In Walla Walla Valley, Vinea Sustainable Trust means protecting good grapes, good neighbors, and great wine
STORY BY ANNE SAMPSON
Wine people love to speak of terroir – the influences of soil, climate, and terrain that distinguish grapes from a certain region. It’s what makes a Bordeaux a Bordeaux.
So it makes sense that wine growers would search out ways to protect those influences. Some go organic. Biodynamics can play a role. Others simply call it sustainability. There are as many approaches to protecting one’s soil as there are farmers, but in the Walla Walla Valley, Vinea is the name of the game.
The mission of the Vinea Sustainable Trust is to define and encourage sustainable vineyard and winery practices synonymous with the Walla Walla Valley, and to recognize the producers who adhere to those practices with the designation of Walla Walla Valley Certified Sustainable. While wineries also can seek certification, the biggest emphasis is for growers.
The standards are based on well-established farming practices used throughout the agricultural world – for example, using compost to maintain healthy soils, limiting the need for pesticides and fungicides by managing the vine canopy, or controlling harmful insects by encouraging beneficial insects or other predators. But Vinea refines them to address specific conditions in the Walla Walla Valley, where fine wine is revered as much as good neighbors and healthy land. It represents a progressive movement among wine growers there to care for their treasured asset: terroir.
Rick Small, owner of Woodward Canyon Estate Vineyard and Winery, is president of the Vinea board of directors and one of the founders of the group. “I was just trying to do the best for my land and my employees,” he says, recalling the organization’s beginnings in 2004. “We think of it as a three-legged stool: profitability, social responsibility, and ecological responsibility.”
Most growers, he says, were already practicing sustainable farming. He and a few other vineyard owners began pursuing a way to certify their sustainable growing practices. Sometimes called the “lions” of Walla Walla Valley wine, the group included Tom Waliser, Norm McKibben, Gary Figgins, and Jean-Francois Pellet. They looked to the south, to a program conceived in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, called Low Input Viticulture and Enology, or LIVE. It offered some important tools – a good, tested structure with well-established sustainability standards and a third-party certification process.
In addition, it carried international clout. When developing LIVE standards in 1994, Willamette Valley growers and University of Oregon researchers leaned heavily on the model established by a European group, the International Organization of Biological Control of Noxious Animals and Plants (IOBC). When LIVE was certified by the IOBC in 2004, it gave LIVE growers recognition in markets around the world, as well.
In the meantime, Salmon-Safe was coming to life. Originally a program of the Pacific Rivers Council, Salmon-Safe is now an independent nonprofit organization. Besides offering certification to vineyards, it has added corporate and college campuses, neighborhood developments, golf courses, and parks. It focuses on practices that maintain clean watersheds, preserving passage for spawning salmon through streams free of pesticides and herbicides that could interfere with their survival. Today, Salmon-Safe standards are integrated with LIVE, so farmers displaying this certification are dually certified.
There are a fistful of certifications available to farmers of all sorts, each with its own standards, including Organic Certification (born in California in 1972), Demeter Biodynamic (dating to 1928 in Europe and addressing holistic farming), and GlobalG.A.P. (focusing on fresh rather than processed foods and establishing a single global standard for Good Agricultural Practice). LIVE and Salmon-Safe were created to specifically address wine grapes.
These programs were and are very good, according to Vinea organizers, raising the question: Why create yet another certification with another set of standards?
“We’re trying to put together a program that will work for everybody,” explains Tom Waliser, who has managed Pepper Bridge Vineyard since its inception in 1991. Often in the Walla Walla Valley, wine grapes are only one of several crops on a farm.
Tom, for example, has also grown apples in the valley since the 1980s. Orchards call for different treatments than vineyards to control pests. But LIVE looks only at standards appropriate for grapes and requires an entire farm to be managed to those standards. “LIVE isn’t a good fit if you’re also growing blueberries,” Tom says.
Vinea recommends acceptable practices and allows growers to explain why and how they utilize them.
To do that, the group has developed an incentive-based approach. Chemical applications and water management practices are divided into three groups: green (always allowed), yellow (accepted if circumstances require it), and red (never acceptable). An insecticide in the yellow category might be approved if the farmer can show that the insecticide eliminates a certain pest with only one spraying instead of three. Rather than marking off growers for bad practices, Vinea looks at the entirety of good practices used.
This approach also recognizes the climate conditions in Eastern Washington. Because LIVE was developed in the damp of Willamette Valley, it requires growers to demonstrate why they might be irrigating. Vinea, instead, recognizes the necessity of bringing water to Eastern Washington vineyards. The climate differences also affect allowable chemical sprays. Central Oregon’s moist conditions cause problems with diseases and fungus, Tom says, “but in Walla Walla, we’re worried about pests that Central Oregon doesn’t have.” For these reasons, Vinea certification requires explanations of the sustainable practices a grower chooses.
Establishing Vinea’s standards has been a long process, but organizers are pleased with their progress. Wineries as well as vineyards can seek certification, but the focus is primarily agricultural. Vinea leaders are optimistic that farmers across the valley will join the movement, even though earning the certification can be an arduous process.
For the most part, they point out, certification doesn’t require much change in farming practices. Most growers have been using sustainable practices, anyway, Rick says, and Vinea certification allows them to document it in a way that consumers can appreciate. But certification does demand money. Vinea is self-funded through assessments to members, and a lot of record-keeping and paperwork are required for a vineyard to become certified through the organization’s three-year audit.
Today, some 39 vineyards — 43 percent of the total vineyard acreage in the Valley —are Walla Walla Valley Certified Sustainable. Organizers hope to see that number grow. The benefits, they believe, are worth the cost and effort, and go far beyond consumer marketing.
“Sustainability is a journey,” Jean-Francois says. A native of Switzerland, his familiarity with the IOBC standards that are followed throughout European vineyards, as well as a more ubiquitous culture of conservation, was a driver in Vinea’s early discussions. As Americans more closely adopt “green” practices in everyday life — like recycling and limiting energy consumption, he says — they are also becoming more aware of sustainability in their food supply.
Still, Jean-Francois emphasizes that marketing is only a part of Vinea. “Does it make a better wine?” He shrugs. “It’s very hard to quantify quality. It’s more about the quality of life. It’s about what you want to be doing in 20 years with your land.”
And that philosophy, says Rick, was the starting point for Vinea, as well as its landing pad. “What I care about is that I am just trying to do the best for my land and my employees. I’ve never felt that certification is a marketing tool. What really matters is that the wine is good quality and is made well, with the philosophy of taking good care of your people, being socially responsible, and being economically viable.”
Anne Sampson writes about wine and the people who create it from her home in Richland. She also writes about food, travel and culture around the Northwest.