Farmers often are not very good with marketing and marketers not very knowledgeable about farming. To farmers, sustainability is an agricultural process. To corporate marketers, sustainability is a brand — just another selling tool.
Recently the Sonoma County Winegrowers Association has been blowing the PR horn claiming that 99% of their members are now certified sustainable. In the movie A League of Their Own Tom Hanks playing the manager Jimmy Dugan says, "It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard ... is what makes it great."
The standards applied for sustainability in Sonoma are not hard because everyone seems able to attain them easily. You have to question any standard that anyone and everyone can achieve. Great, this accomplishment is not. Better than nothing for sure, but that’s about it.
This is a marketing deception not up to the hard-earned reputation of an elite winemaking region like Sonoma. It is a shame that Sonoma has taken this path as actually sustainability of farming in Sonoma has always outdistanced its neighbor Napa. Sonoma was the sensitive one compared to commercial Napa. While I would not have been a bit surprised if this path was taken by marketing-driven Napa, it is a disappointment that it was Sonoma that chose to decimate whatever meaning the term sustainability had left.
Wine writer Ester Mobley picks up on some essential points in her recent San Francisco Chronicle article “Nearly all Sonoma County vineyards are certified sustainable”
“But as sustainability certifications have proliferated, they’ve also drawn significant criticism — that the programs’ standards are too lax on the use of synthetic chemicals, that they are marketing ploys constituting “greenwashing,”
“The tipping point was really when the wineries wanted to use the (Sonoma sustainable logo) label,” says Kruse.” (Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma Winegrowers)
”In the public consciousness, “sustainable” and “organic” may sound synonymous. But as defined by these certifying organizations, they’re hugely different. (Kruse estimates that 3% of Sonoma County’s vineyards are certified organic or biodynamic; some of them are also certified sustainable.) Organic farming, overseen here by California Certified Organic Farmers, strictly forbids the use of synthetic chemicals. Sustainable farming, on the other hand, is designed to be flexible.”
“The flexibility to continue using synthetic pesticides may make sustainability more palatable to a larger number of farmers, but critics argue that it dilutes the concept. “To me sustainability is a made-up word,” says organic viticulturist Phil Coturri, owner of Enterprise Vineyard Management. “How could you be sustainable and allow glyphosates to be used in the vineyard?”
Organic and Biodynamic writer Pam Strayer notes on her Organic Wines Uncorked Blog that Sonoma County has used an average of 81,319 pounds of glyphosate (Roundup) on their vineyards each year over the last four years. It’s no wonder that that sustainable certifications are accused of greenwashing. Strayer also quotes a comment I heard Monty Walden, the author of the excellent book Biodynamic Wine, make at the Biodynamic Wine Conference in San Francisco last year, “Sustainable means you used to smoke a pack a day and now you only smoke 10 a day. But you still smoke."
Every small producer I’ve met who has pursued a sustainable certification has done so out of a sincere desire to become better stewards of the environment. Programs like Oregon’s L.I.V.E. have offered farmers a framework and developed comprehensive education and research programs to help them reduce their chemical inputs. These are good programs run by good people who are genuinely trying to make things better. And, indeed they are making things better and they deserve our respect in spite of their shortcomings.
Where sustainability falls apart is when it transforms from an agricultural method into a marketing strategy. What the Sonoma Winegrowers Association is doing is a marketing strategy, not an agricultural one. Certifications matter and they should be difficult to achieve requiring genuine commitment from those that seek to achieve them. The hard is what makes them meaningful.
I believe the Sonoma Winegrowers and Karissa Kruse are authentically committed to the environment and are not intentionally trying to mislead us. It would be disingenuous to say they are not well-meaning. However, I do not believe they truly understand how important it is to go beyond merely sustainable. As Gabe Brown writes in his book Dirt to Soil, “Why would we want to sustain a degraded system when regeneration is what is important?”
Sustainability cannot be the goal. We must dig deep and practice regenerative agriculture that puts back more than it takes from the soil. You cannot nurture soils full of life when you use glyphosate or worse. Sustainability is too little, too late.
For winemakers who want to produce exceptional, terroir driven wines sustainability is not enough. To create wines that clearly express themselves and the soil where they were grown requires a healthy soil microbiome as that is the only way a vine can extract that essence. Current research is starting to suggest that the microbiome of the soil is more responsible for what we call terroir than the mineral and physical composition of the soil itself. You can’t kill the life in your soil and make wines of place.
Indeed it is the smallest of things that make a wine sing