There’s an off-color joke I enjoy telling about Donald Trump (or Willie Brown, if the audience is local). A woman approaches The Donald (or Da Mayor) at a cocktail party and gushes effusively, to the point of finally declaring that all she wants to do is drop to her knees and (insert whatever euphemism you prefer for performing an act of unilateral gratification). Trump (or Brown) steps back, glares at the woman, and, with arms akimbo, inquires “yeah, well what’s in it for me?”
Your West Coast Oenophile recently attend the 2nd Annual Green Wine Summit in Santa Rosa, the same event at which last year I first publicly unveiled my concept for Sostevinobile. This time round, I came with media credentials, intent on reporting my observations of the various seminars and attendees, as well as any discoveries among the donated sustainable, organic and biodynamic wines poured at the numerous tastings and receptions accompanying this event. But, over the course of the two-day workshop, it gradually dawned on me that the standards I had set for Sostevinobile’s sustainable wine program could create some ambiguity without more attenuated definition, if not possibly raise question, in the consumer’s mind, about the validity of our allegiance to sustainable practices.
As I endeavor to complete my installment on the Green Wine Summit, I recognize that other essayists have amply, if not more precisely (and more promptly), chronicled the particulars of this event in articles and in other blogs. As such, I would like to present my readership with an overview of how this second Green Wine Summit has refined my criteria for the sustainable guidelines for the wines we will be pouring at Sostevinobile.
The central tenet on which I founded Sostevinobile, that an eating and drinking facility’s stated adherence to locavore principles must include the wines it serves, remains immutable. There can be no wavering from our fundamental premise of serving sustainably-farmed and produced wines only from the West Coast. The viticultural industries in California, Oregon, and Washington have matured and expanded to the point that we have become a single wine region, with inextricable links that transcend state borders or other boundaries. Granted, this reality may extend our radius beyond the 500-mile perimeter that is generally considered the litmus for sustainable practices, but Sostevinobile will be taking sufficient steps to ensure that our wider tolerance for transportation and shipping distances does not increase our carbon footprint nor that of our producers.
Where our benchmarks must be honed is in what we will define as sustainable for the wines we serve and how we can credibly convey these standards to our clientele and the public at large. As the Green Wine Summit’s Master of Ceremonies Paul Dolan highlighted, transparency and authenticity in marketing stands as paramount if claims to sustainability are to carry any weight with consumers. Amid the plethora of confusing—if not conflicting—progressive epithets the food and beverage industry wishes to ascribe to its products: organic, whole, vegan, fair trade, natural, fish-friendly, salmon safe, biodynamic, equitable, etc., the label “sustainable” needs to incorporate well-defined rigors and pervasive applicability throughout an enterprise or risk indifference from consumers.
Sustainability has long been a hallmark of the California wine industry. Since 2003, CSWA has sponsored the Sustainable Wine Program, a self-assessment inventory a winery or vineyard can conduct on itself to assess and improve its sustainable practices; to date, nearly 1,500 vintners and growers —representing approximately 60% of the state’s wine production and vineyard acreage—have assayed the sustainability their operations at 125 workshops, while more than 5,500 have attended 160 targeted education workshops.
Despite these impressive statistics, as CSWA Secretary Steve Smit noted in several panels at the Green Wine Summit, the current marketplace necessitates the need to extend these assessment into a formal certification program with third-party verification of the 58 prerequisites. Importantly, however, these criteria are processed-based, meaning that they are designed to encourage participants to improve their sustainable practices, rather than exclude organizations for failing to attain a pre-determined threshold, as performance-based certifications do.
Washington wineries conduct a similar self-assessment program, Vinewise that has been teamed up with LIVE, a non-profit that offers third-party certification through the International Organization for Biological Control program, and VINEA, a cooperative certification like SIP or Napa Green for the Walla Walla Valley. Oregon’s certification program launched in 2008 and released its first certified sustainable Chardonnays this past summer, with certified Pinot Noir due for release in the spring of 2010. With California’s program still not formally underway, it will be a number of years yet before wines certified as sustainable under a unified, statewide standard become available here.
With a genuine paucity of officially certified wines available, Sostevinobile faces a delicate balance in maintaining the diversity and quality of its wine program while upholding the fidelity of our avowed sustainable principles. While the Green Wine Summit clearly demonstrated that we must be rigorous in holding the wineries we feature to an invariable standard if we are to hold any credence with our clientele, it has also shown me that our role is to help promote greater sustainability throughout the wine industry, not to attempt to preclude West Coast wineries from participating in our programs, particularly if they are genuinely moving towards increasing the sustainability of their viticultural practices. This is a role Green Summit panelists showed corporate titans like Walmart and General Electric now are playing in steering their vendors and clients toward corporate responsibility for their environmental impact; though Sostevinobile will far smaller in our scope, we can and we must utilize any clout we wield to help enable the same critical agenda.
Ultimately, society will reach a point where, even if sustainability is not universally adopted standard, there will be sufficient consumer backlash to render any flagrantly non-sustainable venture incapable of competing in the marketplace (I have stated many times in this blog that Sostevinobile hopes this evolution will include a convergence of the standards for organic and sustainable). Until we attain such ubiquity, both within the wine industry and within the culture at large, our most productive course will be to promote a standard to which our vendors need ascribe in order substantiate their inclusion in our wine programs.
A fellow Green Wine Summit attendee, ConsciousWine™, demonstrates a compelling framework for codifying their threshold for determining a viable level of sustainability, with their basic Four Principles:
- Use no synthetic chemicals in the vineyards whatsoever,
- Utilize practices supporting the vitality of the land for our kids and beyond,
- Reflect the unique character and personality of the vineyard in their wines and
- Rock the house (i.e.: it’s in the bottle).
ConsciousWine further delineates its criteria for endorsement with 12 specific applications (biodiversity, minimal water usage, sustainable worker policy) for which they seek to
have their Four Principles followed; Sostevinobile must, of course, conscientiously devise our own benchmarks, then oblige participating wineries to incorporate a definitive statement of their commitment to and deployment of these requisite sustainable practices on their external Website. Our purpose is to embrace the genuine efforts of wineries to establish themselves with what the CSWA deems as the Three E’s of Sustainability: Environmentally Sound, Socially Equitable, and Economically Feasible (or, as the Green Chamber of Commerce states more succinctly, People, Planet, Profits). As certification for sustainability becomes more pervasive, we will adapt our programs to this changing landscape and attenuate the standards by which Sostevinobile selects its wines accordingly.
Much of the rest of the Green Wine Summit focused on the need for effective communications and marketing of sustainable practices, both in terms of furthering the groundswell for public demand as well as for creating a consistent voice to ensure that claims to sustainability carry true meaning (as opposed to “greenwashing”) for consumers. Another prominent highlight of the workshop was the emergence of water preservation and conservation as an issue carrying increasingly important weight in the quest for a truly sustainable economy, particularly in areas like California with its limited water resources.
I attended the Summit in the hope of learning more about the state of green practices within the wine industry; I left with a greater understanding of the imperative placed on enterprises like Sostevinobile for promoting and encouraging these developments, while implementing as much of them as we ourselves can in our own arena. After all, as keynote speaker Gil Friend observed, creating a sustainable ecosystem isn’t anything new—Nature itself has “3.85 billion years of experience in creating efficient, adaptive, resilient, sustainable systems.” Knowing that “the R&D has already been done for us,” as Friend is fond of noting, the task ahead becomes relatively simple: an informed and dedicated commitment to the well-being of the living systems that ultimately sustain the human economy, and to the well-being of the human economy that sustains all living systems. That’s what’s in it for us.