When I first befriended Kris Beal, executive director of Vineyard Team, a nonprofit in Atascadero, I knew she was the type of person who lived out her passion, and who felt equally as passionate about her nonprofit work as she did her yoga education and crochet projects. As I learned more about Vineyard Team’s efforts, I knew they were doing important work in the wine industry -- but I wanted to know more.

Vineyard Team may be best known for their SIP Certification program which began in 2008 with about 3,400 acres of vineyards participating. SIP stands for "Sustainability in Practice." It provides vineyard and wineries training, showing how to become more sustainable in every aspect of business, from water conservation, clean water and energy efficiency, to social responsibility and best business practices.

Kris told me more about the origins of the program. “Industry people knew there was a demand for environmental and socially responsible wines. We needed a system that validated sustainability outside of self-proclamations. Self-assessment is great but we needed to come up with a better verification process that is measurable,” she said.

The program took five years to develop and relied on technical expertise and peer reviews to create the standards.

I wanted to find out from a SIP Certified winery why they decided to participate in the SIP Certified program and why it should matter to consumers. I asked my friend Laura Booras, general manager at Riverbench Winery, why she decided to participate in the program.

“We’re a family business with generations to come,” said Laura. “We wanted to do the responsible thing for the vineyard -- to make it sustainable.” 

According to the program description, certified farmers and winemakers offer competitive wages, medical insurance, training, and education because each worker is a valuable resource. Certified members have sound business practices with a long-term view to treat their employees and community with care for generations.

Vineyard Team leads by example by offering scholarships to the families of their member vineyards. This year they granted $20,000 in awards.

As an advocate for the local food movement, Booras points out an inconsistency in restaurants with this popular mindset, “In restaurants the new trend is to know where your food comes from. You see menus with all of these details about the food’s source but the dishes are not paired with local wines. People aren’t asking what additives are in wine," explained Booras. "SIP Certified helps consumers choose wines that match their preferences. If you care enough to get certified, it means you care about what goes into the bottle. I get more emails now [from customers] asking about what is in each bottle than ever before.”

Putting the SIP Certified seal of approval on the back of their wine labels was an easy decision for Booras. Her staff talks about their certification at events and more people are talking about the program now than they were in 2008.

Kris Beal conveyed the challenges the organization faces to make the certification relatable to consumers. “We don’t want to water it down,” explains Beal. “It’s a very rigorous program and we try to remember not to bog down consumers with all of the details. We try to present it in layers in a way that doesn’t make their eyes glaze over.”

The organization has always been made up of technical people. They never had marketing in mind when they created the certification program so marketing the certification process to both wineries and consumers has been more of a focus in recent years as the program has grown.

“Ultimately”, adds Booras, “there are a lot of good marketing reasons for becoming SIP Certified but I wanted to be a part of a program that fits my ideals. I care about water usage, wasted energy and what [Riverbench] consumes. The SIP Certification program helped me turn my goals into action.”

Other local vineyards have turned their sustainability goals into action through the SIP Certified program. These include: Fiddlestix Vineyard, Hilliard Bruce, local Jackson Family Wines vineyards, John Sebastiano, La Fond, Rancho Los Alamos, Santa Ynez, Sutter Home Winery (Los Alamos Vineyard), and Ampelos Cellars. To find a complete list of SIP Certified vineyards, wineries and wines from throughout California and one in Michigan, visit www.sipcertified.org.

Kady Fleckenstein is the Chief Operating Officer of local Buellton wine company, Universal Wine Alliance and VarunaWinesSYV.com, an online wine store with local pickup options, offering exclusive sommelier-chosen wines from around the world.

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