The answer to this question is complicated. There are two uses of “Sustainable Wine” that you might come across in the wine industry.
The first is just a marketing term which may or may not point to any real principles and practices in the winegrowing or winemaking process, and is basically meaningless. It’s a buzz word to capture the attention of environmentally conscientious consumers (like me). It’s total B.S.
Then there’s “certified sustainable.” This term can be used when a winery undergoes the certification process of the California Sustainable Winegrowers Alliance (CSWA). There isn’t an Oregon or Washington version of the CSWA, but they have other certifications that are similar, like LIVE certification. The use of the term “sustainable” when accompanied by this certification actually means something on a bottle of wine.
Certified Sustainable winegrowers have shown that they are engaged, to some degree, in practices deemed “sustainable” relating to Business Strategy, Viticulture, Soil Management, Vineyard Water Management, Integrated Pest Management, Wine Quality, Ecosystems Management, Energy Efficiency, Winery Water Conservation and Quality, Material Handling, Solid Waste Reduction and Management, Environmentally Preferable Purchasing, Human Resources, Neighbors and Community, and Air Quality.
The gist of that list – if you didn’t fall asleep reading it – is that “Certified Sustainable” is a very good thing. It is looking at everything that goes into producing a bottle of wine, including the quality of life of the humans who do the work or live near the work, and setting standards where otherwise it would literally be the Wild West. You wouldn’t be too far off to associate it with “Fair Trade” minus the import aspect.
There is some fine print.
“Certified Sustainable” sounds like it means something like “almost organic” while it allows, and actually prescribes, the use of Roundup (glyphosate) and other systemic chemicals in the vineyard. (This is true for Oregon LIVE certification as well, though minimal use is advised.) So there is a majorly misleading understanding that is promoted, or at least capitalized on, by “Certified Sustainable.” If you haven’t already, please check out my post about the dangers of glyphosate.
Also, it’s important to understand that “Certified Sustainable,” while not Total B.S., is limited. A certification is only as good as the metrics it measures, and its enforcement of them. Let’s take the example of the old joke: what do you call the person with the lowest passing grades in medical school? A doctor.
Similarly, in sustainable certification each metric is “graded” on a three tier system. The tiers are Red, Yellow, and Green and can be seen as a grade of F, C, or A respectively, to use this analogy. You can become certified sustainable with a majority Yellow tiers (C’s). But in neither the case of the doctor who is caring for you, nor the wine you are drinking, should it necessarily inspire unquestioned confidence. And when you consider that you can use some pretty intense systemic synthetic chemicals in the vineyard and still get an “A” (green tier), you may feel even more cautious about Certified Sustainable.
I don’t want to diminish the good side of Certified Sustainable, though. It is a very good thing. But everything has its limits. To be an “Organic” winegrower, all you need to do is only use the products which have been certified for organic use. It doesn’t require you to be careful about water use, erosion, beneficial insects, natural habitat, or things like vineyard worker safety. Organic winegrowers can, and do, use pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. They just use ones that are “naturally derived,” but that does not always mean “non-toxic.”
Check out my post about the realities of Organic Viticulture.
Hey, but wait a minute! On the one hand you have “Certified Sustainable” which sets standards for nearly everything related to winegrowing except the use of synthetic systemic chemicals, and on the other hand you have “Certified Organic” which pays no attention to anything but the use of synthetic chemicals. What if you got both certifications?
The winegrowers who get certified as both Sustainable and Organic are my heroes. Meeting the combined standards of both of these certifications ensures that the lacks of one are made up for by the strengths of the other. To me this is the best wine pairing ever.
To learn more about the requirements of certification by the California Sustainable Winegrowers Alliance, click here.
To learn more about LIVE certification, click here.