Sustainability is the Byword in Washington

Grower meeting draws record numbers from entire Northwest

by Peter Mitham
Sustainbility's the Byword in Washington
WAWGG speakers, long-time friends and colleagues Gary Grove and Wayne Wilcox (of WSU-Prosser and Cornell University¹s Geneva research station, respectively) share a laugh at WAWGG¹s industry dinner on Feb. 7.
PHOTOS: Peter Mitham
Kennewick, Wash. -- Sustainable practices can play a role in distinguishing the Washington wine industry, speakers attending the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers' (WAWGG) annual meeting in Kennewick, Wash. Feb. 6-8 told growers.

While sustainable viticulture and winemaking are more often goals than an established set of protocols, speakers emphasized the business and marketing advantages that can flow from sustainable practices in the vineyard and winery.

Reducing chemical inputs in the vineyard and implementing measures that make more efficient use of water and energy are not just sound management practices, said Dr. Cliff Ohmart, research director for the Lodi-Woodbridge Wine Grape Commission. "With winegrapes, you can actually save money with your sustainable practices," he told growers. "Growers who do sustainable practices are better credit risks, and they're better insurance risks as well."

The good news is that making the transition to sustainable practices is something many growers, whether or not they know it, are already doing thanks to tighter controls on pesticides and the greater attention being given to improving stewardship of natural resources in recent years.

Between 1995 and 2005, pesticide use in Washington vineyards fell 84%, while fungicide use fell 73%, reported Dr. Doug Walsh, associate entomologist at Washington State University in Prosser. Growers have also shifted away from broad-spectrum pesticides in favor of targeted applications and integrated pest management strategies.

That means growers, while not necessarily ultra-sustainable are hardly "nozzleheads" either, said Rick Hamman, viticulturist for Hogue Ranches and Mercer Estates in Prosser. "You're more sustainable than you think you are," he said.

Sustainbility's the Byword in Washington
Tedd Wildman of Stone Tree Vineyard in Prosser, Wash., and regional representative of the National Grape and Wine Initiative, speaks with Phil Cline of Naches Heights Vineyard, Yakima, Wash.
Seeking financial viability

The big concern for many growers, however, is financial viability. Hamman said growers aren't about to become environmentally sustainable if the economics of the practices don't make sense.
A solid strategy for making the transition to more sustainable practices is helpful, said Dr. Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, coordinator of the BioAg program at the WSU Centre for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources in Puyallup. Carpenter-Boggs outlined three steps that can help move a grower towards more sustainable farming practices:
  • Reduce damaging inputs through precision application;
  • Replace conventional inputs with healthier alternatives;
  • Redesign the vineyard to reflect environment-friendly practices.
While certification of sustainable practices can give growers and wineries a marketing edge, some speakers noted that there are also limits to the boasting that can be done. Ohmart suggested the positioning is often more important to the consumer than is the science backing up the practices.

"Science is just playing a smaller and smaller role in their buying decision," Ohmart said of U.S. wine consumers.

Pacific Northwest wineries are particularly well-placed to take advantage of consumer attitudes, said Nicolas Quille, general manager and winemaker at Pacific Rim winery in Portland, Ore.
Quille said the public seems to expect green wineries to flourish in the Northwest. "The Northwest is seen as a very green and environment-friendly place in the country," he said.

But he questioned whether the consumer is ready for highly sustainable wines. A label touting sustainable or organic practices may be good, but trumpeting a winery's operations as energy efficient may not translate into sales.

That being said, future revisions of the LIVE (Low-Input Viticulture and Enology) program for Oregon growers will incorporate ratings that assess carbon emissions (a key component of so-called greenhouse gases linked to global warming) and other features of facility performance.

Attendance at many of the sustainability sessions highlighted the strong interest among growers, who flocked to the WAWGG conference from across the Pacific Northwest, including British Columbia. Despite poor weather that created havoc on state highways, the annual conference drew 1,200 to 1,300 people to a show that just a decade ago struggled to attract 200 growers.
The popularity of the conference also reflects the growth of the Washington wine industry.

An economic impact report released at the conference pegged the revenues of state wineries at $436 million in 2006, part of the $3-billion impact of the grape industry on Washington's economy. While imports claim a 31% share of U.S. wine sales, the Washington industry posted 22% growth last year, and aims to capture a 10% stake of the U.S. market within five years. That compares to the 7% stake it has today.
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