There are more than 85 different definitions for agricultural sustainability, according to Ricardo Salvador, chairman of the graduate program for sustainable agriculture at Iowa State University.

Many are vague and difficult to validate. Not so for the sustainable criteria circulating in the California wine grape industry. They define processes and goals toward what science and society has determined as sustainable agriculture, he said.

Salvador headlined a panel of grape growers, vintners and others from the Californian and Australian wine growing industries at the recent Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in Sacramento, Calif., who put their personal spins on sustainability.

It is part social responsibility, agronomic practices, public relations, and personal fulfillment. It is not totally organic, according to the panel at the wine symposium, although organic farming organizations like to banter around the term as their own.

According to third generation California farmer Steve McIntyre of Soledad, Calif., sustainable wine grape growing practices he helped develop for California's central coast are better for the environment and the industry than organic because they are based on scientifically proven concepts.

‘Back to future’

Fourth generation Lodi, Calif., wine grape grower Randy Lange calls the movement to sustainable wine grape growing “back to the future.”

Lange said his family's farming generations before him “may have had some pretty good ideas about farming…maybe it is our responsibility to be reflective.”

The future is what sustainability is all about, according to Salvador. “What do you have now that you would like to have in the future,” is the way he defined the term.

The sustainable movement in California agriculture has been the strongest with wine grape growers. More than 10 years ago the Central Coast Vineyard (CCTV) was formed. It is a community-based partnership of wine grape growers and wineries, the University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisors and consultants.

The Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission followed the CCTV with its own sustainable viticulture program.

And now the California Winegrape Growers Association and Wine Institute have come up with its own Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices which was introduced last fall for and vintners and is now being campaigned throughout the state.

The California Department of Pesticide Regulation has supported all these efforts with grants.

They are all based on point systems or checks lists for growers to use in self-evaluation they way they grow wine grapes, which is something growers need not fear, said Lange.

Assessment key

“Self assessment is the most important and the key to the whole process,” said Lange, adding producers may be “surprised” to find they are doing more than they realized toward sustainability.

“Take credit for it,” he said.

“Build a plan and start knocking off the low hanging fruit first — do the easier stuff first,” said Lange. Then go to the more difficult challenges next.

Monitoring and record keeping by both producers and their pest control advisers follows the self-assessment.

“Take your time” in moving toward greater sustainability, said Lange. “One of the most important things to understand is that you do not have to do it all in one year,” he said. “You will be surprised at how much you can do without a whole lot of effort and not a lot of costs.”

One example of changes Lange made in his vineyards was abandoning less costly pre-emergence herbicides in favor of more topical treatments to improve vine health.

That is more expensive because it requires more tractor trips, but he offset that cost by reducing costs in other areas. Specifically, he began wiring vines instead of using ties that deteriorate each year and must be replaced. This may reduce a yearly expenditure to an expense only every three to five years.

“Any time you can keep a crew out of the vineyard you are saving money,” he said. The money he saved in not tying vines each year he uses to offset the added cost of topical weed control.

“Sustainable viticulture is a “total approach,” he said.

Improve quality

A key reason for advocating greater stewardship to ensure sustainability is to improve wine quality and that is where the enjoyable part of self-assessment comes in.

“You can tell how well you are doing by pulling a cork and tasting your own wine to see if you are getting to where you need to be going,” said Lange.

McIntyre, a founding member of CCVT, uses what the team calls a Positive Point System (PPS), a 1,000-point protocol for evaluating adoption of sustainable farming practices on a site-specific and regional basis. The PPS system is organized into pest management, water management, soil management, viticulture management, wine quality and continuing education. Through a series of questions, it outlines a model vineyard designed to be less dependent on chemical inputs and rely on more on a balanced biological farming system that integrates soil, water, pest and viticultural practices.

McIntyre said one of the biggest benefits he has discovered is in the use of vineyard crops, a growing trend in California trees and vines.

“Ninety-eight percent of our vineyards are no-till cover crops,” said McIntyre. However, he mows the cover only twice a year and one of those passes is also when he shreds prunings. The second one is in August after which there is little weed germination.

Aids budgeting

Leaving the cover crop grow reduces broadleaf weeds and creates microclimates to mitigate summer high wind conditions typical in coastal vineyards. He also utilizes ryegrass to reduce broadleaf weeds.

The self-assessment process also helps in farm budgeting by forcing him to assess closely everything he does. However, McIntyre said it is a dynamic practice because each year conditions change within vineyards.

He bristles at the notion that sustainable is synonymous with organic, which he says can be a “very expensive box” with questionable environmental benefit.

The produce industry has capitalized on the organic movement with added income for organic products. That has not happened in wine grape growing.

“I think there is more inherent integrity for our industry and benefits to the environment to be gained using a combination of scientifically proven concepts from all farming systems as the basis for sustainability,” he said.

The payoffs may not be in added income from grape wine sales, but there are benefits beyond the vineyard row.

Australian Tony Battaglene of the Canberra Wine Bureau of the Winemakers Federation of Australia said environmental sensitivity will play a bigger role in international marketing of wine and other commodities. The California wine grape industry's commitment to sustainable agriculture will help in highly competitive global marketing.

It also will help at home as California's population grows toward that 50-million-person plateau over the next two decades. This growth will put increasingly more urbanites in contact with farming and validating good stewardship with something like these sustainability programs will be good public relations.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com