Sustainable Steps for Washington Wineries

The annual application of compost is one of the sustainable practices that Rocky Pond Estate Winery adopted several years ago. This spring, the company certified its 160 acres of vineyards to the new Sustainable WA standard, which will help Rocky Pond sell grapes to customers who want to know more about where their wines come from, said viticulture manager Shane. Collins. (Kate Prengaman / Good Fruit Grower)

Applying compost to the rows of vines on a steep hill in Washington state overlooking the Columbia River is a delicate and time-consuming job.

Shane Collins
Shane Collins

“It’s the best way to build our soils so they release nutrients slowly,” said Shane Collins, viticulture manager for Rocky Pond Estate Winery, which has vineyards in Chelan and Orondo. Applying compost each year helps the vineyard reduce chemical fertilizers – one of many sustainable practices Rocky Pond has recently certified under Sustainable WA, the new standard developed by the Washington wine industry.

Collins volunteered to test the pilot program this spring to help resolve issues before the certification effort rolls out industry-wide this summer. Rocky Pond already certifies its viticultural practices with LIVE, an Oregon-based sustainability standard, so Collins has experience with audits and how sustainability resonates with customers. But he is eager to embrace the new standard, developed by Washington grape growers, that will promote Washington viticulture.

Located on a rocky slope overlooking the Columbia River, the Double D vineyard at Rocky Pond in Orondo, Wash., uses compost to build the soil for long-term plant health, Collins said.  He applies 4-5 tons per acre each year, reducing the need for fertilizer applications.  (Kate Prengaman / Good Fruit Grower)
Located on a rocky slope overlooking the Columbia River, the Double D vineyard at Rocky Pond in Orondo, Wash., uses compost to build the soil for long-term plant health, Collins said. He applies 4-5 tons per acre each year, reducing the need for fertilizer applications. (Kate Prengaman / Good Fruit Grower)

“I want to be reflective in our practices, and I just feel like it’s the right thing to do,” Collins said. In fact, the certifications – although they come at a price – help the winery benefit from the sustainable agriculture they were already practicing. “For us, we are a winery and we are already seeing the benefit of that. These certifications, basically, have helped us sell more wine in certain markets. »

Now, he hopes more growers will sign up, producing more grapes that can end up in wines with the “certified WA sustainable” label designation to build market awareness and demand that will ultimately deliver increased yields to consumers. producers for practices “many producers are already doing it,” Collins said.

The standard

While existing sustainability certifications in the wine market focus on environmental practices, such as chemical inputs and water use, Washington’s new standard also examines social responsibility and economic viability. This means interviewing employees about salaries and safety training, as well as reviewing spray records and chemical sheds.

Rocky Pond is providing married quarters for some full-time employees and building more to help retain workers, Collins said.  The Sustainable WA auditor visited this accommodation;  the program certifies the business and social practices of farms as well as the viticultural practices that people typically consider when they hear of 'sustainability'.  (Kate Prengaman / Good Fruit Grower)
Rocky Pond is providing married quarters for some full-time employees and building more to help retain workers, Collins said. The Sustainable WA auditor visited this accommodation; the program certifies the business and social practices of farms as well as the viticultural practices that people typically consider when they hear of ‘sustainability’. (Kate Prengaman / Good Fruit Grower)

“They ask: do you have a budget, do you have a business plan, do you have crop insurance? said Sadie Drury, managing director of North Slope Management in Walla Walla. “Sustainable WA looks at sustainability from every angle.”

Drury operates a handful of small wineries, and most vineyards are already LIVE certified, but one, Echolands Winery, has opted for Sustainable WA for its new 26-acre Taggart vineyard, which is set to harvest its first harvest this year.

“After my pilot project experience, I look forward to moving other wineries, who wish, to Sustainable WA,” she said, adding that she also expects many wineries to also remain with LIVE. This program, developed in the Willamette Valley, resonates well with customers there, as she hopes Sustainable WA certification will soon be in Washington.

As a farmer who works for many wineries, Drury said she’s optimistic the certification program will be accommodating – scheduling the same cycle to allow auditing of her employment and viticultural practices, for example, as well as tours focusing on the unique aspects of each vineyard. Drury also sits on the governance board of the new program.

“I really hope we continue to work to make this program meet everyone’s needs,” she said. “We’re at this really cool stage where we’ve come up with a model, but it’s going to keep growing and changing to make sure it’s the right thing for the industry.”

An overview of auditing

While both Drury and Collins had previous certification experience, for Shaw Vineyards this spring’s Sustainable WA audit was a first.

“For anyone nervously watching the process, it wasn’t as daunting as it looked,” said Katrina Cantu, chief financial officer of the Benton City-based company. Shaw has certified approximately 700 acres of its premium vineyards on Red Mountain and Candy Mountain.

“We sell to a lot of wineries that really wanted it,” vineyard manager Marshall Edwards said. “We were doing 99% of those things anyway, but we just weren’t recognized for it.”

The key to a successful audit, Cantu and Edwards agreed, was to document everything they did. For a company the size of Shaw, this was already a must.

“If we don’t keep those records, it can be a nightmare,” Cantu said. “But we want to be better, and it’s a good exercise to push ourselves through that evaluation process.”

Auditor Canaan Rice, who works for Ohio-based certification group EAGLE, said he was sending producers a due diligence plan containing all the key documents he would require, to help them prepare. .

“It’s rare for someone to conform to absolutely everything, incredibly rare,” he said. “Certification standards are about continuous improvement. »

Rice said he tries to put people at ease and remind them that if they don’t comply with something, they have a month to fix it.

For example, the standard requires producers to have accident prevention and emergency response plans. Producers may not have a written policy before the audit, but when Rice asks, they can tell her about the local hospital, insurance, first aid equipment and safety trainings.

“So I say, ‘Tell me what you would do. Now you have 28 days to write it all down,” Rice said. “If it’s in someone’s head and they retire, they take all the information with them.”

He also interviews workers on all aspects of the operation to confirm what managers tell him about wages, training and PPE. This focus on worker health and safety “makes me excited to audit to this standard,” Rice said.

Next steps

Applications are now open to growers who want to be part of the program, said Katlyn Slone of the Washington Winegrowers Association, which oversees the audits. Further audits will be scheduled for July, October and November, she said, with additional slots planned for next year as the program builds capacity.

If the packed house for a session presenting the program at the association’s conference in February is any indication, producers are very interested. During this session, another early adopter, Patrick Rawn of Two Mountain Winery in Zillah, said the program’s growth will send a powerful message about Washington wine to the entire industry.

Rawn called it a powerful tool for improvement. “Once I understood that certifications are a tool to improve our operations on a multitude of fronts, I got really excited,” he said.

The first certified grapes will be harvested this fall. Then, wines made with 75% or more certified sustainable grapes can carry the label on the bottle – no winery certification is necessary.

When Collins told the wineries that buy his grapes about the new certification – and the accompanying price increase, and all the other cost increases that wineries face – “everyone agreed “, did he declare.

“For smaller wineries in Puget Sound, this is a big talking point for them,” he said. A few wineries have even sent their employees on a vineyard tour to learn more about Rocky Pond’s sustainability efforts, so they can talk about it in their tasting rooms. “It’s a good way to promote Washington. And we’re all in on it because we know Washington wine is special. •

—by Kate Prengaman

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