Sonoma County considers itself as the birthplace of California wine, and today there are more than 450 wineries and 1,800 vineyards in the region. Most are multi-generational family businesses that pride themselves on a commitment to the land and the community.
The wine region is made up of 17 unique appellations with varied topography — from the Pacific Coast to steep mountain ranges — and is home to 66 commercial grape varieties, including 44 red and 22 white.
Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, talks to BeverageDaily about the region’s commitment to sustainability and what, exactly, this means in practice.
BeverageDaily: Why did you set the target to become America’s first 100% certified sustainable wine growing region?
Karissa Kruse: Although many of the region’s multi-generational wine growers and winemakers have been practicing sustainable farming techniques and wine-making practices for decades, this initiative demonstrates a genuine commitment.
We felt it was important to put a stake in the ground and formally commit ourselves towards becoming America’s first 100% certified sustainable wine region.
Roughly 30,000 acres of farmland are converted to non-ag use every year in California. There has never been a more important time to focus on the long-term preservation of agriculture.
Sustainability is the best approach to ensure we are stewards of our farms and vineyards for future generations, improve the quality of life for our employees, and enhance the community where we live and work.
And for consumers, we are excited that Sonoma County on the label represents sustainable agriculture in the bottle.
What does ‘sustainable’ mean to you?
Sonoma County Winegrowers take a triple-bottom line approach to sustainable practices that measure grape growers’ commitment to being socially responsible in how they treat their employees, neighbors, and community, environmentally conscientious with their farming and winery practices, and economically viable as a business.
Sonoma County has very strict standards for acceptance into their sustainability program, including third party certification and continuous improvement plans. Currently, Sonoma County Sustainability works with California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA), Fish Friendly Farming, Lodi Rules, and Sustainable in Practice (SIP).
For a vineyard to become certified sustainable, growers must complete a self-assessment that includes a comprehensive set of 138 best practices, including water conservation, water quality, energy efficiency, soil health management, employee safety, neighbor relations, business viability and more.
Once growers complete their self-assessment, they create an annual plan for improvements and work with an independent third-party auditor to review their assessment, conduct on-site visits to the vineyard to evaluate and validate the practices and review the annual improvement plan.
If the auditors, who are environmental scientists, biologists, chemists, professors, geologists and other trained professionals, approve the vineyard assessments and plan, then the grower receives certification.
What progress has been made towards your goal since 2014?
Tremendous progress has been made on every front. We are closing in on 70% of the more than 59,000 vineyard acres in Sonoma County having been sustainable self-assessed more than two years before our deadline.
Approximately two-thirds of the county’s 1,800 vineyard owners have been certified sustainable. In 2015, we had nearly 1,300 grape growers participate in sustainability workshops, meetings and related events.
And, most importantly, we are recognized around the world as a leader in sustainable winegrape growing. This coming December, the premier international wine industry event, Wine Vision, will make its first visit to the New World of wine with Sonoma County as host.
A business innovation forum for the wine industry, Wine Vision is on a global journey to showcase some of the world’s most progressive wine regions.
By partnering with a new location each year, Wine Vision brings debate about the wine sector’s future to the heart of the industry, and creates a showcase for regional innovation and ingenuity.
Wine Vision will be held in Sonoma County, California, from 5 to 7 December 2016.
The organizers have been very clear that Sonoma County was chosen because we are one of North America’s most progressive wine producing regions, with a two-hundred-year history of viticulture.
What have been the biggest milestones for the project so far?
In January, California Governor Jerry Brown recognized Sonoma County Winegrowers with the Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award (GEELA). This is California’s highest environmental honor.
Secondly, Sonoma County Winegrowers has announced it is expanding sustainability efforts with a new focus on the socially-responsible component of sustainability, with the relaunch of the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation.
Since launching our sustainability initiative two years ago, we’ve realized that the social responsibility component focused on supporting employees while at work, but what is critical for positively impacting the lives of our agriculture workforce are things such as childcare and housing which go beyond the day-to-day training and are more about their families and overall livelihood.
The Foundation has begun working with local agricultural employees to learn more about their specific challenges and needs.
In addition, we are meeting with various community-based organizations and government agencies to identify resources and support that is available to agricultural workers and their families in the areas of healthcare, affordable housing, childcare and education.
How can wine take sustainability to the next level?
These areas go beyond where individual farmers can affect large change on their own. These issues require collaboration and public/private partnerships to create real impact.
In this short time since relaunching the Foundation, we have already seen immediate impact by helping fill a funding gap that was delaying the construction of Ortiz Plaza, a 30-unit affordable housing community for agricultural workers and their families here in Sonoma County.
We reached out to the local wine community and raised nearly $100,000 to ensure construction of this first-of-its-kind affordable housing project in Sonoma County.
There are 450 wineries and 1,800 vineyards in Sonoma County. How can you, as an association, drive positive sustainability change among individual businesses?
Sonoma County’s wine industry is primarily comprised of multi-generational family businesses, which by their very structure, are sustainable.
I am blessed with a strong, visionary board of directors who speak in support and demonstrate their commitment to sustainability each and every day. The leadership and vocal support of our sustainability efforts have helped raise awareness among our grape growers and greater wine community here in America.
We have also developed a sound program that is transparent with third-party verification. And we work very closely with growers to help them achieve certification, including hiring a sustainability manager who works directly with growers at their farms.
We also offer a voucher to help offset some of the costs for certification.
What role does Sonoma County Winegrowers play; and what responsibilities do individual businesses have to step up to?
This is a team effort among the Sonoma County Winegrowers staff, our board of directors, wine community leaders and our individual vineyard owners. It’s a shared responsibility to do what’s right for our community, our growers’ farming businesses, and to ensure agriculture thrives for generations to come.
"The commitment from our wine community has led to widespread recognition and helped us initiate a global conversation about sustainable winegrowing"
The commitment and dedication by Sonoma County’s wine community has led to widespread recognition and allowed us to help initiate a global conversation about sustainable winegrowing.
Our grape growers are active, interested and constantly looking to improve on their practices, whether it’s installing new technology for water conservation or talking with their peers about the best cover crops to plant between vine rows to attract beneficials or bring more nutrients to the soil.
Sonoma County Winegrowers host more than 50 events, workshops, and educational programs to educate growers on new sustainability practices, tools, and other resources to improve their farming and businesses.
Our winery partners have also been supportive with some wineries starting to pay a premium price for sustainably grown grapes. In fact, an additional $350,000 in premiums for certified sustainable grapes was paid by some Sonoma County wineries last year.
We also feel a responsibility to start educating key wine trade partners, such as sommeliers, on how we define sustainability and why it matters. We have partnered with the Guild of Sommeliers to create educational seminars and tastings focused on sustainable winegrowing and winemaking.
In addition, we have started a national consumer advertising and informational campaign to educate and build awareness about our vineyard practices and remind consumers that wine is an agricultural product.
When they purchase and enjoy a Sonoma County wine, they’re supporting sustainable agriculture.
These are all examples of the tremendous buy-in throughout the Sonoma County wine community to become 100% sustainable and to help inform the public about why it matters. This broad support is truly gratifying and tells everyone that Sonoma County is committed to becoming the first sustainable wine region within the next two years.