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Four Anecdotes about Sustainable Viticulture in Napa Valley

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By Mark Lubell - Posted on 05 December 2011

The sustainable viticulture team visited Napa Valley last week to seek wisdom from our advisory council about the design of our study, and present some initial findings at the Green Wine Summit. During the course of the day, I heard some of the most interesting anecdotes about social networks and sustainable agriculture that I've yet encountered:

1. My favorite: climate surprises activate social networks. Like most agriculture, viticulture is incredibly sensitive to interannual climate variation. The quality of grapes depends on the grower's capacity to adjust vineyard management, harvesting and other decisions in light of seasonal weather. The 2011 growing season was an unusually wet year, and pushed back the developmental path of the vines including harvest time. According to one of our growers, when this happens, "the feelers go out" to ask their friends about how their vineyards are faring, and when they will make crucial management decisions. This strikes me as a fundamental process in human social networks and social learning--when surprised, look to see what others are doing. Think about what you would do when faced with a major climate surprise in your own life!

2. Geography structures social networks: We were worried that we should extend this stage of our study to Sonoma county, because Sonoma is right next to Napa and we hypothesized that many Napa growers would be connected to Sonoma growers. Our Napa advisors thought this would be a minor problem, mainly because the mountains separating the two valleys are barriers to the development of knowledge networks. They thought that the Carneros region would be an exception, because there is less of a physical barrier. The data should be interesting to see if this type of geographic barrier is operating.

3. When wineries speak sustainable, growers listen: In chatting with one of the largest wine producers in California, we learned that they had recommended their growers participate in the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance's sustainability self-assessment workbook. According to our contact, over 90% of the growers "voluntarily" complied with this request. This is in comparison to less than 50% of growers in Lodi. The industrial organization of the wine industry thus plays a key role in shaping grower behavior--the wineries are the growers' source of income, and we know from other discussions that the rate of grower participation is greatly accelerated when wineries pay a price premium. This will become even more true if the consumer market for green and sustainable wine matures to the point that consumers are also paying more for certified products.

4. One bad actor ruins regional reputation: The same large winery representative talked about regional reputation as a major economic incentive for pursuing sustainability. We have written before about how reputation is a cooperation problem, because one bad actor can ruin the reputations of others. The winery rep put this in very dramatic perspective, suggesting that a heavy polluter or workforce abuser would attract media attention that would then create the public perception that all wineries and winegrape growers are bad actors. So sustainability is important for creating a good reputation, as well as preventing a bad reputation.

Quantitative surveys cannot capture all the nuanced anecdotes that we have learned in the course of our qualitative research and ongoing interactions with the wine industry. However, such qualitative data allows us to better interpret the quantitative results, and overall enrich the theoretical discussion.