According to the article, ‘What Does Sustainability Mean? Knowledge Gleaned From Applying Mixed Methods Research to Wine Grape Growing,’ by Irina Santiago-Brown, Cate Jerram, Andrew Metcalfe and Cassandra Collins,(first published online in the Journal of Mixed Methods Research, May 19, 2014), sustainability is defined as…
“The continuous pursuit of equilibrium between economic, social, and environmental variables, and their trade-offs over time,” (pg. 15).
Australia is the only New World country that doesn’t have a decent sustainability program.
In the early 2000’s, after a visit from Dr. Clifford Ohmart, who had developed California’s first ever third party certified sustainable winegrowing program, the Lodi Rules, the innovative winegrowers of the McLaren Vale were inspired to develop their own version of a sustainability program, which would, ‘improve viticultural practices, fruit quality and the financial viability of the region’. Led by local winegrower and academic, James Hook, many of McLaren Vale winegrowers initiated a series of informal seminars and workshops to help improve viticultural practices. They started a growers bulletin called Crop Watch, that provides, amongst other things, information from nine weather monitoring stations throughout the region, as well as pest and disease alerts. They also wrote a number of grower-endorsed codes of conduct on subjects such as soil and water management, pest and disease controls, and economic benchmarks.
“All of the ways and systems we identify as farming, be that organic or biodynamic, or conventional have inherent strengths and weaknesses,” says James, “… and the program was really about the ways in which you could balance the different forms of farming and weigh up their pros and cons against an idea of sustainability.”
This program soon evolved into a more formalised program, known as Generational Farming, which, again, evolved into the McLaren Vale Sustainable Winegrowing Australia (MVSWGA) program. The program now has the ability to be shared, adopted and replicated by other wine regions within Australia, through a principle known as Open Source. Today, the program is called, SAW (Sustainable Australia Winegrowing), McLaren Vale.
“Since 2005, the McLaren Vale Grape Wine and Tourism Association had a number of attempts to start a sustainability program within the region,” explains former Sustainability Officer, Dr Irina Santiago-Brown, who was hired in 2010 to assist, review and revise the assessment methodology of the initial program, and help develop a reporting system. “The idea was to encourage growers to improve what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and question why they’re doing it… But, it was hard for growers to claim any sustainability credentials, because the data collection was virtually non-existent.”
Irina, who was studying for a PhD from the University of Adelaide, which aimed to, ‘investigate the assessment and adoption of sustainability in vineyards, to ensure growers’ longevity in the wine business,’ set about collecting and collating the missing data sets from winegrowers who had signed up to this prototype scheme.
“My first job was to collect the data and understand the problems,” explains Irina, “and then rewrite the system in a way where no one particular farming system had an advantage over another one, but rather encourages everyone to improve.”
Within four years, Irina had built upon the blueprint for the McLaren Vale’s sustainability scheme to include: *An important triple-bottom approach, which recognises the interrelationship between environmental, economical, and social aspects to future sustainability. *Identifying three main principals for the method of assessment: ‘(1) assessment over time, (2) grower sustainability levels identified on a continuum and not a pass/fail basis, (3) the assessment and reporting system must be useful for the grower to understand their sustainability status and be able to improve upon it.’ *Four certification categories: (1) RED, needs attention (2) YELLOW, good (3) GREEN, very good, and (4) BLUE, excellent. The content of the assessment is also updated annually to account for advancements in viticulture (knowledge, information, and technology) and is peer-reviewed by independent experts from universities and governmental departments.
“The system is about awareness and asking questions,” explains Irina, “so you can develop a benchmark to assess yourself against other growers in your region. Then, you can question yourself further about what you’re doing, and hopefully improve from there… For me, it’s important to understand context, and why certain growers are on certain levels,” Irina continues, “because each grower’s scenario is different.”
The McLaren Vale wine region is blessed with a cool Mediterranean climate, which makes chemical free grape growing a breeze (compared with some other regions). In the daytime, sea winds blow south to north, up through Gulf St Vincent, and, in the night-time, cool currents blow east to west through the foothills and gullies of the Willunga escarpment. Air is constantly flowing over the region and its vineyards, reducing disease pressure and, therefore, the real need to spray.
According to Irina, 25% of SAW, McLaren Vale members identify themselves as being organic or biodynamic, whether they’re certified or not. 50% of growers in the program classify themselves as low-input conventional, meaning they use integrated pest management principals and minimal chemical spray applications, amongst other things, to manage their vineyards. And, 25% of growers would count themselves as conventional… “but I would say that even these growers would still use lower inputs, which might include some herbicide use.”
As per the definition above, the SAW McLaren Vale program recognises the three variables of sustainability – economic, environmental, and social – and the need to balance all three effectively, to ensure the future viability of each winegrowing business. It’s not about being exclusive and prescriptive and urging everyone to eventually become organic, or biodynamic, but rather, being inclusive and aware of the sliding scale that defines total sustainability.
“The system isn’t designed to move growers towards a stricter, more organic solution to sustainability,” explains Irina. “I think it’s more about understanding the context of different vineyards and sites… It has to be a rational decision for growers to keep producing and to understand the consequences of their actions, so they can keep on doing what they need to do, in order to keep producing well into the future.”
Despite this, McLaren Vale mystery man, Brad Hickey from Brash Higgins, has recently applied for organic certification with Australian Certified Organic on his Omen Setter vineyard, which, he says, was encouraged by his participation in the SAW, McLaren Vale program.
“SAW has changed my approach to winegrowing by asking and challenging me and my viticulturist to take inventory of every system that affects our vines and land, and shows us areas we need to improve on,” says Brad. “It’s given me a total picture of all the influences on our land and winegrowing, providing a compendium of sorts. I’d say this investigation into our practices led to my decision to go down an certified organic approach to farming rather than just farming sustainably ‘lutte raisonnee‘,” Brad explains.
Fourth generation winegrower, Chester Osborne, from d’Arenberg, one of the regions’ most historically significant wine labels, has been on board with the McLaren Vale program right from the beginning, and says there are some obvious costs to comply with the program, but, “the gains always outweigh the costs.”
“It’s a great way to produce great grapes,” says Chester. “The more growers that do this the better the quality our grapes will be, and the better off our environment and our whole region will be.”
Mike Brown from Gemtree Wines is proud of the SAW McLaren Vale program and what’s it’s meant for the region as a community.
“McLaren Vale grape growers are pioneers,” says Mike. “The SAW program is a regional initiative that’s brought credibility to McLaren Vale and gives us a benchmark to see where we sit amongst our peers.”
This triple-bottom line, peer-reviewed, bottom-up model for sustainability, is the only self-assessment and certification program of its kind in Australia, and, until recently, was the only program to have its scope limited to a single wine region. Now that SAW can be shared, adopted and replicated within other wine regions of Australia, it means that Australia now has the ability to implement it’s very own, fully formed, functioning and decent sustainability program… Just like in Chile, South Africa, The United States of America (x4), and our progressive friends across the ditch, New Zealand (of which 90% of all wine produced is sustainably certified).
The McLaren Vale sustainability program goes beyond tangible improvements in the quality of a product, like wine. It goes beyond ensuring the future environmental, economic and social viability of a wine growing region in Australia. It proves that when people are progressive and innovative and work together in collaboration for the betterment of their community, they can achieve great things that everyone can benefit from, now and into the future.
“The point is to become a better grower, which will improve the quality of your product and the reputation of the region as well,” says Irina. “If the McLaren Vale system is adopted by other regions in Australia, then that’s great for us because it validates our program,” Irina continues, “but, it also means we can begin to build a bigger data set across Australia where we actually compare other regions against each other, to see how we’re going as a entire winegrowing country…
“You can’t be good in isolation…”
D// – The Wine Idealist
Links and Further Reading:
- SAW McLaren Vale
- Sustainability Research Article by Dr. Irina Santiago-Brown: Transnational Comparison of Sustainability Assessment…
- The Wine Rules: Woofagate and Entwined Leadership