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Red, white and... green?

Winemakers in California strive for sustainability, but defining the word is tricky

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If there was one word we Canadian writers and sommeliers heard tossed around liberally at California wineries, it was "sustainable."

It's a term I've found puzzling as it relates to growing grapes and making wine -- and while I'm not entirely sure, I think I understand it a bit better now than I did before my trip.

Many California wineries pride themselves on their environmental responsibility -- 75 per cent of J. Lohr's Paso Robles winery that we visited, for example, is powered by the largest solar tracking array of any winery in North America.

But environmental responsibility is but one of three core components in the California wine industry's sustainability initiative. Wineries in the Golden State must also look at ways in which they can be socially equitable and economically feasible.

Allison Jordan, Executive Director of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA;, met with us Canucks in the boardroom of Yountville's Napa Valley Lodge and gave us a quick overview of the state's wine-related sustainability program. The massive CSWA workbook that Jordan had in tow was launched in 2002, with the aim of providing wineries with a road map to increased sustainability.

As laid out on their website -- a valuable hub of information regarding sustainable winemaking in California -- the participating winery starts by self-assessing social, economic and environmental practices noted in the workbook. They then interpret their performance, develop an action plan to improve practices, and implement change. The winery then returns to the self-assessment step before continuing this cyclical process towards greater sustainability.

Along the way, the CSWA provides guidance and reports, and holds workshops for participating wineries. The 227 different criteria laid out in the workbook are evaluated on a scale of 1 through 4. Progressively better scores throughout the cycle indicate that a winery is successfully moving towards a more sustainable business practice both in the vineyard and the winery. This can mean (among other areas) reducing energy usage, bringing in new equipment, changing winemaking/picking/canopy management/fertilization techniques, ensuring workers and the winery's neighbours (human and non-human) are treated with increasing respect, and so forth.

In a few instances, the term "sustainable" would come up at a winery without any concrete examples, which was frustrating. Enter the CSWA's certification program, through which third-party audits take place, ensuring participating wineries aren't fudging their info or blowing hot air -- figuratively or literally, I guess. Once key benchmarks are met, the auditor will recommend certification. CSWA approval means an official logo can be placed pretty much anywhere except the bottle itself -- likely a result of archaic rules surrounding labelling laws. In order to retain certification, wineries must continue self-improvement and are subject to third-party audits every three years.

Wineries that desire sustainable certification but buy grapes from other growers often urge/help those growers obtain certification as well. Interestingly, it's possible for a company to have a winery certified sustainable but not its vineyards, and vice-versa.

Clear as mud, right? I feel I have at least a slight grasp on what winemakers mean when they say "sustainable." Rather than employ black-and-white/rigid rules surrounding organic or biodynamic winemaking, sustainable winemaking is a work in progress -- a more holistic, all-encompassing practice.

Of course, sustainable winemaking definitions/benchmarks/metrics vary from country to country.

I give up.

Bogle 2009 Petite Sirah

(California -- around $20, private

wine stores)

Both Bogle's winery and vineyards are certified sustainable. Here, this deep, inky red brings aromas of raspberry, blackberry and white pepper, with a light savoury/bell pepper note in there as well. It's a full-bodied, chewy red that adds vanilla to the above flavours, and it's all wrapped up with dry, medium tannin and a touch of oak. 88/100

Frei Brothers 2008 Reserve

Cabernet Sauvignon

(Alexander Valley, Calif. -- $19.99,

Liquor Marts and beyond)

I'm pretty sure the vineyards here are certified sustainable, while the Sonoma-based winery in which this wine is made is definitely certified. Make sense? Anyway, this Gallo property's Cabernet brings elegant cherry, cassis, leather and vanilla notes on the nose. It's a smooth, full-bodied red, with a dark chocolate note emerging on the palate, as well as deep, dark berry notes and some spice from the oak. I sampled the 2010 from the barrel at the winery -- expect it to be as good or better than this. 89/100

Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi

2010 Cabernet Sauvignon

(California -- $13.58, Liquor Marts

and beyond)

Virtually all Mondavi wines are certified sustainable, and the entry-level Woodbridge is no exception. Cherry, blackcurrant, light espresso and earthy aromas on the nose are pleasant; it's a medium-plus bodied red that's juicy and plush, yet not overly sweet. Rather, the red and black berry notes are expressed without getting excessively oaky or jammy. A nice burger wine for the price. 86/100

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 11, 2012 E4

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