the money fast. Kruse and Katie Jackson of Jackson Family Wines worked with SCGGF and their wider contacts and were able to raise almost $100,000 in two weeks. Construction began on the 30-unit development in June.
 
The foundation will be funded by grower donations and philanthropic fundraising but also hopes to work with the state, county and federal agencies on finding grants for larger projects. By promoting the well-being of the region’s farmworkers and their families, the SCGGF is hoping to have a positive impact on both their lives and the future of local agriculture.
 
“To have a viable agricultural economy, we need to have a reliable workforce,” says Bevill.
 

SCG Foundation Board Members

A board of heavy hitters in local philanthropic circles has been assembled to sit on the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation board . They are: Duff Bevill, owner of Bevill Vineyard Management; Terry Lindley, chief marketing officer of American AgCredit; Hugh Reimers, president of Jackson Family Wines; Ron Rubin, owner of The Rubin Family of Wines; Lisa Wittke Schaffner, executive director of the John Jordan Foundation; Joe Dutton, foundation board chair and co-owner of Dutton Ranch; John Balletto, owner of Balletto Vineyards and Winery; Vicki Michalczyk, retired Sonoma County grape grower; Kevin Barr, chairman of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission and co-owner of Redwood Empire Vineyard Management; Charles Karren, co-owner of Terra de Promissio Vineyard; Richard Rued, owner of Rued Wines; and Steve Sangiacomo, partner of Sangiacomo Vineyards.

 

 

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