We interviewed Paul Buwalda, Concannon Vineyard Viticulturist and a prominent member of our winegrowing team, to find out what it takes to become a certified sustainable winery. It turns out, there is a lot that goes into this certification! From our water conservation efforts to the treatment of our customers and employees, we are proud to share what we have done to become certified as a sustainable vineyard, and what we continue to do to maintain this certification.
What does it take to become a certified sustainable winery?
It takes a lot! There’s a long list of categories and criteria that we regularly evaluate and rate ourselves on. After we have completed these evaluations, we submit them as reports to the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA). The ratings that we give ourselves range from category one to category four, one serving as having met the fewest sustainability criteria in this category, and four showing that we have met or exceeded all of the criteria. Every other year our winery receives a visit from an auditor who evaluates our reports and decides whether or not we are meeting the CSWA criteria to be a certified sustainable winery. Each year in between these audits we are given a “desk audit,” where an auditor asks questions through a digital platform and we respond. At any point, if an auditor feels that there is something that needs improving, we are expected to present a plan of action for how we will address the issue.
How long has Concannon been a certified sustainable winery?
On January 5, 2010, Concannon became the 13th winery in California to earn this rigorous certification by meeting a set of 58 prerequisites among 227 best management practices.
Prior to this, in 2009, Concannon participated in the CSWA “Certified Pilot Program” as one of the seventeen California wineries selected to test the certification requirements and offer feedback for introducing this statewide certification program.
What practices constitute sustainable winemaking and sustainable vineyard management?
Well, to best explain this, let’s take a look at sustainability through three different lenses. There is social sustainability, environmental sustainability, and economic sustainability, each of which have to work together to be a thoroughly sustainable winery. I’ll use the example of wine quality since we have focused our efforts on this category in the past few years.
In the realm of social sustainability, we are constantly working to strengthen communication between winemakers and vineyard managers to ensure that we are working efficiently and collaboratively. We have invested more of our efforts toward communicating regularly so that department deadlines and requirements are met, and exceeded. These lines of communication play a huge role in wine quality because vineyard managers rely on winemakers to know when to pick the grapes from the vines for exceptional juice. There’s much more going on between these two departments, but that’s a quick overview.
When it comes to environmental sustainability, there are so many variables at play. Whether it be water conservation or ecosystem management, it’s incredibly difficult to just do it all. One of our most notable environmental initiatives is the way we apply nitrogen in regards to the amount, timing, and forms of nitrogen. We have changed our management practices for the better by implementing emerging technologies, regularly testing nitrogen levels in soil and plant tissues, and applying nitrogen only when needed at times when the vine can use it efficiently. Doing all of this has a much healthier and safer environmental impact than just applying nitrogen with no regard to its affects. We also use alternative sources of nitrogen, such as compost, as an alternative to synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. Applying fertilizers in a careless way doesn’t just affect us, it affects our neighbors and future generations, which is why this particular initiative is so important to us. We also limit our vines’ water so that they are stressed from slight dehydration. Don’t think of this as a bad thing though, stressing the vines helps to focus their energy on what they exist to do, reproduce. Restricting their water helps to produce high-quality grapes for the wines, all while saving water! We’ve put a lot of energy into our environmental initiatives and we’re seeing incredible changes in our wine quality because of this. In recent years we’ve seen our grape maturity, juice chemistry, and viticulture improve in part from these business practices.
Finally, economic sustainability plays a huge role in overall sustainability because it is what supports all other efforts. We invest in our employees and evolving technologies so that we are always, without question, both cost-mindful and relentlessly entrepreneurial. We are working on mechanizing our grape growing processes to increase efficiency while also focusing on beneficial employee trainings to decrease turnover. One of the machines we have implemented out in our vineyard, the Oxbow Mechanical Harvester, has a de-stemmer and a sorter. This machine shakes the grapes right off the vine and then de-stems and sorts them. Between the size of our vineyards and the lack of available vineyard workers, this machine has greatly improved our efficiency. One of the biggest advantages to machine picking is that it takes much less time and we’re able to pick as soon as the grapes are ready to be taken off the vine, thus improving wine quality!
What are some of Concannon’s sustainable vineyard practices and what is the team currently working on?
We have a lot going on at the vineyard, so I’ll try to keep it short and sweet. We use inline pressure concentrated drip emitters to be as efficient as possible with our water use and to save water where we can in the vineyards. We have trained our irrigators to regularly test our drip lines to ensure that we are always operating as efficiently as possible. On the topic of water, in the summer of 2017 we installed a water treatment system that uses a reverse osmosis filtration system to clean the water we use on our bottling lines, and recycle it back into our vineyards. While this is not our sole source for watering our vineyards, it helps us save a lot of water year-round.
In general, our sustainable business practices are consistently a category four. Sustainable business practices have to do with how we treat our workers, how we treat our customers, and how we develop and implement our business goals. We put a lot of effort into developing our goals as an organization, and into openly sharing these goals with our employees and customers.
What else is Concannon doing to make a difference?
Outside of the realm of sustainability, we aim to contribute through a few different philanthropic initiatives at the local and national levels. One of our most recent causes was the Fight Hunger program, where we donated 100,000 meals to regional food banks all across America. If you want to learn more about our other efforts, I would recommend checking out our community and philanthropy page.