If all goes as planned, this season nearly 20 percent of Long Island vineyards will be certified under a new sustainability standard that bans the use of certain agrochemicals, mandates wild habitat on vineyards and sets unprecedented goals for local hiring and community service. “This is the most rigorous sustainability certification program in the country for wine,” says Rich Olsen-Harbich, winemaker at Bedell Cellars and part of the group that came up with the standards, along with Barbara Shinn of Shinn Estate Vineyards, Larry Perrine of Channing Daughters Winery and Jim Thompson of Martha Clara.
The standards include “a pretty narrow list” of approved pesticides, says Olsen-Harbich, “and in one of the most challenging winegrowing areas in the nation,” due to pest-friendly humidity. Called Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing, the new program was born of dissatisfaction with available organic and sustainability programs that don’t address Long Island’s climate.
It mirrors other grower-developed standards, like Oregon LIVE (which certifies more than 20,000 acres in Oregon and Washington) and Lodi Rules (which does the same for hundreds of wineries in Northern California). An outside party will conduct annual inspections, and the member growers will constantly evaluate the standards for improvements. With the following standards in place, the industry hopes to preempt government regulation and attract new partners, like Sustainable Long Island and the Peconic Estuary Program.
Looking at “vineyards as an ecological system,” the standards require at least 70 percent of a vineyard be planted to encourage cover crops that reduce erosion and herbicide use; they limit the use of nitrogen fertilizer, which contaminates Long Island’s aquifer, and ban certain common pesticides, herbicides and fungicides including atrazine, metalaxyl, and imidacloprid, which have been targeted by environmental groups. Certified vineyards must also keep detailed records of disease and pest scouting that can ultimately reduce chemical use.
Thompson, the vineyard manager at Martha Clara, values this aspect in regard to his own health, the health of his employees and the vineyard’s neighbors. “If I can do something to make things a little better for everyone in the world, why wouldn’t I do that?” he says, admitting that it might mean a paradigm shift in vineyard aesthetics. “It’s not going to look like a golf course,” he says, “but we’re not playing golf. Vineyards must maintain an “eco-zone” of native plantings or undisturbed wild area. And, in contrast to organic, biodynamic and most other ecolabels, the standards include hiring of local labor, enhanced vineyard worker training, a pledge toward assisting community causes, and collaboration with Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Family Health and Wellness program, which provides parenting education, nutrition and child care.
The next step is getting the word out—perhaps a logo on the label—but for now, the standards and all certified wineries are listed at lisustainablewine.org. Olsen-Harbich says many local farmers–whether wine growers or vegetable growers–currently operate this way, but they aren’t getting credit for it, while other growers didn’t know about how to do it. Based on the experience of third party certification programs elsewhere, he’s also confident the standards “will lead to better and more distinctive wines,” as members pay more attention to their vines and their surroundings, and share information with each other. Looking ahead Olsen-Harbich says “I see less runoff into our bays and aquifer, and more wild areas on farms. I see a thriving industry that will grow and create pleasant working conditions, a happy place to raise families and have them stay here and become part of this area.”