To be, or not to be… that is the question.
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to know that your vineyard is organic or biodynamic, and let it be thus, or to seek independent third party certification from one of the many certification organisations in Australia and New Zealand, and prove, once and for all, that you are, indeed, what you claim to be.
Ay, there’s the rub.
Organic and biodynamic certification can be a touchy subject amongst winegrowers. Those who aren’t certified, but still make claims to be, will generally pardon their decision not to seek certification, either because they’re too small and it’s too expensive, they don’t have the time it takes to fill out all the necessary paper work, or that it should be incumbent upon those who poison their environment with synthetic chemicals to be licensed, instead.
“I’m not certified, and I don’t wish to be”, Ron Laughton from Jasper Hill once said in a past edition of The Wine Idealist, “I can stand up with my hand on my heart and say I’ve been doing it for nearly 40 years… I think the dirty bastards that are using chemicals on their vineyard should be licensed. Why should I be certified to be clean, and do nothing harmful in my vineyard? It’s the wrong way round.”
To be perfectly honest, I completely agree with Ron’s sentiment. It’s madness that we live in a world where the horse has been put before the cart, that harmful chemicals, if inhaled or make contact with your skin can actually kill you, or eventually seep into our waterways and destroy precious biodiversity. Never mind the fact that this stuff is sprayed directly onto the types of foodstuffs we all, inevitably, eat. And this is defined as ‘conventional’? This is a detonation of the denotation of the word, ‘conventional’, a vocabulary hijacking at ten paces, Orwellian doublespeak at its most toxic. But, them’s the breaks…
So, what is certification? Who and what’s involved? And is it really worth it?
In Australia and New Zealand, in order to promote and sell your wine as organic or biodynamic by making such claims on the label, it must be certified, according to Consumer Law, and adhere to a number of strict standards set down by each countries’ respective governments. Then, in addition to the standards set by each government, each particular certifying body will impose their own set of standards that a producer must meet in order to attain certification for their product.
In Australia, there are two prominent certification organisations that independently operate and certify a wide range of agricultural products, including wine. They are Australian Certified Organic (ACO) and the National Association of Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAA). In New Zealand, one of the main certifying bodies is BioGro.
Whilst being totally independent of each other, each of these three certifying bodies do have many similarities in their processes and procedures for a producer to become certified.
“The certification process is based upon the national standard for organics,” explains ACO auditor, John Keep, “and Australian Certified Organic has it’s own standard, which new and existing members are audited against each year.”
NASAA uses the same government benchmark standard as ACO, while BioGro takes their cue from the New Zealand government’s Assure Quality Organic Standard for Primary Producers. To apply for organic certification through either one of these certifiers requires patience and some paperwork.
“The process for achieving certification,” explains John Keep from ACO, “going from a conventionally managed vineyard to an organic or biodynamically certified one, involves an application process, which details the history of the property, how it’s been managed in the past, but most importantly how it’s going to be managed in the future.”
Once a producer has lodged an application for certification, the relevant certifier will send an auditor to visit the property and carry out an inspection. This includes a multi residue analysis of the soil to look for any synthetic chemicals and heavy metals that may be found in the soil (except copper, which is allowed under most certification standards, but only in small amounts and needs to be justified, for example if it exceeds 3kg/ha per year, in the case of BioGro). An auditor will also sit down with the producer and go through a list of question about the future management of the property, including how they plan to manage weeds, pest and disease pressures. Once all the required documentation and information has been collected from the producer seeking certification and their application has been approved, it takes a minimum of three years for a property to be fully certified. During the first two, a producer can opt to declare an, ‘in conversion’ status on their product. For each subsequent year, until certification is discharged, an auditor from the particular certifying body will visit the property to carry out an annual inspection.
“We visit each grower, once per year, which is pretty standard for most certifying bodies, to make sure they’re complying with the standards we’ve set,” explains BioGro’s viticulture and winemaking auditor, Jared White. “Our role isn’t just certifying the vineyards and that’s it. Our role is about supporting the growers, providing them access to certain markets, and making those processes as easy and as simple as possible.”
“We get certified once a year… and each audit lasts a day,” explains James Millton from Millton Vineyards in New Zealand, which is certified by BioGro. “There’s, about three to four days of getting all the paper work formailised, from the records of the past season, and then usually another day of getting things double checked.”
Each annual inspection involves checking spray diary records, receipts for particular input purchases and other documented evidence a producer is required to keep each year and show to an auditor to prove that what they say they are doing is correct.
“An annual inspection of a certified property includes various reconciliations with a farmer’s records for the use of inputs and their total production over a calendar year,” explains NASAA’s Certification Manager, Sachin Ayachit. “An inspector verifies the records for the past 12 months, including spray diaries and receipts, and then looks at the management plan the farmer has made for the next 12 months.”
“The inspections are really all about a paper trail,” says Alan Cooper from Cobaw Ridge, which is certified by NASAA. “It all comes back to integrity, integrity and more integrity. That, to me, is the whole point of being who we are and why we’re doing what we do.”
Random inspections, including soil tests, are carried out on at least 10% of properties each year. Once it’s been proved, through an annual audit, that the producer has executed and maintained their organic or biodynamic regime, their certification status is renewed by their particular certifier. Of course, there are costs involved for the privilege of having organic and/or biodynamic certification.
“We pay $700 for our annual inspection, and then a very small percentage to NASAA to use their logo on our bottles,” says Alan from Cobaw Ridge, “however, the fee does not kick in till you reach $40,000 in annual turn over. So, if some one is ‘small’ they really don’t have the cost of certification as an excuse.”
Each certifier will have their own particular fee structure, but this arrangement is similar between ACO and BioGro, where the producer pays an annual audit fee, and then a percentage, based on the individual growers level of production. This allows them to use the various logos on their products and gives them access to both domestic and international markets that demand organic and/or biodynamic products, such as wine.
“We spend about 4% of our income on certification and compliance costs,“ says James Millton,” but perhaps other wine labels spend twice as much as that on advertising and marketing… these days, many international markets want quality assurance… so, I think it’s money well spent.”
“Unfortunately, there are some unscrupulous people who make unsubstantiated claims for being organic,” says Jared White from BioGro. “If you’re really farming organically anyway, then what do you have to lose by just getting certified?”
This is a sentiment that is echoed by many other winegrowers who have taken the plunge and got certified, in order to prove to their customers that they are indeed maintaining an organic or biodynamic regime, not least of all, Vanya Cullen from Cullen wines in Western Australia.
“I don’t see any disadvantages to being certified,” says Vanya. “It’s the only way you can be sure that the product you’re buying is organic or biodynamic. There are so many people who say it doesn’t matter, and they don’t need to be certified, and that they are, ‘organic or biodynamic in principle’, which means they can still put as many chemicals onto their vineyard as they like, whilst still using organic or biodynamic inputs, but this simply isn’t true.”
So… to be or not to be? That is, indeed the question.
D// – The Wine Idealist
- National Standard for Organic and Bio-dynamic Produce (Australia) (.pdf)
- Assure Quality Organic Standard For Primary Producers (New Zealand) (.pdf)
- Australian Certified Organic (ACO)
- National Association of Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAA).