Columnist, Food

HANDOUT PHOTO: California Certified Sustainable logo (Courtesy of California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance)

As Earth Day approaches on April 22, some California wines are about to sport a new environment-friendly logo on their labels.

The new “California Certified Sustainable” logo was just approved for use on 2017 vintage wines by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, a joint effort by the Wine Institute, a state trade association, and the California Association of Winegrape Growers. We should begin to see it soon on new white wines and rosés from 2017, and later on red wines when they are released in a year or two.

The logo will join others proclaiming environmentally friendly practices. Demeter certifies biodynamic wines, while others are “made with organically grown grapes.” Wines from Oregon can be certified as LIVE or Salmon Safe, and Lodi Rules Certified Green denotes enviro-friendly wines from that area of California. Sustainability in Practice, or SIP, is a similar program that certifies wineries in California and Michigan.

Why should we care about these labels? To be California Certified Sustainable, a winery must adhere to 58 individual requirements in the vineyard and another 37 in the winery. This is more than avoiding pesticides and herbicides; it’s about energy and water conservation, pest management, wildlife habitat protection and monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions, among other criteria. Results are audited by third-party accreditors.

And the program keeps expanding. Last year, the Certified Sustainable program saw 46 percent growth in the number of certified vineyards and 20 percent growth in the number of certified wineries. As of last November, 127 wineries producing 74 percent of California’s wines are certified as sustainable under the program, as are 1,099 vineyards farming 134,000 acres, nearly a quarter of California’s vineyard land.

While winery and vineyard practices have been certified before, the new logo is an important evolution in the program: For the first time, the wine itself will be certified. To carry the logo, at least 85 percent of a wine must come from a certified sustainable vineyard.

Wineries planning to use the logo with some 2017 wines include Ponte Winery, Wente Vineyards, Saracina, Marimar Estate and Jackson Family Wines, according to Gladys Horiuchi, a spokeswoman for the Wine Institute, a California trade group.

Why would wineries subject themselves to so many criteria and third-party audits? Partly out of a sense of doing right by the environment, but also because they believe consumers — especially younger ones — will respond.

“If you want your team (especially the people under 30), if you want your clientele (especially the people under 40), if you want your children to believe that you’re actually doing it, if it matters to you as a company, you have to have somebody certify it,” says Claudio Ponte, owner of Ponte Winery in the Temecula region near San Diego.

“It gives credibility to our claims,” Ponte said in an interview released by the CSWA. “With consumers today, every small brand is subject to doubt, particularly a product that goes inside your body. People rightfully need to be suspicious that what’s in the product is what you say. If a company is willing to put themselves through an audit, that resonates with consumers. Not all consumers, by any means, but enough to make it worth the effort.”

Julien Gervreau, director of sustainability for Jackson Family Wines, agreed.

“Market research tells us there’s an increasing desire, particularly among younger consumers, for third-party certification, so we’re eager to see how the logo resonates,” he said in a telephone interview. Jackson Family Wines owns more than 30 California brands, including the ubiquitous Kendall-Jackson label. The Certified Sustainable logo will appear first on the 2017 Matanzas Creek Alexander Valley Sauvignon Blanc, to be released this spring, followed later in the year by some wines from Cambria, Byron and Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve. The family-owned company, which doesn’t release sales figures, hopes to have the logo on its popular Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay with the 2018 vintage, he said.

For JFW, sustainability includes the company’s relationship with its employees and the surrounding communities, Gervreau said. Most notably, it means carbon sequestration, water conservation and renewable energy. The company has partnered with Tesla to install solar power on 11 of its wineries and now produces enough electricity to offset the demand of about 1,400 homes. And conservation efforts initiated in 2008 have reduced the amount of water used company-wide to produce a gallon of wine from 9.1 gallons to 3.9. With California suffering through drought for several years, that’s huge.

“A winemaker’s greatest impact is his footprints in the vineyard,” Gervreau said, quoting an old industry saying about the importance of paying attention to the vines. “If you’re paying attention to all of your impacts, you can’t help but make better wines.”

These California wineries are betting that consumers will think so, too, and respond when they see the California Certified Sustainable logo on the label.