Delivering the message of sustainability to the world
One of the most common questions growers and winemakers ask me is, “If I am already managing my vineyard/winery sustainably, why do I have to pay a certifier to tell me this?” The short answer is, of course, you don’t have to. However, there are more than a few compelling reasons why one should pause to consider certification when commercially producing winegrapes and wine in Oregon.
One might wonder why these programs exist in the first place. A certification may arise under a number of circumstances. Many times it is a response to consumer distrust in the face of deceptive business practices, whether actual or potential — for instance, DNA-certified seafood, or certified extra-virgin olive oil. Sometimes it is a reaction to consumer demand in the absence of legislation — this can be seen with the development of new non-GMO certifications. Other times a certification is developed to codify best practices of an industry with regard to a consumer-facing claim about a particular scope of activities — certified sustainable, organic, et al. Consumers desire and deserve to know the methods by which their food was produced, beyond reductionist social media posts or corporate puffery. In the end, certification is verifiable proof of these methods, plain and simple.
The price tag of an agricultural certification is often a bone of contention with participants, and rightfully so, with slim margins and no easily quantifiable return on investment. Certifiers do everything they can to keep costs as low as possible while maintaining strong and responsive programs. This is highly specialized work, typically performed by folks with advanced degrees in their fields of study, and therefore does not come inexpensively. Many certifiers are nonprofits or state government agencies, which does help to keep both the costs reasonable and interests non-conflicted. In the end, the benefits of investing in certification may be more tangible than one might think.
Sokol Blosser recently had an expensive solar panel part replaced by the manufacturer because they were able to prove — using certification paperwork — it had been malfunctioning while under warranty. Craig and Gabriele Keeler have earned Biodynamic®, Organic, and LIVE certification on their Keeler Estate Vineyard, and find that each is a key to access a different market. Orchards in Walla Walla have leveraged certification by affixing produce stickers with the recognizable Salmon-Safe logo to their apples. Soter Vineyards proudly highlights LIVE practices during private tastings. Some wineries with multiple vineyard sources are using certification as a filter for purchase decisions, and may even pay a premium for certified fruit. Overseas markets and larger wine buyers are increasingly requiring certification of some sustainable kind. Both Chemeketa and Umpqua Community Colleges utilize LIVE certification in their teaching vineyards and wineries to educate the industry’s next generation on sustainable practices. These are just a few examples of how growers and educators take advantage of these programs and where some benefits lie.
What seems to be the common link among those who successfully market sustainability is when the distinction is made between the practice and the certification process. In other words, when a winery or vineyard showcases its unique sustainability story first, highlighting how it cares for the environment and its workers, certification then becomes the foundational integrity rather than the story itself. It should be noted that no certification is one-size-fits-all, as both production and stewardship philosophies vary throughout the industry. Fortunately, in Oregon we have a suite of world-class certifications to choose from.
There has been an upward trend in new certifications in recent years. As of this writing, there are 455 eco-labels across 25 industry sectors listed on www.ecolabelindex.com. In 2007, the New Zealand wine industry stated an audacious goal of 100 percent certification within five years. To date, they have achieved certification
on 94 percent of the acreage in the country. Just this year Sonoma County joined the chorus by calling for 100 percent certification by 2019. Both wine regions are significantly larger, acreage-wise, than Oregon. If they can do it, surely we can, too.
While it is true that many Oregonians are independently-minded, I firmly believe that any entity that is commercially producing winegrapes or wine in the state should attempt to achieve third-party certification to a recognized standard. The marketing associations that represent the industry consistently describe Oregon’s winegrowing community using synonyms in the shade of green, with just shy of 50 percent of the industry certified to LIVE, National Organic Program, Biodynamic or Food Alliance standards. Of course, as neighbors, we all trust that each other is doing the right thing by way of environmental and social impacts, but on the global stage that Oregon wine aspires to play on, it simply is not enough.
I am therefore calling on the Oregon wine industry to achieve 100 percent certification to any of the four available — aforementioned — nationally recognized standards by 2019. Each of these standards has third-party integrity and is recognized by the Oregon Wine Board in its sustainability messaging.
Fifty years of pioneering agricultural groundwork has been done, and I believe we are ready as an industry to meet this goal. We certifiers are here to roll up our sleeves and help make it a reality.
Chris Serra is the executive director of LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology), an Oregon-based certification of sustainable winegrowing. For more information, visit www.livecertified.org.