Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing: The Road to Certification

The Challenge to be Sustainable

LISW logo“Green”  is a global movement to promote sustainable practices in all walks of life, from recycling waste to reducing one’s dependence on materials that cannot be reused, as well as improving automobile fuel economy, minimizing energy consumption (reducing one’s ‘carbon footprint’), and promoting safer, cleaner means of producing energy, primarily by the use of renewable sources such as wind and solar power.  It also means promoting and using sustainable practices in agriculture, whether in the raising of farm animals and produce, or in viticulture (the growing of table and wine grapes)—itself a type of agriculture.  Green—a synonym for “sustainable”—is now a mantra for the ecologically-aware and sensitive consumer and it demands to be taken seriously by those who produce food, wine, and care for the land on which it is raised.

A big push towards sustainable practices in viticulture in New York State recently has been made by Walmart, which joined the Sustainability Consortium in 2009, and wants to sell grape juice with an “ecolabel” displayed on the containers, showing that it has been sustainably produced. Given that Walmart is the world’s largest retailer, its demand has forced winegrowers throughout the state, whether producing juice grapes or wine grapes, to respond to it.  What follows is about the response to the challenge on the part of Long Island winegrowers.

In a presentation by Barbara Shinn, of Shinn Estate Vineyards, and Richard Olsen-Harbich, of Bedell Cellars, given at the 31st Annual Long Island Agricultural Forum, held on January 13, 2012, attended by most of the vineyard managers in the region—all were invited to attend—an outline of the process by which vineyards could become certified for practicing sustainable viticulture gave clear form to what is involved in achieving that goal, with the objective of minimizing environmental impact and as a means of responding to the needs of the community at large.

The VineBalance Program

What follows is a précis of the presentation along with relevant commentary by the participants who together form the Core Group in the certification project:  Barbara Shinn, Richard Olsen-Harbich (the presenters), Jim Thompson of Martha Clara Vineyards, and Larry Perrine of Channing Daughters.  In addition, Alice Wise, who is the Viticulturalist and Education Specialist for the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, at the Long Island Horticultural Research & Extension Center in Riverhead, provided some background for this article on the initial sustainable viticulture program for New York State, VineBalance:

“In 1992, I received a grant to create a Long Island sustainable viticulture program. Working with a group of growers, we created a set of vineyard management guidelines that emphasized good stewardship practices. Established programs such as Oregon LIVE, Lodi Rules, and AEM (Agricultural Environmental Management) were very helpful to us. A number of individuals associated with those programs provided guidance as well. Our efforts drew attention from both upstate wine growers and the upstate Concord industry. Starting in 2006, a group from Cornell and from the industry received a series of grants to create statewide guidelines, now called VineBalance.

“Growers participated in the process of creating the guidelines so additional review has not been necessary. That said, VineBalance was written to be inclusive of all grape industries in NY. There are certain things in it that do not apply to Long Island. Also, vineyard management is not a static thing, it evolves each season as we learn how to best manage our vineyards. Consequently, Long Island growers decided to further refine VineBalance to more closely reflect the current management of Long Island vineyards.

“VineBalance will continue to serve as the framework for any sustainable viticulture programs in NY. The creation of additional, region-specific guidelines is great, it shows that growers are analyzing their practices and are genuinely interested in the process. All regions should do this.”

Why Certification?

However, while VineBalance provides a pathway to self-certification, that does not carry the same weight as certification by a recognized third-party certification authority, and is therefore not really meaningful in the marketplace or wine industry.  Certification by an outside authority has many advantages, such as:

  • Validation of a claim of sustainable farming practices
  • Promotion of on-farm accountability
  • Provision of a pro-active response to local needs and concerns
  • Acting as another tool with which to respond to global competition
  • Improving the strength and viability of the Long Island wine brand

The concept of sustainability as laid out in virtually every certification program in the U.S. boils down to three concerns[1]:

  1. Environmental soundness
  2. Economic viability
  3. Worker & Community care

Certification Program Models

There are, already, a number of third-party certification authorities with national or global recognition, based on the strength of their guidelines and regulation, such as:

  • Certified California Sustainable Wine (CCSW)
  • Lodi Rules
  • Napa Green—Napa Valley Vineyards (NVV)
  • Oregon Certified Sustainable Wine (OCSW)
  • Oregon LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology)
  • Sustainability in Practice (SIP)

Serra presentation to LI Winegrowers

Each of these, as well as the internationally-recognized authority, Sustainable Wine New Zealand (SWNZ), is directed at specific ecological systems, which is why Long Island needs its own authority, but these at least provide models for the project to be known as Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers (LISW).  In December of 2011, Chris Serra, of Oregon’s LIVE certification program, was invited to give a presentation to the East End vineyard managers.  The expenses for his trip were paid for by Martha Clara, Bedell, Shinn Estate, and Channing Daughters, the four vineyards whose managers form the Core Group.[2]

Whatever certification authority Long Island wine growers create must have credibility and address not only agricultural standards of sustainability but must also deal with ethical issues; for example, a certifier representative must not be involved with the vineyards being visited in the capacity of consultant or have any other ties to them.

How Certification Works

Certification is a seasonal program that would involve:

  • Use of the VineBalance Workbook (the full title is The New York Guide to Sustainable Viticulture Practices Grower Self-assessment Workbook)
  • Core Criteria based on the Workbook
  • Winegrower’s Pledge that is signed in the spring prior to the growing season.

One of the challenges regarding sustainability and certification is the issue of participation.  The larger the body of participants, the more viable and reputable the certifying authority will be.  Jim Thompson, a thoughtful Midwesterner with long experience in agriculture, says that “sustainability [in Long Island] is achievable.”  Furthermore, a Sustainable Certification will help the local industry survive by giving it stronger bona fides.  Thus, he believes that certification should be made accessible to all vineyard managers.  However, as Olsen-Harbich pointed out, “One of the issues that the certification project needs to address is that of offering ‘inclusivity’ versus ‘teeth.’  In other words, the lower the bar for certification, the more people will join, but once standards for certification have real ‘teeth’ and make real demands on those who want certification, the likelihood is that fewer will seek it.”[3]

Participation in a third-party certification program means that:

  • Members get a visit from a certifier representative in the first and second years of the track to certification and every third year thereafter.
  • A visit means a walk through the vineyard and a view of the records kept by the vineyard
  • A review of practices in the VineBalance Workbook
  • A review of vineyard inputs (i.e., chemicals used to control disease and fertilizers applied to the fields)
  • The report by the representative is then sent to the Core Group of the certification authority

For example, Shinn Estate is currently seeking to be certified by both Demeter (the Biodynamic® Certification body) as well as the National Organic Program (N.O.P.), each of which applies standards for general agriculture, but not specifically viticulture.  As is the case with all certification agencies, the record keeping is fully standardized though the standards are not particular to viticulture.  For Shinn, there is one visit per year every year, which comes at the end of the season, often right after harvest.  It involves a two-to-three hour visit consisting of a walk through the vineyard followed by a sit-down session in which the vineyard records are reviewed.  The advantage of a late-season visit is that it allows the certifier to see the condition of the vineyard after a full season’s farming, such as the ground cover, and allows for a full review of the entire season’s inputs.  For Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers, after the first two years, there is one visit every three years.  “It isn’t very demanding,” says Shinn, “provided you’ve kept good records.”

Scouting the Vineyard

Let us consider one aspect—a very important one—of a vineyard manager’s responsibilities, for it bears directly on the issue of sustainable practices.  It begins with the concept of Integrated Pest Management (IPM).  An authoritative viticultural specialist and qualified soil scientist, Larry Perrine explains:  “IPM originally and primarily has to do with the control of insects.  It requires knowledge of the life-cycle of each of the insect pests, thus to know when they are most vulnerable to pest-control applications.  Insect infestations don’t behave like fungal ones—fungal control requires foliar application before an infestation develops, whereas insect pests can be tolerated up to a certain level of insect damage.  Therefore, scouting in the vineyard is necessary to determine when or if the insects are reaching the point at which insecticide application is necessary.  Scouting means that the vineyard manager needs to check a block of vines and calculate the density of pests present on, say, 50 leaves.  For example, Grape Berry Moths overwinter in trees that may border a vineyard.  Vineyard rows bordering those trees are most vulnerable to GBM attack.  They can best be controlled by strategic use of insecticides, after scouting—for minimum environmental impact.  The use of pheromone lures on twist ties, which confuse the moths during their mating season, can be helpful.”

Shinn Estate, 08Barbara Shinn, who has long been deeply committed to certification, elaborates, “I might go out to a particular block of vines and check the vine leaves for the presence of mites.  If, say, I find that out of forty rows of vines, ten of the middle rows of vines have significant mite populations whereas the rest only had one or two mites, then I would have to consider applying the appropriate insecticide for the mites in the infected rows only—the more specific the target that the insecticide is designed for the better, as there is less collateral damage.  Of course, each grower has to set his or her own limits—there is no set number.  All growers have a list of acceptable inputs for sustainable, or organic, or Biodynamic practices.  One selects from the list starting with the inputs with the lowest impact to the environment to those with the highest.”

What Certification Means

There are real potential benefits that come with sustainability and certification, and Long Island’s third-party certification will be carefully watched by wineries elsewhere in the Eastern United States, including Virginia, South Carolina, and New Jersey.  What LISW does will certainly influence them in the development of certification authorities for their regions.

The Web site for LISW will include:

  • The VineBalance Workbook
  • Downloadable forms
  • Weather Data
  • A list of participants in the Certification Program

Olsen-Harbich, an articulate, acknowledged expert in both the vineyard and the winery, pointed out that, “Sustainability is a pathway which is ongoing and is not an ideology.  It must be, and is, based on peer-reviewed science.  It is the most viable form of safe agriculture.”  Nevertheless, vineyard managers and all other farmers, whether sustainably farming or not, often use three products that are not naturally-made:

  • Stylet oil, a highly-effective, biologically-degradable foliar input used to control fungal diseases such as Downy mildew, but which is itself a highly-refined petroleum product
  • Sulfur, while a natural element, is another highly-effective foliar input used to control diseases and is usually a by-product of petroleum refining
  • Copper sulfate is also a widely-used industrial product that is used in agriculture primarily as a fungicide.

In addition, he points out, “Chemical companies have their ears open to what is going on in agriculture, and as a major player in the production of agricultural inputs (herbicides, fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, etc.), they are always ready to come up with new products.  These, in turn, often push the boundaries between natural/sustainable/synthetic inputs.  They need to be considered, but with great care, when addressing the issue of sustainability.”  Perrine cautions that, “There is no such thing as a ‘natural’ pesticide.  Both traditional materials such as copper or sulfur, as well as the most recently developed hydrocarbon-based pesticides need to be considered for environmental impact, therefore sustainability.”

Olsen-Harbich goes on to say, “There is also the matter of synthetic nitrogen vs. compost nitrogen—which is the preferred product to use in a sustainable program?  Fish products, which are natural, are often used in the form of compost and fertilization material, but the very practice of commercial fishing is itself not sustainable.”  To which Perrine adds, “Synthetic nitrogen accounts for more than 50% of the nitrogen used to grow plants around the world.  To maintain a food production to feed the world, requires more than the organic sources of nitrogen that are available.  The 100,000,000 tons of synthetic nitrogen produced around the world consumes only 1.5% of the world’s annual fossil fuel consumption.  Indeed fish fertilizer is not sustainable, while synthetic N is

Weighing in on the nitrogen issue, Barbara Shinn has this to say:

“Here is where even amongst a group of ecologically-based farmers opinion differs. I prefer to take a byproduct from the fishing industry and make it useful by regenerating my soil with it – along with seaweed, whey (from the cheese making industry) and compost (made on-farm with our winemaking musts, bedding from the local horse-boarding industry and wood chips from the local tree trimming industry). The reuse and recycling of materials helps close a cycle that otherwise could be viewed as unhealthy for our planet and does not originate from a fossil fuel. I prefer to use materials on my soil that are connected to an originally living material. This type of soil work has been proven in peer reviewed papers to produce more minerally complexed food, and of course wine is an agricultural product so wine is food. In my opinion synthetic nitrogen dumbs down the soil, skipping over the all-important step of feeding the microbial life and in essence ignoring the natural lifecycle of our soil. In this respect, synthetic nitrogen is not sustainable. This difference in opinion is what makes our LISW group dynamic and, in the end, a viable springboard for fascinating discussions.”

Furthermore, “As ecologically practicing farmers it is important to retain our brotherhood. Whether we practice Sustainable, Organic, Permaculturalist, Biodynamic, or any other restorative-based farming, our  root issues are the same. As a whole group banded together our concerns for the future of this planet have a huge voice, much louder than if we were separated by difference of opinions.”[4]

For the LISW, there are potential partnerships with environmental entities such as:

  • The CCE (Citizen’s Campaign for the Environment), which is committed to encouraging citizens’ involvement in promoting strong environmental policy at the state and local levels
  • Sustainable Long Island, which promotes community revitalization
  • Peconic Land Trust, “which is dedicated to conserving Long Island’s working farms and natural lands.”

According to the CCE, “Long Island has been designated as a sole-source aquifer region by the U.S. EPA. This means that 100% of our drinking water supply comes from underground. The almost 3 million residents on our island are completely dependent on groundwater as our fresh water supply. The Lloyd aquifer is the deepest and cleanest source of drinking water on Long Island.”  Larry Perrine says, quite bluntly, that with respect to agriculture, “there is, of course, the question of where the line gets drawn, especially with respect to a community’s sole-source water supply—as is the case in Long Island—the protection of which is of pre-eminent concern.”

Further to that, Perrine pointed out, “The Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing program will include on its Web site materials to help the public better understand what sustainable farming is and how it helps protect the community and its drinking water.  The reason this must be done is that too many people come to conclusions based on the easiest and most available informational sources, which often are not reliable, fact-checked, or accurate, but often sensationalize the news.  Such sources include TV, the Web, and newspapers.  We wish to provide science-based and factual information that can be readily understood by the concerned public.”

Sustainability and the Community

To the question of how a vineyard relates to its community, Barbara Shinn, made the following points:

  1. “Farming practices, as mentioned above, such that they should not have a negative effect on the community at large; choice of sustainable inputs is an important part of this.
  2. “Land conservation, which means how the vineyard property seeks to maintain and protect animal and plant species and their variety that naturally appear and exist on the property, apart from pests that need to be controlled
  3. “Public education about vineyard practices and objectives, particular to both viticulture and to farming practices generally.  This can include information offered to visitors to the winery as well as the publication of books and articles for the general public (such as this one).”

Jim Thompson, 02Jim Thompson, observed that the issue of sustainability carries with it legal, environmental, and personal concerns.  On a legal basis, certification would mean that a vineyard’s neighbors—often private homes or other, non-farm businesses, could rest assured that nothing dangerous is going into the ground or being wafted into the air that could affect a person’s health or neighborhood.  On an environmental level, it would mean, for instance, that ground water would be protected, hence the community drinking water would be safe.  “On a personal level,” he went on to say, “it means a safer environment in which to work, with the satisfaction of knowing that vineyard workers would be not exposed to the potential toxicity that is present in many of the [possible] input applications used in the vineyard.”

Larry Perrine summarized the situation well when he said:  “It should be kept in mind that the natural world is in most cases self-healing over time.  Farming itself is not natural, for it represents a massive intervention in nature.  The goal of sustainability is to mitigate the impact of that intervention.  The farmer is therefore in a compromised position, for in agriculture there is no perfection—he is always striving for something at which we can never arrive.  Still, we want to leave a proper legacy for our children.”

3 Spheres of Sustainability

The Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers program became a reality in April 2012.  With its debut, Long Island is be the Eastern US leader in Sustainable Certification.  (It has 501(c)(3) not-for-profit status.)

 According to Perrine:  “LISW expects about 10 wineries to sign up initially.  Others are taking a wait-and-see attitude.  It may take a few years for them to join.  Not all of the initial members will effect a complete change-over to the sustainable practices advocated by LISW in the first year.  It is, after all, only a pathway and not in itself the goal.”  [One of the first to join apart from the core group was Wölffer Estate.]

Trent Pressler, CEO of Bedell Cellars, addressing the LISW audience.

On 6 June 2013 Bedell Cellars hosted the First Anniversary celebration of the founding of the LISW.  As of September 2015 the LISW now has nineteen members, with sixteen of them already having achieved full certification:

  1. Bedell Cellars (founding member)
  2. Channing Daughters (founding member)
  3. Corwith Vineyards (certified)
  4. Duckwalk Vineyards (in transition)
  5. Harbes Family Farm & Vineyard (certified)
  6. Kontokosta Winery (in transition)
  7. Martha Clara (founding member)
  8. Mattebella Vineyards (certified)
  9. McCall Wines (certified)
  10. Mudd Vineyards
  11. One Woman Vineyards (certified)
  12. Palmer Vineyards (certified)
  13. Paumanok Vineyards (certified)
  14. Pindar Vineyards (in transition)
  15. Roanoke Vineyards (certified)
  16. Sannino Bella Vita Vineyards (certified)
  17. Shinn Estate (founding member)
  18. Sparkling Pointe (certified)
  19. Surrey Lane Vineyards
  20. Wölffer Estate (certified)

Paumanok Vineyards and Sparkling Pointe are  the latest to achieve certification as of November 2015, bringing the total to 20 members.  So the majority are already certified, each having put nearly 200 elements of sustainable practice into operation for a year or longer with two left in transition to certification.  This represents very fast growth for a new certification authority, as it already has nearly a third of all the vineyards on the island.  Such rapid growth can be explained in part by the fact that many of the vineyards already were practicing the guidelines of Cornell’s VineBalance program, which is the underpinning of LISW approach.  There are still some that are taking a wait-and-see position, such as Osprey’s Dominion (“we’re already farming sustainably, but we need to be sure of the benefits of joining”) and Lenz (Sam McCullough told Wine Spectator [May 2012 issue]:

“The number one reason we’re not participating is that I typically buy my pesticides for the coming season at the end of the year [to save money], so I had already committed to purchase things that they don’t allow in the program,” said Sam McCullough, vineyard manager for the Lenz Winery. While he cited fungus control as his big concern in Long Island’s humid climate, he felt the sustainability program provides enough options to deal with any problems that might arise and didn’t think the required changes would be onerous.”  Still, McCullough has yet to decide about participating next year. “I think it’s a fine idea, but I don’t know that there are really that many genuinely harmful practices out here. We’re all pretty responsible. I see it mainly as a perception issue and a public relations act rather than changing the way we take care of the environment, but anything that helps market our product is a good thing.”

Furthermore, the Spectator pointed out that “smaller wineries are concerned about the cost and whether consumers are willing to spend more to offset the extra expenses. Right now, [Roz] Baiz [of The Old Field Vineyard] said, she’d rather use the combined $800 in membership and inspection fees to purchase some new needed equipment.”

But twenty have joined so far, such as Mudd’s Vineyard, which says that “It’s the right thing to do.”

For wineries that are certified, the LISW logo can be included on the wine labels, thus showing that the wines are made from grapes raised with a conscience.  This, it is hoped, will also help promote Long Island wines among those consumers who care about this, and the number who do are steadily growing.

Certification is accomplished by the expertise of LISW’s independent third-party inspector:  Allan Connell, the former District Conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), using the New York VineBalance Grower Workbook as a roadmap for evaluation of the sustainable viticultural practices of Long Island vineyards.

More information about sustainable farming is available upon request from LISW at lisustainablewine.org, facebook.com/sustainablewinegrowing, and twitter.com/liswinegrowing.

As of Feb. 27, 2014, a new post was published on the Bedell blog by Richard Olsen-Harbich: “Seal of Approval,” pursuant to a visit last December by one of the world’s leading experts in the field of sustainable viticulture – Dr. Cliff Ohmart.  Pursuant to that visit, on March 17, 2014, Wine Spectator published a blog post by its Managing Editor, Dana Nigro:  How Serious Is Long Island About Sustainable Wine? with the subtitle, “Region’s new program gets green thumbs-up from outside expert.”

From Lodi, we have this interesting piece in :  Sustainable Winegrowing Certification: Why Do Growers Participate?  The most recent article, as of September 2014, is available online at the Wine Industry Advisor Website:  “Demand for Sustainability Resonates . . .

Further to that, a February 6, 2016 NY Times article, “Cover Crops: A Farming Revolution with Roots in the Past” finds that all kinds of agriculturalists all over the country are finding out that cover crops are good for their crops!

NOTES:

[1] Interview with Larry Perrine, 10 February 2012, at Channing Daughters

[2] Interview with Jim Thompson, 4 February 2012, at Martha Clara

[3] For example, Oregon LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology), which was established as a sustainable viticulture certification program in 1997, has about an 80% participation rate.

[4] E-mail from Barbara Shinn, 1 March 2012.

Correspondence by e-mail with Alice Wise was from January 29 to February 7, 2012.


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