Molly Burchfield ’19 Helps Develop a Vineyard Sustainability Measuring Program at Walla Walla Valley Vinea in Walla Walla, WA

Here is a situation: You run a vineyard and winery in Walla Walla, where the wine industry is booming. Amidst an oversaturated market, how do you set yourself apart from other wineries? You make great wine… and so do many others. How do you go the extra mile to show the consumer that YOURS is the wine they should buy? How do you get your wine from Walla Walla to compete with wines from long-known places like Napa Valley?

A group of vineyards in Walla Walla has an answer to this. They want to respond to consumer preferences by creating a program that evaluates and certifies vineyards’ for their sustainability. The program will be an eco-label of sorts, but it also more because it will focus not just on ecological elements of sustainability, but also on social and economic components. Creating such a comprehensive program would be complex in itself. What takes the project up to an even higher level of complexity and depth, is that the program framework is to be place-based and performance-based, rather than simply practice-based. What does that mean?

The program will operate exclusively in the Walla Walla Valley. Its ultimate goal is to gain wide-spread participation from vineyards in the area, and help the Valley be known in global markets for high quality, responsibly-grown wine. The tagline: place-based, globally relevant.

The next layer of complexity is in the use of performance standards, rather than practice-based evaluation. Practice-based evaluation is the current cannon of sustainability certification, but performance is rumored to be the future. Organic is perhaps the most famous eco-label, and is almost entirely practice-based because it evaluates agriculture based on how a crop is grown. The Walla Walla program will have a set of standard practices – for example, any chemical containers on site must be washed with approved methods in order to avoid contamination of soil and water. On top of those, the program will also examine the outcome of such practices. Meaning, rather than simply requiring vineyards to take action toward healthy soils and clean water, the program will measure factors like soil nitrogen content and the pH of wastewater in order to ensure that soil health and clean water are being upheld.

This is where the project gets truly complex, and ambitious. The goal becomes to set numbers that define “sustainability” in the Walla Walla Valley. There are inherent difficulties in this, both philosophical and practical side. For example, while some of those numbers can currently be set in a scientifically sound way, there are also areas in which no data exists to inform decisions. This leaves the program in a tricky place, with decisions to make about how to move forward.

Should they try to collect data themselves? Should they launch the program as one that will be highly adaptive in its initial years, as values are added and edited according to new data? The first route runs the risk of taking too long. The second runs the risk of losing marketplace credibility.

I enter into this time of many questions under the guidance of Whitman alumnus Kevin Scribner, with the goal of creating a document that will be the written guide to the certification program. So far, I have spent my internship time researching. A lot. I have also met with a few people who know far more than I do about vineyards and wine and certification programs, and started drafting the written document. It feels a bit like school in the type of work I do, but here, there are no established answers to the questions.

Experiences like Molly’s are made possible by the Whitman Internship Grant, which provides funding for students to participate in unpaid internships at both for-profit and non-profit organizations. To learn how you could secure a Whitman Internship Grant or host a Whitman intern at your organization, click here or contact Assistant Director for Internship Programs Victoria Wolff

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