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Sustainable, with a hint of oak

There was an audible gasp earlier this year when thieves reportedly stole bottles of very expensive wine from a prominent Napa restaurant. Immediately, readers wondered: What can possibly make a bottle of wine worth $5,000?

Longtime Valley residents know the key ingredients of expensive wine: 10 percent grapes; 10 percent hard work, and 80 percent Marketing Additives, which cattlemen know by a more colloquial term. It’s said even untrained palates soon learn that the essential difference between a $50 bottle of wine and a $5,000 bottle of wine is a tourist from Ohio with an extra $4,950.

In that winemaking tradition, last year the Sonoma County Winegrowers (SCW) announced in January of 2014 that Sonoma County is committed to becoming the nation’s first 100 percent sustainable wine region, achieved through a three-phased program to be completed within the next five years.

Sustainability is such the rage that grape growers are now agnostic about what they grow, as long as it Sustainably makes money.  In a Press Democrat interview, winegrower board chairman Brad Peterson and president Karissa Kruse were reported as saying growers are not solely fixated on grapes, especially as the county 50 years ago boasted a much more diverse selection of crops. Petersen noted his grandfather primarily farmed prunes. “We are farmers today and we grow grapes,” Kruse said. “Today it may be grapes, but it may not always be grapes.”

Whether tourists would flock to Sonoma for romantic Prune Country getaways remains a question.

Like other Sustainability programs, this one seems well intended but short on mandates.  The Program – actually a workbook for grape farmer self-assessment -- describes the Path to Sustainable Enlightenment. Those unimpressed with voluntarism in handling Ukrainian ceasefires and Wall Street fraud might sneer upon learning that participation by grape growers in the Sustainability Program is 100 percent optional.

Skeptics aside, growers need not fear Sustainability.  It’s just the latest buzzword from the P.T. Barnum version of the Bible.  Because polls say consumers might pay more for ‘Sustainably Produced’ wine, the key to Sustainability is two-fold: (1) Label all winemaking practices, no matter how environmentally or socially destructive, as ‘Sustainable,’ and (2) Repeat.

The use of pesticides, for example, sustainably eradicates pests.  That they also eradicate down-wind songbirds or asthmatic kindergartners and are applied by workers wearing hazmat suits, doesn’t make them Un-sustainable.  Pesticides sustainably conserve water that would otherwise sustain the countless tons of life forms and creepy-crawlies they annihilate.

Likewise, bulldozing carbon-absorbing natural habitat to create countless new vineyards that suck down drought-depleted water tables, creeks and rivers  sustainably ‘re-purposes’ the scarce water now being sucked up by all those really dumb and unprofitable trees and bushes.

The program has a shortcoming, however.  Nowhere does it recommend sustaining wine-worker families by paying a living wage.  Possibly that’s because many growers outsource much of their work to vineyard management firms and labor contractors, whose contribution to Sustainability (particularly their own) is supplying workers who, for a variety of reasons, are sustainably stuck in low-wage jobs like brown apple moths on a pheromone trap.

But the failure to recommend a living wage is probably just an oversight.  So if you work in the industry, remind the boss you’d like . . . oh . . . $25 or $30/hr. plus bennies.  Because with the continued use of Sustainable Marketing Additives, those prunes you like at Safeway could soon cost $5,000 a jar.

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