Friday, August 17, 2018

Revised: The Dark Side of Sonoma's Sustainability Movement: No to Organics, Deep Deception, and When Is a Standard a Standard?

Last year the number of acres of organic vineyards in Sonoma County declined 11 percent.

The decline in certified acreage in Sonoma coincides with the advent of the Sonoma County Winegrowers' move to adopt sustainability practices, sometimes at the expense of organic practices.

While the move to employ sustainable practices is well intentioned and a positive, there are negatives that tend to downgrade the program's reputation, according to local observers:

• Eliminating programs that support organic viticulture
• Deceptively portraying one grower as organic (when it is not) and overstating accomplishments in its marketing campaigns for "Sonoma Certified Sustainable"
• Failing to tell consumers which type of sustainability certification a vintner or grower has used (i.e. CSWA, Fish Friendly Farming, SIP, or Lodi Rules, all of which have widely varying requirements); passing any of those four qualifies for "Sonoma Certified Sustainable" so there is actually not one standard but any one of four for vineyards

1. Eliminating Organic Grower Meetups

Under the leadership of Karissa Kruse, the group moved to end organic meetup groups, where growers could learn about organic viticulture on vineyard visits to various Sonoma organic vineyards.

2. Deception

The county's winegrowers are promoting what some would see as deceptive storytelling in the group's latest Sustainability report's feature on Marimar Torres' "organic practices." That winery began using synthetic herbicides and fungicides in 2013.

3. Toxic Agrochemicals Can Be Used by "Sonoma Certified Sustainable" Vineyards

The Sonoma Sustainability group does not call upon growers and vintners to use one set of standards in order to be listed as "certified sustainable." It says that winegrowers can use any of four different programs - CSWA, Fish Friendly Farming, Lodi Rules or SIP, but it doesn't post which program each "certified vineyard" has been certified by, thereby making it impossible to understand what chemicals, if any, are prohibited.

Steve Dutton, a prominent grower who is the president of the Sonoma Farm Bureau (and whose brother Jim heads up the Sonoma Winegrowers), uses vineyard chemicals that are prohibited by the CSWA standard in the family's vineyards - Mancozeb -, but since it turns out that only the Dutton winery - not its vineyards - is certified, the CSWA vineyard standard doesn't apply. Could that be confusing to consumers?

Furthermore, the winery says it's going to be labeling its wines as certified "Sonoma Certified Sustainable," but what does that mean? How can consumers know what's in the bottle?

Organic Grower Meetups: No More

I remember attending one of these at Preston Farm & Winery, back in the day, and a lot of of good information was provided and great questions were asked and answered. There were shared lunches, and a lot of learning took place in a comfortable environment.

Today Sonoma has fewer than 2 percent organic vines, compared to Napa with 7.3% certified organic vines.

Napa's Growers proudly sponsor the country's only organic winegrowing conference, which takes place every other year.

The Sonoma organization ditched the organic meetups; now all meetings focus on sustainability.

Does this mean that Sonoma is deliberately squelching organics? No. Does it show leadership and support for organics? No.

Sonoma's Sustainability Greenwashing: How Misleading Can It Get?
The Marimar Torres Story: Sowing the Seeds of Organic Confusion

Sonoma's latest sustainability champion, Marimar Torres, is featured in the 2017 Sonoma Wine Growers's Sustainability Report (italics mine):
"For more than a decade, the vineyards at Marimar Estate have been farmed with organic practices—with the idea of improved, more balanced ecological health. In January, the estate took what Vineyard Manager Tony Britton considers to be a more encompassing step that builds upon its organic background—they became certified sustainable.
It was a natural step, he says, for an organic, family-owned vineyard in Green Valley to become certified sustainable. In their 70 acres of vines,* Britton uses cover crops to attract beneficial insects and nourish the soil, as well as composting and relying on solar energy. In addition, he has refrained from spraying pesticides since 1996. 
In reading this, would you think that Marimar Torres is either certified or "practicing" organic today?

It is neither.

In his comment about pesticides, Britton is apparently saying he doesn't use insecticides, which may be true. But he does use herbicides and fungicides (that are not organic). Cover crops and composting are part of sustainable as well as organic farming. More than half the wineries in the state use cover crops.

Though Marimar Torres was formerly certified organic on its Green Valley vineyard in 2003 and later its Freestone vineyard, the winery gave up on organic practices and started farming with chemicals that are prohibited under organic certification on its Freestone vineyard in 2013 and on its Green Valley property surrounding the winery in 2016.

The winery has surrendered all of its organic certifications - and it has stopped being organic in its practices.

Here is the list from the company's 2017-2018 Pesticide Use Report of chemicals it sprayed on the 60 acres (*not 70) at Marimar Torres two estate properties:

• Roundup (glyphosate - which is a carcinogen)
• Elevate Fungicide (Fenhexamid)
• Flint Fungicide (Strobilurin)
• Inspire Fungicide (Difenocozole)
• Mettle Fungicide (Tetraconazole)
• Viticure Fungicide (Triflumizole)

None of these is permitted under organic certification.

Furthermore, the story goes on to say that heritage and the next generation is important to Torres. “The legacy of passing it down generations is in the family,” Britton says. “Sustainability speaks to that.”

So why would using genotoxic substances (like Roundup) be a good thing to use? Genotoxic substances affect one's DNA.

In short, this is not a story about sustainability certification complementing an organic vineyard. It is a story about a winery that was formerly organic deciding to use the more toxic agrochemicals and THEN switching to the lower standard on agrochemicals - sustainability.

I fully support sustainability's efforts to reduce inputs and make growers and wineries more efficient but painting a portrait like the one here is misleading and deceptive.

Marimar Torres stopped being organic. Then the winery decided to be sustainable.

In defense of Marimar Torres, on its web site, the winery does not say it is still organic, as the Sonoma Sustainable folks did in their flyer. (Federal law prohibits producers who are not organic from using the word "organic.")

However the winery does provide this handout, which say the winery converted to sustainable certification in 2016, and also mentions it was certified organic in 2003 and 2006. But the handout does not say the winery ended its organic practices and certification in 2013 and 2016.

On the winery's web site, it says it's sustainable, but doesn't say which certification program the winery uses.

The web site also says that it practices biodynamics, but, in using the chemicals listed, it couldn't be. (In addition, use of that term is permitted only with permission of Demeter USA, which
has trademarked the term and restricts it to certified entities).

Elsewhere Marimar has been quoted as saying consumers don't know the difference between organic and biodynamic, but, surely, as a professional, she does.

What's in the Bottle?
Sonoma Farm Bureau President Steve Dutton: Using Mancozeb While "Sonoma Certified Sustainable"

Sonoma Certified Sustainable? Consumers must read the fine print very carefully.

Joe and Steve Dutton were awarded the Sonoma County Harvest Fair's top sustainability award in 2017.

Dutton Estate Winery's sustainability page declares that the winery is "an active participant in the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA) and has been certified since 2016." Dutton displays certified sustainable signs on his property.

Under the CSWA's guidelines, CSWA certified vineyards may not use a list of prohibited chemicals on what it calls the red list.

Mancozeb is one of the red list chemicals.

Here is what the CSWA says: "Vineyards that are Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing (CERTIFIED SUSTAINABLE) may not use Red List materials by their second year of certification."

Dutton's vineyards appear on the Sonoma Sustainability list of certified vineyards.

According to Steve Dutton's Pesticide Use Report, submitted to the county ag commissioner and the state of California, Dutton has been applying Mancozeb and continued to use it in 2017 and in 2018.

Pesticide Action Network classifies Mancozeb as a Bad Actor and categorized it as a carcinogen, a developmental and reproductive toxin and a probable endocrine disruptor. The fungicide is also highly toxic to fish.

The National Academy of Sciences in 1987 urged the EPA to ban Mancozeb, calling it one of the most potent carcinogens in agriculture.

Mancozeb is an old school fungicide that has been widely phased out in vineyards.
In 2016 in Sonoma, wine growers applied 881 pounds over 313 acres.
Map source: Agricultural Pesticide Use Map, California State Dept. of Health, Environmental Health Tracking
But, come to find out, Dutton's vineyards are not CSWA certified. Only his winery is. So the Mancozeb prohibition doesn't apply to Dutton.

Sonoma Certified Sustainable has a mix and match system of sustainability certifications.

The Sonoma list of "Certified Vineyards" includes wineries that have received "third party certification from California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA), Fish Friendly Farming, Lodi Rules or Sustainable in Practice (SIP)." But the Sonoma list doesn't say which type of certification each vineyard received.

Dutton Estate Winery announced that it will be labeling its wines with the Certified Sustainable Sonoma logo beginning with the 2017 vintage. (This is not the CSWA logo, but the Sonoma program logo.)

It turns out that the Dutton vineyard certification is for Fish Friendly Farming (FFF).

Is Mancozeb prohibited or permitted under FFF guidelines? Laurel Marcus who heads up the FFF program says growers should use alternatives to Mancozeb. "Since it has a high toxicity to aquatic life, we would require they look for a different, less toxic product," she said.

Here's what the Sonoma Certified Sustainable website says of its SCS program:
Sonoma County grape farmers are dependent on a healthy environment to grow the best grapes...consumers...can buy with confidence knowing it (the wine) was produced in an environmentally friendly way by passionate stewards of the land."
Yet, if you, as a consumer (or even a wine professional), try to understand these standards, you might be pretty darn confused. Or if you consider Mancozeb or chlorpyrifos to be dangerous, you might not put them in the "environmentally friendly" category. The EPA initially moved to ban Mancozeb and had plans underway to ban chlorpyrifos until Trump was elected. (But last week a court ordered the EPA to ban chlorpyrifos within 60 days).

Is that what the Sonoma Certified Sustainability movement wants consumers to know about its standards?

If Sonoma winegrowers and marketers think people will respect the Sonoma Certified Sustainable green bottle label and possibly be willing to pay $1 a bottle more for it, that might backfire when consumers find out Mancozeb is being used.

Post Script (Sept. 3, 2018)

The main issue across the board is not whether a winery chooses to certify as sustainable or organic, but about transparency and accountability. Can the wine industry be trusted to be honest about the materials it uses in each certification type?

The standards and enforcement of the National Organic Program (organic certification) and Demeter USA (biodynamic certification) program are both very clear and transparent. These are both legal standards, protected by federal law (for organic) and trademark law (for Biodynamic).

Should the sustainability programs, which are overseen by and enforced by nonprofits or the wine industry, be held to the same high standards of transparency and accountability? And how will consumers know that they are?

Related articles

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

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

Sonoma Gets Its (Toxics) Closeup: What's on Those Vines? A Look at Carcinogens, Neurotoxins and More

Note: A previous version of this post erroneously stated that Dutton's vineyards were CSWA certified and therefore not in compliance with the CSWA vineyard standard. This post was revised and corrected Aug. 21 to reflect the fact that Dutton is only a certified CSWA winery and not a CSWA certified vineyard. 

The Next Chapter - Part 2

I've written a followup blog post about reaction to this story - along with a list of more Mancozeb users. Find it here.


  1. Copperfield's in Petaluma is having the authors of "What is making our Children Sick" August 24th, 7pm. DOCTORS MICHELLE PERRO & VINCANNE ADAMS.
    Pam, the article you did "What's on those Vines" is one of the best articles I have ever read on this subject. You are amazing!! Thank you so much.

  2. Pam Strayer is reporting the on the ground reality of green washing in with California wine grape industry. Bravo to this fine reporter for the research and science based reporting.

  3. It's not complicated. It costs more to farm a vineyard organically than consumers are willing to pay a premium for. Until that dynamic changes, this will be a cut and paste with new names and numbers. Additionally, the organic certification and renewal process has changed for the worse over time for some reason...

    1. Thanks for your comments. However, we do have a lot of organic and BD wineries that are succeeding quite nicely.

      So the economic argument might, might, might hold water for growers, but apparently not for wineries. It all depends on the site and the pressures and your skill in the use of the org/BD toolkit. And whether or not you do the farming or outsource it to a vineyard management company.

      The organic sector is small but it is growing much faster than the rest of the wine industry - 5% by revenue and 10% in volume, compared to the rest of the industry which is pretty much flat, according to an interview I did last week with an analyst at Breakthru (which will be in an upcoming article I wrote for Beverage Media, coming out in Oct. or Nov.). That is the Nielsen data. Some organic brands are seeing 20% annual growth.

  4. Thank you for writing this- and for taking the time to look up the Pesticide Use reports. It is important information and You make some really great points. Although we got the "Sustainable certificate" the first year they offered it, we have maintained our Organic standards for our wine program (please feel free to look up our use reports). I think "Sustainable" just confuses the consumer -but have been hesitant to speak out about it- because I I really think it is a move in the correct direction as a whole, making old-school farmers think about their chemical choices more. I suspect the move away from organic that you mention has less to do with this "sustainable certification" and more to do with their own individual vineyard economics. Most Farmers that step back from using Organics do so because of Mildew (loss) and weed control and the increased expenses that really do exist with farming winegrapes organically. Thank you.

    1. I respect everyone's need to make their business profitable. However, there are so many examples of wineries with certified organic vineyards that do thrive economically that it's hard to see why the pool shouldn't be getting larger rather than smaller. That is what is happening in France and Italy and Spain - more organic - and not in Sonoma (less organic). Right now foreign producers are benefitting by being able to take a huge percentage of the market share of org/BD because U.S. producers aren't producing much. It seems to pencil out for those in Sonoma: Ridge, Preston, Lasseter Family, Benziger, Canihan, Hamel, Medlock Ames, Martorana, Skipstone, Horse and Plow - even the very first certified organic vineyard in the U.S. was Wild Hog, in Sonoma.

    2. I agree with you! There are lots of vineyards that are very profitable and farm organically.

  5. Well firstly Roundup has not been proven to be carcinogenic, it is opinion not yet fact. Secondly with land values what they are in Napa and Sonoma, a grower cannot afford to loose a crop. Growers try their best to farm with organic intentions and sustainable practices but with the cost of production so high along with land values, a grower must produce their crop or face bankruptcy. I think it is easy for people to throw stones when there money or livelihood is not at risk. And quite frankly there are no really excellent organic herbicides yet.

    1. Do you run a vineyard? It does not cost significantly more to farm organically. Sulfur is organic (for mildew) and it is probably the cheapest thing that can be sprayed. The major problem is weed control. If people used hoe plows and disks and stopped over irrigating then weeds wouldn't be an issue. An organic vineyard can be run without higher costs than conventional vineyards.

    2. Organic growing costs vary by producer. Both Grgich Hills in Napa and Montinore Estate in Willamette Valley say their farming costs are significantly (about 20%) less than their conventional counterparts in each region, but it all depends on the site, your knowledge of the toolkit and your business (grower or vintner). Bonterra is buying organic grapes from Sonoma, so there is at least one major buyer. I'm not throwing stones at the sustainability movement; it's doing a lot of good. I do think the program should be held accountable to enforcing its own standards and not making misleading statements. The Sonoma growers should also be continuing to support organics, not eliminating meetups that help share knowledge about those who would like to grow without using the more toxic agrochemicals. If this is about choice, then surely the organic options should be continued to be supported by the county's growers. Many of the best wineries in Sonoma have organically certified vineyards - including Preston, Front Porch Farm, Ridge, Kamen, DeLoach, Benziger, Lasseter Family, Laurel Glen, Porter Creek, Porter Bass and many more.

    3. One more note: glyphosate has been found to be carcinogenic by the world's leading cancer risk assessment agency: IARC (part of WHO). Much of the scientific evidence about their assessment is available in the published transcripts from Dewayne Johnson's Monsanto suit, in which the jury told Monsanto to pay $250 million in punitive damages for being a cause of Johnson's cancer. YOu can find the transcripts here:

      We do not know enough about dose and response re Roundup. But the latest science from Robin Mesnage at University College in London suggests that extremely low levels - such as are found in tap water - are now linked to fatty liver disease (newly an epidemic in young people). NHL risks go up about 2x based on even 2 days of exposure.

  6. Thanks for reporting on this. I am suspicious of the certified sustainable movement. I have watched as some vineyards who have adopted the practice seem to have improved their farming practices, but every wine buyer / consumer whom I have spoken to (several), who has stated they are aware of the program, was not aware that it allowed for the use of herbicide. The program muddies the waters (literally and figuratively)

  7. Hmmm, we became CCOF certified in April, 2017, so plus 52 acres last year to Sonoma county.

  8. Thank you for this vital research! How can one obtain 2017-2018 pesticide use reports for specific vineyards? I am not having much luck at CALPIP.

    1. The aggregated county stats are tabulated by the California State Dept. of Pesticide Regulation. Here's a link to the most recent stats they have for 2016

      The local pesticide use reports which show individual producer data are available at the county level. Contact the ag commissioner and then you will be asked to fill out a very simple request form and they will email you the data in an Excel spreadsheet.

  9. The whole greenwashing of this toxic industry is being exposed in "Children of the Vine" by award winning documentary film director Brian Lilia. Here is the story: A global nightmare is unfolding as farmers and scientists stand at a crossroads questioning the impacts of pesticides and herbicides on human health. At the center of this controversy is glyphosate, the primary active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, the most widely used herbicide in the world. Glyphosate was recently identified as a possible cancer causing agent and is now found in breast milk, baby food, wine and 80% of food grown in the United States.

    Why is glyphosate filtering into so many facets of our daily lives? And why are countries banning glyphosate while the United States uses more of it than any other country in the world? Children Of The Vine will peel back the curtain on the flawed regulatory practices that are causing more harm than good to public health while also revealing the scary science behind toxic farming practices. In the end, this solution driven documentary will highlight more sustainable large scale farming practices capable of feeding the world.

  10. We farm using Biodynamic Principals in Washington State. We've been certified since 2011. Our costs have gone up a bit, but not significantly. Mostly this was due to a learning curve from our transition phase into BD farming. We embrace the vintage variation that one gets from such a farming practice. (Thats why we have vintage dates on a bottle of wine.) Sustainable means nothing. In fact, Sustainable, within the context of grape farming, is nothing more than a generic term used to describe, in a positive light, post industrial chemical farming. Its a convenient way to mask 'hard' farming for those who seek perfection (plastic surgery comes to mind) vs. letting nature have a heavier hand in the vineyard progression. At the core to this very interesting piece, is the seeking of authenticity. Sustainability is nothing more than the ability to sustain mediocrity. Organic is a tool for healthy farming. Biodynamic combined with Organic is the way to discovering true character in vineyard practices. It is the best possible way to understanding terroir, vintage variation, grape/geographical tipicité, and preserving the nuances of natural fermentations. Wine is about inconsistency.

    1. Happy to hear! Keep up the good work.

  11. "Sustainble" reminds me of the greenwashing in grocery stores of "Non-GMO" that people think is safe and assume no chemicals were used in the growing of the crop. It is often times labeled Non-GMO because that particular food product does not use any soy, corn, sugar beets, alfalfa, squash, apples, potatoes, tomatoes and the various other crops that are grown with GMO seed...not because it is healthier for you and the planet, which "organic" food is.

  12. Great report. Hope it will be posted in a format that can be easily shared.