Sonoma County grape growers hit 5-year target for ‘sustainable’ farming
Sonoma County wine grape growers said Thursday they had reached a goal in committing to sound farming practices and are launching a campaign to curb agriculture’s contribution to climate change.
The 1,800-member Sonoma County Winegrowers organization said 99% of the county’s vineyards had been certified as sustainable, essentially reaching the 100% goal set five years ago.
“No other agricultural community in the world made that sort of commitment,” said Karissa Kruse, the group’s president, speaking from a temporary platform at the edge of a pinot noir vineyard on Guerneville Road under a hot, harvest-perfect late summer sun.
As a result of the program, about 500,000 cases of Sonoma County wine bearing a “sustainably farmed grapes” label will be shipped this year by 14 wineries, some of it going to France, she said.
The small audience included eight growers, a low turnout due to the harvest that started after Labor Day and will continue through October.
As a fitting sequel, Kruse said, the growers’ group will be the sole participant in a test program aimed at establishing a climate adaptation certificate that will establish practices for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and absorbing carbon dioxide in vegetation.
“It’s the right next step for us,” she said.
Laurel Marcus, executive director of the Napa-based California Land Stewardship Institute, said the program, developed by her agency, is “meant to really accomplish change.”
Agriculture produces just 8% of the greenhouse gas emissions in California, but the program is “an opportunity for farmers to step up ... and provide a service to everybody.”
The test program will develop customized strategies for each of the 10 to 15 participating vineyards around the county with different soils and climate conditions, Kruse and Marcus said.
It will focus on limiting emissions from fertilizer and diesel engines and sequestering carbon by planting native trees, grass strips and hedgerows around vineyards.
Duff Bevill, a Healdsburg grower who manages 1,500 acres of vineyards, said the program would, for example, assess the difference between mechanically tilling vineyards, which unlocks the carbon in root systems, versus mowing between the vines, which costs less and retains carbon in the soil.
Bevill was an early advocate of sustainability, acknowledging that it was criticized as “green washing” before third-party verification was established.
Under the current program, growers do a self- assessment on 140 issues including water and power conservation, pest management and employment practices. The program allows use of pesticides and herbicides, including glyphosate, the chemical marketed under the name Roundup, he said.
Consumers, including millennials, are interested in sustainable wines, Kruse said, noting that studies have shown they are willing to pay up to $8 more per bottle for them. No local wineries have boosted their prices for that reason, she said.
Glenn Proctor, a Healdsburg grower, wine broker and winegrowers board chairman, said the combination of weak sales in 2017 and a bumper crop last year have made it tough to raise prices now.
“Hopefully, down the road we can create that value for our growers,” he said.
Four wineries — Jackson Family Wines, Coppola, Bogle and St. Francis — are paying a premium that averages $25 a ton for certified sustainable grapes.
Asked why the sustainability certification fell short of 100%, Kruse said roughly 3% of the county’s vineyards are organic or biodynamic and are content with that designation.