Northern California Winemakers Set the Standard for Substance and Sustainability

And they're using new certifications to help make American wine “grape” again.

Concannon Vineyard
A view of the house at Concannon Vineyard.


Although wine consumption has gained popularity, especially during the pandemic, an increasing number of consumers are looking not only for the highest quality expressions of their favorite grape varietals. Many of them also want to know exactly what’s going into the bottles, above and beyond the wine.

“Biodynamic” has become as much of a selling point for wineries worldwide as have wine competition accolades and prized varietals. Several Northern California wineries, however, are uncorking a more in-depth look at how they have been pursuing optimum sustainability in wine production for years, or even decades. For Concannon Winery and McManis in the Livermore Valley and Imagery Estate and Benziger in Glen Ellen, Sonoma County, sustainable wine production is front and center. 

While each winery defines sustainable wine production differently, the various owners and winemakers are not shy about using current growing conditions and global warming to explain why “sustainable” is anything but a pitch to push bottles in tasting rooms, liquor stores, and wine clubs. 

McManis winery
Bottling line at McManis Family Vineyards.

Elyse Glickman

McManis Winery’s sustainability story is so compelling that it draws serious wine enthusiasts from as far away as Canada and Sweden, even without the manicured gardens, fancy tasting rooms, cafes, and gift shops of other wineries. Justin McManis (part of the fifth generation of the wine family dynasty) and winemaker Michael Robustelli are clearly no nonsense about their thoughts on sustainable wine production.

“We started our journey towards becoming 100% certified sustainable in 2008, and when we certified our first vineyard, we quickly realized that we didn't really have to change our farming practices that much," stresses Robustelli. “It validated what we were already doing—implementing solar power, recycling all of our our back-flush water so nothing gets wasted, [installing] permanent cover crops, and looking at the biodiversity within the vineyards.”

Justin McManis pours wine
Justin McManis pours a glass of wine.

Elyse Glickman

Justin McManis adds that the Lodi Rules (one of the oldest sustainable vineyard farming programs in the state of California, established in 2005) begat other sustainability programs, such as the California Sustainable Wine Growing Alliance, or CSWA. While McManis is now officially certified through CSWA, which requires certified wineries to engage in continuous improvements to their properties, the Lodi Rules’ 120 farming standard practices to help farmers sustainably manage their vineyards are equally important benchmarks.

“We started focusing a little bit more on the day-to-day farming and trying to just grow a better quality product,” continues Robustelli. “Sustainability goes beyond farming. There's the human resources side of the sustainability, as well as the economic side of it, and they all need to co-exist for the whole thing to be sustainable. With the CSWA, the entry level for a winery to get certified from the get-go is a little bit easier than the Lodi Rules; however, we also follow the Lodi Rules program, as it has deeper roots than the CSWA, which is a broader program for the whole state. Although Lodi is specifically designed for the Lodi Growing Region, I believe the Lodi Rules program is now being used in three different countries.” 

Up the road at Concannon, the first thing visitors see is a “timeline” wall that begins in 1883, revealing that it is America's oldest continually operating winery. Its reputation as a quality winemaker is rooted in its hallowed “Cabernet Clones” (7, 8 and 11) that grew out of a single “Mother Vine” that founder John Concannon quietly brought to California from Chateaux Margaux in France. While winemaker James Foster uses the timeline as a starting point for a discussion on Concannon’s most prestigious wines, he also explains how it provides a framework on why sustainability makes sense. 

Concannon casks

Concannon Vineyard

While Concannon’s identity as a designated sustainable California winery does not go back as far as 1883, Foster points out it is one of the state's and the nation's first trailblazers in sustainable winemaking. 

“Our success is not just about the methods in which we grow our grapes, maintain our vineyards, and protect the environment,” says Foster. “We’ve always looked at the bigger picture of environmental stewardship that will positively impact other winemakers. In fact, it goes beyond being a good neighbor to other growers and producers, engaging in philanthropic activities in our community and creating an exemplary work environment for our employees. While we’ve long been a strong advocate of sustainable farming, Concannon was an active participant in the development of the Wine Institute’s Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices (or CSWA) in 2009.”

Concannon was one of 17 California wineries that participated in the CSWA Certified Pilot Program to test the efficacy of the certification requirements and offer feedback for introducing a statewide certification program and a set of sustainable standards for all California wineries through third-party verification. Foster concludes his history lesson by noting that, in January 2010, Concannon ended up being one of the 13 first wineries to be awarded this rigorous certification, proving that, “the commitment to stepping up the existing conservation practices and business standards had paid off.”

Benziger Winery, Sonoma County
A view of Benziger Winery.

Elyse Glickman

At Benziger Winery, Chris Benziger, younger brother of founder and former winemaker Mike Benziger, exudes the kind of charisma one would expect from the family “brand ambassador” as he discusses the original nineteenth century owners of the land, the literary figures who squatted there later (most famously, Hunter S. Thompson), and how sheep came to work on the property to naturally maintain the grounds by grazing. He also intersperses stories of how he and his siblings learned valuable lessons of sustainable farming and conservation that continue to shape the operation. 

“When the family came out here in 1980, there wasn’t a lot of organic farming going on,” he says. “Integrated pest management was rare. We farmed as our neighbors did, and the Monsanto guy would show up with a big bag of metho-level-bad stuff and spray it everywhere with his ‘Nifty Fifty’ sprayer. If you had leafhoppers [insects], you’d nuke them. When mildew appeared, you would chemically treat that. In very short order, we realized the Earth was being killed by those very chemicals we were using to save it. When [we first moved to Northern California], it burst with all sorts of life. Before we switched over to [biodynamic farming], all you could hear is wind with no birds, insects, or any other animals.”

Even if the grapes looked pretty, according to Chris Benziger, the farmers ended up “growing sugar water balloons” using these chemical-industrial farming methods, stopping the roots from “going into that rich geological lasagna.” Also, the vines didn’t develop correctly because they didn’t “work as hard to get nutrients.” His case for biodynamic wine is humorous but powerful: While the beautiful grapes can grow, they lack the flavor—the terroir—that sets apart quality wine from the others.

Imagery tasting room
Tasting room at Imagery Estate Winery.


Before entering the Imagery Winery—which started as a special project and is now considered a sister winery to Benziger—winemaker Jamie Benziger tells visitors with pride that Imagery was certified biodynamic around 2001. And with that, she continues the story about how the family brought their hard earned knowledge and support to outside growers.

“What my father Joe did was form his own sustainability program, called 'Farming for Flavors,' before LODI Rules and the CSWA came along,” she says. “We used our sustainability program to teach all of our outside growers how to be better stewards to the Earth, from water recycling to not spraying, protecting wildlife and biodiversity in the vineyards, things like that. We had that program until a year ago, when CSWA became the bigger umbrella and the one that’s industry recognized. It seems as if every winery in Sonoma County is (certified) sustainable in some way. In 2019, when Imagery's wines launched and sold nationally, we encouraged all of our [grape] growers to become certified sustainable."

“The industry in Sonoma is very collaborative,” continues her sister Jill, who focuses on marketing. “[Uncle] Mike and the others have always been an open book encouraging other producers to see what we’ve done, how we created best practices and how we’ve applied those practices to the vineyards, from water recycling to better ground maintenance methods free of chemicals to temperature control. We encourage any winemaker, winery, or grower interested in expanding their sustainability footprint to see us. We are less about having a competitive edge and more about all of us growing together as a rising tide. The goal is to be proactive rather than reactive.”