Winemakers and grape growers who forgo pesticides, sow cover crops, reduce waste and energy consumption, provide workers health insurance, and are mindful of their non-farming neighbors will be able to distinguish themselves as certifiably sustainable under a new third-party audit system announced Wednesday by the Wine Institute, a public policy advocacy group.
"People do want to know that the products they purchase are grown and produced in some sort of sustainable fashion," said Chris Savage, director of environmental affairs at Gallo Wines. "Our expectation is it will become even more important in the future."
Nearly a decade in the making, the Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing Program is part marketing tool, part voluntary self-regulation, and partly a way to help consumers navigate an increasingly complicated purchase.
Natural cork, synthetic or screw cap? Organic, organically grown or biodynamic? Elegant Napa cab or one from price-friendly Paso Robles? The program analyzes 227 practices that take place from the field to the glass for the most prolific fruit crop on the planet.
California is the world's fourth-largest producer of wine. The state's nearly 3,000 wineries produce 90 percent of the wines consumed in the U.S.
The "sustainable" certification is designed to not only tell consumers how the California grapes and wine were treated, but the field workers and neighbors as well. Growers and winemakers assess themselves in all areas of the production process, an exercise then verified by an outside auditor.
Growers and winemakers representing 62 percent of the 467 million gallons of wine California produces annually have signed up. Industry officials say the designation will help the state's wines stand out as retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. increasingly rate the products they carry.
"We get requests for sustainability score cards daily from restaurants and distributors," said Steve Smit of Constellation Wines U.S., which includes Robert Mondavi. "This certification helps us scale it down to something we can explain."
As wineries, vineyards and urban areas increasingly intersect, the risk of legislation looms in areas from nuisance abatement to stream degradation. Bird bombs, anti-fungal spraying, deer depredation and discing are the ugly side of a sublime process that the guidelines could theoretically reduce.
Nine years ago, the Wine Institute formed the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance to develop a measurable set of voluntary industry standards for sustainability. It has evolved into this third-party certification program similar to the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED program for buildings.
New Zealand, South Africa and Australia have sustainability standards in place, as does Oregon, the U.S.' fourth-largest producer. Oregon growers also can label their wines "Salmon Safe" if they protect watersheds from runoff. Washington state has a program that's self-regulated.
Some worry that the audited standards will mean more costs and paperwork for farmers, who might not recoup the money from the wineries they supply.
"The concern is that if you're not with the plan, you're a second-class citizen. Those who are willing to complete the paperwork, I hope they get a return on their investment," said Nat DiBuduo, who represents mostly large-scale grape growers in the San Joaquin Valley, the source of 60 percent of California's crop.
Consumers won't find a label on the bottle yet, but winemakers will be able to advertise and tout the designation on their Web sites. Already, Livermore's Cedar Mountain Winery, which has been participating in the program, is calling itself "the only certified green winery" in the region.
"We hope to gain a market advantage compared with others," said Kim Ledbetter-Bronson Vino Farms in Lodi, which has switched to biodiesel and solar power.
Not everyone believes the new standards will matter to wine consumers conditioned to consider sipping a sensory experience.
"Honestly, it's not an issue. People will buy it if it tastes good to them," said Stan Kato, owner of The Grape Tray, a Fresno institution.