How can wine be “green”? It’s not as straightforward as you might think. Symbols and letters on the back of wine labels indicate some kind of commitment to the environment, but to what extent? While the benefits of cultivating and producing wine in a responsible manner can aid the environment and ecosystem, the nuances can be confusing. Here, we break down the “what” and “why” of different wine certifications.
“Certified Organic” wines must meet the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program’s criteria in both farming and production, as well as requirements set by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. At its core, the organic program is about the protection of natural resources, to promote biodiversity and limit the use of synthetic products, especially in the vineyards.
Once the vinification process begins, substances like commercial yeast must also be certified as organic. Naturally occurring sulfites are permitted, but sulfite additives are not allowed. This is just a small sample of protocol. Additionally, certification is an arduous, three-year process during which producers have to transition vineyards by discontinuing any use of prohibited substances.
For Sarah McCrea, vice president, marketing and strategy, of Long Meadow Ranch in Napa Valley, organic certification has long been a goal. When she sold Stony Hill Vineyard in September 2018 to Long Meadow Ranch, which has exhibited expertise in organic viticulture, she saw an opportunity to complete the transition of the vineyards. Through the elimination of synthetics, herbicides and pesticides, Stony Hill can take its farming to the next level, she says.
The USDA also offers a “made with organic grapes” label, where viticultural practices are the same as certified organic, but there’s more leeway with permitted substances like non-organic yeast and added sulfites in the winery.
Organic certifications in other parts of the world, like the European Union, differ from U.S. guidelines. In addition, while International Organization for Standardization (ISO) guidelines regulate winemaking processes globally, there are no rules for organic production methods.
Biodynamics is the next step beyond organics. Based on Rudolf Steiner’s ideology, biodynamics views the entire estate as a living organism. Naturally occurring cycles like moon phases dictate when to harvest, and there’s even a calendar for optimal wine-tasting days.
Special concoctions of herbs, minerals and manure may also be planted in the soil to aid fertilization. It’s one of the few certifications recognized globally, but in the U.S., just a handful of wineries like Hedges Family Estate have earned Demeter’s “Certified Biodynamic” seal.
Sustainable wine certifications
Sustainability encompasses the same environmental concerns as organic and biodynamic practices, but it also accounts for the winery’s role in the community. Under this umbrella, there are multiple certifications, but each has a slightly different emphasis and methodology. However, most conduct annual self-assessments and are audited regularly by a neutral third party.
Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing (CCSW)
The largest of the sustainable certifications, CCSW places an emphasis on the production of high-quality California wine. The “Certified Sustainable” seal, which is issued by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, covers multiple aspects of a winery’s operations, from utilizing Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to greenhouse gas emissions to providing employee educational benefits. Established in 2010, producers under the CCSW label can have their vineyard, winery, or both certified sustainable. For Honig Vineyard & Winery, which runs on solar power and pays strict attention to water conservation, the third-party audit helps create consumer confidence, says Stephanie Honig, director of communications and export.
While CCSW started as a statewide initiative, Sustainability in Practice (SIP) began as a regional effort in California’s Central Coast area in 2008. After expanding throughout the state, they recently started certifying vineyards elsewhere beginning with Michigan’s Waterfire Vineyards. Labor is of particular importance for SIP Certified wineries.
“The farm worker is the backbone of any farming organization,” says Steve McIntyre, of McIntyre Vineyards, one of the founders of the program. According to McIntyre as well as Paul Clifton of Hahn Winery, medical insurance and continuing education for workers contribute to a strong, loyal team that in turn create better wine, which leads to better profits, which funnels back into worker care and environmental efforts.
In addition to more than 100 sustainability standards, Lodi Rules implements a unique Pesticide Environmental Assessment System (PEAS) that examines the impact pesticides have on workers and the vineyard’s ecosystem. One of the original sustainability certifications, Lodi Rules started in 1992 as a farmer education program before pivoting to a regional sustainability certification in 2005. It went international in 2017 when Golan Heights Winery and Galil Mountain Winery in Israel certified their vineyards.
“We thought it was a great opportunity to join a high-quality existing program and avoid having to develop our own standard, thereby saving time and speeding up the process,” says Victor Schoenfeld, chief winemaker at Golan Heights. “Our goal is now to have Lodi Rules become the Israeli standard for vineyard sustainability.”
Low Input Viticulture and Enology (LIVE) Certified
Wineries in the Pacific Northwest often choose to become LIVE Certified, which takes into account unique attributes of the region. For instance, chemicals that cause ecological issues in warmer regions are permitted with no issues, or not requiring cover crops in vineyards located in arid climates. “Our approach is to work with nature, instead of fighting it,” says Melissa Burr, vice president of winemaking for the Stoller Family Estate, a LIVE-certified winery. “By fostering a habitat that supports pests’ natural predators, we encourage the ecosystem that keeps them in check.”
Through a partnership network, many LIVE- or Demeter-certified wineries in the Pacific Northwest also seek a Salmon Safe seal, like Left Coast Estate in Oregon. The certification focuses on water-quality protection so aquatic ecosystems—and the prized salmon—can thrive.
Although the certification process was lengthy and expensive, Red Tail Ridge Winery’s use of geothermal energy in the winemaking process allowed them to reduce energy consumption by 50%.
Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)
Environmentally conscious winemaking isn’t limited to the vineyards. Nancy Irelan, co-owner/winemaker at Red Tail Ridge Winery in the Finger Lakes region of New York, built the state’s first Gold Certified LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) winery in 2009. Issued by the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED certification is based on the sustainability and environmental impact of a winery’s design, construction and building operations. The certification levels—Silver, Gold and Platinum—is based on a points system.
Having worked in the sustainability sector in her previous career as vice president of research and development at E. & J. Gallo, Irelan and her husband, Michael Schnelle, wanted the winery to be “representative of our values and aspirations for the community,” she says.
Geothermal heating and cooling, water conservation and the use of recycled materials in construction are just a few of the measures taken.
Although the certification process was lengthy and expensive, their use of geothermal energy in the winemaking process allowed them to reduce energy consumption by 50%, says Irelan. “Due primarily to this factor, we saw a return in our investment in two-and-a-half years,” she says.