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Employees of A to Z Wineworks of Newberg, including co-owners Bill Hatcher and Sam Tannahill, volunteer at the food bank at YCAP (Yamhill Community Action Partnership). Charity work is part of the B Corp standards. ##Photo provided

B the Example

Wineries certify integrity with B Corp

By David Bates

Oregon’s vineyards and wineries are, generally, owned and run by people who nurture the environment, try to do right by their employees and care about the community.

Now, they can prove it, with certification from B Corporation.

Often shortened to B Corp, the official designation is earned by for-profit companies around the world as assessed by B Lab, a nonprofit whose mission is to certify businesses that meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency so that consumers can identify which companies demonstrate genuine care about more than just the bottom line.

Over the last few years, wineries — many already incorporating aspects of B Lab’s standards — started taking advantage of the program that, until 2014, represented zero wineries — anywhere in the world. Newberg-based A to Z Wineworks wanted to change that statistic.

“One of our founders, Sam Tannahill, was aware of B Corp through discussions with local business leaders, including Nik Blosser,” said A to Z President Amy Prosenjak. “So he sent a link around, and we all started looking at it and thinking about it. It just made so much sense to us, because it was how we were operating our business, and it was a way to achieve a [kind of] Good Housekeeping seal of approval.”

Currently, Oregon boasts 93 B Corps, including New Seasons Market, yet different types of companies must meet specific criteria. A law firm, for example, doesn’t have the same documentation requirements as a farm or manufacturer. For A to Z, qualifying meant completing a 63-page questionnaire before responding with documentation to follow-up questions.

In May 2014, when A to Z Wineworks became certified, it was the only winery in the world to achieve B Corp status, qualifying with a score of 102. Since then, A to Z has been joined by a couple wineries in California and Argentina and four others in the northern Willamette Valley: Sokol Blosser, Winderlea Vineyard & Winery, Patton Valley Vineyard and, most recently, Stoller Family Estate.

“I believe that when you build something, you do it for a sustainable reason,” said founder Bill Stoller. “I wanted to build a company that could last at least 200 years; to do this, we must take care of our land and community.”

Privately issued certifications like B Corp offer more than feel-good bragging rights: They compel companies to take real-world steps to earn them. Nearly two decades after LIVE started similar efforts in the environmental arena, the group’s president, Chris Serra, says more wineries are adopting practices that protect soil and water.

“In the past ten years, I have seen a consistent move away from using herbicides to manage weeds under the vines,” he said. “I have also seen good work being done adding biodiversity to farms and reducing the impact of mono-cultural farming.”

LIVE’s third party certification process (formerly Low Input Viticulture and Enology) is sufficiently rigorous, says A to Z’s Prosenjak, and qualifying for that accreditation gives wineries an advantage in applying for B Corps status.  

“It’s an easy leap,” she said. “If you’re already doing the work for LIVE, you’re already capturing and tracking 80 percent of what you need to track and capture for B Corp’s environmental standards.”

However, the two represent unique certifications, LIVE’s Serra explains.

“I would say LIVE drills down much more into the specifics of wine industry practices,” he said. “Whereas B Corp looks at business practices writ large. Neither is stricter; we just take a different, more industry-specific approach.”

After qualifying in 2014, the winery improved its policies for such things as paying employees for hours spent volunteering in the community. Previously, it was “just a handshake.” Now, it’s integrated into A to Z’s employee handbook and payroll system. The documentation made a difference. In 2016, volunteer hours soared, with the 60 employees amassing 600 hours of charity work. A to Z boosted its rating to 137 during re-certification in May 2016, earning the highest winery score in Oregon by improving documentation in multiple areas, most notably in farming practices and community involvement. 

Prosenjak says, “You can’t just say, ‘Oh yeah, we have a volunteer policy.’ The rigorous B Corp Assessment makes you prove it.  That’s what I love about B Corp.”

Similarly, Winderlea, owned by Donna Morris and Bill Sweat, also boosted its score during recertification based on B Corp’s evaluation of the company’s “overall mission, ethics, accountability and transparency.”

Earlier this year, A to Z joined with LIVE and B Lab to offer a workshop for other Oregon wineries considering B Corp certification. About a dozen attended.

Prosenjak notes how qualifying as a B Corp entails much work, but in Gaston, Patton Valley Vineyards illustrates that even a small staff can get the job done. Producing 5,000 cases annually with only five full-time employees, Patton qualified as a B Corp in June.

“We didn’t have some of the systems and resources of some of the larger outfits,” said Patton Valley co-owner Monte Pitt.

To qualify, the winery introduced new internal systems, even adding a 401k program.

“I think being a B Corp, and having the need to keep striving to make sure we live up to the standards makes us sharper and more sensitive to what our employees and business partners need,” Pitt said.

Sokol Blosser in Dayton qualified as a B Corp in 2015 with an 80-point score. Since then, the winery, which already relies on solar power and built an eco-friendly tasting room with a living roof, has accelerated its green efforts. New recycling programs and reductions in water and energy usage helped nudge the winery’s B Corp score to 112.

That jump, plus the ongoing efforts of the winery’s “green team,” enabled Sokol Blosser to earn a spot on the B Corp “Best in the World” list as a “Changemaker,” as announced in September. Other Oregon wineries making that elite list include A to Z and Winderlea.

“We see sustainability as a multi-generational pursuit,” said Alison Sokol Blosser, who, this fall, will preside over the family’s 41st vintage with her brother, Alex. “We are doing everything we can to carry the torch and make our practices as sustainable as possible with the goal of setting the stage for the next generation.”       

For more information about B Corp certification, please visit www.bcorporation.net/blog/oregon.

David Bates is a McMinnville-based freelance writer and lover of Scotch and American whiskey.

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