The California Wine Institute's getting gussied up for Earth Day - all ready to tell you why they and their sustainability campaigns are great (they are - it's true) and to avoid the subject of pesticide use in wine grape growing in California. They've been holding webinars with vintners to help all of them communicate the message - aided by their professional marketing consultant.
And launching their Earth Day video on Youtube.
Sustainability, as defined by the industry group, consists mainly of limiting the inputs they use - water, energy (they get big rebates for going solar - rebates that taxpayers pay for), and other resources that cost them money. This is the win-win zone for the bottom line - and it gets them within the guidelines of retail giant Walmart's sustainability requirements. All good - but not the end of the story.
If only the Wine Institute would take equal interest in ridding us of the pesticides they are using - 411,000 pounds of Roundup annually. Is that sustainability? Maybe for the grapes but not for the humans.
You can see what a typical Napa vineyard shopping list at the local farm supply store is in this 2012 U.C. Davis report on wine grape growing in Napa which describes local vineyards practices:
• Twice a year, vineyard-wide application of Roundup (that's 30,000 pounds annually in Napa County) a systemic herbicide now so widespread that a 2012 German study found it in city dwellers' urine at concentrations higher than allowed in drinking water
• Fighting vine mealy bug with neonicotinoids (the chemicals most widely credited with bee colony collapse) [this week a group of British MPs added their voices to others in the EU calling for a ban]
• Spreading Rally (myclobutanil), a known reproductive toxin, annually [the insecticide was recently cited by the California Dept. of Pesticide Regulation as in need of a toxicity exposure update]
All this - in spite of the fact that between 10 and 30 percent of Napa vineyards are either certified (9%) or practicing (estimated to be another 20%) organic and don't use or need any of these inputs in order to make a tidy profit on their most-expensive-in-the-nation agricultural land.
If only the organic vintners and their professional marketing consultant were organized and speaking up - with the help of professional marketers - on Earth Day. (They don't have a YouTube video).
Two years ago when I first started asking wineries if their wines were organically grown, any that were not never said, "No." They always said, "we're sustainable."
If you ask again, why they're not organic, they'll usually say being organic costs too much, and takes too much paperwork.
I recently interviewed a prominent winery president (at a winery with more than 300 acres of certified organic vineyards) about this issue. The reply was that after all was said and done, it cost the winery about 4 percent more - in the overall cost of the winery - to grow grapes organically and be certified. Other consultants say the cost is 10% higher; others who are organic say it costs less than chemical methods.
Yes, there is paperwork, but wineries already have a lot of paperwork. Filing pesticide reports with the state is paperwork, too, and strangely nobody every mentions that. Shopping for pesticides and hiring pesticide control advisors is work and money, too - at least $100 an acre.
So beware the Earthy Day messaging barrage. Hurrah for sustainability - it's just not the end of the eco-trail. Keep asking for organic grapes in your wine.