Awarding sustainable B.C. wine

Sustainability efforts in the industry continue to evolve over time

Summerhill Pyramid Winery has not used synthetic pesticides on its vineyards since it was founded in the late 1980s, according to CEO Ezra Cipes | Kevin Trowbridge

This article was originally published in the July 2020 issue of BIV Magazine.

B.C. winery owners could soon achieve a new certification to prove to themselves, and consumers, that their operations are “sustainable” – a fuzzy term that has meant many things through the decades.

Some longtime winery owners, however, believe themselves to be ahead on the sustainability curve, and are unsure that they will even apply to take part in the BC Wine Grape Council’s Sustainable Winegrowing British Columbia (SWBC) program, which is set to start a certification process for B.C. wineries this fall.

Exactly what it means to be sustainable has long been a matter of dispute, and the new program is unlikely to change that.

What makes SWBC’s program distinct is that it links paying attention to social, environmental and financial factors to a made-in-B.C. points system that its creators have devised specifically for the wine sector.

SWBC’s program itself has been around for several years, and nearly 40 winery owners have taken self-assessments, Karen Gillis, chair of the SWBC project, tells BIV Magazine.

Gillis had intended certification to start this spring, but the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench into those plans.

Winery owners who want to be certified under the new program must first go through a process of assessing their own operations in areas such as energy consumption, water management and human resources.

Gillis’ organization intends to hire auditors to start inspecting wineries’ paperwork and physical operations this fall, and then grant points for success.

She hesitates to give a timeline for when the first winery will be certified, but Gillis hopes that it will be in 2021. By then, the organization will likely have created a logo that certified wineries’ owners could put on their wine bottle labels, or on decals that are placed on doors to tasting rooms.

The points system will be complicated, with requirements varying for different wineries. Water consumption limits, for example, will be different depending on soil types, Gillis says.

“We’re not looking to be proscriptive, but looking for people to monitor their water use year over year, and understand how their plants are being affected,” she explains.

“If you are using overhead irrigation now, and you convert to drip irrigation next year just to cut out your overheads, your plants are going to die. So it’s a step-by-step process.”

The crowning achievement of SWBC’s certification program may be that as more winery owners go through the self-assessment process, they will learn to create documentation on how they operate.

“That’s why we’re talking about certification,” Gillis says. “If you don’t have documentation in place, there’s nothing to audit and check on. That is the first step.”

SWBC’s new program is the latest to join a continuum of programs aimed at encouraging more sustainable winemaking. 

Decades ago, sustainability tended to primarily convey that winery principals had a heightened concern for the environment, and were skipping synthetic pesticides in favour of using organic fertilizers on grapes.

In November 1994, B.C. was the first province to legislate an organic food certification program, and wineries were finally able to certify that their grapes were organic. To do that, they had to prove that they had gone three years without using chemical fertilizers, pesticides, hormones or antibiotics.

Before 1994, B.C. winery owners who wanted to claim that their grapes were organic were free to do so, and there was no legal liability if they made false claims.

The flip side of the situation was that winery principals, such as Summerhill Pyramid Winery co-founders Stephen and Wendy Cipes, had no designation to prove that their grapes were indeed organic.

The program that the Cipeses navigated in the mid-1990s, and is still in place today, is one where local organic associations work under the Certified Organic Associations of BC umbrella. Local associations are empowered to inspect paperwork and vineyards to certify that a winery does in fact grow organic grapes.

Summerhill was one of the first wineries to be certified as having organic grapes, says the Cipeses’ son – and the winery’s CEO – Ezra Cipes.

“Federal regulations and the federal organic standard wasn’t released until 2007,” he tells BIV Magazine.

That new standard, administered by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, certifies that a winery’s entire winemaking process is organic. For the first time, it enabled owners to genuinely call their wineries organic.

“I will be interested to see how the SWBC program develops, and hope that there’s value in it,” Cipes says. “I would be open to joining it perhaps, although my read is that it was not developed with organic vineyards in mind, but as an alternative to organics that allows participants to use synthetic fungicides, pesticides and fertilizers in a more conscientious way, integrating them with biological practices rather than just totally relying on them.”

Kalala Organic Estate Winery owner Karnail Singh Sidhu agrees.

“It’s a nice start for the wine industry, but I don’t know [about applying to join the SWBC program,]” he says. “Being an organic winery, I think I’m a little ahead of that.”

Sidhu’s vineyards have been what he considers to be organic since he acquired the winery in 2001, and his grapes have been certified organic since 2010, he says.

Both Summerhill and Kalala are also already Certified B Corporation members, according to Cipes and Sidhu.

That global program, which launched in 2007, is not specifically for the wine industry, but, like the SWBC program, it has a points system and aims to convey that its members are acting sustainably. It also includes social elements in its definition of sustainability.

Cipes tells BIV Magazine that being part of the B Corp. program reminded him of the importance of reaching out to underrepresented groups when hiring. He then contacted the Okanagan Indian Band as part of his summer recruitment drive in an effort to ensure his staff reflects the diversity of the population.

This article was originally published in the July 2020 issue of BIV Magazine. Read BIV Magazine: The Sustainability Issue here.