The Vinea sustainable wine grape program, launched three years ago by a group of Walla Walla Valley growers and vintners, is collaborating with an Oregon program to offer the first international certification program for Washington State wine grape growers.
Vinea now represents more than 70 percent of the grape acreage in the Walla Walla Valley, which equals about 900 acres and 25 wineries. It teamed up last year with Oregon’s Low Input Viticulture and Enology program, known as LIVE. The collaboration gives Vinea a way to be certified through the International Organization of Biological Controls and receive international recognition. The IOBC is a global organization that was established in the mid-1950s to promote environmentally safe methods of pest and disease control.
"Our goal was always to be IOBC-certified," said Jean-François Pellet, president of Vinea and winemaker for Pepper Bridge Winery in Walla Walla. "We could either go it alone by ourselves, which would take another three to five years, or we could collaborate with LIVE that was already IOBC-certified."
He said 19 Vinea-member vineyards went through the LIVE/IOBC certification process last year, passing the first audit. Because certification under IOBC is a two-year process, they will be audited again this year before they are approved as having met both LIVE and IOBC requirements.
The 19 vineyards, upon passing the audit, will also be certified by Salmon Safe, a Pacific Northwest certification program designed to encourage farming practices that protect and restore salmon watersheds. Salmon Safe, founded some ten years ago, has collaborated with LIVE since 2000. Although the nonprofit organization has recently begun working with municipal park systems, residential developers, and corporate businesses like Nike, its primary focus is agriculture.
As one of the first regional ecolabels in the Pacific Northwest, Salmon Safe uses a market-based approach to encourage watershed protection. The Salmon Safe logo is used on many approved farm products, including wine, eggs, fruit, and vegetables. Consumer promotions have been implemented in more than 300 western U.S. markets, such as Fred Meyer and Whole Foods. In recent months, Salmon Safe has expanded beyond Oregon’s vineyards to a variety of farm entities, from apples to wine grapes to fruit and vegetables, in western Washington and northern California.
Interest in the Vinea project is growing beyond the Walla Walla region, according to Pellet, who added that several Washington State growers outside the Walla Walla Valley have expressed interest in their program.
"We have said from the beginning that the program can be used by anyone or any group," he said. "We will work with individuals or groups who want to join or help other groups develop a similar program. We’ll be glad to help anyone."
He noted that Vinea is working on developing a logo that could be used for marketing purposes on wine labels. They are approaching logo development with caution and consideration because they don’t want too many symbols cluttering wine labels.
Pellet said that even though wineries do not go through the certification process, they are important members of Vinea because they can help communicate the program and the concept of sustainability to consumers.
"The bottom line is that we have a small but committed group of growers that believe in sustainable wine production," Pellet said.
"I’m really convinced and believe that in the long-term, sustainable programs like this will be requirements of many wineries," said Pellet, who was a participating member of IOBC as a wine grower in his native Switzerland. "In Switzerland, such programs didn’t start out as being required, but after about a dozen years, now IOBC is required."
He also believes that the term "sustainable" is gaining traction with the public and is better understood by consumers than it was a few years ago. Nowadays, he doesn’t have to explain why growers would choose to follow a sustainable program instead of an organic one.
"Our focus is stewardship and what’s best for the land," he emphasized, adding that for some Walla Walla growers who have planted grapes following 80 years of wheat production, it is challenging to bring biodiversity back to the land.