An organization providing stewardship for small farms in a maritime climate.
Ten years ago, Long Island vineyard owners were invited to participate in a state-wide meeting with the grape juice industry and Cornell University faculty to design an official sustainability program for New York, complete with a seal of approval. The initiative was driven by Walmart’s efforts to provide sustainable grape juice to its increasingly environmentally-conscious clientele. “The state wanted to come up with a program in a month, develop the logo, self-certify, and call it a day,” recalls Richard Olsen-Harbich, winemaker at Bedell Cellars. “A few of us thought that was not something we wanted to be involved with. The bottom line with all of this is credibility. If you can’t produce a program that has real legs, it looks like greenwashing.”
The “few” included winemakers at Channing Daughters Winery, Shinn Estates, Harbes Family Vineyard, and Bedell Cellars. They understood that a successful sustainability program needed to be local. It needed to take into account Long Island’s topography, weather, community, and other factors that created a common base.
“On Long Island, we stick out into the Atlantic, we’re surrounded by water, and on the North Fork we have one aquifer. Our program needed to address: How can we keep our vines healthy under these conditions? How can we maintain fertile soil? How can we ripen fruit? How can we protect our drinking water?” explains Alice Wise, the viticulture and education specialist for the Suffolk County Cornell Cooperative Extension. “You don’t hammer these issues out in a couple of weeks. We had countless meetings, hundreds of emails, and hours-long phone calls debating, discussing, and sometimes disagreeing about what our standards needed to be.”
View this post on Instagram
Gearing up for Harvest in the first or second week of September! 🍇 🍇 🍇 . . . #lisustainablewine #ecosomm #sustainablewine #gogreen #sustainablefarming #sustainableliving #winecountry #licharacter #longisland #wine #winemaking #winelover #winetasting #vineyardviews #winetour #winetime
The importance of self-assessment
The group met with representatives from leading sustainability programs like LODI RULES and Oregon LIVE. They sought guidance from experts in the areas of fungal disease, insect management, and entomology. Once they came up with a model, they hired Allan Connell, a leading viticulture and sustainability expert to review the program. A year and a half later, efforts shifted from planning to implementation.
A key aspect Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing is self-assessment. Participants fill out a version of New York state’s VineBalance workbook, one which has been adapted to reflect the local ecosystem, to examine their own viticulture practices. When the self-assessment is complete, Allen Connell, who stayed on to be the program’s regular third-party inspector, schedules a vineyard visit to verify that the participant’s understanding of the LISW standards is on point. No matter how well the review goes, he will suggest a few ideas for a more environmentally-conscious approach. On the next visit, he will check to see whether these ideas have been implemented. The idea is to create a circular system for constant improvement and not just certification.
“We didn’t want to come off as a heavy-handed, regulatory organization. LISW is meant to be a nurturing encouraging space where people aren’t afraid to say, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve got to get that straightened out,’” Wise notes. She stresses that the act of self-assessment underscores the important role record keeping plays in sustainability efforts, even if it’s just jotting down casual observations as a matter of course. Some businesses on the North Fork, like Mudd Vineyard, go much further, implementing full-on scouting for pests and disease pressure, an expensive and labor-intensive practice that is invaluable for identifying potential issues. When all plants in a vineyard are observed regularly, patterns emerge, helping vineyard owners identify hot spots and treat issues before they become a problem.
“We think about sustainability as a way of farming based on what is actually happening,” Olsen-Harbich explains. “The approach has the advantage of taking multiple factors into account when evaluating inputs. Not only do we look at what is being added to our vineyards, but also how much and how frequently. For example, if you’re using something that has to be reapplied over and over again throughout the season, you’ll have a higher carbon footprint than with something you apply once given the greenhouse gasses emitted by the tractor. You are also compacting the soil. Plus, if you have excessive quantities of a particular input, there’s a higher chance of it leaching into the water.”
View this post on Instagram
With the Atlantic Ocean, Peconic Bay and Long Island Sound right around the corner, we hold our waters and marine life close to our hearts! . . . . . #lisustainablewine #sustainability #sustainablewine #sustainablevineyard #gogreen #sustainablefarming #sustainableliving #winecountry #licharacter #longisland #wine #winemaking #winelover #winetasting #vineyardviews #winetour #winetime
The future of Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing is in the cellar
“I’ve been doing this almost forty years and it’s not finished, it’s not ever finished, and that’s the whole point. Every year we review what materials are available, the flow of paperwork, how the inspections work. We’re playing a very long game,” says Olsen-Harbich, framing LISW as nothing short of his life’s work.
In the future, he would like to see LISW become a certification program for both vineyard and cellar. He would take a closer look at how wineries clean their floors and equipment and make people aware of the effects of wastewater. As he explains it, “what’s in that wastewater is important because it’s essentially going back into the aquifer.” At Bedell, he avoids chlorine-based detergents and cleans mostly with a lot of hot water and some sodium bicarbonate or citric acid, which are natural. He also points to using lightweight packaging and recycled materials wherever possible as the easiest way for wineries to reduce their carbon footprint. “None of this is exceedingly complicated,” he says. “A lot of it is common sense – being careful, not spilling things, and treating your employees with respect.”
Still, the impact could be tremendous. Whitney Beaman, the LISW program manager and director of brand strategy at Bedell Cellars sees the work of the agricultural sector as an opportunity for mitigating climate change. “Agriculture and forestry contribute 24% of greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale,” she points out, “but they also remove about 20% of the emissions each year. It’s the only sector that can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequester it in the soil (plants remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and it is collected in plant tissue; when a plant dies and decomposes, carbon-dioxide is returned to the earth). That’s something we small farmers can take pride in while trying to maximize our impact through our practices in the vineyard.”
Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing is the first program of its kind on the Eastern seaboard. It provides a blueprint for engaging an independent community of small farmers in a challenging growing region where rain falls frequently while the grapes are on the vine. Today, more than 50% of Long Island’s vineyards are part of the program. There are also businesses that are very environmentally-oriented that feel they don’t have the time to join, and a few that have focused on organics, including Farrm and Anthony Napa Wines. Nonetheless, by offering guidance and standards for protecting local waters, while encouraging soil conservation, low-input farming, biological diversity, and community stewardship, LISW has provided an emerging wine region with a viable path to a sustainable future.