California Wine: Certification Beyond Organic

Ever buy a bottle of wine that featured a little red circle that looked like it was left from a wine glass with the words "SIP Certified" written inside, and then wondered what that logo meant? SIP is short for Sustainability in Practice, and it's the brainchild of a group called the Vineyard Team, based in Atascadero.

What began as a self-assessment system in 1996 turned into third-party certification in 2008. Kris Beal, executive director of the Vineyard Team, puts it this way, "There was definitely a sense of wanting to have an independent, trustworthy, and verifiable certification. Buyers, that is both consumers and retailers, were asking about a company's sustainable practices and wanted a way to back up that claim."

Sure, a vineyard or a winery can insist it's organic or even biodynamic, and can get certified for either, but SIP wanted to go beyond those programs. If you look at the comparison chart on its website, SIP provides nine guidelines the other two don't, things like water conservation, social responsibility, and community relations. "SIP addresses the whole farm," Beal explains. "Energy, water, pest management, habitat, soils, economics, and people. It is definitely broader than some of the other environmental certifications that may only prohibit certain practices or only address the environment."

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SIP is nothing if not well-rounded, realizing best practices need to extend beyond the time the grapes make it into the winery. It also insists the worker is as valuable a resource as the land, so to be certified a vineyard or winery must offer competitive wages, medical insurance, training, and education. John Hilliard of Hilliard Bruce, where the entire 21-acre vineyard is SIP certified, asserts, "Certification showed us how to turn our good intentions into actions."

Today 165 vineyards are SIP certified, from Adelaida to Wolff, as are wines from 31 winemakers, from Ampelos Cellars to Zocker. Not every wine from a producer necessarily earns the label, though, depending upon where the fruit comes from. For instance, Trader Joe's 2012 Petit Reserve Barbera is the only TJ's wine to be certified from its vast portfolio. "In order for a wine to be certified, it has to be audited to confirm that it contains 85% SIP Certified fruit," Beal says. "So for the Trader Joe's label, it may be sourcing fruit from a number of different vineyards to make a particular blend. It can take time to bring additional vineyards into the program in order for a certain wine to qualify. Obviously, we're very proud that Trader Joe's has shown interest in our certification, that it trusts it, and that it is supporting growers who have taken the extra step to certify their vineyards. We're hoping that this is the first of many SIP Certified wines that people can find at Trader Joe's."

While the majority of SIP certification happens from Paso Robles south to Santa Barbara, the program is open to all of California, and Beal dreams, "But we are open to other states or ... countries? We'll see what the future holds."

It's easy to dream based on how far the program has come since 2008. "We started with 3,400 acres and 12 vineyards and had no idea what would happen," Beal recalls. "We have over 30,000 acres now and nearly one million cases of wine have the SIP Seal. I think the growth in the program speaks for itself -- participants are finding value, they're growing their certified cases and wines, they continue to participate. There's a very strong sense that the SIP program has meaningful requirements, is trustworthy, is free from conflict of interest, is rigorous. That's why they're participating -- it's a program with teeth -- not everyone could qualify for certification." But those that do deserve our extra attention.

About the Author

George Yatchisin writes about food, wine, and cocktails from Santa Barbara, where he lives with his amazing wife, dogs, chickens, and chinchillas.

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