So it was a major leap forward for the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, which managed the self-assessments, to announce that wineries can now pay outside auditors to ensure that their efforts on everything from pesticide use to creating mission statements and recycling corks are up to snuff.
"It's a huge way of bringing everybody up on this thing," said Steve Smith, vice president of vineyard and grape management for Constellation Wines US and an alliance board member.
What's the importance of certification? Foremost, it allows retailers and other industry members to evaluate whether wine companies meet green standards, which in turn can guide buying decisions. As large retailers like Wal-Mart are setting sustainability requirements for their suppliers, such efforts have real consequences for the bottom line.
Right now, at least, there won't be much to see in the supermarket aisle. "This is not a consumer-facing program," said Chris Savage, director of environmental affairs for E&J Gallo Winery, the state's largest wine producer, and chairman of the alliance's board of directors. "This is not about putting a label on the bottle yet."
But it will help provide some accountability. After taking the quiz, which assesses 227 practices, participants have to meet 58 prerequisites (view them here). Five are deal-killers, including not taking action on obvious sources of erosion and unchecked use of nitrogen on the soil.
For the remaining 53, companies must at least have a plan to make improvements within a year. A vineyard without disease monitoring must implement periodic testing; a winery without an energy audit must obtain one. Auditors have yet to be chosen, but the first should be selected next month.
Those goals are rather modest, with few specific metrics attached. Planners say that was intended to allow more companies to participate. As of 2008, 40 percent of the state's 523,000 acres of vineyard were being considered under the self-test, as were 115 million cases of wine, or 47.8 percent of the state total. However, that wine came from just 140 wineries, about 5 percent of more than 2,800 in California. About 1,500 wineries and vineyards total have taken the assessment so far.
Certification, then, should be relatively easy for most companies who opt in, including those using large-scale conventional farming.