Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing Debuts

How the first sustainable vineyard certification program in the eastern U.S. got started

by Hudson Cattell
long island sustainable winegrowing
A logo has been created for use on bottles of certified wines, the first of which are expected to enter the market in early 2013.
Hammondsport, N.Y.—A new organization, Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing Inc., chose Earth Day, April 22, 2012, to announce its formation as the first sustainable vineyard-certification program in the eastern United States. The wine and grape industries are playing a leadership role for the nonprofit organization, which is starting a multi-year certification process for Long Island wineries. The certification program will use international standards for sustainable winegrape production practices that have been adapted to Long Island’s unique conditions.

The certification program is the result of a series of environmental success stories in New York state. In the late 1990s, water quality issues were important in both the Finger Lakes and Long Island, and grape specialists with Cornell Cooperative Extension began working independently on the problems in their areas. To help protect Keuka Lake against pollution, Tim Martinson in the Finger Lakes was given the job of developing agricultural environmental management worksheets for vineyards in the Keuka Lake watershed.

At the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency asked Alice Wise in Suffolk County, Long Island, to work on a sustainable practices workbook for Long Island’s aquifers, which supplied drinking water for the entire island. This was a needed but sensitive subject, because in many places only 2-3 feet of sand covers the water table. By 2003 the original Long Island Sustainable Practices workbook was developed by Wise with the assistance of an organizing committee and The Long Island Agricultural Stewardship Working Group.

The work by Martinson and Wise evolved into a workbook for a statewide sustainable viticulture project. The impetus for a workbook to serve the entire state came from industry groups across the state. Funding was a problem, and Tom Davenport, director of viticulture for National Grape Cooperative, secured major grants from the Northeast Center for Risk Management Education and the New York Farm Viability Institute. Industry funding came from the Lake Erie Regional Grape Program and the New York Wine and Grape Foundation.

Self-assessment workbook
With funding in place, the program—VineBalance: Sustainable Viticulture in the Northeast—was established under the direction of Martinson, who had become a senior extension associate for Cornell Cooperative Extension. What became the “New York Guide to Sustainable Viticulture Practices: Grower Self-Assessment Workbook” was drawn up during winter 2005-06, when seven conferences were held that included 14 representatives of grape and wine industry groups from across the state, Cornell viticulture and cooperative extension staff members, growers, processors, wineries and others. Workbooks used on the West Coast were helpful, particularly one from the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission.

Eight areas of sustainable viticultural practices were covered question by question to ensure that the workbook would be of maximum value to grapegrowers. There were a total of 134 questions to help participants evaluate their current vineyard practices. Once a grower had answered all of the questions, the next step was to develop an action plan based on the self-assessment, starting with practices that fell within financial and management limits.

The workbook was published in 2007, and the grants that made the workbook possible also provided outreach by funding three half-time positions to assist growers. By spring 2008, 64 growers representing one-sixth of the state’s grape acreage had gone through the voluntary program, and 25 had completed action plans.

The VineBalance program was statewide, and the workbook was intended for use throughout New York state. There also was a growing realization that sustainability had to be local, and a need arose to refine the guidelines and give additional focus to local conditions. On Long Island, a working group of four wineries that eventually formed Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing Inc. began working with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County to write and codify specific, sustainable grapegrowing guidelines for the two AVAs on Long Island, the North Fork of Long Island and The Hamptons, Long Island. Included in the group were Richard Olsen-Harbich, the winemaker at Bedell Cellars; Barbara Shinn, co-owner and viticulturist of Shinn Estate Vineyards; Larry Perrine, CEO/partner of Channing Daughters Winery; and Jim Thompson, vineyard manager at Martha Clara Vineyards. Alice Wise from Cornell Cooperative Extension was an advisor to the group and helped write specific guidelines.

Waiting to happen
Olsen-Harbich recalls that the group was an organization waiting to happen. They first started meeting early in 2011 and then more frequently from April through the summer. The group strongly believed in the importance of a third-party verification system, which California and Oregon had using for 10 years, and that certification was a necessary component to legitimize the program. By March 2012, they had formed Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing to provide education and certification for Long Island vineyards.

One of the first steps was to contract with a third-party certifying agent. They chose Allan Connell, who for 34 years had been a district conservationist for the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. In November, after harvest, Connell will begin visiting member vineyards. The group agreed that everyone would be considered to be in transitional status until certified by Connell.

Funding for the new organization will come from individual members who will be stand-alone vineyards or wineries with vineyards. The rate will be $500 per year for the first two years and $300 per year after that. Since memberships are not being accepted until May 1, it is too early to predict the success of the program.

The first certified-sustainable Long Island wines are expected to enter the market in early 2013. A logo has been created for use on bottles of certified wines. An increasing number of people have become interested in marketing the wine as a green industry, and the logo may become a public mark of approval.

Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing is the first sustainable vineyard program in the eastern United States, but it may well have company in the not too distant future. Other areas in New York state also are considering the establishment of certification programs.

For more information about the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing certification program, go to the website lisustainablewine.org.

Posted on 04.25.2012 - 18:38:51 PST
Good luck with the new organization!