Interview: Sustainability at Sokol Blosser
Claire Biddiscombe talks to Alex Sokol Blosser and Russ Rosner of Oregon's Sokol Blosser winery about sustainable winemaking
Oregon's Sokol Blosser winery celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2011. For the June/July edition of Earth Notes, Claire Biddiscombe interviewed Alex Sokol Blosser, co-president and second generation winegrower at Sokol Blosser, and Russ Rosner, Sokol Blosser's winemaker since 1998.
Wine Access will run the complete interview online, in four parts over the month of June. This is the first part.
Read the interview as it appears in the magazine.
Claire: How did sustainability become a key principle at Sokol Blosser?
Alex: I think it was really driven by my mom — Susan Sokol Blosser. Sustainability has meant something different over the years and we always looked at ourselves as being good to the Earth, but that changed as the decades went by.
In the '70s and '80s, we were recognized by the local soil and water conservation district as being a conservation partner. And that was basically because we used cover crops in all of our vineyards to keep erosion at a minimum during the wintertime.
But in the '90s, more third-party certification groups popped up, and in the mid-'90s we went for third-party certification of us being good to the Earth. And the first one was Salmon Safe and then it was LIVE and then, in 2002, we decided to go organic and get certified organic.
We started farming organically in 2002 and got certified in 2005. So, it was something that we evolved along with the rest of the world, in terms of what it meant to be sustainable and good to the Earth.
Russ: If I can add something to that, I think that ... we were always sort of ahead of the curve. And when you're out there trying to do things that aren't standard, it's always more difficult. And, you know, not just in the vineyards, but in the winery also, we were looking at doing things sustainably before the word sustainable was even in common usage.
When I first got here in 1998, we had our tasting room remodelled. I was dealing with the contractor for that and I told him that we wanted to do it sustainably and he thought I meant that we wanted it to last a long time. So everything that we've done since I've been here along the lines of sustainability, whether it's in the vineyard or the winery, has been heavy lifting. It's always more expensive, it's not standard, we're always doing something that nobody else seems to be doing, we're always asking the hard questions. We got into it way before it was in the mainstream.
Claire: What are your thoughts on those sorts of [sustainable] practices becoming more widespread?
Alex: I think it's awesome. We believe business can be part of the solution in terms of solving some of the problems, whether it's global warming, global change, climate change. So the more businesses — whether it's vineyards or wineries or distributors or what have you — get under the big tent of sustainability, the better.
The more that go organic — it just feeds off itself. I'm seeing more and more options every year in terms of chemicals to use in the vineyard that are certified for organic use and the chemicals are getting better. I just think it's something that more growers and more wineries should look at. And I think it fits all business models, whether you're going for the low end or the high end.
Russ: The danger is that there's a certain amount of greenwashing going on, which is unfortunate. When we started doing things and asking questions of consumers and wine buyers, you know, 'How important is it to you that the wine has an organic certification?' And for many years, it was not at all important. That was not something that would command a premium or that consumers seemed to be interested in. And it still doesn't necessarily command a price premium as organic vegetables or fruits might, but all of a sudden, in the last 3 or 4 years, being organic or being certified with some sustainable certification has become much more important in the marketplace and, predictably, a lot of people are jumping on that bandwagon.
They may say they farm organically, and they may, but they're not certified. And organic has a legal definition and you have to have an independent third-party certifier to make that claim. So while somebody may not make that claim on their label — legally they can't — they would still tell people, “Well, I farm organically.” Well, and that may or may not be true, but this opens the door now, as you would expect, to a lot of people jumping on this and abusing it. And that makes it more confusing for the consumer and potentially cheapens the certifications.
Claire: So what can wineries that are committed to organic practices do to guard against that?
Alex: Well, what I do is when I talk about my family's place, I say, 'Hey, we don't make organic wine, but our grapes are certified organic by the U.S. Department of Ag.' And being certified organic is the terminology I use. And I think there's more regulation in the United States, as far as USDA organic is concerned — they're spending more money, clamping down on people who are saying they're organic, but they're not organic.
I think there's going to be a big change in Canada, as well, because the organic laws throughout Canada are now harmonized with USDA organic, which I think is going to be fantastic in terms of trade between the two nations and also in terms of making that organic standard worth something more and worth defending more as well.
Claire: Russ, did you have anything to add to that?
Russ: The only thing I would add would be, if other vineyards or wineries try to make claims, there's really nothing we can do about that, it's up to the regulating agencies to police that themselves. All we can do is say what we're doing.
As an example, we built the first LEED-certified winery building in the country, and really, the world, because it's certified in this country. There wasn't anyone else who had built one and building a LEED-certified building is very complicated — we took a lot of extra time, spent a lot of extra money to do this and to have the certification. Another winery here built their whole winery as a LEED building, which — they built it to LEED standards, but it actually never got certified. And you know, for a long time they were out there touting their building as a LEED building. Well, that's the same thing as saying they're organic — you farm organically, but you're not certified. So that's frustrating, but I don't think there's anything we can do about that and that's just really up to the regulating agencies to defend their certifications.