The Tablas Creek organic vineyard
At this time of year, when it comes to organic and sustainable vineyards, it is clear who puts their money where their mouth is. With the winter rain that we get in the Central Coast, organically farmed vineyards turn a vibrant green, whether through a planted cover crop or through the actions of the natural seeds and grasses of the landcape. The green stretches uninterrupted through the vineyard, between the rows and among the vines.
Vineyards using herbicides have neat brown dirt underneath the rows of vines. It frustrates me to drive by vineyards at this time of year and see that nearly all (including some whose owners emphasize their sustainable practices) show such clear evidence that, at least in weed control, sustainable seems to mean "we don't use any more chemicals than we need to".
At other times of year, it's not as clear. While the vines are growing (say, April through November) you need to keep weeds from interfering with the free passage of wind and light among the ripening clusters. So, if you're organic, you weed mechanically or by hand. It's not as quick or as easy (or as cheap) as spraying Round-Up, but it's essential. If you look at a well-maintained vineyard in August, it will not have weeds growing among the vines, whether it's organic or not. But, in the winter, a vineyard's practices become clear.
I worry that sustainable is losing its meaning, as producers realize that it is an unenforced term. No one within the TTB or the USDA verifies any specifics with a "sustainable" designation, and while many producers are making an honest effort to reduce the impact of their vineyard on the environment, this designation is entirely self-defined.
Of course, it's probably better that people are at least thinking about sustainability, and are not using more chemicals than they really need... it has to be better than people spraying chemicals indiscriminately. And, fine wine vineyards are relatively light in the footprint that they leave on the environment. They don't need that much water, or that many chemicals, or really any fertilizer. But, there remains a big difference between producers who talk about sustainability and those who practice organic (or biodynamic) farming.
This time of year, it's clear... just look for the unnatural rows of brown dirt.