Frustrated by low returns compared to their counterparts in the Napa Valley, wine grape growers in Lodi, California, are attempting to add value to their grapes through a sustainable agriculture program. Six vineyards were recently certified as part of California’s first sustainable wine-growing standards, now implemented on an appellation-wide basis.
Dr. Clifford Ohmart, research and integrated pest management director for the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission, said grapes from Napa could be worth five times as much per ton as grapes from Lodi, yet the quality is the same.
The Lodi district comprises 90,000 acres and produces about 20 percent of California’s wine grapes. It is the country’s leading producer of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay grapes.
In 1991, the 750 grape growers in the district created the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission with the goals of promoting Lodi as a producer of premium winegrapes and wine, funding viticultural research to solve local problems, and developing an areawide sustainable winegrape-growing program.
The aim was to increase grape prices, and ensure more stable winery contracts as well as new winery contracts.
Grower outreach on sustainable production began the following year, through breakfast meetings, seminars, field days, and newsletters. In 1996, 45 growers, with about 40 percent of the acreage, and 14 pest control advisors implemented sustainable practices and demonstrated them to others. In 1998, the program developed a self-assessment workbook to encourage all growers in the region to adopt sustainable practices. The book helps them identify good farming practices that they are already using, as well as areas of concern that can be addressed through action plans.
Ohmart described the workbook as a tool for defining, implementing, and measuring sustainable viticulture. It covers all practices, including soil and water management, pest management, habitat, human resources, and wine quality, and defines 105 critical issues.
He estimates that at least 75 percent of the growers are now using some sustainable strategies. Most growers are monitoring their orchards weekly for pests.
Sustainable versus organic
Sustainable agriculture is different from organic in that organic production has standards and prohibits use of synthetic materials and there’s a three-year transitional period to organic. Most sustainable agriculture programs allow a certain amount of synthetic materials to be used, but there are no nationally recognized standards. One of the challenges in setting up a sustainable agriculture program is that there is no single definition.
Ohmart said the Winegrape Commission favored adopting a sustainable agriculture program over organic because it felt there were synthetic pesticides that are fine to use in a vineyard from the impact perspective. For example, use of glyphosate (Round-up) to manage weeds may be a more sustainable approach than mechanically cultivating weeds, and the overall environmental impact may be less.
“If you look at the requirements of organic farming, almost all of them are related to inputs, whether fertilizer or pesticides, but there are many other important things done in a vineyard that impact the environment,” he said.
The commission felt issues such as habitat and human resources were also important, and that attention needs to be paid to how the pesticides are applied as well as the choice of products. Calibration of equipment is part of the sustainable agriculture program.
Ohmart believes there is greater emphasis on the ecosystem function and on the social component in sustainable agriculture than in organic, and it focuses on continual improvement.
The commission has developed a logo with the slogan “Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing” to promote the program in the marketplace and is working with the federal government for approval of the logo and standardized information that can be included on wine labels.
The first growers to be certified—Robert Pirie, Joe Dexter, Bruce and Jerry Fry, Robert Abercrombie, John Ledbetter and Kim Ledbetter Bronson, and Keith Watts—served as pilot project participants. They now offer help to new growers interested in becoming certified.
“There is tremendous interest from growers in our appellation in the program,” said Stephanie Beasly, marketing coordinator for the commission. “Sustainable viticulture is the wave of the future and will lead to better wines. That’s the ultimate goal—to demonstrate to the consumer the quality of wines that come from sustainable practices and to protect the environment we have for the future.”
Certified grower Jerry Fry of Mohr-Fry Ranches said in a news release “We believe this program will not only protect our land, our workers, and the community we live in, but will produce higher quality wines more reflective of the place and the people that grew them. We look forward to working with our winery partners to produce exceptional wines from our certified vineyards.”
The standards used in the Lodi Rules were peer reviewed by scientists, academics, and environmentalists, and are endorsed by Protected Harvest, the third-party certifier of the program.
“The Lodi Rules are designed to achieve measurable improvements in environmental health and wine quality,” explained Ohmart. It requires growers to use a wide range of sustainable practices, unlike ‘do no harm’ programs that consist mainly of practices that should not be used.
The sustainable program has two components: sustainable wine growing practices standards and a Pesticide Environmental Assessment System that measures the impacts of all pesticides used in a vineyard during the year.
Certification is based on a points system, and growers must earn at least 50 percent of the points in each of the following areas:
–Ecosystem management (habitat, including areas outside the vineyard);
–Education, training, team building;
However, there are some practices that growers must use in order to get certified, even if they can reach the required points without. For example, growers must keep records on pest monitoring, and they must have a detailed nutrition management plan.
Growers earn points for monitoring pests and diseases. Each pesticide is indexed by the Pesticide Environmental Assessment System model, according to its environmental risk, and growers can’t exceed a certain threshold of use. Environmental impact units can be added up to calculate the total impact of all pesticides used on each acre of vineyard.