Sustainable grape programs thrive in Northwest
The Pacific Northwest’s newest sustainable viticulture program Vinewise is now online.
With the recent unveiling of Washington State’s newest sustainable viticulture program, Vinewise, Pacific Northwest wine grape growers now have access to three regional programs dealing with sustainable viticultural practices.
While all three programs focus on keeping the wine industry viable for the long-term, each tackles the issue in a different way.
In Oregon, Low Input Viticulture and Enology, Inc., known as LIVE, is a certification program for growers and wines, with a third party performing audits.
Vinea, a program developed by Washington’s Walla Walla Valley grape growers, is patterned after LIVE, but currently has no certification component and places greater emphasis on marketing the Vinea concept to the wine trade and consumers.
Vinewise, the newest on the block, is an interactive, on-line guide to sustainable viticulture for Washington’s wine industry. Developed by the Washington Wine Industry Foundation, it was revealed at the annual meeting of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers in February.
The goal behind Vinewise is to keep the industry viable for the long-term by focusing on environment, economics, and society, explains Vicky Scharlau, executive director of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers.
“To be sustainable, a business has to be economically sustainable, or the rest won’t happen anyway,” she said, adding that Vinewise is not like the other Northwest programs that include certification or marketing components. The sustainable program began as a project known as Riskbusters, a risk assessment tool for Northwest wine grape growers that was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency. The Riskbuster project is popular beyond the Northwest. National wine industry representatives have shown interest in using the Riskbuster and checklist template as a model for other wine regions.
“Vinewise is all about education,” Scharlau said. “It’s not about certification or auditing. It’s all about education. We may get to certification at some point, but we’re not there yet.”
The Vinewise guide is a tool to help wine grape growers assess their current management practices and evaluate how they measure up compared to industry best management practices. Growers can download three forms from the Vinewise Web site—a checklist of best management practices, an assessment of how growers are doing compared to industry standards, and an action plan to help them move toward more sustainable practices. The checklist is especially useful to new growers entering the wine industry. Resources and other Web site links are key parts of the program.
The Vinewise best management practices, developed by industry experts and Washington State University Extension educators, cover a diverse range of topics, from business plans and site selection to human resources and pest management. Additional topics still to be addressed include community, whole farm ecosystem, and viticulture.
Grower input is encouraged to help Vinewise organizers fine-tune project details, Scharlau added.
Officially named “Vinea: The Winegrowers’ Sustainable Trust of Walla Walla Valley,” the program was created two years ago by a group of Walla Walla Valley growers who are working to receive official recognition by the International Organization of Biological Control, said Jean-Francois Pellet, winemaker at Pepper Bridge Winery in Walla Walla. The word “vinea” means “vineyard” in Latin.
The program is considered a work in progress, as technical guidelines for viticulturists to follow in the field are still being developed, along with a marketing plan for promoting the program to consumers.
“For now, we do not have a third-party certification program,” Pellet noted. “But we will when we receive certification from the IOBC.”
Pellet said that about 20 growers, representing about two-thirds of the Walla Walla Valley’s 30 vineyards, belong to the voluntary program. Some 25 of the valley’s 72 wineries are members. Grower membership fees are $15 per acre, with a minimum of $200 and maximum of $2,500. Grower membership includes a Vinea sign that can be placed in the vineyard. Wineries pay $100, as do associate members.
Vinea’s board of directors is collaborating with Oregon’s LIVE program to link the two programs together. Some of the Walla Walla Valley vineyards are located in Oregon.
“Our goal is that one day all of the Pacific Northwest will be promoted as a sustainable place to grow and make wine,” Pellet said.
Stirling Fox of Newburg, Oregon, and president of LIVE, said that the Oregon sustainable program was born out of an interest in being better stewards of the land.
“LIVE is about using less resources without compromising the quality of your product or the environment where it comes from,” he said.
The program was first discussed by Oregonian wine grape growers in 1994. LIVE received certification from the IOBC in 2004 and was the first organization in the United States to be accredited, according to Fox. “We took the strict guidelines of the IOBC and adapted them to LIVE protocols.”
The program considers the vineyard as a whole system and strives to create and maintain the highest level of quality in fruit production, he added. One of the objectives is to implement practices that reduce reliance on imported or synthetic chemicals or fertilizers.
Vineyard certification takes two years. Growers complete a scorecard, evaluating their practices against a list of preferred and prohibited practices. In addition, growers choose from a number of required ecological options that must be implemented. A third party conducts audits and site inspections. After certification is achieved, growers must complete the scorecard annually and keep records, but site inspections are reduced to once every three to five years.
Wine quality is also part of certification, he said, adding that a winemaker panel conducts a blind tasting of LIVE wines to ensure that there are no major flaws.
In 2006, there were 90 program members and 101 wines certified, Fox said. Nearly 8,200 farm acres are enrolled in LIVE, with almost 1,500 acres of wine grapes certified.
So far, mostly growers have bought into the program, he said. Though the International Organization of Biological Control logo can be used on the wine label, few Oregon wineries export to Europe where the logo has real meaning.
Fox noted that LIVE has been used as a model by other agricultural groups to develop sustainable programs for other regions.