SIP Certified: Sustainability in Practice
“Healthy Vineyards, Amazing Wines!” That’s the tag line for the Central Coast Vineyard Team’s SIP (Sustainability in Practice) program. Wines sporting the SIP logo have more than good terroir going for them; they have the three P’s:
• People emphasizes such aspects of winemaking as worker treatment, business sustainability and wages, and community involvement.
• Planet is directed to responsible environmental and social practices—from water use to pesticide application to energy efficiency.
• Profit acknowledges that vineyards are businesses that need to make enough money to support workers and owners alike.
Over coffee (alas, not wine, at 9am) Beth Vukmanic Lopez, executive director of the Vineyard Team, tells me how the SIP program started:
“By 2000, there were people in the wine industry who wanted to authenticate that their farming practices were really ‘green.’ That word was being used for everything from cereal to toilet paper; even makers of pet food got into the green act. The vineyards needed a way to prove that they were really sustainable and had specific standards to verify that.”
Sustainable, like green, is a word that gets a lot of play so I searched for a good definition and found it in an article titled “The Future of Farming Is Now,” by Brian Middleton (Union of Concerned Scientists Newsletter): “Sustainability is using and replenishing resources in a way that maintains the fertility of the soil and the health of the surrounding landscape for future generations.”
Yes, that’s exactly what the three SIP-certified vineyards I talked with are aiming for!
Castoro owner/managers Niels and Bimmer Udsen developed an interest in wine in the late ’70s while Niels worked at the former Estrella River Winery. The couple began experimenting with homemade wine for friends and family and then, in 1983, they bought a small vineyard in Templeton with the intention of farming sustainably.
When the Vineyard Team asked them to set aside 30 acres as a “pilot project” in 2007, their cultivation practices already came close to meeting SIP standards. Still, it’s been a great leap for sustainability to go from the 30 acres certified in 2008 to today’s 1,500 acres and an annual production of 50,000 cases of SIP-certified wine. All this is cause for celebration this summer, Castoro’s 30th anniversary.
Asked how SIP standards compared to organic certification I learned that, in Niels’ opinion, “SIP is much more encompassing than ‘organic.’ SIP covers the way I treat my workers. With organic certification, I could have them work 10 hours a day in 100-degree weather or drive my tractor up and down spewing carbons into the air, but not with SIP.”
And speaking of SIP standards for employee treatment, this summer Castoro paid for a number of their staff to take a barge trip in France. Sure sounds like management knows how to treat its workers!
Tolosa in Edna Valley is lucky to be in a sunblessed location. To take advantage of that, they installed extensive solar panels. Partner Jim Efird estimates that sun power will provide its electrical energy for the next 25 years. And equally impressive, the solar system is expected to displace more than 32 million pounds of carbon dioxide, equivalent to removing 2,600 cars from the road, over 30 years.
Acknowledging that water is a limited resource, management makes sure that water used in growing grapes is recovered and biologically processed for reuse in the drip system. Insects that potentially could pose a problem for the vineyards are carefully monitored throughout the growing season, as are those bugs’ natural predators. When there aren’t enough of these “enemies” on site, Tolosa purchases predacious insects from an insectory for targeted use.
Asked if these sustainable practices impose extra costs, Efird grins:
“On the contrary, we save money! Think of what we might have spent on pesticides. We haven’t paid an electric bill in three years since the solar system was installed. SIP practices maximize water use and minimize waste. It’s a wonderful system!”
Meeting the SIP requirement to give back to the community wasn’t a strain either. Elfird mentions that for years Tolosa has supported programs such as De La Tolosa’s dental services for children in need, the Community Foundation of SLO and French Hospital.
Riverbench General Manager Laura Booras proudly states that “Riverbench had the first SIP-certified sparkling wine in Santa Barbara County.” They produce 4,000 cases per year, putting them in the “boutique” category, ￼￼with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir their signature wines.
Although Riverbench started in 1973 it wasn’t until 2006, when four local families purchased the vineyards, that a concern about agricultural practices became important. Laura and Vineyard Manager Jim Stollberg of Maverick Farming heard about the Central Coast Vineyard Team and began to research the vineyard’s options for certification. They looked into both the organic and biodynamic options but felt that the SIP program stood out.
Laura remembers the winery owners and staff especially liked the fact that SIP emphasized the people aspect: “That was as important for us as the herbicide and pesticide regulations and involves how we treat employees and support the local community.” The application process in 2009 was relatively quick with few changes needed such as those regulating use of specific chemicals. For example, they researched more natural treatments such as Stylet oil, which is considered a natural pesticide. They added sessions for their staff on safety issues, workplace hazards and the characteristics of any chemicals they might come in contact with in order to meet SIP’s worker education requirements. After talking with the three wineries, I breathed a sigh of relief. Being a good steward of the planet, treating people well and making a profit are not incompatible with, as Castoro’s tag line says, making “dam fine wine.