Last month's blog post on the Dark Side of Sonoma's Sustainability got a lot of attention - more than 6,000 page views on my site (and counting) - which, for me, was quite unexpected.
The reactions ranged from:
• Satire by Ron Washam (the Hosemaster of Wine) which is now posted on Tim Atkins' site (international audience)
• An email - and an invitation to lunch which I look forward to - from Marimar Torres (who still, in her own winery's sustainability handout, doesn't seem to be able to bring herself to say she has surrendered her organic certification and still erroneously says on her web site that she is biodynamic)
• A blog response from the Sonoma County Winegrowers
All this is good, because now we have a public conversation - and hopefully all kinds of conversations - about some of these big issues.
I also have my own reaction - which was to dig a little deeper into the pesticide use report data about Mancozeb, because it's such a toxic material. A certain grower [previously mentioned in my earlier post] is certainly not the only one using it in Sonoma County.
(Again, to repeat from my earlier article: Pesticide Action Network classifies Mancozeb as a Bad Actor - i.e. seriously bad stuff - and a carcinogen, developmental and reproductive toxin, and a probable endocrine disruptor. It's highly toxic to fish. The National Academy of Sciences urged the EPA to ban it starting in 1987, calling it one of the most potent carcinogens in agriculture. It is legal to use it; however it is prohibited by California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA) after the first year of certification and it is prohibited under Fish Friendly Farming (FFF).
In addition, I wanted to see how effective the two main certification groups used by the Sonoma Certified Sustainable group - FFF and CSWA - were in curtailing the use of Mancozeb.
Both programs say the material is not permitted, but the data shows that growers certified under each program were still using it in 2017-2018.
Some people misinterpreted what I wrote, thinking it was all about bashing sustainability. But, as I wrote in the original post, there are many positives. What I take issue with is the programs' lack of transparency and accountability. And enforcement.
We want to trust that these sustainability programs will do us proud and move growers to more regenerative practices. But can we trust them?
UPPING THE ANTE: REGIONAL WATER BOARD PERMIT STANDARDS NOW TIED TO SUSTAINABILITY CERTIFICATION PROGRAMS
There's a newly added and more serious dimension to these certifications.
As of 2017, regulators are requiring growers to meet the new North Coast water quality permitting requirements. Regulators are leveraging FFF and CSWA programs to help growers meet these requirements. (Read more news coverage here).
So it's not a bad time to ask: how well are these programs being enforced?
And does enforcement last beyond initial certification date? How well are growers being monitored for ongoing compliance?
And who's overseeing these certifiers?
Organic certifiers must face (and pay for) annual certification audits from the federal government's National Organic Program. It's the law. Even seemingly minor infractions - like an employee sharing a document with a co-worker who is not authorized to view it - are grounds for terminating a certifier's entire operation.
The biodynamic certifier Demeter USA, a nonprofit, is reviewed by Demeter International officials.
CSWA says it is overseen by SCS Global Services.
A whole other issue is marketing.
Should program compliance - with water quality and other legal farming requirements - enable vintners to put green labels on their wines?
FFF does require growers to do more than just meet the legal standards (which are extensive), but how much more is a bit fuzzy. I've yet to see a sustainability program that compares and contrasts what's compliance related versus what is additional frosting on the cake - i.e. how what the program requires exceeds the legal requirements. It would be great to see the delta.
In short, do you get a merit badge for doing a little bit more than what the law demands? And just what is that little bit more? (Or is it a lot more?)
Many recent surveys from the wine industry ask respondents if they're willing to pay more for sustainable wines and survey respondents say they are. So are growers and vintners hoping that they'll be getting higher price points for these wines?
ENFORCEMENT: TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES
On the issue of enforcement...we can return to an illustration of the transparency and accountability issues at hand.
In response to my previous article, the Sonoma County Winegrowers wrote a blog post. In it, the author says, "As soon as [a certain grower] learned that Mancozeb was on the Certified Sustainable red list, he stopped using it that day. Something that wouldn't have necessarily been on his radar if he wasn't actively involved in his sustainability program."
That [a certain grower] was using Mancozeb, which was prohibited under his type of vineyard certification (FFF), should have been on the grower's radar from Day One and the grower's use of it should have immediately been on the certifiers' radar.
If a grower had been certified by an organic or biodynamic certifier, he or she would have lost their certification immediately and would not be able to display the certification on any of their products.
I'm very glad that [a certain grower] stopped using Mancozeb (2,154 pounds of it on 1,077 acres during the year from March 3, 2017 through March 3, 2018).
But is that grower going to be expelled from FFF for it?
Are the Sonoma Winegrowers going to stop that winery from labeling its bottles with their green label for the vintages when the grower was using Mancozeb?
COMMUNICATING STANDARDS: HOW DID A CERTAIN GROWER FIND OUT MANCOZEB WAS PROHIBITED?
There's another piece of this story that's troubling as well.
How did [a certain grower] find out that Mancozeb was prohibited under the rules?
It wasn't because someone from the wine industry or a sustainability program was enforcing the program's rules. His neighbor (who's not in the wine industry) told him.
How did his neighbor know? A chance meeting with me.
His neighbor and I connected over a different topic. But then we realized that what I was seeing on this Mancozeb topic was, indeed, very relevant to his neighbor.
I was researching Mancozeb because I found it odd that while the rest of the state's winegrowers had pretty much abandoned it, a certain small group of growers in Sonoma were still regularly using it. And then it came to light - in a later email conversation with his neighbor and me - that this grower lived near my new acquaintance.
I am not connected to the FFF certifier or the Sonoma Certified Sustainablity program. I'm just someone from Oakland with a health communications background who occasionally likes to read the pesticide use reports from time to time (more interesting than People magazine) and ponder a good mystery to research. (And I write about wine professionally some of the time and am concerned about vineyard pesticides and children's health).
Again, this whole post is not about [a certain grower] per se; it's about the promise and perils of running a certification program. And then using those standards to bottle label wines in the hopes of telling consumers that there's something more virtuous about the way these wines were grown. (When certifiers are not rigorously enforcing program standards.)
FROM PERMITS TO LABELS: A COMING GREEN MARKETING AVALANCHE?
The added dimension of growers now flocking in growing numbers to FFF and CSWA in order to meet the newly mandated regional water board permit requirements is playing out on the marketing side of things as well.
FFF and CSWA are the two main avenues for getting a water board permit that growers in the Napa River and Sonoma Creek watersheds will be using. (A third option - RCD's Landsmart program in Napa - requires growers to make their farm plans public documents, which many prefer not to do.)
Vineyards certified by FFF and CSWA in Sonoma are eligible to display Sonoma Sustainable labels on their wine bottles.
Will a growing number of these vintners then turn around and use those certificates to get marketing credit? That suggests there may be an avalanche of FFF and CSWA signs going on up on vineyards - and green stickers on wine labels.
But can we believe in the enforcement side of these programs?
Postscript: I checked the other two certifiers that Sonoma Certified Sustainable growers can use - SIP Certified and Lodi Rules.
SIP Certified has a great database of each grower, the date they were certified sustainable, and a link to a grower profile which discusses their sustainable practices. And it publishes its standards. It has far better pesticide restrictions than CSWA and FFF, but it totally mischaracterizes organic and biodynamic certification attributes in a chart posted on the site. (Click on the question on that page "How is SIP certified different than organic?").
SIP Certified also publishes answers to the question "How is SIP certified different than CSWA?" stating that "SIP Certified is a distinguishing program with a minimum threshold for eligibility - not all growers can qualify. CCSW is an inclusionary program designed to buoy the California wine industry toward more sustainable practices."
The list of Sonoma Certified Sustainable vineyards is called the Honor Roll, so I thought I'd follow suit.
CSWA prohibits the use of this fungicide (after being in the program for one year). Several CSWA-certified vineyards listed here appear to be using it. (It's unclear whether they are using it within their first or subsequent years of certification since CSWA doesn't display date of entry into their program online. CSWA has plans to display more info on its web site starting in 2019).
Typically, growers who use Manzcozeb apply it at roughly 2 pounds per acre.
Total Acres in Sonoma - 2,668
Total Pounds in Sonoma - 4,810
Selected List of Mancozeb (Manzate Pro) Users
Using pesticide use report data from March 3, 2017 through March 3, 2018, here are Sonoma County's biggest users of Mancozeb.
The top five users account for more than 80 percent of the Mancozeb used on vineyards in Sonoma:
1. Dutton Ranch Corporation (FFF)
1,077 acres (2,154 pounds)
These grapes are sold to many wineries. Dutton stopped using it as of 2018.
Wineries that make single vineyard designate wines from Dutton grapes include Chappellet, Francis Ford Coppola, Kistler, Migration by Duckhorn, and Patz and Hall.
Wineries that purchase Dutton grapes include Clos du Bois, Domaine Chandon, Fetzer, Flowers, Gloria Ferrer, Hartford Family, Ledson, Meiomi, Merry Edwards, Ramey, Robert Mondavi, Rodney Strong, Schramsberg, Simi, and Sonoma Cutrer.
That these wineries were making wine from Mancozeb treated grapes was a revelation to me as I suspect it would be to consumers, some of whom think they're drinking "green wine."
2. VinePro (various clients)
607 acres (1,293 pounds) including 157 acres at Leveroni (CSWA) and 52 acres (6 different vineyards) at Merry Edwards (CSWA)
Stopped using it as of 2018.
249 acres (499 pounds) (in Sonoma)
Continued using it in 2018.
(This is the Laird Family's vineyard management company. They are also the largest vineyard owners in Napa County, with about 5% of Napa County's vineyard acreage. Except for one other grower in 2017 [Pride Mountain], Bayview is the only Napa grower using Mancozeb.)
In Napa in 2017, Bayview applied 4,731 pounds of Manzate Pro to 2,365 acres.
4. North Coast Vineyard Management (various clients)
194 acres (421 pounds) including 121 acres at Carraro (CSWA)
Stopped using it as of 2018.
5. A. Rafanelli (CSWA)
121 acres (242 pounds)
Stopped using it as of 2018.
75 acres (150 pounds)
Stopped using it as of 2018.
25 acres (51 pounds)
Stopped using it as of 2018.
Find the complete list of the vineyards using Manzate Pro in Sonoma here.
POST SCRIPT (added Sept. 20):
Most of the list above was compiled in March 2018 before most growers who used it would have applied it (in April). I have now obtained more current data that shows the spring 2018 usage. Here is the list of growers who continued to use Mancozeb in 2018.
None of these appear on the Sonoma Certified Sustainable web site, and that is good news.
But unless you had access to the pesticide use reports, you would not be able to monitor this. The sustainable certification sites don't yet tell use what date a grower was certified.
Would it have been wiser for these programs to launch their labels after they could demonstrate recordkeeping and transparency to the media and to consumers?
AT THE END OF THE DAY...
From the outside, it looks like the sustainability certification systems have a ways to go before they can match the transparency and accountability of the organic and biodynamic systems. Being a certifier is not an easy job. But if you want to use it as a marketing tool, enforcement and trust are the name of the game. It doesn't happen overnight. But will it happen?
POSTSCRIPT (SEPT. 10)
Steve Dutton wrote a letter to Lewis Purdue, who publishes Wine Industry Insight, asking Perdue not to publish any more posts by me.
See Dutton's letter here and my response here.
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: This blog post has been edited Sept. 11, to remove the name of "a certain grower" who complained about being mentioned and thought he was being singled out unfairly. The fact is this story was never really about this particular grower; it's about gaps in the transparency of these new sustainability certification systems.