In the Okanagan Valley, agriculture is very big business and most especially the production of wine. There are in excess of 2,400 hectares of land under cultivation in more than 200 separate vineyards. The industry is a heavy user of water and fertilizer and burns substantial amounts of carbon-based fuels so it is a significant contributor to our challenges involved with climate change.
But, given the right policies and actions, viticulture also has the potential to be one of major contributors to our efforts to comply with the Paris agreement on reducing greenhouse gas levels. As such, it is important that the industry employ practices which minimize the adverse impacts it could have on the demand for water and its quality, cultivate the land in ways to maintain its productive capacity and forestall its degradation, and enhance the air quality surrounding the vineyards and wineries.
Most of the wine producing regions in the world have what are termed Sustainable Wine Growing Standards. These standards refer not to just the cultivation of grapes (or other fruit) and then the production of wine but also to social issues such as the treatment of workers, their wages, living conditions on farms etc. British Columbia does not currently have such a standard but is in the process of producing a draft proposed standard which will be presented at a forthcoming industry conference on the 16th of this month.
With the exception of New Zealand, where adherence to the standard is compulsory, compliance in virtually all other wine regions of the world is voluntary.
Starting in the growing season 2008-2009, a group of growers and wineries from the Okanagan and the lower mainland (but not Vancouver Island) began the process of constructing a provincial standard. An entirely voluntary sustainability oversight committee of 20 members representing both growers and wineries began to collect information on a host of topics. This was a self-assessment exercise and the results were not audited.
The committee used as a guide standards from other jurisdictions around the world. Even with that assistance, it was a long-term process trying to define terminology, establish relevance of various measures, and ensure ease of collecting data. But through perseverance and continued feedback by both the producers of the data and potential users, the B.C. Sustainable Wine Growing Standard took shape. There is a good possibility that it will be widely adopted in B.C..
Why all this effort to develop a standard for B.C. wine-growing? After all, the industry has experienced significant growth in the last thirty years without a standard so why adopt one now?
The market for wine is changing as the demographic structure of the consuming public changes. In particular, consumers are exhibiting a greater interest in how agricultural products are produced.
They are increasingly interested in buying products from producers who work to minimize any adverse impacts they might have on the environment. Wineries are finding that their “environmental profile” is assuming a greater importance in their marketing strategies.
Moreover, there are differences in the regulatory environment that currently exists in different wine-growing regions. These differences impact what vintners and wineries can do. So a standard will alert both growers and wineries to potentially important regulatory considerations in the jurisdiction where they are located.
The fact that B.C. viticulture has, until now, not promulgated even a draft set of parameters for sustainable operation does not mean that the industry was peopled by wine-growers intent on running roughshod over the land that supported them.
Far from it.
The operators I met during more than a decade in the industry were aware of and followed the standards of the states to the south of us and in other parts of Canada and they were the leading proponents of establishing a B.C. standard.
The establishment of a B.C. Sustainability Standard is just another piece of evidence supporting the case that the wine industry in B.C. has grown both in quality and volume over the past three decades.
I am confident our wines will continue to win international awards and the new standard will lend creditability to our growing wine exports.