Sonoma County sustainable winegrowing gets state award

Sonoma County Winegrowers received California’s highest environmental honor for its program to become the nation’s first 100 percent sustainable winegrowing region.

Two years into the five-year program, almost two-thirds of the county’s vineyard acres have been assessed for sustainable business practices, and nearly half the acreage has been certified for such by a third party.

Organization officials were in Sacramento on Jan. 19 to receive the Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award, or GEELA, which recognizes individuals, organizations and businesses that have demonstrated exceptional leadership and made notable contributions in conserving California’s precious resources, protecting and enhancing our environment and building public-private partnerships. The annual award is administered by the California Environmental Protection Agency, or CalEPA, in partnership with the Natural Resources Agency; Department of Food and Agriculture; State Transportation Agency; Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency; Labor and Workforce Development Agency; and Health and Human Services Agency.

The award was presented to Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers (, and members of the executive committee, during a special reception at the headquarters of the CalEPA.

“It’s an incredible honor to win the Governor’s premier award for environmental leadership and it validates the depth of our sustainability program that focuses on being socially responsible, environmentally conscientious and economically viable,” Kruse said in a statement. “This recognition is a testament to the dedication and leadership of our 1,800 grape growers who have worked tirelessly to ensure we positively impact our community and preserve agriculture here in Sonoma County.”

Earlier this month, Kruse announced that the organization would focus on social sustainability to support the wine community’s skilled workforce and their families. To help accomplish this, the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation is being relaunched and will work with a number of community-based organizations and government agencies in Sonoma County which provide resources and support to agricultural employees and their families. The foundation’s initial efforts will be to bridge the gap between existing programs and the individuals who should benefit them in the areas of health care, affordable housing, child care and education.

“I congratulate Sonoma County Winegrowers on this recognition of their remarkable commitment to the Sustainable Winegrowing Program,” said Karen Ross, state Food and Agriculture Department secretary. “It is a fitting tribute to the dedicated and collaborative efforts of grape growers throughout the county.”

Sonoma County’s Winegrowers take a triple-bottom line approach to sustainability that is environmentally-conscious in how they conduct their vineyard and winery practices; is socially-responsible in how they treat their employees, neighbors and local community and economically-viable so the business remains productive and profitable. Each aspect of the triple-bottom line approach must meet strict criteria that was reviewed and vetted by environmental policy advocates, wine industry leaders and other stakeholders.

Among the highlights of the past 12 months:

• 37,392 of Sonoma County’s 58,280 vineyard acres - 64 percent - have been self-assessed using the program checklists.

• 27,761 vineyard acres, or 48 percent, have been certified sustainable by a third-party audit.

• 18,780 vineyard acres participate in the Fish-Friendly environmental program.

• 1,171 vineyard acres participate in the USDA Organic Farming program.

• 240 vineyard acres participate in Biodynamic farming practices.

• More than 1,280 Sonoma County grapegrowers participated in sustainability workshops, meetings and related events in 2015.

• More than 162,340 pounds of vineyard material was recycled by growers last year.

For a Sonoma County vineyard to become sustainable, a grower must complete a self-assessment based on 138 best practices rated on a scale of 1 to 4. Next, a plan is developed to document year-to-year improvements, such as water conservation, water quality, energy efficiency, employee and neighbor relations, and business viability.

Once the self-assessment is complete, the grower works with an independent auditor to review the assessment, conduct onsite visits to validate the practices and review the annual improvement plan. Auditors are environmental scientists, biologists, chemists, professors, geologists and other trained professionals. If they approve the vineyard, then the grower receives certification.

A year ago, Sonoma County Winegrowers unveiled its 100-year business plan, designed to preserve local agriculture well into the 22nd century. The plan is thought to be the first of its kind in agriculture and the global wine industry.

“Two years ago, our board of directors put a major stake in the ground to become America’s first 100 percent sustainable wine region and we’re proud of the global recognition we are receiving, including the Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award,” said Kevin Barr, chairman of the Sonoma County Winegrowers board of commissioners and owner of Redwood Empire Vineyard Management Company. “Our grape growers have been farming in Sonoma County for generations and we’re committed to always being positive contributors to our local community by continuously improving our practices and leading by example.”

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