Earlier this year, Sonoma County Winegrowers (SCW), an organization representing 1,800 wine growers throughout Sonoma County, announced a goal of becoming 100 percent sustainable by 2019. The winegrowing region, which has 59,218 acres of vineyards, would be the first U.S. winegrowing region to do so.
Sustainability as defined by the SCW includes environmental, economic, and social indicators, such as “healthcare and training for employees and being a good neighbor and community member.”
Receiving 90 percent commitment from its members, many SCW winegrowers are already leaders in sustainability. Jackson Family Wines was founded over 30 years ago on principles of land stewardship. Jess Jackson, who started with the flagship wineries of La Crema and Kendall-Jackson, believed in maintaining the land, and today his family carries on his passion by leaving over half of their land to nature and planting vineyards on the other half.
Jackson Family Wines, which owns 26 wineries in California, as well as wineries in Willamette Valley, Oregon; Bordeaux, France; Tuscany, Italy; McLaren Vale, Australia; and select regions in Chile, already has 100 percent of its vineyards certified under 1 of 3 programs: California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, Sustainability in Practice (SIP) or the Pacific Northwest-based Low Input Viticulture & Enology (LIVE).
While the company certifies all of its vineyards, some of the grapes for its wines are purchased from its neighbors. For that reason, the company has hosted workshops explaining why it is supporting the new SCW initiative. The SCW is also educating winegrowers on over 200 practices, such as land use, canopy management, energy efficiency, water quality assessments, and carbon emissions.
About 80 percent of Sonoma County winegrowers are small family farmers who own less than 100 acres, according to Julien Gervreau, senior sustainability manager for Jackson Family Wines. However, “whether they’re certified or not, they have a vision of long-term sustainability,” he said.
“Our county’s grape growers and winemakers have long been at the forefront of creating and utilizing sustainable practices in the vineyard, in the winery and in running their businesses, so this is the next natural step in their continued evolution,” said Karissa Kruse, president of the SCW in a press release.
Although many vineyards and wineries are already implementing sustainable practices, the Sonoma County Winegrowers’ goal is to assess and collect data from 15,000 vineyard acres per year for the next four years until every acre of planted vines are under assessment for sustainability.
Certification comes at a cost to growers, however, and part of Jackson’s role in the initiative has been to “help them understand the value of what we’re doing,” said Gervreau.
Jackson Family Wines recently commissioned a study with Wine Intelligence on sustainability practices, finding out that consumers do care about grower practices but prefer to purchase brands that have third-party certification. “It’s not enough to say, ‘We’re Green.’ It’s quite another to have the certification,” said Gervreau.
Additionally, Gervreau said that large retailers and traders are starting to scrutinize their supply chain. “If it’s not certified sustainable, it becomes a market access point,” he said.
The SCW is supporting its winegrowers in obtaining certification by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, which focuses on third-party verification of environmental, social, and economic viability standards. Additionally, there will be progress reports in an annual Sonoma County Wine Region Sustainability Report Card and a “winery real-time tracker” on the SCW website.
According to the release, “The key of sustainability is continuous improvement. Once all of the county’s vineyards and wineries are recognized as sustainable, improvement plans will be developed to provide access to new production models, techniques and approaches.”