Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk |

Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

If I asked what you think of “green wines” you might begin to wax poetic on the herbaceous qualities of the grassy Sauvignon Blanc of New Zealand, or the young and fresh Vinho Verde made in Portugal from Alvarinho (or Albarino) grapes.

But I’m guessing most people, especially in this, a town which operates under our own “Canary Initiative,” would answer that they think green wines are great – referring, of course, to wines that are made in an environmentally sustainable manner.

It is hard to argue with the idea that wines should use techniques for growing, harvesting, producing, packaging and shipping wine that are as sustainable as possible. After all, wine comes from mother earth. If the land is abused, then the very source of the grapes becomes threatened.

On a recent trip to the Paso Robles region of Central California, I was introduced to a program called SIP™, an acronym for Sustainability in Practice. This initiative is a project of the Central Coast Vineyard Team (CCVT), which has devised a certification program to designate vineyards that pass a peer review assessment for sustainability, not just in farming but in energy efficiency and social equity as well.

CCVT was founded in 1995 to help local growers and winemakers “farm in a way that benefits agricultural environmental and community interests.” Since that time, it has grown to include more than 300 member farms and wineries that together farm in excess of 60,000 acres of prime Central Coast real estate. The group provides an intriguing example of how local associations can direct the industry towards greater awareness and compliance with sustainable winemaking principles.

Shortly after its inception, the CCVT created a “Positive Points System” that encouraged winegrowers to voluntarily review their practices and answer a series of questions for which they were awarded points. The self- assessment addressed issues such as water use, soil erosion and chemical usage.

But it also went beyond the environmental effects of winemaking by asking about worker safety and how wineries interact with their employees – many of whom are Spanish-speaking immigrants and migrant workers.

More than 750 growers and wineries, including non-members, completed the assessment. Though it provided revealing data and a snapshot of what was going on in the region, the program’s real benefit may have been to provide a wake-up call to growers, who took the time to assess what they were doing on a day-to-day basis. By answering questions, they were forced to evaluate their practices and perhaps think about issues that they had not fully considered before.

In 2002, a group of CCVT members determined the next step would be the introduction of a peer-reviewed certification system to evaluate the sustainability practices of members and award them for participating and achieving certain standards. Sustainability in Practice was born.

Wineries can achieve organic or biodynamic certification for their farming practices, but the CCVT went a step further. The SIP certification includes additional factors that play a role in sustainable and responsible farming and winemaking, including social aspects and energy conservation. (An SIP designation does not equate or lead to organic or biodynamic certification.)

In 2008, the pilot program was completed and 14 vineyards from Santa Barbara to Monterey were deemed to have achieved the SIP standards. Today there are 24 vineyards with SIP certification and five wineries – Halter Ranch, Baileyana-Tangent, Pomar Vineyards, D’Anbino Vineyards and Cellars, and the Robert Hall Winery – that carry the SIP-designated seal on their bottles.

To qualify for the seal, a winery must have 85 percent of their wines SIP-certified from, as they say, block to bottle. This means that an independent auditor has identified the vineyards to be in compliance with SIP standards.

The SIP program is open to all California wineries. It’s a seminal program and, like all new initiatives, there are areas of concern and disagreement. But the CCVT has come a long way in creating a framework for responsible stewardship of a growing industry.

I, for one, will look forward to seeing more SIP seals on bottles in the future.

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