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Sonoma County winegrowers navigate the politics of 'sustainability'

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Best practices guide growers to use fewer chemicals, but they are not prohibited.

All of this isn't free, except for the initial self-assessment paperwork. After that, administration fees and auditing costs can run up hundreds of dollars—small change for big wineries, but a burden for small growers. Currently, Winegrowers is offering to help defray costs. Also, it's holding up the notion that consumers will be willing to pay a buck or two, even $7 and change, according to one Wine Intelligence survey, for wines that bear a sustainable label.

Now that I know what the Sonoma County Winegrowers mean by sustainable wines, what do those consumers know?

Not much. Glance at any number of cheery articles about sustainable and organic wine, and you'll often find the terms used interchangeably. According to consumer research commissioned by the Winegrowers in 2017, a higher percentage of frequent premium wine consumers would be more likely to buy a certified sustainable wine than could identify what it means.

A 2018 report issued by the nonprofit Wine Market Council finds that almost the same portion of respondents who felt "fairly confident" about the meaning of "sustainably produced wine," 43 percent, also believed it meant "no use of synthetic pesticides/fertilizers," at 45 percent. That's incorrect, and is actually the definition of wine made from organic grapes, which 87 percent did get right.

But while an equal number agreed that sustainably produced wine "conserves local water resources and habitat," only 17 percent agreed that "wine made from organic grapes" does the same. While the updated National Organic Program standards contain a number of points on soil stability and water quality, along with wildlife and woodland conservation, perhaps the perverse takeaway from informal interactions with sustainability promoters like I have had is working. Do wine consumers think that organic standards don't protect the environment?

A 2017 report from Liz Thach, professor of wine at Sonoma State University, finds that among 301 wine consumers surveyed with the question "What appeals most to you," statements about sustainable wine beat those about organic wine at 44 percent to 20 percent.

The phrasing of the statement is interesting. "Certified sustainable wine: made in a way that is environmentally friendly, equitable to employees and economically viable to winegrowers. No agri-chemicals are applied, unless necessary to save the crop." The first three parts mirror the "triple bottom line" approach of the Winegrowers, the so-called three

p's of "people, planet and profit." The fourth is something of a misrepresentation of the certification requirements, failing to acknowledge the routine use of what you might call the fourth p—pesticides.

Mention that in the feel-good context of the sustainability initiative, and you might as well be tagged with two more p's, for party pooper.

About the above survey, Kruse makes an oft-heard argument: "Organics uses pesticides and chemicals, too—so it's the same definition."

Organic and biodynamic growers are allowed to use certain products that kill bugs or inhibit mildew, but qualitatively, the chemistries are different. In 2017, the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance issued an addendum to the workbook: a "red list" of 28 materials that are prohibited in the second year of certification, and a "yellow list" of 10 chemicals that may be accepted if justification is provided.

Red list materials that were used in 2016 in some Sonoma County vineyards, according to pesticide use reports (PUR) available from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, include carbaryl, mancozeb and zinc phosphide. Yellow list materials included 2,4-D, abamectin, diphacinone, paraquat dichloride and simazine.

Notably absent from the 2016 PUR is chlorpyrifos, a nerve agent that was banned for home use 17 years ago, but wasn't prohibited outright until this summer when the Ninth Circuit court overturned former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt's efforts to keep the substance legal. Yet in this past year, chlorpyrifos turns up under the brand name Lorsban in several Sebastopol locations—used on apples as well as wine grapes, by the way.

Diphacinone is a tricky substance. This anticoagulant rodenticide can be fatal to the very rodent-hunting owls that the sustainability code recommends building nest boxes for, if operators choose to double down and employ both methods.

Glyphosate, a systemic herbicide better known by its Monsanto brand name Roundup, has come under increasing scrutiny. It was named a probable human carcinogen by the World Health Organization, and was recently banned from use in parks by Santa Rosa and Windsor due to public concern. It's widely used to keep vineyards weed-free.

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