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Unraveling the Meaning of Sustainability in Oregon

Unraveling the Meaning of Sustainability in Oregon

Photo Credit: LIVE, INC.

In the US, Oregon has 52 percent of all the Demeter-certified wineries, over 70 percent of all LIVE-certified vineyards, and roughly 66 percent of all LIVE-certified wineries according to Sally Murdoch, Communications Manager with the Oregon Wine Board. Seventy percent of the wineries and vineyards are owned by small family winemakers that are heavily invested in sustainable agriculture. 

However, there are many paths to producing sustainable wine and the various certifications of sustainability can be confusing. From the US to Europe, rules vary depending on the region, the vineyard, and the winemaker. And that applies to the winery, too. 

Dan Warnshuis in the vineyard | Photo Credit: Utopia Vineyards

Core principles are the same but each producer interprets them according to how they feel is the best fit for their business model and values. Owner at Utopia Vineyards in Newberg, OR, Dan Warnshuis, whose passion for wine led him to the Willamette Valley, has been LIVE Certified since 2008. Dan explains, “Sustainable allows for chemical herbicides. Once you make the change to organic farming, those things are out of the picture completely. Copper and sulfur are allowed because they are organic compounds.”

Dan believes that organic and biodynamic “are the way to go, especially for smaller winemakers.” Though you won’t see the USDA organic label on his wines, he is committed to farming 100 percent free of chemicals and also to dry-farming, an agricultural practice that prohibits irrigation.

So, what is LIVE Certified, Organic, and Biodynamic?

**The following content is from websites and interviews conducted with members of LIVE, Demeter USA, and the Oregon Wine Board.

More than 50 percent of Oregon’s vineyards are certified sustainable by one of the following agencies: LIVE Certified Sustainable, USDA Organic, Demeter Certified Biodynamic. Their common elements are: 

  • Consider the farm and winery as a whole system and take responsibility for the health and long-term viability of the whole.
  • Encourage biodiversity and protect wildlife habitat on the farm.
  • Promote soil stability, health, and fertility.
  • Respect natural processes, reducing or eliminating the use of synthetic inputs in the vineyard and the winery.
  • Conserve natural resources including water, and energy both in the vineyard and the winery.
  • Protect the health and well-being of workers in the vineyard, the winery, and the larger community. 

LIVE stands for Low Input Viticulture and Enology. This standard was launched in Oregon in 1995 by a group of farmers in the Willamette Valley AVA. In 2008, a program was launched to include certification for the winemaking processes and the facility itself. Today, LIVE certification is available to vineyards and wineries throughout Oregon, Idaho, and Washington.

LIVE is an internationally-recognized certification by a third party. Every year, member winemakers must complete a checklist to verify that sustainability goals are being met. The certifying body is the International Organization for Biological Integration and Control.

USDA Organic was formed by Congress in 2001. Organic producers use natural processes and materials when developing farming systems—these contribute to soil, crop and livestock nutrition, pest and weed management, attainment of production goals, and conservation of biological diversity. The National Organic Program (NOP) develops the rules and regulations for the production, handling, labeling, and enforcement of all USDA organic products.

For a vineyard to be certified Demeter Biodynamic, it must first be certified organic. 

Biodynamic farming includes organic certification prohibitions against the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. But to maintain that idea of the farm as an integrated whole, the entire farm must be certified (versus a particular crop or field allowed in organic certification). Farmers must devote at least 10 percent of total acreage to wilderness habitat, for example, oak groves, waterways, and meadows.

Biodynamic practices involve the use of unusual soil preparations that include burying cow horns in the vineyards as well as incorporating tinctures of nettle, milk thistle, and other plants. 

A Complicated Proposition

Now, here’s where things get a little complicated. LIVE Certified does allow room for some chemical herbicides; organic and biodynamic do not. You’ll often find LIVE-certified vineyards that are also organic or biodynamic, but since certification is a lengthy, costly, and detailed process that must be completed annually, many vineyard owners don’t complete the certification process. 

Wayne Bailey during harvest | Photo Credit: Youngberg Hill

Wayne Bailey, the proprietor at Youngberg Hill in McMinnville, OR, says he practices a more pragmatic as opposed to a prescriptive approach to biodynamic farming. “The analogy that I use is that this approach to farming is like taking care of your body homeopathically. I am letting the soil, the plants, and the environment tell me what it needs.” Wayne is also a big fan of no-till farming, a technique he believes is the next thing in green farming. 

“We started no-till last year. It is the perfect extension to biodynamic farming because of its focus on the soil. Soil health is the foundation for everything. By allowing nature to rebuild the soil naturally (with support as needed), not only are you building healthy soil but also benefiting the environment,” Bailey explains.

Because there is room for gray areas and confusion, some winemakers, such as Brooks Wine in Amity, Oregon, choose to keep it simple.

Janie Brooks Heuck and her nephew, Pascal Brooks, in the vineyard | Photo Credit: Brooks Wine

Janie Brooks Heuck, Managing Director at Brooks, explains, “We usually just talk in terms of biodynamics. We are not only certified in our estate vineyard but also our winery. You have to do both to put the Demeter symbol on your label. To be certified in the winery at the level we are, you are prohibited from making additions to your wines such as yeast, sugar, acid, etc. We are big believers in certification because it makes our approach to winemaking clearly defined and transparent.” 

Today’s wine consumer has a high level of awareness and interest in drinking and buying sustainably-produced wines. So, how do you find out if your wine is biodynamic or organic? Read the website, visit the winery, or you can always call your favorite Oregon winemaker and ask.