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Sustainability Beyond the Vineyard

Growers' field day in Sonoma County focuses on all aspects of sustainability in wine production

by Andrew Adams
Labor attorney Michael Saqui discusses how to be a sustainable employer. Photo by George Rose.

Forestville, Calif.—Discussions on sustainable agriculture typically center on what’s happening in the field.

Sustainability, however, can be applied to all aspects of a business and even to how a grower interacts with his or her neighbors. As the Sonoma County Winegrowers continues its effort to have all of the county’s vineyards certified sustainable, the subject of a field day event held Aug. 8 at the Santa Rosa Junior College Shone Farm focused on some of the other elements of running a business in a sustainable manner.

“This is sustainable in a nutshell; it’s people, it’s the plants and it’s profit,” said attorney Michael Saqui of the Saqui Law Group. “Without profitability there’s no chance of being sustainable.”

Saqui started the day off with a presentation on extending sustainability to employee relations and how to leverage that to bolster one’s brand. He prefaced his remarks with a general reminder that being sustainable is also just good business sense. Saqui was one of the contributors to the human relations chapter of the California Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Workbook.

He said wine grape growers in general already have the lowest rate of workplace legal issues because they tend to have good long-term worker retention and generally have excellent rates of compliance with health and safety requirements. “We oughta be branding this,” he told the audience of about 150 growers. “This is good stuff.”

Still, Saqui said companies should do more to help their employees with everyday challenges like finding childcare to ensure their domestic lives are secure and so they can be productive employees. He referred to one program his firm helped organize in which female “mobile office managers” or MOMs visited the fields to talk with workers. Eventually the workers grew to identify the ladies and their bright yellow vests as problem solvers who could help them with childcare, health issues and even more serious subjects like domestic violence.

Such a program is also an example of putting an employee management plan into practice. He said many companies have an accident prevention and wellness plan in a binder collecting dust in an office. Those plans are worthless unless an employer actually takes steps to implement them, Saqui said.

He said he’s worked with several generations of Sonoma County growers and advised those in the audience that the next generation is coming into the industry seeking, and even expecting, a kindler, gentler business world. He said he came to this realization about 19 months ago at his own law firm and relaxed the dress code, stocked the break room with snacks and candy, implemented a work from home honor policy and allowed flexible schedules. “The only think I haven’t given them is binkies and blankets for naps,” he said. “And you know what? I have the best team I’ve ever had in 25 years.”

Being a good neighbor
Robert LaVine is the growers group’s new sustainability manager and introduced a panel discussion by reminding the audience that what they do in the vineyard has an impact on those living nearby. “We have neighbors and our relationship is so critical a part of our sustainability,” he said.

Paul Sequeira, a vineyard manager with Constellation Brands, said growers need to be OK with approaching their neighbors and discussing what’s going on in the vineyard with them. This can be as simple as calling to let them know about a night pick so they are prepared for the pre-dawn lights and noise when it happens.

He also referred to an issue that first arose last summer when a group of parents with children at a school in Sebastopol protested an apple orchard conversion to a vineyard because they were convinced the vineyard would regularly be treated with chemicals that would put their children at risk. “One thing to emphasize if you get into this discussion is that grapes are low impact when it comes to chemicals and water,” he said.

He said it’s also a good idea to talk with people living near vineyards about what you’re spraying and how long its active. “I think it always surprises people when I tell them the re-entry interval, they think the vineyard will be toxic for a week and that’s not the case,” he said.

While he was the vineyard manager at Dehlinger Winery in the Russian River Valley, Marty Hedlund said he had few issues with neighbors until he received a particularly strident message from someone who believed Dehlinger was poisoning the environment with its toxic spraying. That prompted Hedlund to track down and contact each of the vineyard’s neighbors and he eventually learned the call was from someone renting a house who ultimately apologized for the call after learning the spraying had been done by a completely different company on a vineyard not owned by the Dehlingers.

Getting to know each of the neighbors, however, turned out to be a great resource to get information out to people living nearby. “There were a lot of things that were really cool about going out and meeting my neighbors,” he said. “Some of them are still my friends.”

Now that he is a vineyard consultant, Hedlund said it seems every vineyard in the North Coast has at least one “problematic” neighbor and good communication is really the best strategy for dealing with those types of people.

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