Defining Sustainability in Long Island Wine Country

Last weekend – appropriately on Earth Day – a small group of local wineries announced the creation of Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing (LISW), a not-for-profit organization that will educate local vineyards and serve as the sustainable vineyard certification program  in  the  eastern  United  States.

“Sustainable” is a term that you hear a lot on the East End. Local wineries know that more and more people are taking an interest in not only where their food – wine is food after all – is grown, but how. People point to windmills, solar arrays, compost piles and the like as proof of their commitment to green practices. Those things are all well and good, but unlike “organic” and “biodynamic” which have strict rules and formal certification, “sustainable” has been a bit more nebulous and hard to define. “Sustainable” is a bit of a “green” grey area without any local definition or certification. It is a term that is decidedly open to interpretation. Because of that ambiguity, it is no doubt being abused by some wineries that want to cash in on the green movement without really acting as stewards for their land.

LISW, founded by Bedell Cellars, Channing Daughters Winery, Martha Clara Vineyards and Shinn Estate Vineyards has the potential to change that by bringing structure and clarity to just what “sustainability” is in Long Island wine country. These founding partners worked in conjunction with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County to write and codify specific sustainable grape growing guidelines for Long Island’s two AVAs (American Viticultural Areas): the North Fork of Long Island and The Hamptons, Long Island.

The foundation of the program is the New York VineBalance Grower Self-Assessment Workbook, which acts as a roadmap for evaluating sustainable viticultural practices. Development of the VineBalance Workbook began in 2004 as a major cooperative effort led by Cornell University Cooperative Extension with funding from the New York Wine & Grape Foundation and New York Farm Viability Institute.

According to the group’s press release, they will begin the multi-year certification process for Long Island farm wineries using international standards of sustainable practices in quality wine-grape production that have been refined for Long Island. These sustainability guidelines use a checklist system consisting of recommended and prohibited practices and materials, thoughtful planning and numerous ecological options, as verified by independent third-party certifiers.

A comprehensive list of sustainable farming guidelines and principles is available from LISW upon request, and complete up-to-date information can be found by following LISW on the internet (lisustainablewine.org), Facebook (facebook.com/sustainablewinegrowing) and Twitter (twitter.com/liswinegrowing). The organization has pending 501(c)(3) not-for-profit status and the first certified sustainable Long Island wines will be available for sale in early 2013.

All Long Island vineyard owners have been invited to join LISW to begin working on the transitional path toward the adoption of more sustainable practices and ultimate certification. So, the next time someone talks about their winery as “sustainable” you can – and should – ask them if they are working with LISW. Local wineries won’t be able to hide behind “sustainable” anymore.

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