Does sustainable wine certification work? One outfit in California seems to show that it can

By Tobias Webb
Here’s a new podcast interview with Beth Vukmanic Lopez, Vineyard Team and SIP Certified, on sustainable wine in California. In particular, we discuss sustainability certification and how it can improve vineyard and winery management and of course, the environment and people management.

One of the themes I’ve been exploring on this blog since I started it, is the notion of sustainability certification. That’s mainly because my day job is helping run a business I founded some years ago, Innovation Forum, which focuses on supply chain sustainability across different areas of business supply chains.

In that work, which covers things like cocoa, coffee, palm oil, timber, pulp, paper and wood, amongst cross-cutting issues like smallholder farmers and human rights, certification and its cost and value has come under a serious spotlight in recent years.

That’s because it costs quite a bit, in time and money, and hasn’t yet enabled a consumer purchasing revolution to buy sustainably. That’s not happened for a lot of reasons, some of which have much less to do with certification than the complexity of reaching consumers and enabling behaviour change. This is an important area, as the recent Nobel Prize award to Richard Thaler shows.

In other areas related to agriculture and human rights, certification has a mixed record, and it’s been hard to nail down whether it’s the best use of resources, whether it helps the most vulnerable and what, if any, the alternatives are. That’s why I wanted to explore it in these wine podcasts, to see what it can, and has done, in the wine industry.

This is why it was a particular pleasure to meet Beth Vukmanic Lopez back in June in California at the Claiborne & Churchill vineyard and winery to discuss this, and then meet some of her customers, (see last post on the blog before this) to discuss how SIP Certified (Sustainability in Practice) works, er, in practice. I also discussed it with Peter Work of Ampelos vineyard about a year ago too, in this podcast.

Given my experience of the limits and costs of certification in other areas of agriculture, I wanted to take a sceptical line, and see what came out of it.

Of course you can judge for yourself but overall I was very impressed with the work of SIP Certified / Vineyard team, in terms of the holistic approach (environmental AND social, and financial/governance), the rigour of their work and the results winemakers (at least two anyhow) say their work and system has had, so far mainly in the Central Coast part of California’s winemaking area.

Of course, there may be weaknesses here. For example, allowing US DOA approved pesticides in their programme would not meet the approval of many groups who claim chemicals allowed by the US Department of Agriculture are not necessarily safe in the long term. Witness recent news (health impacts still seem uncertain) on both Glyphosate and Neonicotinoids.

I asked Beth specifically about the challenge of matching sustainability certification, with integrity and scalability, which is a key challenge in other areas. Her response is that “certifying everyone, would never be the goal” for SIP Certified. The idea being to raise the bar to always be the top notch, aspirational standard. You can argue of course, that if the aspirations are not there across the vineyards in the region, the system can’t scale to deliver overall sustainability, particularly if it’s not designed to do so.

Overall though, why does certification seem to deliver some positive change here, rather than in other areas of agriculture where it might struggle? My simple view is that it’s because landscapes in wine are much more limited, the crop is more weather vulnerable, and the winemakers are often owner/operators of the land, and care for it deeply. In larger scale operations, or with less knowledge in the farmers, certification can struggle to have an impact, but in the case of SIP Certified, it really does seem to make a difference in improving sustainability approaches and performance to date.

So here’s the interview with Beth Vukmanic Lopez from Vineyard Team / SIP Certified. I’d be interested in any comments readers might have on all this.

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About the author

Tobias Webb

Toby Webb is co-founder of Sustainable Wine. He is also founder of Innovation Forum, a leading platform for change in sustainable supply chains. He has spent 20+ years working in business and sustainability and has spent ten years teaching the subject at various London universities. He advises a number of companies large and small on sustainability. Businesses he has worked with include Patagonia, Interface, Bayer, SOK Group, Boots/Walgreens, Metro, Unilever, Nestle, Reckitt Benckiser, Sainsbury’s, and many others. He co-authored the UK’s national CSR strategy for David Cameron from 2006-10. He has been organising events, advising, teaching writing, blogging and podcasting on sustainable business since 2001. His (non-wine) blog is at