Jerry Lohr's father was farming soybeans sustainably long before anyone used the term. The South Dakota-raised founder of J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, Jerry Lohr inherited his father’s reverence for healthy soil and was an early advocate for sustainable practices in his California vineyards. When Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers began discussing joint sustainability efforts, Lohr was at the table. The organization that emerged from those talks, California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA), is now celebrating its 15th year of education and advocacy. In light of that milestone, it seems fitting to reminisce with Jerry and to look ahead with his son, Steve, J. Lohr’s chief executive and the current chair of CSWA.
Jerry, you were an outspoken early supporter of CSWA. Why did this seem like a good idea to you?
I’m 81 years old but I’m still a South Dakota farm boy. My grandparents would never leave any soil bare in winter so our farm was much more prosperous than others. Nobody was talking about sustainability then, but the neighbors’ land blew away in dust storms and ours didn’t. So I was an early adopter of no-till methods in our vineyards.
Over fifteen years ago, we had a group called Wine Vision that wanted to get a formal sustainability effort going, but there were two schools of thought: Some wanted to be able to earn a “certified” sticker that you could put on your bottles. Bob Gallo (of E & J Gallo) and I strongly pushed for a different concept, the idea of continuous improvement.
Steve, what do you recall of those early discussions?
There were many conversations about bringing wineries and growers together to spread sustainable practices statewide. Some people were tentative. Many weren’t sure what sustainability meant, if it was going to increase costs, or if it should be more of a regional effort. But, frankly, a statewide program made sense because we had two organizations—Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers—with the financial and technical ability to expand the effort statewide and make some real change. One thing that distinguished our program in the beginning is that we focused on both vineyards and wineries.
Has the program evolved over the years?
Steve: When it first started, it was strictly self-assessment. The CSWA handbook, which is quite a tome, gave people a road map to improve. One major advance came in 2010 when we went beyond self-assessment to “certified sustainable” via a third-party audit. That change helped a lot of people because these auditors see a lot of similar organizations and have great outside perspective. Certainly, it helped retailers, restaurateurs and distributors who wanted to say, “This vineyard or winery is sustainable” and know that the supplier’s claim had been third-party verified.
What impact do you think CSWA has had over its 15 years? Have you seen changes in attitudes among your fellow vintners and grape growers?
Jerry: Dramatically. Employee relations, recycling, every facet of the industry has changed. We are beyond the early-adopter stage. The industry in general has embraced sustainability, and certainly the young people coming into the industry are very keen on it and wanting to experiment. There are still people who don’t want to do the paperwork but are following sustainable practices anyway.
Steve: There was some resistance to certification initially. Some growers were afraid that if they didn’t jump on the program, wineries might not take their grapes. But I have to give credit to our staff at CSWA. They have done hundreds of workshops over the past 10 years, leading people through self-assessment and answering questions, and now there’s a high rate of adoption for sustainability. Today 127 wineries and nearly 1,100 vineyards producing more than 200 million cases a year are certified sustainable through our program.