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California Wine Sector Going Green to Avert Regulation

Under fire from environmentalists, California's 150-year-old wine industry will announce a green code of conduct next week in a bid to head off potentially costly state regulation, major trade groups said.

The Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers said they will announce a code of sustainable environmental practices for the state's vintners, who produce more than 90% of the nation's wine.

Critics, who charge the wine industry with contributing to soil erosion, watershed loss, and pollution, contend the voluntary code may not go far enough.

The industry effort —- two years in the making and culminating in a 360-page workbook -— addresses water, land, and pesticide use. It urges self-regulation by California grape growers and wine makers.

"To maintain our standing as a world-class competitor in the global marketplace, we believe it is better to avoid unnecessary legislation by self-governance," the San Francisco–based Wine Institute said in a statement.

The industry in Sonoma County north of San Francisco has received especially harsh criticism as vineyards have multiplied, replacing orchards, farms, and grazing lands.

Activists have also blamed vineyards for the loss of native trees, sacred objects to many in Northern California. The region also is home to some of the U.S. wine industry's best known and most productive grape-growing regions.

"Do we want to maintain the name of Redwood Empire for this region or be known as the red wine empire?" said Toben Dilworth, program manager of Town Hall Coalition, a community group in Occidental, a Sonoma County town. "Redwoods are slowly being carved away to make way for grapes."

As Land Gets Scarce

John De Luca, president of the Wine Institute, which represents about 600 wineries making 92 percent of California's wine, said the reason for promoting environmentally friendly vineyard practices can be summed up in one word: "land."

"We're not about to move the California wine industry to other states," De Luca said. "The overriding strategy is to make sure that California wine is made from grapes grown in California."

That will require growers to become reliable stewards by rethinking how they use natural resources as the state's population grows and as consumers gradually equate so-called sustainable agriculture with premium products, De Luca said. Additionally, California's wine industry needs to set itself apart from scores of competitors worldwide, De Luca said. Environmental credentials may be one way to do so, he said.

"Home-grown isn't what people are looking at," De Luca said. "They're looking at quality, taste, and value. The sustainability program will permit us to be competitive in all these areas."

According to Tom Meyer, global brand director for Fetzer Vineyards, owned by Brown-Forman Corp., California's industry will be stronger over the long run if it adopts green principles because they produce better-tasting wines. Mendocino County–based Fetzer claims the world's largest organic vineyard, established after Fetzer president Paul Dolan found grapes from an organic garden tasted better than standard vineyard grapes, according to the company.

"There has to be a way to protect the very health of our vines, which are the very heart of our business," Meyer said.

Environmentalists are skeptical California's wine industry will change its ways to the degree they want, especially in Sonoma County.

"It's great the wine industry is improving practices to eliminate problems of the past," said Town Hall Coalition's Dilworth. "But the issue of rapid and permanent forest conversion to vineyards is not in the plan, and that's our main concern."

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