Friday, June 5, 2015

Sustainability: Sonoma Growers Push Back On Transparency, Forge Ahead in PR

When it comes to divulging how much water, nitrogen, energy, and other inputs are used in growing wine grapes, Sonoma growers aren't sure how much information they want to share with the wineries they sell to or the retailers who sell their wines, county and state wine industry leaders said today at the annual Sonoma Wine Grape Commission grower seminar, tradeshow and BBQ.

Commission President Karissa Kruse, who is leading the charge to have 100 percent of Sonoma's wine grape growers certified under the Wine Institute's California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance's program, said retailers' sustainability programs ask wineries who buy Sonoma growers' grapes, "a lot of questions."

Karissa Kruse, speaking at the Sonoma Wine Grape Commission's annual
grower seminar
"Walmart asks the wineries where are the grapes from?, " she said. "How many acres? How much water was used? What type of pest management was practiced? What type of canopy management?"

"The information they request is taboo from a grower's perspective," Mike Rowan, a grower, added. "I don't like to give up that information and I don't know of a farmer who does."

Said Kruse, "My answer to that is that through our own sustainability program, we can create a Sonoma County report card, that shows that countywide we're good farmers, versus giving away your detailed farming practices to Walmart."

Speaking later in the program, John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers, agreed, saying that information requested by Walmart's sustainability program was "confidential."

 John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers
"I'm concerned about them having to know how much nitrogen was used, the amount of water used," he said.

"Providing people with that information reveals your cost structure. It might be used to unfairly criticize your practices, or to start demanding you reduce your prices. If you have a 17% margin, someone might think it needs to be reduced to 12%."

Aguirre predicted that the government would get involved. "We're ultimately going to see a day when government will get into defining sustainability standards," he said.

A grower in the audience (who works with the commission's sustainability program) also weighed in on the issue of transparency, saying that some Sonoma growers were reticent about getting involved in the Sonoma growers' own California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance certification program due to privacy concerns.

Currently, the commission says the owners of 43% of the county's 60,000 acres of vineyards have participated in the self assessment components of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance program and another 33% of acres have been certified sustainable under the program's guidelines. The self assessment program does not require growers to share information with others.

In other business, Kruse provided members with an update on how the Commission's sustainability marketing program is going, saying it provided 300 million impressions to consumers across the country, including 73 features stories on sustainability responsible for 75 million impressions.

"We have national partnerships with Food and Wine, Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Wall Street Journal," she told the crowd of several hundred growers.

Kruse also pointed out that the Commission received government grants totally $900,000, including a $750,000 grant from the California Dept. of Food and Agriculture to support marketing.

"What does OPM stand for?" she asked the crowd. "....other people's money. For every grower dollar invested, we've been able to get 25 cents in grants."

She also said the commission had integrated its marketing efforts with those of the vintners and tourism groups in the county (and the 17 AVA organizations) into unified planning and promotional events. "We have media trained 40 vintners and growers," she said, "and put on 53 grower programs for 3,000 attendees last year."

Before she ended her talk, Kruse was asked about and recapped the commission's newest marketing initiative. "Sonoma is a Superbowl sponsor for the 2016 game in San Francisco," Kruse said. "I'm thinking it's like baseball and apple pie - the Superbowl and wine."

Kruse said some features already planned for the publicity campaign included showing how wineries are saving water and how the Superbowl as an event has also addressed this issue. "We'll also show consumers what they can do to save water at home, too," she said.

Earlier in the program, during Q and A with three representative members of the commission, the group addressed issues with community public relations. Lise Asimont, Director of Grower Relations at Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville, said her West County neighbors were not always so friendly to her when she told them she worked for a winery. Asked why, Asimont replied, "I love living in West County, but people there don't understand our right to use glyphosate, or Roundup."

Kruse said the commission needs to do a community survey to find out what local perceptions are. "We should do some real education on the community," she said. "A lot of times the people you hear from are people who don't have jobs or something, people who just want to vent."

(The growers also heard from state and county authorities on water, pesticide, and other issues. Those topics will be covered in a separate post.)


  1. Great piece. True sustainability has to be transparent. Consumers have the basic right to know that they are consuming. My research is showing me that the new "sustainability" trend is just that .. more soft, ineffectual PR. Keep at them!

  2. And, I just spotted that you have one of my books as your "recommended reading"... WINE AND CLIMATE CHANGE. Thank you!
    Linda Johnson-Bell