Lodi Winegrape Commission
Recipient of 2003 USDA Value Added Producer grant.
Local growers voted to fund the Lodi Winegrape Commission in 1991. The Commission’s mission is to serve the common interests of all Lodi-Woodbridge Crush District 11 winegrape producers and to enhance the profitability of winegrape production through promotion, research and education. The Commission represents almost 800 winegrowers farming nearly 80,000 acres of winegrapes and has successfully moved the Lodi region forward as a high-quality, environmentally sound production area.
The Commission’s objectives are to
- Raise awareness of the Lodi-Woodbridge winegrape production region among "influentials" -- the wine trade, the press and consumers.
- Enhance recognition of the Lodi-Woodbridge region through expanded use of the Lodi appellation on wine labels, by facilitating development of wineries in the district and by supporting wine-oriented tourism.
- Provide growers with information, materials, education and strategies directed at profit improvement.
- Facilitate two/way communication among growers and vintners concerning characteristics of quality that enhance value of grapes and wine.
- Create opportunities for Lodi-Woodbridge growers to supply vintners serving higher retail price segments, improving the relative value of their grapes in the California market.
- Conduct a proactive viticultural research program to maintain Lodi-Woodbridge technological leadership in the winegrape industry.
- Identify and encourage implementation of environmentally benign and economically viable pest, weed, disease and cultural strategies through the district-wide Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program.
Some of their successes include doubling the acreage of winegrapes while the crop value has quadrupled, increasing the number of “Lodi” labeled wines to over 450 and opening the “Lodi Wine and Visitor Center,” a wine tasting center. These very visible successes are supported by a solid environmental program that goes far beyond the IPM program.
The Lodi Rules
The Lodi Rules Program is a third-party certification program. The standards for this program have been reviewed and endorsed by an organization not connected to the Lodi Winegrape Commission. Protected Harvest, an environmental nonprofit organization that endorses farmers' use of stringent environmental farming standards certifies the vineyards in The Lodi Rules program. Protected Harvest has received the highest rating by Consumers Union as an eco-label with meaningful, verifiable and transparent standards.
The Lodi Rules Program includes sustainable winegrowing standards and the Pesticide Environmental Assessment System (PEAS) that measures the environmental impact of all the pesticides, whether organic or synthetic, used in a vineyard during the year. To qualify for certification, a vineyard has to achieve a minimum number of sustainable farming practices points based on The Lodi Rules and not exceed a maximum number of pesticide impact points calculated using PEAS. Certification is awarded to an individual vineyard on an annual basis. Protected Harvest ensures compliance and chain of custody with The Lodi Rules using an auditing process.
This certification program goes far beyond the 'do no harm' programs that consist mainly of practices that should not be used. The Lodi Rules program requires growers to use a wide range of sustainable practices that result in continual improvement of all aspects of their farming operations. The criteria covers six broad areas: ecosystem management, education, training and team building, soil management, water management, vineyard establishment and pest management. It even goes beyond organic certification, which is mainly which fertilizers and pesticides can be used or not used; this certification includes both of those as well as water, soil and how employees are treated.
The growers feel they are doing the right thing, even though sometimes it costs more than conventional methods. Now, with the certification, they can capture some of the value of their production method. One area winery is offering a premium ($50/ton) for grapes under this certification.
For the commission, marketing the certification program can be tricky. Wine is already perceived as a “natural” product, so they have to be careful when promoting “sustainable.” Organic wine has not done well, partly because consumers already have a very positive image of the product. The Commission is developing a market message that enhances the already positive image with the certification. They received a Value-Added Ag grant that helped them to define the messages to both the industry and the consumer.
As part of the grant, they put together a marketing task force. The task force had growers, commission staff and key marketers from wineries. It was designed to be a stakeholder committee focused on marketing, so they felt it was important for the growers to be part of it. The task force named the program “Lodi Rules” with marketing in mind.
An advantage in the Lodi area is a long history of working together, and so developing a specific label attribute, such as the certification, was less of a problem. Not all of the growers are certified, and so would benefit less from the marketing program. With a number of new wineries, there is some fractionalization around brands. Before, the brand was “Lodi.” Generally the philosophy of the area is “let’s do this right for the whole area.”
They also contracted with a marketing firm to do focus groups to refine their message. They realized that their message is that Lodi makes great wine, made by great people in a real place and then the sustainable attributes can be layered into that. The real people are the families that farm in the Lodi area. Many of the families have owned their land for six or seven generations. This is a much more complicated message than saying “this wine is better because pesticides weren’t used to make it.”
There are almost 800 active winegrape farming entities in the Lodi area. The average age of the grower in Lodi is about 45 years old, and some say, Lodi growers just have a more innovative and entrepreneurial spirit. Because of the long-term ownership, they value the land. As one winegrape grower said recently “these vineyards have been in my family for 150 years, and with any luck, it will be in the family for 150 years from now.” That guides the behavior of the grower community in this area. Even though they knew there was a controversial aspect to the certification program, there was a commitment to it all through the 16 years, and it has not changed.
This region also has a long record of working together. The winegrape growers worked together in cooperatives for many years. The growers here were used to working with their neighbors and their cousins. Also there was already a strong community feeling in this area. When the Commission was established in 1991, only one other was established at the time. Now, just in the last few years, two others have formed in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. They saw what Lodi was able to do with their collective dollars for 15 years.
Now the Commission’s challenge is to get more bottles of wine with the certification into greater distribution to get the consumer interested in the program. It has taken three years from concept to getting wine into the bottles. Once a portfolio of wines that are certified gets national distribution, the sales should begin to drive profits for the certified growers. They also have to hit the right price point for restaurants and wine shops.
The labeling program is also driving a transition from selling to the large buyers such as Gallo to the small local wineries. In order to put the “Lodi” appellation on the label, the winery must use 85 percent of the grapes from that area. A big winery has trouble meeting that standard. The Commission focuses on the smaller wineries that are able to do it more easily. Now, there are about 75 wineries in Lodi with five new ones opening soon. When the Commission started there were only eight. Most of the growth in small wineries has been since 2000.
The commission would also like to have a grape crusher locate in the area. Many Lodi wineries are custom crushing now for other wineries throughout the United States. As new vineyards and wineries get into the wine industry, they often import juice until their vines can produce enough for local production. Lodi juice has a reputation for improving the quality of the wine in those regions, as well. Wine makers recognize the value of Lodi juice.
How the Commission Works
The Lodi Winegrape Commission has nine commissioners and nine alternates. They are a very active board in providing guidance and leadership. In the beginning they met monthly, but now they meet four times a year. Their infrastructure and staff is well established, so there is less work for the board. The board still has approval and authority over all of their programs. The programs usually begin with the board leaders that are on the task forces. A committee of 15 growers put the sustainable program’s workbook together, and they were also the first ones to use it.
Once the workbook was done, rather than just give it free to the member growers, they conducted workshops at the grower’s houses and passed the book out there. This spread the word about the quality of the book. That’s where others started to hear about the book and wanted one too.
It was never a top down program, where the grower had to go to Commission headquarters and learn about grape growing. Meeting in their neighbor’s houses worked very well. The growers as a district became really comfortable with the whole process. When they came out with the certification, the same process was followed. At the time, it was a big outlay of money and with no obvious return on investment. There are 18 growers currently representing 10,000 acres, almost 10 percent of the district certified in the third year.
Outreach to Producers
The Commission has an outreach program that is personal. Every five years they have an elaborate grower survey done by professionals. They found that growers want to see a person. They do not want to go online; they want to be able to talk to a person. Even with so much innovation in the fields and marketing, the communication is like the old days, person to person. They use computers, journals and trade magazines, but they also want the personal contact.
The Commission also puts on a series of seminars about establishing wineries, marketing, public relations, branding and tasting wines from around the world. They want to give the public a view of the entire industry, not just tasting Lodi wines. The Wine and Visitor Center offers interactive educational displays, a tasting room and wine and food pairing opportunities. It promotes events at local wineries and has an extensive wine shop.
The Lodi Winegrape Commission capitalizes on its growers’ long history of dedication to quality and cooperation and is finding ways to capture the value of a long-term sustainability environmental program. They are guiding the transition from a commodity product (juice) to a specialized, niche market wine that will bring a higher return to their growers.
About USDA VAPG
VAPG funding has been offered by the USDA periodically since the early 2000s. A new round of funding is anticipated to be announced in the coming months. To be considered value added, projects must show how products are differentiated in specific ways from commodity crops. Typically, projects must also show how they may deliver greater returns to producers.
Independent producers, farmer or rancher cooperatives, agricultural producer groups, and producer-owned business ventures, including non-profit organizations, may apply. In previous cycles, applicants were required to be producers of the raw commodity who will maintain ownership of that commodity through the process of creating a value-added product. Grants have been available for planning projects (such as marketing and business plans and feasibility studies) and working capital projects (which might include wages or packaging supplies). (http://www.rd.usda.gov/)