By Bill Swindell
The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif.
Fetzer Vineyards, the Hopland-based pioneer in sustainable winemaking, announced Tuesday that it has become the first winery in California to become a certified B Corporation, joining the ranks of businesses such as Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s that promote their commitment to social responsibility and environmental practices as well as profits.
Fetzer becomes one of a handful of U.S. wineries to obtain the private certification, which is issued by B Lab, a nonprofit based in Wayne, Pa. Beyond being graded on its environmental commitment, a company also receives marks on how it treats its workers; its relationship with its community; and its business governance structure.
The company, which was acquired in 2011 by Chilean vintner Concha y Toro, joins more than 1,400 companies in 40 countries that have become certified B Corporations.
“That’s a great group. … You’re in great company there,” said Robert Girling, a Sonoma State University business professor and author of the newly released book “The Good Company: Sustainability in Hospitality, Tourism, and Wine.”
The company, which was founded in 1968 by Barney Fetzer and has more than 300 employees today, saw the certification as a natural step in its progression. It already has 960 acres of organic vineyards and 260 acres that are biodynamic, where crops are grown without chemicals in an attempt to have the farm’s ecosystem be balanced, self-sustaining and healing, said Josh Prigge, Fetzer’s director of regenerative development.
The company received a score of 36 for its environmental practices, compared to a median score of 9 for B Corporations.
Overall, it earned a score of 80 points, the minimum required for certification on B Lab’s 200-point scale.
As part of the commitment, Fetzer announced that it is seeking to become a “Net Positive” company by 2030, meaning that it will replenish more energy, water and other resources than it uses to make and sell wine, employing environmentally friendly practices such as solar panels, water meters and drip irrigation.
“We want to put back more in the world than we take out,” Prigge said.
The wine industry has become much more cognizant in recent years of better environmental practices as certain companies, such as Santa Rosa’s Jackson Family Wines, tout new winemaking practices designed to consume less water and energy. Sonoma County Winegrowers, a trade group that represents more than 1,800 grape growers, has embarked on a mission to make the county a 100 percent sustainable winegrowing region by 2019.
The B Corporation designation carries significant weight for Fetzer in social factors, as well, such as how it treats its workers, its relationship with its community, and its accountability and transparency.
Those issues are at the forefront in the wine industry, which has suffered a backlash in Napa and Sonoma counties as citizens express concern over the industry’s water use in a drought era and the traffic and noise pollution from tourists and events. Both counties appointed task forces to look into the community complaints.
“It’s not just about the stuff that goes in the bottle, but it’s also what is behind the bottle,” said Jay Coen Gilbert, co-founder of B Lab.
Given that wine consumption is typically done in social settings, Gilbert said Fetzer would be in a prime position to use its status as a B Corporation to help attract more consumers to its brand, which produces 2.5 million cases annually.
“They’re probably in an industry that creates the opportunity for more conversation with friends and family,” Gilbert said. “They are in a unique place to influence the marketplace.”
On the scorecard, Fetzer scored 19 points for its treatment of workers. The median score was 22.
Women and members of minority groups comprise 50 percent of management, Prigge said. The company pays a living wage to all its employees, targeted to the city where each person works, he said. In Mendocino County, that would be a wage of at least $10.87 per hour for one adult living alone, according to a calculation by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; state minimum wage is $9 per hour.
Fetzer registered 18 points for the community section — it offers discounted wine on a regular basis to Mendocino County residents and contributes to a local garden project — and 8 points on the governance scale.
“What they are doing makes a lot of economic sense,” said Girling, the author and SSU professor. He added that other wineries likely will try for such a designation.
Locally, B Corporations include Traditional Medicinals, Guayaki Sustainable Rainforest Products, Indigenous Designs, Solar Works and McEvoy Ranch.
B Corporations, which are certified by B Lab, are different than Benefit Corporations, a legal status that lets companies expand their traditional mission of maximizing profit to include social and environmental missions.
Because it already is used in different industries, the B Corporation designation may help Fetzer stand out in a crowded wine marketplace, Girling said. There are designations for organic grapes and wines; biodynamic wines; three different types of sustainable certifications; and one for fish-friendly farming, leaving the consumer baffled over which they should choose, Girling said.
“It’s confusing for the consumer,” he said. “There are just so many different labels.”