A Sip Wines “Winelight”
Bill Sweat and Donna Morris
Fun fact about me: I used to work in the career center at one of the top law schools in the country. The fact that I used to work at a law school is almost entirely irrelevant for purposes of being the Sip Wines blogger, except to the extent that I can draw on it for mildly amusing and/or cutting anecdotes and the occasional segue to make a point. I do love a good segue… and so I shall use one! In this instance, I am going to talk briefly about a law school policy point, and then deftly tie it in to the amazing work being done by Sip Wines partner Winderlea Vineyard and Winery. How's that for a roadmap?
A frequent topic of conversation in this law school's administration was the question of whether our students should receive actual grades, or just a pass/fail. Deciding whether a particular method of assessment is binary (pass/fail) or scaled (graded based on numerical cutoffs) says a lot about what you’re trying to accomplish with that particular assessment. For example, the bar exam (what you need to pass to be admitted to practice law) is pass/fail, and using a binary assessment in this context makes sense: you’re just trying to determine whether or not someone should be allowed to practice law, so you establish your floor for passing. State bars aren’t trying to assess whether someone will be a grade A vs. grade C lawyer. The corollary to that is that there’s not much incentive to do anything more than pass--it’s potentially a lot of extra work for no more reward.
I fear I’m going to lose your attention if I take this much further, and this Winelight is actually about Winderlea Vineyard and Winery and their majorly impressive sustainability initiatives. Here’s my segue: the binary vs. scaled assessment decision is also reflected in the type of sustainability certification that a winery (or any other type of business) pursues and obtains, and incentive structures have a lot to do with this. Winderlea is a certified B Corporation, and if you didn’t read last week’s blog post or Winelight (shame on you), then you might not realize that B Corp certification is a seriously high bar to achieve amidst a veritable vineyard of stringent sustainability certifications--as of 2019, there were only 25 B Corp wineries in the world! So, what kind of superheroes are the Winderlea folks?
Actually I’m not really sure, because I don’t know that much about superheroes, but I can say that what they share with some of the legends is passion, determination, and a true sense of calling and purpose. Owners Bill Sweat and Donna Morris both started their careers in the financial services industry, where they met in the 1980s. A far cry from wine, to be sure, except that the travel required by their careers allowed them to taste the wines of the world as a side benefit. Eventually, they realized that they were ready to take the next step in their professional lives, and in 2006 they left their first careers and purchased 20 acres planted with some of the oldest grape vines in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. If I were writing a book about their journey, I would call this chapter “The Pursuit of the Perfect Pinot” because alliteration is great and also that’s why they chose Oregon, for the love of Pinot Noir. And may I just say, they succeeded in their quest, because I’ve tried several of their Pinots and they were all spectacular.
From the very beginning, Bill and Donna knew how they wanted to run their business; within just 2 years, they had introduced enough sustainable farming practices to achieve LIVE and Salmon Safe sustainability certifications. And that was just the beginning! One year later, they were also farming biodynamically, and obtained Demeter Biodynamic Certification in 2015. It’s ok if you don’t know what biodynamic means, I certainly didn’t. In a nutshell, the goal of biodynamic farming is to create a natural, healthy, self-sustaining system, and to use solely natural products, soils, and composts during the farming process. This means no inorganic compounds, pesticides, or other harmful chemicals, but even more so, it’s about the bigger concept of holistic farming as a recognition that everything in the natural world is interconnected. Oh, also in 2009 they became one of just 14 wineries in Oregon to achieve phase 2 compliance in the carbon reduction program established by the Oregon Environmental Council.
They were doing all this before they even contemplated pursuing B Corp status, and more. I’m going to lift this straight from their website because it just summarizes it all so nicely: “Winderlea’s vineyard Tasting Room was designed by Portland architect Ernie Munch to employ both passive and active energy reduction strategies and in 2008 became the first Oregon tasting room to install an electric vehicle charger. From the time they opened their tasting room in 2008 thru 2011, Winderlea donated 100% of their tasting room fees to iSalud!, the organization that provides healthcare services to Oregon’s vineyard workers and families. Since 2012 Winderlea has made a monthly contribution from tasting fees to support iSalud! as well as participating in an annual auction that further supports iSalud’s! funding. In addition to their support of iSalud!, Winderlea contributes over 5% of company revenue to non-profit organizations focused on education and the arts.”
Sounds like a lot, right? You might think that with all those efforts, B Corp status would basically fall into their laps. But you would be incorrect, because it’s just that hard to be a B Corp--it implicates every single aspect of your business. This is what strikes me about the Sip Wines partners I speak with who are certified B Corps: you have to want it pretty badly and be willing to work incredibly hard to get it, and these wineries are doing just that in spite of being small operations with limited bandwidth. For the Winderlea folks, becoming a B Corp represented the ultimate embodiment of their driving principles and ethos, and they were willing to do whatever it took to make that happen.
I have a confession to make: that whole grading thing in the beginning of this Winelight that I passed off as my own brilliant insight… actually, that kind of came from Bill. Not the law school stuff, but the observation about the impact of a binary vs. scaled system. Bill explained that most sustainability certifications are fundamentally binary, like the bar exam. There’s a checklist of things you have to do/show, and once you check everything off the list, you’re certified. Maintaining that certification just means continuing to meet that floor.
TO BE CLEAR: No one is saying that’s a bad thing. In fact, there’s a lot to be said for guidelines, recommendations, and policies that focus on tolerable minimums vs. ideal compliance--just look at the current pandemic situation, and how the CDC is considering lowering the recommended quarantine period from 14 days in the hopes that it will prompt greater compliance with quarantines generally. From a greater good perspective, it’s probably optimal to start by incrementally raising the bar in the hopes that people will gradually adjust their baseline behavior accordingly.
On the other hand, B Corp certification is closer to numerical/alphabetical grades. Rather than a checklist, organizations seeking certification are scored based on a whole barrel-full of criteria. Sure, there’s still a “floor” in that there’s a passing score required for certification. For B Corporations, out of a total score of 200, an organization must achieve a score of 80 for certification. But as Bill noted, getting an actual “grade” means that you can also see where you need to do better, and if you’re the type of organization already willing to put in the work for B Corp status, you’ll probably care about that grade. Winderlea is certainly doing that; when they first became a certified B Corp in 2015, their score was 93.2--given how difficult these assessments are, that’s already a pretty healthy margin overpassing. Now, five years later, they’ve increased their score to 106.7, landing them on B Lab’s “Best for the World” list (top-performing B Corps creating the greatest impact through their businesses) for “Changemakers,” which consists of businesses whose net improvement was in the top 20% of all B Corps. They've also been on the “Best for the World: Community” list for the last two years, which means they scored in the top 10% of B Corps in the category for their efforts in the community, including charitable giving, investment in diversity, and educational opportunities.
If you’d like to find out which companies are certified B Corps, see individual company scores, or check out the Best for the World lists, all that information is available on the B Corporation website.
At the end of the day, it’s ok if we’re not all superheroes out to ace the class on saving the world, as long as enough of us are doing, well, enough. But the world is pretty incredibly lucky that there are people like Bill and Donna out there who are willing to go so much farther, and Sip Wines feels both fortunate and honored to partner with them. Truly, when we say that buying a bottle of wine from Sip Wines means that you’re making a difference, it’s not hyperbole. Every bottle you buy helps the Bills and Donnas of the world push harder and farther for sustainability and positive impact. And, of course they’re making some really incredible wine. It’s not our place to say whether they’ve actually achieved the Perfect Pinot, but from what we can tell, they’ve gotten pretty darn close.