Discerning consumers are increasingly aware of what they put into their bodies, and concerned about the ethical and sustainable ramifications of products they choose to buy. In the food and drinks space, this is now a mainstream tendency, which started with food, then moved into wine.
These developments are a positive step for the environment, but the rush to certify has also led to confusion among wine drinkers, who are confronted by dozens of logos, stickers, and labels on the bottles they pick up in a wine shop.
But some progress is better than none, according to Sophie Drucker, winegrower and vineyard manager of DeLoach Vineyards in California. “If you want to support wineries that are doing something sustainable, start with wineries that are talking about it and have those certifications,” she says.
But there’s no need to panic. VinePair assembled a quick and dirty explainer of the most common labels to know, with testimonials from winemakers about their experiences.
In the U.S., the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program certifies organic wines. The core tenet is a complete ban on synthetic fertilizers. To call your wine organic, other materials that go into it, such as commercial yeast, must also be certified organic. If a vintner is only organic in the vineyard, they may use the label “made with organically grown grapes.”
Added sulfites are not allowed in organic wines in the States, but in Europe for example, a certain amount is allowed. Organic winemaking has gained devoted advocates worldwide who believe the benefits of this practice are far-reaching.
“I work with producers who have gone organic because they’ve understood that they will be able to increase their quality level, that they will have a larger expression of terroir, and that they will be able to have a more constant production,” says Jan Kux, the owner of Switzerland-based Natural Organic Agriculture (NOA), who advises European vintners such as Pratsch in Austria.
Biodynamic farming is, essentially, one step (or several) further along the complexity spectrum than organic. Biodynamic viticulture is done organically but also revolves around an astronomy calendar that dictates farming actions, such as when to prune, water, and pick. It also utilizes various homemade compost-based fertilizers.
At DeLoach, Drucker says the 16.5-acre vineyard was replanted in 2006 and rested for three years to bring back ecological diversity. It was then certified organic in 2009 and certified Demeter, the leading biodynamic stamp of approval, in 2010. All of this additional process comes at a premium. DeLoach’s vineyard-designate, biodynamic wines that come from the estate are priced higher than the bottlings with grapes they source through non-Demeter partners.
“It was a game changer for us,” says Patrick Headley, Hahn’s director of viticulture. “It’s not everyday that you find a program that’s an umbrella that hits all these different areas.”
SIP adopts planet-friendly principles like water management, energy efficiency, and healthy vineyards. Some chemicals are permitted, such as copper and glyphosate, but are heavily restricted. SIP is also equally preoccupied with people, making sure its winery members are treating employees ethically and providing them with things like competitive wages and medical insurance.
Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing (CCSW)
The CCSW label, created by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance in 2010, also has broader concerns than just farming.
“Organic is great,” says Stephanie Honig, director of sales and communications at CCSW-certified Honig Vineyard & Winery in California. “But it says nothing about your water efficiency, your energy efficiency, your recycling practices, the weight of your glass.” CCSW also has requirements for the treatment of employees.
CCSW has a “red” and “yellow” list for chemicals. “Red” materials cannot be used after year two, and wineries must provide written justification for why it is necessary for them to use “yellow” products.
Honig says the certification adds a certain credibility that was lacking before, even though her winery and others were already making efforts to be sustainable. This is an investment, of course. When the winery put in solar panels in 2006, Honig estimates it cost $1 million out of pocket. But because they provide the facility with free power, she says the return on investment was eight to 10 years, while the lifespan of a solar panel is 25 years.
“Part of sustainability is staying in business,” she says. “If you have a business that’s not sustainable, that’s not going to work.”
Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)
LEED is a unique certification because it focuses on the “green” design and architecture of a facility, as opposed to vineyards or business practices. It’s most often used for residential buildings but has filtered through the commercial space as well. For Nancy Irelan at Red Tail Ridge Winery in the Finger Lakes, building her LEED-certified winery in 2009 was not easy but well worth it.
“It was very difficult because no one had implemented LEED certification in the wine industry in upstate New York,” she says. “There really wasn’t a knowledge base here, and finding the properly certified architects and contractors was a struggle.”
As small business owners, Irelan and her husband, Michael Schnelle, were most concerned with energy savings and using alternative energy to improve their bottom line. “We actually paid back on that investment in two and a half years. That’s phenomenal,” she says.
B Corporation is another certification that evaluates both social and environmental standards. It’s one of the most comprehensive programs out there, and while it’s not just limited to the wine industry, many vintners have joined it.
“We really agreed with the tenets of stakeholder management and sustainability, and leaving places better than you found them,” says Keith Scott, director of marketing at A to Z Wineworks, which became the first B Corp winery in Oregon in 2014. “I think for shoppers who don’t want to become an expert on every last certification, it’s a good overall stamp.”
Symington Family Estates in Portugal became a B Corp in 2019, the first winery in Portugal to do so. “B Corp is appealing because it’s very broad, it’s not just certifying your farming practices,” says associate director Rob Symington, who’s in charge of the company’s sustainability program. “It’s a company-wide certification covering social and environmental factors and core business practices.”
Symington also likes that B Corp is “a roadmap for continuous improvement.” Each time a business recertifies, there are higher standards to achieve. Another benefit both Scott and Symington mention is that the fee for certification is commensurate with a company’s profits, making it attainable for even small wineries with slim margins.