Sustaining Sonoma’s Vineyards

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Class of ’97 | In January 2014, Karissa Kruse W’97 WG’04, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, stepped onto the stage at a Santa Rosa auditorium for the organization’s annual meeting.

She hadn’t slept the night before. Having only been in her position for seven months, she had no idea what reaction she would get from the 600 grape growers and winemakers sitting before her. And she was about to ask them to make a very serious commitment.

Kruse, with the support of her board of directors, had decided to make Sonoma County the first fully sustainable wine region in the United States. She wanted it done by 2019, and all 1,800 members would have to participate. “You have to make it a 100 percent commitment, because if you don’t, everybody thinks they are the 10 percent who doesn’t have to do it,” she explains. “You can’t give them an easy out.”

Sustainability has been defined as “the quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance.” In order to be certified as sustainable by an outside, objective organization, every grape grower and winemaker would have to reduce carbon emissions, adopt new technology and practices, and work with a sustainability manager to analyze how they use land, water, and energy. The process would require considerable time and money, and once they received a certificate, the winegrowers would have to stay abreast of new techniques and practices.

But the benefits were considerable. The growers would not only be helping the environment now; they would be making sure their land could be farmed for many years to come. (Each year some 30,000 acres of California land is converted to non-agricultural uses.) They would be creating a strong network that could be used to tackle future issues.

“If a problem does come up, they can quickly respond, whether it’s a pest, disease, or natural issue,” says Greg Jones, a professor of environmental science and policy at Southern Oregon University who studies how climate changes affect wine production and quality. Sonoma’s sustainability initiatives have already been picked up by others in California, and Jones believes Europe will feel the pressure and follow suit before long.

The benefits also extend beyond winegrowing. Jones points to the Russian River region in northern Sonoma as an example.

“Overall, that entire ecosystem has the potential to be much healthier over time because of what the winemakers are doing,” he says. “That is huge for a given area,” especially since that water source flows into others.

For Kruse, the marketing potential was the most exciting aspect of the sustainability program. Having studied marketing at Wharton as an undergraduate and for her MBA—and having worked in that field for companies like General Mills, Nestle, Mattel, and Nike—she recognized its potential for “putting us in a headline somewhere.”

By last July, the SCW had achieved 70 percent of its goal, and had a plan for getting the rest of the winegrowers on board by 2018. But those may be the hardest to reach.

“She got the low-hanging fruit, the growers who are more willing to be part of this,” says Allison Jordan, director of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance. “Now, they have to get the last bit of them, so it’s more challenging.” But, she notes, Sonoma’s leadership has spurred an effort to turn wine into the “sustainable beverage of choice nationally.”

As part of their efforts, the growers wrote a 100-year business plan, and their overall efforts have made Sonoma a leader in California, with the Napa Valley and Santa Barbara wine regions following their lead and pledging full sustainability.

But on that day in January 2014, Kruse had no idea how her plan was going to turn out, and as she punctuated her talk with excited phrases like “We can do this!” and “Let’s be bold!” she received only silence and stares.

Sean Carroll, her director of marketing and communications, brushed off that lack of enthusiasm: “But no one was falling asleep, either. They aren’t going to stand up and cheer. They are farmers—they just get to work.”

 

Kruse may not look like most grape growers, but she is one. She and her ex-husband, Justin Harmon EAS’97, own Argot, a small vineyard and winery that makes 2,500 cases a year. She currently has six acres of grapes and recently received a permit to plant another six or seven, depending on which varietals she chooses.

“I’m out there looking at my own fruit and dealing with issues of water or drought or disease just like they do,” she says, “so I think they feel I’m in it with them.”

For Kruse, immersing herself in farming means she has come full circle. Both sets of grandparents owned farms—her mother’s parents in Nebraska and her father’s in Iowa—so she grew up spending summers playing on tractors, feeding chickens, avoiding the bulls, and rounding up escaped pigs in the middle of the night.

But she envisioned a life with a corner office in a big company. Always drawn to marketing, she competed in national high-school marketing tournaments, taking second place as a sophomore and first as a senior.

She came to Wharton because it had the best undergraduate marketing program, worked for MGM in Philadelphia promoting movies on college campuses, and interned at Nike during the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics. On graduating, she snagged a job at General Mills. Today she laughs when she realizes how her career has progressed.

“When I was 21 years old, my marketing budget was $80 million,” she says. “Now I’m almost 41 and my marketing budget is a million and a half, and I’m trying to do way more things with it.”

After a short stint at Nestle in Los Angeles, then as Universal Studios’ youngest brand manager, she returned to Wharton for her MBA, working as a teaching assistant for Barbara Kahn in the marketing department and consulting for the Small Business Development Center. Later, as director of special projects for Dairy Management, she promoted the nation’s dairy farmers.

“They were so appreciative,” she says. “I saw how hard they worked, and it made me want to work that hard so they could keep their livelihoods and their farms.”

After five years of consulting, Kruse found herself in northern California, working for the Sonoma winegrowers. “You can’t fight your roots,” she says.

 

Sonoma County’s eye-dazzling landscape includes 58,280 acres of vineyards, which yield wines encompassing a broad range of styles and quality. Rodney Strong, a high-end, midsize winery near Healdsburg, draws from 14 vineyards around the county, and counts among its prized possessions a new piece of equipment that can measure—to the drop—how much water has been absorbed by the grapes on a given vine. (Rodney Strong is also carbon-neutral and claims to be the biggest winery in the world to function fully on solar power.) Family-owned Balletto Vineyards in Santa Rosa recently created an interactive eco-tour for visitors where they can walk the land and learn about how little energy, water, and man-made chemicals they use to make their wine. Jackson Family Wines, also in Santa Rosa, is working with Tesla to pilot a battery that can store solar power. The Sonoma wing of Ridge Vineyards is using a new form of cover crop to prevent erosion. Gunsalus Vineyard in Sebastopol restructured a creek to revitalize the local ecosystem.

After defining what sustainability meant for a winegrowing region, the SCW focused on achieving three goals: ensure the land stays preserved in agriculture; that people are trained, safe, and treated with respect; and that the wine business endures. Every decision made by winery owners—from the healthcare they provide for their employees to how to deal with a drought—is relevant.

For the first few months Kruse focused on education—by phone, in-person visits, panel discussions, promotional materials, and an advertising campaign. She hired a fulltime sustainability manager to guide members and publish reports so people could share successes.

Realizing that achieving 80 or even 90 percent sustainability won’t have the same value as 100 percent, the wineries started influencing each other to adopt eco-friendly practices. Bill Price, who owns Three Sticks Winery, says he felt the peer pressure.

“If I have a pest problem, I’m going to think twice about using a chemical that doesn’t meet sustainability requirements,” he said. “My neighbors are going to find out about it.” Certain larger vineyards like Jackson Family Wines and Rodney Strong even took on some debt for some of the smaller vineyards that could not afford the cost of transitioning.

Sonoma was already in a unique position to get this done. Some 85 percent of the county’s vineyards and farms are family-owned, and many of those owners have known each other for generations. “These roots make this stance possible,” says Jordan.

Local governments, nonprofits, and companies like Wilbur Ellis, Sonoma Green Power, and American AgriCredit provided grants and sponsorships.

“The way Sonoma has done it by being so bold has drawn a lot of attention, but also a lot of resources,” says Jordan. “They’ve had people come forward and say, ‘We are doing this with you.’”

“It is insane,” says Kruse, referring to the proposal’s ambitiousness and complexity. “But in farming terms, where it goes from grandmother or grandfather to grandson or granddaughter, it’s not a big stretch. It’s how you think about the family farm.” This summer they added one- and five-year goals to the blueprint to keep them on track for the next century.

Being sustainable also means preserving the local workforce, much of which is made up of undocumented immigrants. This past January, the SCW revitalized the Grape Grower Foundation, which Kruse is managing, and which is tackling issues ranging from childcare to education to attracting—and retaining—new workers. She has already raised $100,00, earmarked for an affordable apartment building in the county.

“It’s all about big problems one farmer can’t solve,” she explains. “One farmer can’t go and build affordable housing, but we can create private/public partnerships.”

 

Scientists still don’t have a full handle on exactly what is needed to protect and preserve land into the future.

“We probably know what the basic standards for best practices are,” says Jones. “But there are probably many out there that we don’t have the full information on yet.” So even if all these players adopt what are now considered sound practices, they’ll have to keep updating them. “But,” he adds, “we have to start somewhere.”

—Alyson Krueger C’06

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