B.C. develops a sustainable viticulture program
It's a way for the region's growers to gain a competitive advantage.
Gary Strachan, left, chair of the B.C. Wine Grape Council's sustainability committee, with Kellie and José Garcia of Insight Environmental Consulting, Ltd.
British Columbia, Canada, grape growers are taking a broad look at vineyard practices as the province's wine industry pursues a sustainable viticulture program.
Kellie Garcia of Kelowna-based Insight Environmental Consulting, Ltd., which is developing the new program, told growers attending the B.C. Wine Grape Council's annual viticulture and enology conference in Penticton last summer that vineyards are part of a network of ecological and social relationships. Defining sustainable practice requires looking at the big picture.
The current draft of the program's manual defines "sustainable practices" as, "grape-growing practices that are sensitive to the environment, economically feasible, and socially equitable."
Garcia said the content of the B.C. program reflects those of more than 30 programs around the world, including those in Ontario, the United States, South Africa, and Europe.
The program being developed for British Columbia aims to foster practices appropriate to local conditions but which put the province on a par with regions elsewhere.
"Many places in the world already have sustainable practices programs, so by implementing one in British Columbia, we're gaining a competitive edge with other viticultural regions," Garcia said.
The program's standards will be verifiable rather than vague, allowing growers—and those who buy their grapes—to gauge just how sustainable vineyard practices are, and whether there's improvement from year to year.
The program has a workbook, as well as an assessment book, which serve as the main tools of the program. The workbook is a manual that helps growers understand the assessment's rationale.
"The assessment is what you're meant to go through, and you use the workbook to support anything that you don't understand in the assessment. It's meant as a resource," Garcia said.
The program includes seven chapters:
• Setting Your Sustainability Foundation, which introduces growers to the idea of sustainable practice and helps them define the resources they're trying to manage and goals for the protocol they'll follow as part of the program
• Ecosystem Management, which guides the development of a biodiversity management plan
• Viticultural Management, which assists growers in understanding their sites from the perspectives of wine grape quality and environmental concerns
• Soil and Nutrition Management, which guides the development of nutrient management and soil conservation plans that reduce the need for inputs and help prevent erosion
• Water Management, which aims to tailor irrigation to suit site condition and crop demands
• Pest Management, which promotes integrated pest management and reduction of chemical controls
• Employee, Neighbor, Community Relations, which seeks to boost employee wellbeing and encourage communication with neighbors with a view to fostering mutual respect.
The breadth of the program impresses Gary Strachan, who chairs the sustainability committee that the B.C. Wine Grape Council established in spring 2008 to investigate the potential of developing a sustainable viticulture program. He said the program has two main benefits.
On the one hand, it just makes good sense for growers to pursue sustainable practices.
"Why do we do it? We do it because we can profit from it," he told growers attending the Penticton conference. "The long-term benefits mean that your soil will be healthy. You'll have the ability to grow your grapes and get uniform production throughout the vineyard."
But achieving uniform production means asking hard questions about the layout of the vineyard site, the conditions influencing particular pockets, and the ways in which a site interacts with the broader environment and community. A grower who can tailor practices to respect each of these components—some of which are more difficult to address than others—will see the benefits.
"You'll get better winter hardiness, lower cost, and everything just comes together better for you," Strachan said.
But the exercise of asking the questions that lead to more sustainable practices is also beneficial, because it challenges growers to think anew about how they're growing their grapes. The manual is designed to get them thinking about what they're doing.
"It's not a how-to-operate-a-vineyard text," he said. "You have to get that on your own. What it does is it draws attention to the serious questions you have to consider."
Once a grower starts asking questions, answers have to be found. The initiative promises to lead growers to a better understanding of their vineyards, and in turn help them adapt the principles of sustainable viticulture to their own context.
"It is not a bureaucracy standing over your shoulder saying, 'Thou shalt not do this,'" he said. "You are challenged to question what you're doing, and to look up and find out what the answer is."
This is also why a scoring system is part of the program. While the ultimate goal is third-party certification, being able to measure their own performance will give growers a chance to check their performance on a regular basis and upgrade practices to improve their scores.
"It's not a black-and-white, pass-or-fail system," Strachan said. "The incentive is there for you to do a little bit better next year by implementing a few more aspects of it than you did this year."
A final version of the manual and assessment booklet should be available by summer 2010.
In the meantime, the current draft of the program will be entering field trials this fall.
The trials will help determine whether or not what's on paper works in field conditions, and the ease of use for growers.
"We have had a lot of reviewers looking at this, but we've been looking at it through a different lens than somebody who's actually doing the assessment on their property," Garcia said, noting that the trials would provide real-life input.