Sonoma County strives for the most sustainable winemaking and winegrowing practices in California.
Whether its boutique wineries or larger scale wine producers, the Sonoma community is dedicated to sustainable winegrowing and winemaking practices. Although the regulations and certifications for sustainable winegrowing are not as clearly defined as they are for organic and biodynamic wines, wineries like Rodney Strong Vineyards strive to promote sustainability through implementing the philosophies from the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance(CSWA).
The vision of the Sustainable Winegrowing Program is the long-term sustainability of the California wine community based on principles defined as the three “E’s”—Environmentally Sound, Socially Equitable, and Economically Feasible. Essentially, these are practices that are sensitive to the environment, responsive to the needs and interests of society-at-large, and economically feasible to implement and maintain.
“Considering the environment is part of the core company values and has always been part of our business practices,” says Douglas McIlroy, director of winegrowing for Healdsburg’s Rodney Strong Vineyards. “You’ll find that true in Sonoma in general. Sonoma county residents generally care about the environment. They come together as a community to find creative green solutions.”
In addition to having a strong community, McIlroy attributes Sonoma’s sustainable practices to two things; the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission(SCWC) and the Global Warming Solutions Act. Similar to the Winegrape Commission in Lodi, SCWC held workshops early on to educate grape growers to implement more sustainable practices. The Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 set the 2020 greenhouse gas emissions reduction goal into law and the Sonoma County government plays an active role in making sure the region minimizes its carbon footprint before the 2020 date.
“As far as Sonoma County, we’re the poster child for sustainability,” says McIlroy. “We’re not just here supporting the county since our winemaking business is here—we also care about the longevity of the community.”
Since 2009, Rodney Strong Vineyards has participated in the ‘Sustainability Certification’ pilot program through the California Association of Winegrape Growers(CAWG) and the Wine Institute(WI); the winegrowing department serves on the Sustainable Winegrowing Joint Committee to help steer the certification program; the winery is carbon neutral; and all vineyards are enrolled and certified in the Fish Friendly Farming program. When it was built in 2003, the vineyard’s 4032-panel solar array was one of the largest in the world, reducing energy demand by 35 percent.
Smaller scale producers like Alexander Valley’s Medlock Amesalso strive for green standards. The winery, which has been around since 1998, produces 5,000 cases annually, in comparison to Rodney Strong Vineyards’ 800,000 cases. The winery is certified organic and does not use artificial chemicals, fertilizers, or pesticides to grow the grapes for its wines.
Ames Morison, owner and vineyard manager of Medlock Ames, says: “Sustainability is the ground zero for organic practices. It’s a super-charged word in this day and age, although there are no legal requirements surrounding sustainability.”
Morison believes in taking things a step further than sustainable practices, and tries to eliminate off-farm inputs. Although the winery is not biodynamic, all farming practices stem from the original intent of biodynamic farming. “I like to look at it as feeding the farm and treating it as an entity incorporating animals in the farming,” says Morison.
For example, a month before bud break, Morison brings in about 300 sheep to “mow” the cover crops that are used to enrich the soil. There are also 50 barn owl boxes throughout the vineyards, which attract owls during harvest to eat hundreds of pounds of rodents a year.
Morison is inspired by the sustainable practices of Lou Preston, owner and vintner of Preston of Dry Creek, because he is at the forefront of using animals in his farming, and Hugh Chappelle, winemaker at Quivira Vineyards & Winery, because they have been practicing biodynamic farming since 2006.
“I look more to California producers for inspiration because I am here,” Morison says, “and there is a vibrancy and vitality to their wines.”
As a wine region, Sonoma hasn’t been established as long as Napa, but sustainable practices are more prevalent in Sonoma than other regions. According to Morison, many of the second- and third-generation farmers are returning to the sustainable practices of their ancestors. It’s only a matter of time until the sustainable practices of Sonoma become an industry standard.
By Amy Payne