Sustainability Push Conjures Optimism
Recently hired expert to help wine grape growers in Sonoma County get certified
On April 28 the group announced it had hired Robert LaVine as its new sustainability manager, adding another full-time position to the Winegrowers’ small staff. Part of LaVine’s new role will be helping growers in the North Coast county to achieve third-party sustainable certification for their vineyards.
At the start of the year the Winegrowers (formerly known as the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission) announced the goal of reaching 100% sustainable certification by 2019. Winegrowers president Karrisa Kruse said the board approved hiring a sustainable manager to help growers reach the goal. Kruse said she’s currently putting the group’s budget together but expects, in addition to LaVine’s salary, sustainability will account for about 20% of the group’s total budget, which in 2013 was around $1.2 million.
Kruse said the group is also using some of its marketing dollars to create consumer advertising that touts Sonoma County’s commitment to sustainable viticulture. She said the ads are intended to educate consumers about how wine and grapegrowing can be sustainable and also, hopefully, prompt them to choose Sonoma County wines made with sustainable grapes.
Establishing a baseline
Kruse said LaVine would be focusing on two primary goals during his first 90 days with the group. She said he’d be establishing a baseline of the current level of sustainable certification in the county. The baseline will help the Winegrowers demonstrate progress toward their goal, whether its one new acre of certified vines or 100.
LaVine’s other immediate goal is to review all the various sustainability certification programs and take elements of each that serve the goal of sustainability in Sonoma County. Kruse said the group envisions a “holistic” approach that encompasses economic viability, environmental sensitivity and social equity.
Before joining the Winegrowers, LaVine was the director of sourcing at Fetzer Vineyards, and before that he was the director of winegrower relations in the Central Coast for Robert Mondavi Winery for two decades. While he was with Mondavi, LaVine sat on the development committee for the Sustainable in Practice (SIP) program.
“We need someone to take this project and get us to the finish line,” said John Balletto, owner of Balletto Vineyards & Winery, about LaVine’s hiring.
Balletto is a member of the Winegrowers’ board and a former chairman. He said he had his own vineyards certified about five years ago through the Lodi Rules program. “It’s worked for our company,” he said. “It’s helped us to not only save money in the long term but also to look at the little things and make sure, for example, there are not any leaky valves.”
With five years to go before the group’s goal of achieving 100% certification, Balletto said he’s confident the group will be successful. “I think right now if you took a poll you’d have 75% of the growers behind it, and another 20% could be convinced. There’s a small part that’s going to take a lot of work to convince,” he said.
Balletto also estimated that about half of Sonoma County’s total acreage is already sustainably farmed. According to the 2012 county crop report, Sonoma County has 58,349 acres of bearing vineyards that produced more than 267,000 tons worth $583 million.
He said the first year of certification does entail a good amount of work, but maintaining certification is much easier. “There is some work to get it set up and get it going, but once it’s set up it’s maybe one third of the work per year to make sure you’re in compliance.”
Possibility of grants for small growers
Kruse said certification can cost around $1,500 to $2,000, and she knows that’s a good chunk of cash for a smaller vineyard company. To help defray some of the costs associated with certification, the Winegrowers are working to set up a grant program.
The group also collaborated with Sonoma State University to apply for grants to fund a research project analyzing cost savings and sustainability. If funded, the project would yield a dozen case studies that Kruse said would demonstrate the potential return on investment from a sustainable certification.
Vineyard management companies maintain about a third of the county’s vineyards, and Kruse said only one of those (Redwood Empire Vineyard Management) is currently certified. She said Redwood staff is helping the Winegrowers create a model for vineyard management companies to get certified.
One other benefit of attaining certification is that it could help ease the regulatory burden of the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board. She said it appears the water board will accept 53 water-use assessment practices as sufficient means for a property owner to secure a waiver. By earning certification through the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, a landowner could demonstrate that they’re taking the steps necessary to comply with the water board. Kruse said she thinks those rules could be in place around 2015 or 2016.
As the Sonoma Winegrowers pursue the goal of 100% sustainability, Kruse said the group is receiving interest from other groups and businesses. She said her alma mater, The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, invited her to sit on the advisory committee of its Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership. “I think that’s just such a phenomenal opportunity, because we’re just one small wine region, but we’re trying to make a big difference ,” she said.