The concept of sustainable grapegrowing has reached California’s State Capitol.

Earlier this month, the state Assembly voted to proclaim April as “California Wines: Down to Earth Month,” in a move to recognize the wine industry’s work to make grape growing more economically feasible and ecologically friendly.

Lodi Rules was on the forefront of the movement.

Lodi Rules got its start as an integrated pest management program in 1992. By 2006, the Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing had grown into a full-fledged certification program, going far beyond just pest management.

The program also encourages soil and water management, sound environmental practices, economic sustainability and succession planning, and it works to educate the community ranging from winery tours focused on sustainability to work with university scientists.

Vineyards that meet the program’s guidelines can be certified and earn the “green label,” said Dr. Stephanie Bolton with the Lodi Wine Commission. Bolton, who has a doctorate in plant pathology, runs the commission’s sustainability program among other duties.

“We have over 30 new growers in the program this year — in 2017 — and that’s the most new growers we’ve ever had before,” she said Thursday.

The surge in new membership comes as the program spreads its roots far beyond Lodi.

The way it works is this: Vineyards within Crush District 11 that meet the standards set forth by the Lodi Rules guidebook can get certified. Then, wineries that use grapes from those vineyards can include the green “Lodi Rules for Sustainability” label on their bottles, Bolton said.

And, for about eight years now, wineries outside District 11 can also follow the Lodi Rules standards. If they become certified, they can choose from the Lodi label or the “California Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing” label.

The standards cover a wide range, such as planting cover crops, using drip irrigation systems, creating natural buffers between vineyards and local waterways, employing safer pest management methods, and other eco-friendly practices.

But sustainability goes beyond just protecting the environment, Bolton said. It also means creating a business that will be economically feasible for years to come, that treats its employees well, and that works to help build the community.

Plenty of wineries follow those standards without joining the program, she added.

“Everyone in Lodi is doing some sort of sustainable practice,” she said.

However, those who do go through the program can reap the benefits.

The program’s worth

For Harinder Dhaliwal, who owns a vineyard with his father Amrik and brother Ravinder, also known as Bobby, Lodi Rules has been a good investment.

“It’s been working great. We joined, I think, the second year it was implemented,” he said.

The Dhaliwals own and lease about 1,000 acres of grapes in Lodi, and they already were planting cover crops, testing the water and soil to decide best practices, and using less invasive pesticides when the certification program was developed.

“We were already doing part of what’s required. It was just documenting what we do,” Dhaliwal said. About 90 percent of their vineyards are now certified.

He did acknowledge that for some farmers, the process of joining may seem overwhelming.

“I think the first year you join, the first time you put together your mission statement, you map everything, you test everything — that’s the hardest,” he said.

Once a vineyard has been certified, it’s easy to maintain that status, he said.

His father, Amrik Dhaliwal, did note that only one of the wineries they sell their fruit to pays a bonus for the certification. Most of the large wineries pay the same price for Lodi Rules grapes and those from elsewhere, he said.

But Harinder Dhaliwal said the demand for their grapes has gone up since they entered the program.

As a vineyard manager for several of the Treasury Wine Estates vineyards in Napa, Harinder Dhaliwal sees both sides. Grapes certified through Lodi Rules are well-accepted in Napa, and statewide sustainability programs have used Lodi’s as a model, he said.

Plus, he’s had the chance to participate in some scientific research that helps grapegrowers all over the state.

“We worked with UC Davis. There were a couple of guys getting their masters’ (degrees). They did a research study on our DeVries vineyard,” he said.

The Dhaliwals planted legume cover crops, and the scientists brought out some equipment to test how much nitrogen the crops released into the air when they were mowed.

“The results were that actually some of the cover crops released more nitrogen than the machinery,” Harinder Dhaliwal said.

The results have helped growers choose better cover crops for their vineyards, he said.

Madelyn Ripken Kolber, director of sustainability and compliance for KG Vineyard Management, praised the program as well.

The grapes she grows have been certified by Lodi Rules for 11 years, since the program began, and being involved with the program has been a positive experience, she said.

“More and more consumers are looking for ‘green’ products and are looking for environmentally friendly products. In turn, more wineries are sourcing certified fruit to include in their labels that carry the Lodi Rules seal,” she said. “Wineries that offer bonuses for certified fruit recognize that sustainability is more than just environmentally sound but also economically feasible.”

KG Vineyard Management uses a number of strategies for sustainability, such as integrated pest management — which uses methods beyond just pesticides such as nesting boxes for owls and other birds of prey to keep pest populations under control — efficient uses of machinery, regular safety training and other education for employees, monitoring of soil and water, irrigation management and more, Kolber said.

She also helps to educate the public about sustainable winegrowing — and grape growers in wine regions like Sonoma. She recently spoke to growers there about the Lodi Rules program, she said.

Kolber is a third-generation winegrape grower.

“Sustainability ties in to our commitment to farming for this and future generations,” she said. “I recognize all the hard work and efforts the generations before us put in to get Lodi’s success and recent recognition as an industry leader.”

Sustainability is a family tradition

LangeTwins Family Winery was one of the early adopters of sustainable practices in Lodi, before the Lodi Rules certification program was even available. Randy Lange was on the first Lodi Rules committee that helped to develop the workbook, said Aaron Lange, his son and the director of viticulture operations for LangeTwins.

“I actually served on the review committee for the second revision of it,” he said.

LangeTwins has whole-heartedly adopted several of the practices promoted in the guidebook, he said, such as no-till practices, use of cover crops, irrigation management and drip irrigation systems, and others.

These practices aren’t just better for the environment, he said. They’re better for the vineyards. Cover crops and good soil practices can help prevent erosion — especially during wet winters like the one lingering in Lodi this year.

Cover crops can also add organic matter to the soil and keep it healthier, he said, as well as providing tasty treats for pollinators like bees and butterflies.

“It’s more about maintaining or giving back to the soil on an annual basis,” Lange said.

The workbook is completely transparent and online, Lange said, so growers can follow it without completing the paperwork and costs of becoming certified. Certification carries benefits, though, he added.

“The whole point of the certification program, at least, is to communicate our sustainability program with credibility,” Lange said.

In other words, people who buy a bottle of wine with the green Lodi Rules badge know that the grapes in that wine were grown in vineyards that treat their community well — both the natural setting and the people who live there.

The program is personally important to Lange because treating the land that sustains them has been a Lange family tradition for generations.

“I can remember watering baby oak trees when I was 11 years old along the Mokelumne River,” he said.

The family dug up oak seedlings that sprouted among their grapevines and transplanted them to space along the river or on the edges of their fields, then nurtured them to maturity.

They’ve also reestablished buffer zones in vineyards they’ve purchased where the natural landscape was destroyed.

“We did that because we know that farming and riparian zones can interact and be healthy neighbors,” Lange said.

These hedgerows with native oaks, wild roses, redbud, elderberries and other California plants provide habitat for deer, birds, bobcats and other animals. It also provides a buffer keeping runoff of fertilizer and pest management chemicals from reaching the river.

“It’s a win-win for everybody,” Lange said.

And it’s a tradition Lange is already passing on to his son, Declan, who at 4 years old is already helping to water the baby oaks.

A small winery weighs in

Derek Halecky and his wife own 20 acres of land in Clements, and 13 of those acres are devoted to winegrapes.

Although their winery is small, they decided to join the Lodi Rules program to help promote the world-class grapes that come out of the Lodi Appellation, and to promote sustainable practices, Halecky said.

“It really kind of sets the bar on the values that a vineyard/business enterprise should represent,” he said.

They’ve worked with Marcus Bokisch to make their vineyard — which has been making wine since 2009 — as environmentally friendly as possible.

“He’s been part of our program since day one.”

Now, solar set-ups power almost everything on the property. They use a drip system for their vines, and have created a restoration habitat of oaks and native plants between the vineyard and Bear Creek, which runs along the edge of their land.

“We have a nice pond on the property that’s used by fish and local wildlife,” Halecky said.

Though they produce only about 800 cases a year, the set-up works well for them, he said.

The oaks are, like at LangeTwins, an important part of the property.

“The Hunter’s Oak is the name of the big oak in the vineyard,” Halecky said. It’s a couple hundred years old, he said.

For the Haleckys, being fully sustainable has helped them bring attention to their small vineyard and winery and find a niche.

“Lodi Rules is part of that,” he said.

For Bolton, seeing new growers from all types of vineyards wanting to join the program is exciting.

“We just really love this great, positive momentum that has been building around the program,” she said.

Seeing that growers are excited and proud to add the green label to their wines is a big part of Lodi Rules, she said.

“We’re building a sustainable wine-growing community. It’s really neat to be a part of,” Bolton said.

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