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Sonoma County winegrowers navigate the politics of 'sustainability'

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If consumers are to believe that Sonoma County is now using such chemicals only when necessary, or are committed to decreasing their use, what's the record been since the Winegrowers launched its sustainability initiative four years ago?

We're up, we're down, but there is no dramatic downward trend, according to DPR statistics. In 2014, 76,975 pounds of glyphosate were applied in Sonoma County; 92,698 pounds in 2015 and back down to 76,890 pounds in 2016.

A comparison to other grape-growing counties does not indicate that Sonoma is reining in the Roundup, even compared to Fresno County, which put on 65,577 pounds on wine grape acreage in 2016. (To be sure, Sonoma County grape growers are not in the same league as Fresno almond growers, who put 68,081 pounds of chlorpyrifos on their trees in the same year.)

Hoping to gain insight from a longtime West County winegrower who's surrounded by neighbors in the Green Valley of the Russian River Valley region, I ask Joy Sterling, partner and CEO of Iron Horse Vineyards, for her thoughts on the sustainability program. "I think it's better," Sterling says. "You can be organic and not be sustainable."

A local leader in green practices, Iron Horse has irrigated its 164-acre estate with recycled Forestville water since 1990 and is certified by Fish Friendly Farming.

But I've hardly begun to ask about the misgivings some county residents have about farming inputs, when Sterling says she's become depressed, comparing them to the protesters at the recent Climate Summit. "It's never enough for some people," she sighs. "We do our very best."

Up on Sonoma Mountain, vintner Tony Coturri is also dismayed, for a different reason: he didn't realize that people elsewhere are still spraying paraquat. "I'm just amazed. That's just amazing to me. Wasn't that Agent Orange?"

Coturri's out of the loop with his five acres of uncertified vineyards farmed without chemical inputs, however. While his wines have gained recognition in the natural wine bars of New York City and Los Angeles he says he doesn't register with Sonoma County Winegrowers.

"Nobody's talked to me," Coturri says. "I'm pretty much a pariah in the business."

Like Coturri, other organic and biodynamic winegrowers I talked to acknowledged that farming without modern systemic chemicals involves trade-offs, like more tractor passes in the vineyard to control mildew.

"There's a little give and take there, sure," says Sophie Drucker, vineyard manager at Boisset Collection. "But I think it's overstated to say we're polluting the environment because we're farming organically."

Drucker says that, for her, it amounts to an extra tractor pass or so per year. "But organic sets a higher standard and is much more limiting as far as what tools you have to accomplish your farming." Boisset Collection, which includes DeLoach Vineyards, also got certified sustainable, but pays a premium to its contracted growers for organic grapes.

Dry Creek Valley's Ferrari-Carano Vineyards isn't known for its biodynamic practices, yet vineyard operations manager Todd Clow says that the winery's sustainability efforts have encouraged him to work on a proposal to achieve a biodynamic certificate for a small vineyard in an environmentally sensitive area.

"The cynic in me," Clow says, "agrees with people's misgivings about the sustainable certification, because there are holes in the program."

Although Ferrari-Carano farms over a thousand acres conventionally, it is among those operations working to move away from Roundup, Clow says, as well as proactively aiming for category 3 and 4 sustainability targets. "From what I've seen in the last decade, we've made a lot of progress, and we have a lot more progress to make."

Still, says Clow, "we can't apply biodynamic or organic farming principles to 1,500 acres; we wouldn't be in business if we did that."

In Sebastopol, winegrower Paul Sloan is undecided on the sustainability program, slowing down in the midst of a busy harvest to ponder the question. Sloan agrees that organic wine carries a stigma that is lagging 20 years behind the larger marketplace. But he says he farms his Small Vines vineyard, where his family also lives, with only organically approved inputs for reasons of wine quality and environmental health, not for marketing purposes.

If he was asked to self-assess for the sustainability initiative, which he says he hasn't been so far, Sloan is philosophical.

"It's a waste of my time, but it is possible that it is better for the whole of the growing community, for me to go though the process," Sloan says. "Or maybe I stand on the soapbox a little bit. I don't want to be a negative to the whole, but at the same time I don't think this has gone far enough. It's a pretty good step in the right direction, but it's not enough—it's just one step in the process."

Winegrowers president Kruse says that some growers are so committed to eventually taking extra steps to best-practices categories in the sustainability code, that they ask her, "What if we max out everything we can do to improve?" Kruse says. "Well, I hope we get there."

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