By Amanda Garris
Sustainability is more than a buzzword for New York wine and grape growers. Since 2007, more than 200 growers—representing 40% of the state's grape acreage—have used the Cornell Cooperative Extension VineBalance workbook to appraise their practices and reduce the impact of vineyard management on the soil, water, air quality, and biodiversity of their communities. Long Island wineries have taken this one step further with a new program that offers rigorous, third-party certification of sustainable practices.
Next year, consumers of some Long Island wines may notice something new on the bottle: the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing logo. Long Island wineries will be putting their vineyards to the test, with the establishment of the first program in the eastern United States to certify vineyards—and eventually wineries—which adopt sustainable practices. Since the announcement of the program in April, a dauntless dozen have signed on for evaluation this year.
"As the Long Island industry has matured, there has been increasing interest in the impact of our practices on our surrounding environment," said Alice Wise, viticulturist with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. "A formal program gives credibility to the efforts of growers, and it also reinforces that there is no endpoint in learning and that sustainability is and should be a continuum."
The non-profit Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing, Inc. (LISW) was formed last spring by four volunteers: Rich Olsen-Harbich of Bedell Cellars '83, Larry Perrine of Channing Daughters Winery MS '85, Barbara Shinn of Shinn Estate Vineyards, and Jim Thompson of Martha Clara Vineyards. They worked with Wise to codify a set of sustainable viticulture practices and contracted with a third party certifying agent to conduct the evaluations.
"We wanted a challenging program that would have teeth," said Shinn. "While the program will be inclusive, it also has heft."
With years of creative experimentation by Long Island winegrowers to guide them, the group modified the existing VineBalance self-assessment workbook. VineBalance, published by Cornell Cooperative Extension in 2007, defined sustainable practices for all of New York's grape growing regions. A principal consideration for the LISW group was the unique ecology of Long Island.
For example, water is a defining feature of the region. Not only does Long Island have streams, bays, and miles of coastline that need to be protected from soil erosion and excessive nitrogen, the water below its sandy, porous soils is an important resource.
"The aquifer that lies about one to two hundred feet underground is the sole source of drinking water for the North Fork of Long Island," noted Bedell Cellars winemaker Rich Olsen-Harbich. "Many things you put on top of the soil have the potential end up in the aquifer."
During the on-farm inspections, a range of sustainable practices will be evaluated, including careful nitrogen fertilizer management to reduce soil nitrates entering the groundwater, irrigation management to limit water usage, and management of the grapevine canopy to reduce disease and promote ripening. The holistic program not only includes environmental stewardship, but it also promotes practices that reflect the importance of healthy workers and thriving communities in the production of high quality wines.
Wineries and vineyards vying for certification 2012 are already preparing for the challenges they will face during the transition, including specific management strategies for disease and weed control.
"We are looking at 'low impact' materials—including organics and biologicals— to control fungi, which will be new for us," said Jim Thompson, the vineyard manager of Martha Clara. "We also want to get away from using herbicides to treat the weeds and grass under the vines, so we are hoping to find new equipment that will be effective on a commercial 100-acre vineyard."
In addition to targeting specific vineyard practices, the standards consider ecosystem functions, including a requirement for buffer zones—without grapevines—to foster local biodiversity.
"At Bedell we already have two acres of woodland set aside," said Rich Olsen-Harbich, the winemaker at Bedell Cellars. "We recently enrolled another acre of property in a federal program which will plant it to native grasses and wildflowers."
Wineries which successfully pass the certification process this fall will be able to use the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing logo on their 2012 vintage.
"I feel like the program signifies that the region is evolving in a way that's really important," said Shinn. "When consumers see the logo on the label, they will know that the grapes were grown with the ecology of our soils and our water in mind."
In coming years, the organizers hope the program will grow, with many growers who have been farming sustainably for many years finally getting credit for those practices and helping the region to evolve.
"This year I hope that the program will 'graduate' its first class of certified sustainable vineyard operations and encourage those of us who do not receive certification in 2012 to continue on the pathway of improvement and certification," said Larry Perrine, CEO and partner at Channing Daughters. "I also hope the leadership of the pioneering LISW vineyards and wineries encourages more Long Island producers to enter the program next year."
Amanda Garris is a freelance writer for the College and Agriculture and Life Sciences.