Sustainable Winegrapes Taste Better

Wines produced from sustainably grown winegrapes taste better.

But, you already knew this, didn’t you?

Of course you did.

Well, actually, unless you are a winegrower, you may never have thought of equating “sustainable winegrowing” with “quality wines”. Few folks outside vineyard production understand that the primary intent of sustainable winegrowing is to produce high quality winegrapes.

“Hey, wait just a minute!” I hear you retort. “Everyone knows that sustainability is all about the 3 E’s—Environment, Economics and Equity. (Or, is it about the 3 P’s—People, Planet and Profits?)” (1)

While sustainability is very much concerned with the 3 E’s and P’s, from the perspective of a winegrape grower, the focus and desired outcome of sustainable winegrowing is to produce high quality winegrapes.

Most folks, even those in wine marketing, tend to view sustainable winegrowing practices as focused on improving wildlife habitat, responding to social concerns, or reducing costs. (2, 3, 4)

But those views are off the mark and in contrast to the opinions expressed by California winegrowers. The number 1 reason given by California winegrowers for implementing best management practices (BMP) for sustainable winegrowing is to produce high quality winegrapes. (5)

Allow me to present a couple of wines and results from recent grower surveys that support my contention that sustainable winegrowing produces high quality winegrapes and that the ensuing wines taste better.

First—Last week, I attended a holiday celebration for a local school in Mendocino County. Of course, everyone brought some of their favorite wines to share. My favorite wine of the night was a Sauvignon Blanc from Bodkin Winery that was produced from winegrapes grown by the Sandy Bendy Vineyard, a Certified California Sustainable Winegrowers (CCSW) vineyard. The flavor profile of the Bodkin SB was wonderfully wide. This wine was great by itself and better still while eating very, very tasty snacks.

Second—In 2011, winegrowers in three major regions of California; Napa, Lodi and Central Coast, were surveyed by the Center for Environmental Policy and Behavior at the University of California, Davis. The Center subsequently published several research briefs that detailed the management goals, practice adoptions and perceptions of winegrowers with regard to sustainable best management practices. (6, 7)

Personally and professionally, I was pleased, yet surprised, to see that “Winegrape Quality” was the top ranked goal for growers to choose when making vineyard management decisions. More than a dozen other choices were ranked below wine quality: public health and safety, employee well-being, water quality, winery expectations, eco biodiversity, wildlife health, and profitability of farm.

I should not have been surprised, for wine quality, at all price points, is always the driving force of wine sales. (Although, I should admit, that in the past, I bought way too many bottles of wine because their labels showed kangaroos, loons, ravens and jumping amphibians.)

After learning of the importance that winegrowers give to wine quality when making vineyard management decisions, I was promoted to do a little more research. The California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA) Code of Sustainable Winegrowers delineates 138 vineyard practices for self-assessment: I counted 67 practices that affect winegrape quality. Of the 50 CSWA practices that are prerequisites to become a Certified-CCSW vineyard, I counted 27 that pertain to wine quality.

The CSWA sustainable best management practices are divided to 14 chapters; the basics are: pest management (disease, insect, weed, and vertebrate), water, fertility and soil management. Organic producers must also meet similar basic requirements to become certified organic growers. (8)

To become certified CCSW in California winegrowers must go beyond these basic criteria. The CSWA Code book includes an extensive list practices for managing water and energy conservation, employee engagement, community relations, business planning and continuing education and improvement. (Wow, this is a lot of time and effort that growers do for certification.)

But, not done yet. The CSWA Code book has an entire chapter dedicated to “Wine Quality” that growers must address.

 

Third—(Back to the party I mentioned earlier.) Later in the evening, my wife handed me a glass of Parducci Sauvignon Blanc. After the first sip, I had to sit down so I could focus on the next mouth full. Two wonderful SBs in one evening, I was loving life.

The Parducci Winery has a wonderful SB block along the east side of the Russian River at their La Ribera. The training of this block is cleaver adaption of cane pruning in a horizontally divided canopy: essentially a quadrilateral with four renewal spurs and four fruiting canes. In the past, during harvest they have made two or three passes in order to pick fruit with different maturity and flavor characteristics. Perhaps the bottle I tasted was a blend of SB picks, which could explain the extended range of flavors I enjoyed.

While the Parducci vineyards just became Certified CCSW in 2011, the vineyards have always been managed the same way: beautifully. Since 1998, this vineyard has been one on my favorites on the North Coast and I do not believe much has changed significantly in their management practices; same attention to canopy management, irrigation, fertility and harvest timing. There is one difference; they added sheep to help with cover crop management.

 

 

Third—(Back to the party I mentioned earlier.) Later in the evening, my wife handed me a glass of Shannon Ridge Vineyard (SRV) Sauvignon Blanc. After the first sip, I had to sit down so I could focus on the next mouth full. Two wonderful SBs in one evening, I was loving life.

The Shannon Ridge Vineyards home ranch has two SB blocks: one is north facing near the top of the ridge and the second is in a protected, cool valley to the east. I do not know which block the grapes were sourced for wine I drank. Perhaps the bottle was a blend of the two, which could explain the extended range of flavors I enjoyed.

While the Shannon Ridge Vineyards just become Certified CCSW in 2013, the vineyards have always been managed the same way: beautifully. Since 1998, this vineyard has been one on my favorites on the North Coast and I do not believe much has changed significantly in their management practices; same attention to canopy management, irrigation, fertility and harvest timing. There is one difference, they added about 1,300 sheep to help with cover crop management.

 

Fourth— I think I read somewhere that wines produced from certified sustainable wine grapes scored an average of six points higher that their non-certified peers in tastings conducted by Jay Miller for his new publication, Wine Obfuscate.

To Sum Up

We are all familiar with the axiom: Winemakers cannot use poor quality winegrapes to produce good wines— however, the opposite is possible.

Certified sustainable winegrowing is the only winegrowing program with specific criteria that directly addresses the production of quality winegrapes. Certification requires growers to continually seek ways to improve winegrape quality and enhance their communities and our environment Third party certification of winegrowers gives transparency and credibility to the claims of sustainability by winegrowers.

I believe we should be seeking sustainably grown wines to drink. What do you think?

 

May I leave you with a couple of quotes?

“Sustainability by itself is just a word.  What gives it meaning are the programs and people behind it that drive change, improve the environment and produce the best quality grapes and wines in the world.” Chris Savage, E. & J. Gallo Winery.

“I see sustainability as an evolution; we can always find room for improvement.” Tim Thornhill, Mendocino Wine Company & Parducci Vineyards

 

Wines I am drinking: Parducci SB; Goldeneye PN; Honig SB; Rodney Strong CS; Bogle PS; and Kimmel CH.

Siempre mejor,

  1. Gary Zucca, David E Smith, Darryl J Mitry. 2009. Sustainable viticulture and winery practices in California: What is it, and do customers care? International Journal of Wine Research 2009:2 189–194
  2. http://authenticwine.org/definitions.html
  3. Cordano, Mark, R. Scott Marshall and Murray Silverman. 2010. How do small and medium enterprises go “green”? A study of environmental management programs in the U.S. wine industry. Journal of Business Ethics, 92: 463–478
  4. http://www.wineinstitute.org/initiatives/sustainablewinegrowing/benefits
  5. Matthew Hoffman, Vicken Hillis, Mark Lubell. 2011. Lodi Winergrape Grower Survey.
  6. Matthew Hoffman, Vicken Hillis, Mark Lubell. 2012. Sustainability Practice Adoption and Management Goals of Central Coast, CA Winegrape Growers. Center for Environmental Policy and Behavior, UC Davis.
  7. Matthew Hoffman, Vicken Hillis, Mark Lubell. 2012. Sustainability Practice Adoption and Management Goals of Napa Valley Viticulture Region of California: Winegrape Grower Perceptions and Participation. Center for Environmental Policy and Behavior, UC Davis.
  8. http://www.ccof.org/sites/default/files/media/Documents/Certification/PDFs/00_complete_organic_farm_certification_support_package.pdf

 

Paul Zellman

About Paul Zellman

Paul pursues interests in wine, water and wilderness. Working closely with winegrowers and organizations on the North Coast, Paul promotes positive outcomes for issues relating to winegrape quality and water use. Paul currently serves on the Russian River Flood Control District as President and as Education Director for the Lake County Winegrape Commission, coordinating their Sustainable Winegrowing Programs and Master Vigneron Academy. Paul is blessed to live with his wife Mary Agnes in Ukiah, CA.
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