A sustainable wine future

Julie Sherwood
Heron Hill Winery co-owner John Ingle (center, left), talks with Will Ouweleen, owner of O-Ne-Da and Eagle Crest Vineyards, about the sustainable Finger Lakes wine project.

April 23, about 40 from the wine and grape industry met at Heron Hill Winery to chart a sustainable future for the Finger Lakes wine region. The group included area growers and winemakers, along with experts from Cornell University and New York Wine & Grape Foundation. They talked about a plan first promoted more than a decade ago — VineBalance Guide to New York Viticulture — that outlines best practices to manage vine growth, weeds, diseases, insects, and soil fertility.

VineBalance is not an organic viticulture program with a defined set of allowable and unallowable practices. But it is a guide for making the most of using sound growing practices — addressing how various methods impact environmental, economic and social outcomes on the farm.

Heron Hill grower and co-owner John Ingle led off the discussion at the winery in Hammondsport, which included the VineBalance Guide along with additional thoughts on tackling the most current threats. Those include dealing with invasive species in the vineyard such as the spotted lanternfly that feeds on trees, hops and grapevines. While not yet a threat in New York state, the destructive insect is expected to soon be a problem.

Ingle said the Finger Lakes wine industry has succeeded in warding off past threats and can, as a united front, continue to do so.

“We sent the frackers packing, we fended off the garbage burners,” said Ingle. He referred to several examples of the Finger Lakes wine industry playing a significant role in protecting the region from environmental threats. Those resulted in a ban of natural gas hydraulic fracturing and trash incinerators and stopping a propane/natural gas storage facility from being built near Seneca Lake.

Whitney Beaman, program manager for Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing, spoke about the success of the not-for-profit LISW, inspired by the VineBalance Guide to New York Viticulture. The LISW started with just a few members and now includes 22 estates and over 1,000 acres of vineyard, representing about half of the Long Island wine industry.

Discussion turned to how the Finger Lakes wine region could use the Long Island experience as a template for a similar program, while tailoring the program to fit specific needs in the Finger Lakes. Addressing the economics, Beaman pointed out a national study by the Wine Market Council from April 2018 finding consumers are willing to pay a premium of $1 to $3 over conventional wines for wine made from organic and sustainably produced grapes. The study also found consumers willing to pay slightly more for sustainable wines than organic wines.

Sam Filler, executive director of New York Wine & Grape Foundation, said that two years ago the New York wine industry focused on promoting a theme of “social responsibility” in terms of wine drinking. He said that theme can also include commitment to “environmental stewardship” by producers — which is a conversation taking place in the wine industry internationally.

“It’s a work in progress, a group effort,” said Ingle.

The group agreed to meet monthly and form a core group to get the project off the ground and begin charting a specific course of action.

Filler mentioned a wine industry sustainability conference taking place in June in Sonoma, Calif., and encouraged people to attend. There’s a proposal to hold the 2020 conference in New York state, he said. Ingle said aspiring to host the sustainability conference in New York in June 2020 offers a good target date for keeping up momentum for meeting goals for the Finger Lakes.