"It really is not designed to be a high bar," said Allison Jordan, executive director of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance. "It felt premature to say we're going to set these arbitrary thresholds."
Under the certification program, a company hires a third-party auditor — the list is still being developed — to perform an on-site visit in the first year. The following two years of audits can be performed online.
Seventeen companies volunteered for a trial run, a list dominated by such major industry players as Gallo, Diageo and Constellation but also including smaller properties like Cooper-Garrod in the Santa Cruz Mountains and Honig in Napa Valley.
"We're encouraged by it, we're excited, but we're cautious," said Mike Sangiacomo, a Carneros grower and board member of the California Association of Winegrape Growers, which with the Wine Institute co-founded the sustainable alliance. "We didn't want this thing too far out ahead, so the growers could do these things."
Still, the current standards are so modest that some in the industry wonder whether they will have a real impact, especially in selling to overseas markets, where strict sustainability certifications like EntWine Australia have been in use for years. Several other California efforts, notably the Lodi Rules program, are already ahead — both in specifics and in conducting outside audits.
A quick look at the baseline requirements reveals the potential for tougher standards. Requirements on water use are vague, requiring only an annual test of water quality for decision-making purposes and some basic water planning. Soil fumigation is allowed so long as there's testing to ensure a problem.
As planners acknowledge, the certification will need to evolve. In theory it might run the way that the U.S. Green Building Council runs its LEED program, with projects aiming for certain status — LEED Gold, LEED Platinum and so on, and a certain number of points required to reach each level. Currently the wine certification is far simpler: You're either in or out.
Some environmental pioneers in the industry are optimistic that the big-tent approach will help bring up overall standards.
"You've got to be magnanimous," said John Williams of Frog's Leap Winery in Rutherford, an early adopter of organic practices.
But whether the wine efforts grow more teeth — and whether it will be enough for retailers and wine buyers — will be seen in time. Jon Heckman of FiveWinds International, a consultancy that helped develop the green program, said it likely will have to become more rigorous within the next few years.