Being a perhaps over-used catch phrase, it's easy to think the word Sustainability doesn't really mean much. That couldn't be further from the truth in the world of wine. Many wine experts consider the Sustainable designation to be at a higher level than Organic, since it considers the health of the entire wine-making operation, not just the absence of chemicals.
Here are some common sustainable wine-making practices:
Allowing natural wild "weed" growth in the vineyards.
This serves to attract beneficial insects, and provides soil micro-organisms, and nutrients for the soil when it is finally tilled in. Grape vines love stress, and the competition that the weeds provide actually produces more concentrated, flavorful wines.
Owl boxes, Bluebird boxes, Companion plantings.
These also contribute to natural pest and disease management.
Tilling is done mechanically (instead of using herbicides to spray vine rows.) Tractors might use bio-diesel fuels.
Various technologies are used to capture and reclaim water to be used for irrigation. Water-saving drip irrigation is often used. Some wineries also employ dry-farming techniques. This involves intentionally NOT irrigating, forcing the vines to send down deep roots in search of water. This contributes to complex layers of mineral flavors in the wine.
Winery practices might include composting wine-making by-products, using solar and wind energy, using lighter-weight glass, and practicing recycle/reuse where possible. Progressive labor practices are often standardized.
Who practices Sustainable Wine-Making?
Sustainable wine-making is practiced all over the world. Frankly, wine-making is a natural fit for sustainability practices because the people who get into the field often have the mind-set and money to initially invest in best practices. Also, since wine is already a value-added product, the market can afford any slight extra charge that might be associated with sustainable wines (although sustainability practices are ultimately economical as well as responsible). Wine-making in France generally incorporates sustainable practices into much of their their wine-making as a matter of course. All wineries in New Zealand are required to have Sustainability Certification, and South African wineries can only export their wines if they are sustainably certified and follow specific environmentally friendly practices. Nearly all wineries in Napa Valley, California utilize sustainable practices, including the big producers like Sutter Home and Beringer. Sonoma wines are scheduled to soon follow suit. These are just some of the notable examples.
What are the limits of Sustainable Wine-Making?
The various types of Sustainable Certification don't always have many specific requirements associated with them, as the certification is based on locally appropriate practices and the overall health of that particular winery. Sustainable practices also allow for chemicals to be used in the vineyard in extreme cases if it means saving the vines from particularly virulent pests or other scourges.