Sustaining our wine, Part Two

Jérome Bezios of Domaine la Croix des Marchands is the first of First Vine's producers to get a sustainability certification, from Terra Vitis in France.

Jérome Bezios of Domaine la Croix des Marchands is the first of First Vine’s producers to get a sustainability certification, from Terra Vitis in France.

Way back in 2012, I wrote a post about sustainability and wine. I had promised a second one but I got distracted by life and too many bright, shiny objects. Four years later, I’ve decided to get back around to it, for two reasons:

  •  News from a First Vine producer.  Jérome Bezios of Domaine la Croix des Marchands in the Gaillac region of southwestern France, is the first of my producers to seek and obtain certification for sustainable wine agriculture and winemaking. Terra Vitis, a French organization founded in 1998, has awarded Jérome a certificate of completion. Actually, he got his first certificate a few years ago and, in his typically modest fashion, didn’t broadcast it to the world. I only found out a few months ago. He doesn’t even put “Certified Sustainable” (or the French equivalent) on his wine labels.
  • Lots of other sustainability news.   The Wine Economist blogger Mike Veseth has turned his attention to sustainability, which means we’re reading more about it. In a rundown of sustainability topics, he mentions the goal the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission set two years ago to have 100% of its vineyards certified sustainable by 2019. As Veseth says, it’s an ambitious undertaking.

The Commission is using the California Sustainable Winegrowing Program (CSWP) and its certification arm, Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing (CCSW). I decided to dig deeper into the program, via its California Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Workbook, which program participants have to complete and follow. (Unfortunately, my French isn’t good enough to do the same for Terra Vitis, although the English summary of the organization’s goals sounds a lot like CSWP’s, at least in the abstract.) As of January 2016, 64% of the county’s total vineyard acreage had been evaluated by its owners using the workbook, and 43% of the grape growers had received certification.

Sonoma County winegrowers are on track to be 100% certified by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Program by 2019.

Sonoma County winegrowers are on track to be 100% certified by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Program by 2019.

Reading the workbook reminded me of my early enviro days, when I was a third-party evaluator for a state’s pollution prevention planning program. I visited industrial facilities and reviewed the statutory plans they’d created and the goals they’d set – as well as the data they had to back up those plans and goals. In order to be certified sustainable after completing the CCSW workbook, vineyards and wineries also have to submit to third-party verification. With my own evaluation experience, plus talking with Jérome and two of my producers who have European organic certifications, I have a pretty good idea of what this third-party process is about, from the perspectives of the evaluator and the producer.

Before I launch into the nitty-gritty, though, a reminder of what sustainability is supposed to mean. It’s a balance that satisfies as much as possible the economic and environmental health interests of the producer, the workers, and the surrounding community and environment. It’s not necessarily intuitive to think of the community as having economic interests in the environment. But tourism, water and wastewater treatment, and a host of other factors – generating revenue or costing money for the public at large – come into play in that sort of calculation, even if they’re not explicit.

I also recommend you read my old post if you have time. Nothing has changed in the big picture from what I wrote there (and, uncharacteristically for me, I don’t want to repeat myself too much). I still think that the blanket designation of “certified sustainable” could create the impression of greater uniformity and environmental protection than may actually exist. What has changed for me is that I’ve had more interactions with producers at conferences, trade shows, and tastings. The one thing they all tell me is that they’re looking to communicate better with consumers about how they make their wines. Many of them think that a certification of some kind — sustainability, biodynamics, or organic production — will help.

I definitely get that producers want to demonstrate that they are doing their best. Because that “best” is subjective, they want a level playing field for evaluation. That’s partly what makes organic certification appealing. And, to a lesser extent, biodynamic certification. Both of these are more rigidly defined than sustainability.  So my question is whether the CCSW program will do what producers want it to.  (If you’d like to stop reading here, my answer is maybe, but I have my doubts.)

The workbook is pretty darned thorough in its scope, from field practices and pest management to human resource management, energy and water use, greenhouse gas emissions, and responsible purchasing. Vineyard managers/owners answer the exhaustive list of questions and get a rating from 1 to 4 for each, depending on responses. The goal is to get a 3 or 4 for each question. If the answer is a 1 or 2, then the manager has to develop a plan for improvement.  (A 2 may also be acceptable, depending on circumstances.)


The three interlocking rings of sustainability (like a mini-olympics!)  My concern is that the economics ring is going to dwarf the other two in some circumstances.  Not that it’s not important, but in my experience it can be a convenient excuse for keeping the status quo.

Regarding the environmental and health issue that probably concerns people most, producers can’t do anything illegal in their operations, including pesticide use or treatments with potentially dangerous substances. They have to follow federal, state, and local laws, and also must follow label instructions on pesticides. Also, presumably, any regulations regarding their appellations. They’re encouraged to engage in integrated pest management and use less of particular substances than the law would allow them to. For the substances they use, maximum care should be taken to get them in the right place and avoid their getting into groundwater, surface water – basically anywhere beyond the application points.

After the vineyard manager completes the workbook and plans, the third-party examiner comes in to evaluate and validate what’s in the workbook and on site. Not only do producers have to provide the summaries of how they rated themselves, but they also have to produce documentary and even physical evidence. This can take the form of purchase receipts, time-stamped detailed photos, etc. Some producers get a little creative. I heard a story about a producer who kept fungicide containers and recorded the fill levels after each use, with accompanying dates. Sort of like recording your children’s heights at different ages with pencil marks on a wall. With a little geometry, you can figure out what got used.

All of this sounds pretty straightforward, although time consuming and probably expensive, too. The thing is, though, both the producer and the evaluator have a lot of wiggle room. This is set out right away, in the first chapter of the workbook:

“Economic feasibility is one of the three tenets of sustainability. Therefore… it is important to recognize that, because grape prices vary significantly by region and variety, economic constraints will influence the degree to which some of the practices… can be implemented.”

When I did the environmental evaluations I described above, I examined the cost analysis facilities did for each project in their plans. The plans were mandatory, but the projects weren’t. It was up to the facility to decide if they were going to implement plan projects. Often, even if projects had good financials, facilities decided not to do them. For some smaller facilities, the problem was access to money. But even for larger facilities with more resources, many projects I thought were no-brainers didn’t get done.

The same is true for the winegrowers. It’s their decision to make. The evaluator can verify the math, and perhaps suggest changes or give additional information that might change the analysis. Evaluators can also request periodic re-examination of the numbers to see if the situation changes. For some producers, peer pressure might convince them to do things they otherwise wouldn’t if left to themselves. But, to a great extent, the evaluators still have to take no for an answer. Probably more often than they’d like to.

Some things are easy to examine for all participants. CCSW strives for continuous improvement, and it’s possible to measure improvement for certain parameters: water use, energy use, nitrogen use, and greenhouse gas emissions. But what about a producer who decides, for good financial reasons, that 1 or a 2 ratings is all he or she is going to achieve in certain areas of the program? Is that producer as “sustainable” as another who, in similar financial circumstances, makes the decision to invest in getting more 3 and 4 ratings anyway? Producers who don’t see a way to all 3s and 4s may decide to opt out from certification. But at what point do the evaluators decide that a currently-certified producer isn’t making enough of an effort to improve those 1s and 2s? Or do they ever? And, is that fair to those that do make the improvements?

I really like the self-evaluation portion of the program, and I think it’s worthwhile for all California wineries to at least go through it. Unless I’m grossly mistaken about the actual certification process, though, I’m not convinced that CCSW provides the level playing field that producers are looking for at this point. However, the Sonoma project could provide an opportunity to assess some of the variability. Having a number of vineyards undergo the process with many of the same grapes, terroir, and economic issues for producers will be a good test for CCSW. I’ll be interested to see how it’s going in 2019 and in years after.

As for Jérome, he is happy that he has something he can point to for his vineyard and winery. Knowing him and how he operates, I’m sure he aced the process. Still, I’m going to have to improve my French and figure it out for sure. Once I do, maybe I can become a third-party certifier of French vineyards for Terra Vitis. I imagine there are worse jobs in the world!


My first attempt at roasting a chicken in a Bundt pan. You don't need to use one if you also have a vertical chicken roaster. But hey, how often do you get to use this pan anyway?

My first attempt at roasting a chicken in a Bundt pan. You don’t need to use one if you also have a vertical chicken roaster. But hey, how often do you get to use this pan anyway?

March weather is unpredictable. Last week we had daytime temperatures in the high 70s and also the low 50s. Planning a meal ahead of time can be difficult if you’re looking to match your meals to the weather. One thing always seems to work for me as long as it’s not too hot, and that’s roast chicken.   You might not want to keep the oven on for nearly two hours in the heat of summer, but it’s still OK even in our warmer March temperatures.

A couple of months ago I came across a food article that contained the word “hack” in the title. As someone who grew up thinking a hack was a taxicab, a person trying something he or she isn’t skilled at, or (as a verb) to cut away at blindly, I’m still getting used to using the word hack with computers. How in the world did we get to a place where this word has come to mean any idea that the reader may not have heard of before? Maybe if it’s a super-duper idea, but chances are if it’s in a Facebook or Twitter post it’s not going to change your life.

So I had to choke back my hatred for this incarnation of the word (I’m adding it to my list) to make myself read the article, which was about using a Bundt cake pan as a vertical roaster for chicken. Cover the center pillar of the pan with foil, then put various combinations of vegetables tossed in oil, salt, and pepper, in the bottom of the pan. Fit the chicken opening-side down onto the pillar, put the whole thing in the oven, and roast away. The vegetables in the pan will get cooked in the chicken fat and juices, and the chicken itself will brown beautifully.

Obviously, you could do the same thing with a vertical chicken roaster sitting in a small baking pan. But having all sorts of baking pans at home, I welcomed the chance to make something other than cake or meatloaf in the Bundt pan. (I also use it to hold an ear of corn when I’m cutting the kernels off: put the stem end of the corn in the center hole, then run your knife down along the cob. The cut kernels will fall into the pan instead of spraying all over. At least most of them will, anyway.)

One of my favorite old-school roast chicken recipes has potatoes, onion, artichoke hearts, and red bell pepper in the roasting pan along with the bird. So I’ve put those in here. Feel free to use an equivalent amount of other vegetables – just don’t use ones that cook too quickly. Even though the chicken pretty much covers the vegetables, and they’re definitely going to be soft, some like asparagus will start to disintegrate.

For wine, I’d go with Jérome’s Vieilles Vignes ($17). Equal parts Syrah and Braucol, it has a unique flavor – a little bit of clove and allspice in there that goes well with everything. Great to drink while you hack away at the chicken!



Bundt Pan Chicken with Potatoes and Artichoke Hearts

Serves 4

1 3-1/2 pound chicken, dried inside and out with paper towels

1 9 or 10-oz package frozen artichoke hearts, thawed

2 red onions, peeled

1 red bell pepper, cut in half vertically, stemmed and seeded

2 large red potatoes, cut lengthwise into six pieces each

Olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1-1/2 teaspoons dried thyme

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Cover the center pillar of the Bundt pan with a small piece of foil and set aside.

Trim about ¼-inch of the top leaves from the artichoke hearts (they can be tough) and put them in a large bowl with the potato wedges. Cut the top off the onions, but keep the root end intact. Cut the onions in half lengthwise, then cut each half lengthwise in three pieces. Add the onion to the bowl. Cut the pepper in one-inch strips and add to the bowl.

In a small bowl, combine the oregano and thyme with a teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Add half the mixture to the bowl of vegetables, along with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Toss the vegetables, oil, and herb mixture together, and spoon into the bottom of the Bundt pan. Add another 2 tablespoons of olive oil to the rest of the herb mixture and combine well. Fit the cavity opening of the chicken onto the center pillar of the pan, moving the legs out to stabilize it. Brush the oil and herb mixture all over the chicken.

Bake for an hour to an hour and a quarter. Using an instant-read thermometer, check the temperature of the joint where the thigh meets the body. It should be about 170 degrees F. Roast longer if necessary. Carefully remove the chicken to a cutting board (I use wads of paper towels to do this.) Let the chicken rest for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, turn the oven off and put the Bundt pan with the vegetables back in while the chicken is resting.

Carve the chicken and serve with the vegetables and their juices.

This entry was posted in Sustainability, Sustainable farming, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, wine delivery washington dc and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s