Western SARE From the Field Profile
Wiser Wine: California Grape Growers Adopt Innovative System to Evaluate Sustainability
The California wine industry is booming: The number of wineries in the state has more than tripled since 1990, bringing California to fourth-ranking producer in the world behind France, Italy and Spain. Keeping pace with that growth is a burgeoning sustainable viticulture movement, led, with others, by the SARE-supported Central Coast Vineyard Team (CCVT).
CCVT—a collaborative since 1994 of growers, wineries, researchers and others—promotes sustainable practices through a comprehensive self assessment, regular on-farm workshops and, more recently, third-party certification. The group started small, but has evolved into a vital force in the state’s wine industry: Its 300 members represent 11 percent of California’s total vineyard acreage, about 60,000 acres.
Over the years, the group has received two SARE grants that proved crucial in expanding participation in its signature self assessment program, a largely unheard of tool when CCVT members implemented it in 1996.
During a 1999 SARE grant, CCVT leaders increased the number of acres evaluated with self assessments by 70 percent; during a 2003 grant, the number of assessments increased by 27 percent.
“Some of the earlier SARE grants were key in the early development of this very small group,” says CCVT Executive Director Kris O’Connor.
The self assessment, known as the Positive Points System, involves extensive evaluation of a vineyard’s practices to conserve water and protect water quality, minimize erosion, reduce pesticide risks, protect worker safety and conserve wildlife habitat.
The assessments have proven effective. In 2003, for example, one grower managed to reduce soil erosion from 38 tons per year to two-tenths of a ton per year by following the recommendations that emerged from a self assessment. The group’s on-farm workshops regularly encourage more than half of attendees to change their practices based on what they learn, according to post-workshop surveys.
The Positive Points System has appealed to growers because of its flexibility, says Dana Merrill, a vineyard owner and founding CCVT member. “Since it is a positive system, as opposed to a regulatory system, it became something growers wanted to do, rather than were forced to do.”
Today, CCVT is continuing to evolve. Like other sustainable viticulture organizations in the state, its members are shifting their focus from self assessments to third-party certification.
“The Positive Points System works fine as an internal system in our industry or on our farm,” Merrill says. “But if we are going to talk about it to consumers, then it means more to have a third party ratify what we are achieving.”
Working with a broad range of advisors, members began devising the Sustainability in Practice program’s rigorous standards in 2003, and a pilot group of 14 vineyards on a combined 10,000 acres received certification in 2008.
Want more information? See the related SARE grant(s) FW99-108, Central Coast Vineyard Team Positive Points System Evaluation and Education Program, and FW03-010, Increasing Adoption of Sustainable Practices in Central Coast Vineyards.
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