To choose a good quality, sustainable wine, one of your best options is to get to know your local winemakers. This way, you can ask direct questions about growing practices and winemaking processes, often over a wine tasting, so you can see for yourself the effects of different agricultural methods and conditions.
Barring that, it’s good to look for credible third-party wine certifications and labels. Here are a few of those I suggest favoring. Organic and Biodynamic are a good start but going that bit further can help ensure great-tasting wine for years to come. Oh, and it’s almost always a good idea to stay away from very cheap wine. If a wine is on sale, great, but wine that is always very low price is likely mass produced with little, if any, mind paid to sustainability (or quality).
LIVE is a non-profit organization that certifies winegrowers in the Pacific Northwest. To receive LIVE certification for sustainable wine, vineyards must maintain up-to-date farming records that reflect biodiversity, irrigation, and fertilizer use, while winemakers must provide records showing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, water management, and labor condition at production facilities.
LIVE is an internationally accredited standard with 344 vineyards and 42 wineries currently certified. The certification has been around since 1999 and the organization provides regional education to preserve natural and human resources within the wine industry.
To qualify for LIVE certification, vineyards and wineries must also meet Salmon Safe criteria. This means the vineyard does not use pesticides or other chemicals that may be hazardous to salmon and other aquatic life. Salmon-Safe works with West Coast farmers, developers, and other entities to reduce watershed impacts and there are now 350 vineyards certified Salmon-Safe (and a host of craft brewers too!).
The California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance
The California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance offers education and certification opportunities to winemakers in the state and has seen a 50% increase in the number of certified vineyards in 2019 and a 4.2% increase in the number of certified wineries.
This certification program provides verification by a third-party auditor that a winery or vineyard implements sustainable practices and continuous improvement. The certification is based on a concept of sustainability encompassing winemaking practices that are:
- Sensitive to the environment – Environmentally sound
- Responsive to the needs and interests of society at large – Socially equitable
- Economically feasible to implement and maintain
The CSWA not only offers certification, it helps educate those in the winemaking business. Specifically, the CSWA offers a Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices workbook which includes 15 self-assessment chapters to translate sustainability principles into winegrowing and winemaking practices.
As of March 1st, 2020, there were 2,180 vineyards in California that were Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing (CCSW) and 157 wineries with CCSW. This amounts to 189,463 acres of certified sustainable vineyards, which is 30% of the 637,000 total California acres. For 2017, 2018, and 2019 vintages, 4,025,384 cases of wine were produced by Certified California Sustainable Wineries, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find one you like (though I wouldn’t advise testing all of these wines…).
If you’re buying wine from California and it isn’t CCSW, contact the company to find out why! Unless the company is certified by Lodi Rules.
LODI Rules was created by the Lodi Winegrape Commission, a group of farmers who came together in 1991 with the shared goal of adopting a more sustainable way of farming that ‘meets the needs of today without compromising the ability of future generations to create their own livelihoods.’ These farmers live and work in Lodi, California, (near Sacramento) where nearly a fifth of California grapes are grown.
LODI Rules is a sustainability certification tied to a grassroots education program intended to encourage farmers to reduce pesticide use by adopting an integrated pest management system that thinks in terms of the entire vineyard ecosystem. LODI Rules itself arose in 2005 after more than a decade of input from farmers, viticulturists, and environmentalists and the ‘rules’ are a set of over 120 farming standard practices divided into six categories: ecosystem management, water management, soil management, pest management, business management, and human resources.
LODI Rules is accredited, certified, and audited by an independent third party, Protected Harvest. Vineyards are certified annually, and wineries may use the LODI Rules seal on a label if at least 85% of the grapes are from certified vineyards. Wineries like Bogle and Michael David have helped promote sustainable winegrowing by paying significant bonuses to vineyards providing LODI Rules certified grapes.
There are now more than 1,000 vineyards certified by LODI Rules, including wineries in California and in Israel. Indeed, the organization recently unveiled new seals especially for wineries outside of Lodi, including California Rules and a universal rules seal. All of these seals emphasize environmentally and socially responsible practices, while keeping economic feasibility in mind for long-term business success.
There are LODI Rules wines made from over 50 different grape varieties, and if you need help with a recommendation, you can call the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center at 209-365-0621 or go for a tasting tour!
Napa Green is a sustainability certification program that takes a soil-to-bottle approach to environmental stewardship. This program requires wineries and vineyards to demonstrate continuing excellence and continual improvement for certification renewal.
Napa Green Land is an umbrella program focusing on watershed stewardship and recognizes two regional, third-party vineyard certification programs that assess environmental compliance. The program is open to vineyards and farms that meet criteria for preventing soil erosion, reducing harmful inputs, conserving water, and protecting and restoring habitat.
The Napa Green Winery program offers soil-to-bottle certification to wineries that implement more than 100 sustainability and stewardship standards. These standards encompass such things as energy and water conservation, waste prevention through recycling, composting, and purchasing policies, emissions reductions and carbon footprint, and social equity. Unlike some certification programs, Napa Green Winery certifies the whole facility, from production to administration, to hospitality.
SIP is Sustainability in Practice and is a certification launched in 2008 with 3,700 acres of certified vines. Today, there are 43,600 acres of certified vineyards in California and Michigan, as well as two SIP certified wineries. SIP estimate that they have certified more than 43 million bottles of wine.
To qualify for SIP certification, a vineyard or winery must satisfy criteria in the areas of:
- Social Responsibility
- Water Management
- Safe Pest Management
- Energy Efficiency
- Always Evolving
SIP wines are often organic and/or biodynamic, but SIP certification goes beyond these labels to look at whether farmers are doing such things as minimizing tractor usage, switching to renewable energy sources, providing habitat for raptors as pest control, and minimizing water waste, in addition to ensuring good working conditions and community relations.
EMS ISO 14001 / ISO 14004
You might see wine labels that mention Environmental Management Systems (EMS) ISO 14001, especially for wine from Chile, Australia, and a handful of other countries. EMS focuses primarily on waste reduction and minimizing environmental impact, including ensuring that winemakers have policies and procedures in place to properly handle waste-water so as not to contaminate the local environment.
Sustainable Wine South Africa
If you’re buying wine from South Africa, look for a postage stamp-sized label on the bottle neck bearing the country’s national flower, the protea, and a declaration – “Integrity & Sustainability Certified.” This label also features the website swsa.co.za and some numbers that let you track the wine and find out more about its sustainable origins.
The Sustainable Wine South Africa certification seal was launched in 2010 as a partnership between wine markets, makers, environmental authorities, and ethical trade organizations. The seal certifies that the vintage, grape variety, and the origin of the wine is correct and that the wine was produced sustainably by producers who are audited by the government and assessed for worker conditions, chemical and pesticide use, resource management, and energy efficiency.
A staggering 92% of South African winemakers used the seal in 2018, with the country’s wine industry quick to adopt transparency and sustainable practices. The result is better quality wine and access to a growing market of eco-conscious wine lovers.
Sonoma County Winegrape Commission
To use the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission label on a bottle of wine, the wine must have been made using a minimum of 85% certified sustainable wine grapes from Sonoma County. This is getting easier for winemakers in the region because the group managing the label claims that over 90% of vineyards are certified sustainable.
California Green Medal
Although not a certification, the California Green Medal is a good sign that a winery is doing things right in terms of sustainability. These awards are presented by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, California Association of Winegrape Growers, Wine Institute, Lodi Winegrape Commission, Napa Valley Vintners, Sonoma County Winegrowers and the Vineyard Team.
Four Green Medals are presented annually in the following categories: Leader, Environment, Community, and Business.