Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Emperor's New (Green Marketing) Clothes: "Sustainability" Program Ramps Up in Sonoma - Headed by Marketing Professor

Today the Sonoma Winegrowers announced that the group is launching a new Sonoma County Center for Ag Sustainability.

While you might think that means something about being green and good for the environment, listen up. Here's what the press release statement from director Karissa Kruse actually says the center's mission will be:
" identify and focus on the most challenging problems facing the local wine community [industry] to ensure its continued success and the preservation of Sonoma County's agricultural heritage." 
Today that "community" - i.e. industry - is under siege from residents fighting against overdevelopment.

The trade group defined its job:
"[to]...preserve and protect our agricultural legacy and way of life for future generations. The reality is that ag is on the brink of a crisis. Not only are thousands of acres of farmland being lost to developing in California every year, but there are serious threats to the financial viability of our businesses due to increased regulations, rising labor costs, new overtime requirements, drought and more."
So what is the sustainability concept Krause is talking about here? It sounds like overregulation as a threat to wineries' survival.


1. How much farmland has Sonoma lost?

Of all counties in California, Sonoma has been the least affected by farmland losses, according to a California Farmland Conversion Report (as reported in the Press Democrat in 2014).

Sonoma ranked dead last - 47th out of 47 counties - in California in farmland losses. The report stated that most of the farmland losses have been in the Central Valley and were caused by farmers fallowing land during the drought, not from housing development.

2. Have wine grape crop values declined in Sonoma?


In 2015, the county crop report reported that the wine grape crop value was $446 million. Ten years ago the figure was $430 million. Not a significant difference for a decade.

3. Has Sonoma lost vineyard acreage?

No. The number of acres of vineyards cultivated in 2015 versus 2005 was 58,820 acres in 2015 versus 57,050 in 2005. Not a significant loss.

Sonoma's "Agricultural Legacy" - How Threatened Is It?

So if acreage and crop value aren't threatened, what "agricultural legacy" is Kruse referring to that is on "the brink of a crisis"?

Is she talking about more roadside attractions that the "wine community" (aka industry) needs? i.e. the desire to have even more tasting rooms line the highways tourists visit in Sonoma County?

What's really happening is that new wineries and tasting rooms in Sonoma County have increased dramatically since 2000. More than 300 new wineries and tasting rooms have been approved by the county in the last 16 years.

The "Threats"

So if these aren't threats in Sonoma, what is Krause talking about?

Mostly those pesky government regulations.

Kruse says in the news release that the threats facing Sonoma's vintners and growers are "increased regulations, rising labor costs, new overtime requirements, drought and more." I think if I was serious about ag, I think I would have ranked drought and climate change - and soil health - way before overtime requirements and regulations.

In fact, it's more enforcement of border controls that's responsible for the labor shortage and the new overtime requirements. Attending a dinner held by the Pesticide Action Network at this year's Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Sacramento this fall, I had a chance to meet and dine with the UFW leaders who successfully pressed for this legislation.

They told me that it now costs $5-7k for a coyote who will get you across the border from Mexico to the U.S. With prices that high, fewer immigrants are coming to California. That's how the overtime bill was finally passed - in response to U.S. government enforcement that reduced the labor pool of farmworker immigrants.

And the new overtime bill takes four years to phase in. Vintners were already having to pay workers overtime under existing legislation after 60 hours. Under the new legislation, overtime pay begins after 40 hours.

While labor shortages worry vineyard managers, many have already turned to mechanization, which is widespread in the Central Valley. Now U.C.'s Oakville station in Napa is conducting research with U.C. Extension specialist Kaan Kurtural, who worked extensively with mechanization in the Central Valley, to show North County top tier wineries (see page 42 of linked issue) how well the technology works for high end wines.

Driven by economic issues, viticultural equipment and industry expertise, this is a transition that is already happening in the industry, and not the worrisome result of government regulation. The wine industry is following a broader trend toward mechanization similar to what has happened in the Midwest industrial sector, where autoworkers lost their jobs to mechanization and robots.

The Emperor's New (Green Marketing) Clothes - Marketing "Sustainability"

Sonoma's wine grape growers also say that consumers are far more interested in buying "sustainable" wines than wines not labeled as sustainable.

Perhaps that's why they hired, as the center's founding director, George Day, a B-school professor of marketing and a former chairman of the American Marketing Association instead of a true sustainability expert.

And what is the center going to deliver? A white paper in two years time that promises innovative thinking for the industry's future. It sounds a little fuzzy - are the winegrowers going to lobby the government for less regulation? Or innovate to - er - wha?

It's just one more facet of the Sonoma "sustainability" adventures that leaves me confused and weary.

Organic Group in Sonoma: Axed by Sonoma Winegrowers

There was a time when the Sonoma Winegrowers paid some small amount of attention to organic growers, sponsoring quarterly meetings of a group devoted to looking at organic practices and going on vineyard tours. No more. That's been cancelled and replaced with meetings focused only on "sustainability."

Consumers Confused: 43% Think Sustainable Means Organic

Today's consumers are also mighty confused about what sustainability really means. A survey released at the Oregon Vineyard Supply's Jan. Grower Event shows that, based on 2015 data, 43 percent of consumers surveyed believe "certified sustainable" means "organic grapes."

Sonoma's Sustainability Initiative: Fueled By Self Interest in Keeping Secrets

In 2015, I was fortunate enough to attend the annual general meeting of the Sonoma County Winegrowers. But what I saw and heard shocked me. The candid discussion among the community of industry insiders was not the kind of professional conversation I expected to hear.

• An Ag Commissioner saying he would fight tooth and nail to prevent California Dept. of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) hearings from resulting in farmers losing the right to spray pesticides as close to schools as they can now (too close, according to public health experts for the DPR).

• Coppola Wines defending "our right to use glyphosate, our right to use Roundup" to local residents who complain about vineyard practices

There was more. But perhaps the most revealing discussion at the meeting was why the Sonoma County Winegrowers wanted everyone in the county to get "certified sustainable."

Though the business benefits of (fake) green marketing would seem to trump all, there was yet another agenda: not having to tell wineries how much water, pesticides, etc. is used on vineyards. Their idea was that they could get a countywide pass for all Sonoma growers, if all the growers signed up for the sustainability program.

Karissa Kruse, speaking at the Sonoma Wine Grape Commission's annual
grower seminar
As I wrote in that June 5, 2015 post, Walmart's sustainability programs require that its supply chain providers disclose facts about the use of water, farming practices and more. And since Kendall Jackson, for example, sells to Walmart, KJ asks its growers for that info, too, in order to satisfy Walmart's requirements. Here's a section I wrote from that post:
Kruse said retailers' sustainability programs ask wineries who buy Sonoma growers' grapes, "a lot of questions."
Walmart asks the wineries where are the grapes from?" she said. "How many acres? How much water was used? Why 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 Krause, "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 Aquirre, 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 concerns 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%."
Back to the Present: "Socially Responsible" and "Environmentally Conscientious"

In addition, the press release says the county's winegrowers "take a triple bottom line approach to sustainable practices that measure grape growers' being socially responsible in how they treat their employees...and environmentally conscientious with their farming and winery practices..."

If wineries are serious about social responsibility, why is overtime pay an issue? Should farmworkers not get overtime pay and instead rely on charitable foundations and farmworker benefit programs instead?

I won't go into "environmentally conscientious" here in over much detail (I'll save it for a later post.)

Look at the State Dept. of Pesticide Regulation data on "carcinogens" applied by Sonoma County wine grape growers in 2014.

Is this environmentally conscientious and the neighborly thing to do?


  1. We love all the creative, self-made pioneers that a generation ago made Sonoma into the Silicon Valley of winemaking. But a 360% increase in tasting rooms and numerous corporate takeovers are wrecking the authenticity of a visitor's experience. Plus it's turned these guys into bad neighbors to the rest of us who live here.

    In an era where 'Fake News' seems to have become the norm, the burden is on Kruse and friends (or their successors) to submit to full transparency before we'll buy their claims of "sustainability". Sadly, as this article makes clear, this hasn't happened yet.

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