Lodi rules: The California region is at the forefront of sustainable wine growing

In California, recycling and environmentalism permeated public consciousness long ago, so it makes sense that the wine industry is way ahead of this country’s new green movement.

Take the Lodi wine region for example. Located southeast of Sacramento near California’s eastern edge, Lodi isn’t romantic, sophisticated wine "country" (yet), but it’s got the hip enviro edge. Lodi is so serious about the health of its land, growers there formed a trade group, Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission (LWWC), which in 1992 laid down its environmental imperatives in a farming manifesto, "Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing." This booklet, which outlines 75 farming practices, is California’s first third-party-certified, formal standard for sustainable agriculture — reviewed by scientists, academics and environmentalists. By encouraging its tenets on a region-wide basis, its goal is to improve and maintain the health of the vineyards’ ecosystem and increase quality wine production.

Sustainable growing is not legally defined, yet it is practiced in some form virtually worldwide. It is different from organic viticulture, which is different from biodynamic. You might consider the three levels strict, stricter and strictest. But as Cliff Ohmart, research and integrative pest management director at LWWC, says, "The goals are all the same, but [the growers] are going at it differently."

Since "sustainable" remains legally amorphous, many wineries around the country turn to "Lodi Rules" as their definitive resource. The booklet adopted the American Agronomy Society’s definition: "A sustainable agriculture is one that, over the long term, enhances environmental quality and the resource base on which agriculture depends; provides for basic human food and fiber needs; is economically viable and enhances the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole."

On a stricter level, organic grapes are grown without pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. Sustainable uses some of these practices and eschews others but goes beyond the farming aspect — "Lodi Rules" also addresses habitat renewal and human-resources issues. Organic has an official certification label supporting it — sustainable remains a voluntary practice. Biodynamic, a small, yet growing school of farming that brings spirituality into the mix, tries to harmonize the world’s energies with the grapevines: water, earth, air and fire. But its certification, Demeter, is very strict and unrealistic for many farmers.

In 2001, when the LWWC deemed the "Rules" program successful enough to market its wines, it designed a sustainable-farming certification program. Now in its third year, 12 growers and 5,400 acres have passed muster. Forty wineries use the certified grapes. Other growers, looking only to boost the future health of their land, use Lodi Rules simply because it makes sense.

Does the quality-driven program follow into the glass? I think so. Lodi makes fantastically lush, ripe zinfandels, among other varieties. Many come from very old, craggy vines that stick up from the ground like fat fingers on an aged person, producing intense, concentrated wines. Try a few and know that your cash is preserving the health of our planet.

Recommended Wines

7 Deadly Zins 2004 Zinfandel Lodi Dark, angry fruit jumps out of the glass, then has a party in your mouth. Juicy blackberry and boysenberry, followed by earthy green olives and minty eucalyptus. Full-bodied. Sw = 2. $15. 4 stars

Gnarly Head 2005 Zinfandel Lodi Sweet, jammy raspberry and black cherry make this like diving into a bowl of fresh berries. Follows up with some coffee flavor and a dash of leather. Sw = 4. $10. 3.5 stars

Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. 1 (star) rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.


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