Sonoma County Sustainability is Better Farming

A letter from Sonoma County Winegrowers President, Karissa Kruse.

“There are many ways of going forward, but only one way of standing still.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt

As we begin the 2018 harvest, it is a good time to pause and reflect on our quest to become the nation’s first 100% sustainable winegrowing region in 2019.  Thanks to the efforts, commitment and beliefs of our 1,800 growers, more than 72% of the total winegrape acreage in Sonoma County is certified sustainable and 92% of the total winegrape acreage has completed the sustainability self-assessment – the first step in achieving certification – making 100% certification a real possibility.

Make no mistake, Sonoma County is a leader in the world’s wine industry and the greatest asset we have is the dogged determination of our local winegrape growers and their families.  They are outstanding stewards of the land they have the privilege to farm, they relentlessly support the communities they call home and they are focused on improving the lives of their agricultural employees and their families.

For these reasons, the Sonoma County Winegrowers (SCW) efforts have been recognized by California Governor Jerry Brown with the State’s premier award for environmental leadership and highest environmental honor – the Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award (GEELA). This award recognizes exceptional leadership and notable contributions in conserving California’s precious resources while protecting and enhancing the environment.

Despite this tremendous commitment and voluntary effort by our growers, I am always surprised when I hear criticisms of our proactive sustainability program which is enabling our farms and wineries to continue to stay in business by being socially responsible, environmentally conscientious, and economically viable to ensure we positively impact our community and preserve agriculture here in Sonoma County.  Would they rather we stood still?

One of the few consistencies in farming is the need to make tough choices in order to continue operations. What to farm, when to plant, where to grow and when to harvest are some of the more common ones. Growers also have a choice of farming organically, biodynamically, sustainably or conventionally. So why did SCW choose sustainability? As a group, we wanted to take the broadest approach to farming and managing our business. The sustainability certification programs we work with require a holistic assessment of the business that includes economic, social and environmental factors, continuous improvement and third-party audits. For example, our most common certification program, Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing (Certified Sustainable) emphasizes more than 45 best practices that support climate change mitigation such as energy efficiency, water monitoring and conservation and greenhouse gas reductions, while also incorporating best practices for supporting the health and well-being of employees and their families. We believe that these social and economic best practices are essential to the future viability and success of our multi-generational family farms. As a result, we work with many growers who both farm organically and have a sustainability certification. The two are not mutually exclusive.  In fact, all of our growers, regardless of farming philosophy, have to make the trade-off on a regular basis of calculating their carbon footprint with the use of materials or manpower.

Farming isn’t easy.  One grower laments that the reason it is called farming is because “gambling” was already taken.  Let’s be clear, every year the farmers in Sonoma County do the best job they can in responding to Mother Nature and ensuring their business survives the season.

Does sustainability make for better farming? Yes! The program requires an annual improvement plan so that each year, better practices are implemented.  Here are just a few sustainability success stories:

  • In early 2018, as soon as Steve Dutton learned that Mancozeb was on the Certified Sustainable red list, he stopped using it that day. Something that wouldn’t have necessarily been on his radar if he wasn’t actively involved in his sustainability program.
  • Duff Bevill, of Bevill Vineyard Management, specifically installed solar on his own ag property and has been working with clients to install solar as part of their sustainability improvement plan. This has helped Duff become “net zero” in his energy use on his ag property.
  • At Marimar Estate one major change that was implemented is shifting to no till farming on 65% of the blocks. No till farming is a way of growing crops or pasture from year to year without disturbing the soil through tillage. No-till is an agricultural technique which increases the amount of water that infiltrates into the soil thereby increasing organic matter retention and cycling of nutrients in the soil. In addition, they are working with Gold Ridge Conservation district on soil improvements.
  • Through the Fish Friendly Farming program alone, more than 200 miles of dirt roads and 92 miles of river and creek corridors have been assessed and best management practices applied. The primary water quality problem in Sonoma County waterways is not pesticide runoff, but too much fine sediment, so when the growers repair their roads they directly improve water quality for salmonids and other wildlife.
  • In 2019, the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation launched a Vineyard Employee Sustainability Recognition program that has growers from around the county nominating their employees for leadership awards that support the incredible work they do on our farms every day. This is in addition to the $1,000,000 raised to support Ag families after the fires.

The reality is that sustainability is a voluntary program which the winegrape community in Sonoma County has fully embraced. Over the past four years, we have also seen a number of local wineries showing their support for sustainability by paying growers a premium price for grapes grown in certified sustainable vineyards.

Sonoma County Winegrowers are extremely proud of our success and we will continue to develop the most innovative sustainable strategies to ensure its continued success and the preservation of agriculture in Sonoma County.  We will never stand still.


Sonoma County Harvest 2018 Starts Today!

Near Perfect Summer Growing Conditions Builds Excitement for an Outstanding Vintage as First Grapes are Picked

The first grapes of the 2018 vintage of Sonoma County’s famed winegrapes were picked today in vineyards throughout the county.

At Sangiacomo Family Vineyards, harvest crews converged on a 5-acre vineyard block on Broadway near the town of Sonoma early this morning to begin picking the first grapes of the 2018 harvest.  Pinot Noir grapes were being hand-harvested for Gloria Ferrer sparkling wines.

Across the street from Sangiacomo in Sonoma, Sasaki Vineyards expect to pick about 20 tons Pinot Noir today, and about 7 more tons tomorrow. The remainder of their 12-acre lot will be picked within 7 days with all the grapes going to Gloria Ferrer and it has for the past 17 years.

Up north in Cloverdale, more than 70 tons of Chardonnay grapes were being picked by a crew from Redwood Empire Vineyard Management this morning for Rack and Riddle’s sparkling wine program.

“It is always exciting to get the harvest underway and given all our county has had to weather over the last ten months, the late nights, early mornings and added pressure of harvest season are actually welcome,” said Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers. She added, “I am excited about this harvest as it seems Mother Nature has blessed us with terrific growing conditions which could make the grape quality outstanding.”

In addition to picking the first grapes of the season, Angelo Sangiacomo of Sangiacomo Family Vineyards, will be presented with an American flag by Congressman Mike Thompson’s office. The flag was flown over the nation’s Capital and is part of the kickoff of the 2018 winegrape harvest.

Harvest Watch -Embracing a “Normal” Season

Following a cool, wet spring and a near perfect summer, local winegrape growers are embracing the return of harvest and its long hours and hectic schedules. This vintage timing seems to be a return to normal although it feels late to many who experienced one of the earlier harvests on record in 2017.

“No one will ever forget last year but we are all appreciating the arrival of the new harvest season” said Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers.  She added, “There has been ample water, and a relatively cool spring and summer which helped prolong the growing season and the grape quality looks really good.  As you travel the County you can tell that harvest time is here and the action is picking up.”

Early reports from the vineyards indicate that veraison is underway with some warmer temperatures to provide the right amount of stress at the right time.  The cool spring appears to have slowed down some of the growth and held back the degree day accumulation pushing back harvest in many areas some ten days to two weeks compared to recent seasons. Looking ahead, the one constant challenge in all AVAs is the shortage of labor.

Many growers are navigating this shortage by hiring more full-time workers throughout the year versus relying on seasonal help.  More and more growers are using the H2A Work VISA program to have a reliable workforce but many are challenged by the housing requirement.  Finally, with the increased quality of mechanization, some wineries and growers will work together to mechanically harvest the grapes this fall.

With harvest still weeks away in many Sonoma County vineyards, here are some of the harvest reports from the front lines of some of our AVAs:

Russian River Valley:

Things are shaping up to what appears to be a very good harvest as cooler weather has prolonged the growing season.  Although it wasn’t a “wet” winter, there was enough rain into the spring season that the vineyards didn’t get parched going into harvest.  The prevailing belief is that the crop will be above average in quantity.

Alexander Valley:

Early indications are for another good vintage with the harvest start some 10 to 14 days behind recent harvests.  Crop sizes vary depending on variety.  Both Cabernet and Chardonnay crop sizes are a bit above average while Pinot Noir crop size appears to be average, Sauvignon Blanc crop size seems below average.  Across all varieties quality looks to be very good.  One potential issue is that veraison in red varieties appears condensed meaning, with the right conditions, it may be a very short, very busy harvest when it arrives in the Alexander Valley. 

Sonoma Valley:

The current outlook is a normal crop which would put it above last year’s harvest.  While there was some shatter earlier in the year, the cluster counts appear to balance it out.  While the weather has heated up recently, expectations are that the cooler spring slowed down some growth and the vines are catching up with the warmer weather.  The expectation is for a later harvest date than the past three seasons.

Key Issues for Sonoma County Winegrowers:

What is your timing for veraison?

This year’s weather has been very conducive to grape growing.   The wet March helped as growers welcomed more water.  It also pushed back bud break to a more normal time than recent years.  The rest of the spring, the weather was nice, even cool.

Has the water supply affected the growth of the vines?

Water supply conditions are normal and irrigation needs have been a little less than normal.  Early in the year, the lack of rain concerned some growers that they may have needed to irrigate prior to bud break.  Fortunately, March and April were very wet adding plenty of water to the soil profile.  Growers have been using new irrigation technologies and efficient water practices for several years to ensure they only water when necessary.

What is the current situation regarding labor?

Throughout Sonoma County, labor has been and will remain the big concern at harvest.  During the growing season, pruning, canopy work and vineyard improvements can be staggered for a few weeks with little impact.  However, when harvest arrives, getting the fruit picked at its optimum maturity requires immediate access to skilled labor.

What practices or plans changed in light of last year’s fires?

Many growers took extra time this year to trim trees and reduce fire loads around their vineyards.  Also, evacuation plans, improved communication and training became part of the routine during the year. 




Welcome to The Vine!

Thank you for joining us at The Vine. Visit us often for news and information from Sonoma County Winegrowers!

As we move into harvest 2018, we will be updating this site with information about the season, the weather and all things Sonoma County Winegrowing. We look forward to continuing a dialogue with visitors to this site, who are interested in the stories of our many growers.

Cheers to you and yours!

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton140_2010