Sustainable wines, organic wines, biodynamic wines, natural wines, dry-farmed wines, and LEED wineries. The ultimate guide.

Sustainable wine. We all inherently know we want it because it sounds great. Let’s make wine in a way that sustains the land and our way of life for generations to come. But what does it mean to create a sustainable wine? It’s not quite the same as organic wine, biodynamic wine, natural wine, or dry-farmed wine (don’t worry, we’ll cover those and LEED wineries). At its core, sustainable wine is wine that limits environmental resource depletion to maintain an ecological balance.

Putting sustainability into practice takes hard work, money, and time. Wineries may need to prioritize sustainability over profits. But wineries everywhere are investing in this because it matters to them, and they know it matters to you. And to ensure you can trust them, they go through various certifications involving third parties that verify their sustainability practices.

And to fully understand just one of these certifications, you might need to read through a 418-page manual to learn all of the evaluation criteria. But to give you a birds-eye view, these certifications are looking at a combination of economic viability, environmental stewardship, and social equity to assess how sustainable a winery’s practices are.

And while there are differences across the various certifications of sustainable wines, they all ultimately move us towards a more sustainable future. As a conscious consumer, you now have the opportunity to take a pause today to learn more. That way, when you see a certification on a wine bottle or website, you can be more confident about what it means.

What are the sustainable wine certifications, and what do they look at?

The various sustainability certifications in the wine industry grew organically over time regionally based on the local environment’s needs. And except for the set of international standards “EMS ISO 14001”, each of the certifications requires a third party to verify that the winery complies. The U.S. based programs you’ll likely see and may have heard of include:

When you come across these labels, you can trust that they all cover some combination of:

  • Business ethics/strategy
  • Land use/habitat protection
  • Viticulture
  • Soil health
  • Water management
  • Waste management
  • Pest management
  • Energy efficiency
  • Material sourcing
  • Worker health/HR
  • Air quality
  • Community involvement

Generally, the wineries have to not only demonstrate how they are abiding by each standard but also create and track against an action plan to improve continuously. These certifications also require renewal often on an annual basis.

How does it compare to being certified organic?

Organic can also be considered more sustainable for the environment than some industrialized farming. Growing certified organic wines, like in other industries, is about prohibiting using pesticides and synthetic fertilizer. In wine, you also have to make sure that both the grapes and additives (e.g., yeast, finding agents) are organic. The big kicker is that GMOs, including sulfites, are not allowed in certified organic wines, which leads to many wineries losing out on the label since sulfur is the most common preservative for wine. Without the use of sulfur, most wines wouldn’t age or cellar well.

For this reason, wineries came up with a new spin on Organic to help the industry called “Made with Organic Grapes.” It’s the same thing as Certified Organic except wines can have up to 100 ppm of sulfites. So unless you’re very much against sulfites (they’re not bad for most people), the “Made with Organic Grapes” certification should also be considered a more sustainable purchase.

Are biodynamic wines good for the environment?

While there’s a lot of debate on biodynamic practices that are not based entirely on science, studies show its positive effects on the vineyard health and environment. Becoming certified biodynamic can be even more demanding than other certifications. For those who haven’t heard of biodynamic wineries, they are a class unto themselves. In addition to the sustainable practices they adhere to, they also have seemingly odd requirements like timing planting with the moon’s cycles and requiring soil to contain certain herbs and bone. Don’t be turned off by the celestial traits of these wines. They can turn out to be consistently excellent quality!

You can explore all Demeter certified biodynamic wineries and vineyards in this handy list.

And what are natural wines?

Natural wines can also be put into the sustainability bucket as well to an extent. Since there is no regulated or official definition of natural wine, it can be harder to make broad statements about them. These wines use natural yeasts like sourdough bread, sour beers, and kombucha, giving them a more sour flavor. They also use no additives and little to no sulfites. But in general, they are usually made by small wineries and almost always using sustainable, organic, or biodynamic grapes. So you can probably be assured they are a more sustainable purchase.

Is “dry farming” a category of sustainable wines?

Dry-farming wineries are wineries that don’t have irrigation and rely on rainwater. These wineries can be thought of as sustainable from a water conservation perspective and may have other sustainable practices. Wineries don’t practice dry-farming in every region due to concerns of the vines not getting enough water, while other areas are exclusively dry-farm. And if a winery is a dry-farmed in a place where water scarcity is an issue and producing quality wines, then happily know your wine isn’t only good quality but is also saving our precious water resources.

Sorry. Lastly, what’s LEED all about?

LEED or “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design” is a certification used for rating building systems themselves to provide a framework for healthy, highly-efficient, cost-saving buildings. Although this certification concerns the building more than agriculture, it’s a significant sustainability benchmark for building structures. To get this certification as a winery production facility is another great accomplishment in being a fully sustainable winery in all aspects.

Vote for sustainability with your dollars

While each of these certifications has its advantages and deficiencies, ultimately, it’s our view that it’s better to support wineries with any of these certifications than not. The way we can mitigate the degradation of our environment is to spend money on those that are practicing good sustainability. And for those that want to dig a bit deeper or are skeptical about greenwashing, then, by all means, get to know the winery better and learn more about the practices specific to them. Each wine region and winery has unique challenges they face and paths to being sustainable. So ask them about it next time you visit or read more about their practices online. We make this easy for you to learn about their sustainable practices when you shop at Sip Wines.

And for those interested, here are lists of wineries with the certifications we described above:

For those who wanted to dig deeper into each of the sustainable wine certifications, look at the various handbook topics below and feel free to click through to the full text.

Certified California Sustainable Vineyard & Winery (CCSW)

  • Sustainable Business Strategy
  • Viticulture
  • Soil Management
  • Vineyard Water Management
  • Pest Management
  • Wine Quality
  • Ecosystem Management
  • Energy Efficiency
  • Winery Water Conservation and Quality
  • Material Handling
  • Solid Waste Reduction and Management
  • Environmentally Preferred Purchasing
  • Human Resources
  • Neighbors and Community
  • Air Quality

SIP Certified

  • Conservation and Enhancement of Biological Diversity
  • Vineyard Acquisition, Establishment and Management
  • Winery Facility Establishment and Management
  • Vineyard Soil Conservation and Surface Water Quality
  • Water Conservation and Quality
  • Energy Conservation and Efficiency
  • Pollution and Waste
  • Purchasing, Recycling, and Waste Reduction
  • Pest Management
  • Grape Sourcing and Fruit Quality
  • Social Equity
  • Continuing Education
  • Business Management
  • Year End Water and Nitrogen Use Reports

LIVE Certified (Winery, Vineyard)

Winery

  • Documentation and Training
  • Grapes and Enology
  • Energy Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions
  • Materials Management
  • Water Management
  • Worker Health, Safety, and Benefits
  • Community Impact and Education

Vineyard

  • Farm Management, Documentation, and Training
  • Biodiversity and Ecological Infrastructure
  • Site Selection
  • Site Management
  • Varieties, Rootstock, and Planting
  • Plant Nutrition
  • Irrigation
  • Integrated Protection Measures for Farm Crops
  • Harvesting and Food Safety
  • Management Systems on Farms with Livestock
  • Worker Health and Safety

Salmon-Safe

  • In-stream Habitat Protection/Restoration
  • Riparian & Wetland Vegetation Protection/Restoration
  • Water Use Management
  • Erosion Prevention & Sediment Control
  • Integrated Pest Management & Water Quality Protection
  • Animal Management
  • Landscape-level Biological Diversity Enhancement

Certified Green (Lodi Rules)

  • Business Management
  • Human Resources Management
  • Ecosystem Management
  • Soil Management
  • Water Management
  • Pest Management
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