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Rich Olsen-Harbich, winemaker at Bedell Cellars. (Katharine Schroeder file photo)

When Barbara Shinn and David Page moved to the North Fork to establish Shinn Estate Vineyards in 1998, they had to learn everything there was to know about winemaking from the ground up — starting with the vines.

They began by researching how other local grape growers worked. It didn’t take long for the couple to realize modern farming was less about understanding the rhythm and cycle of nature than about the timely application of pesticides and herbicides.

“We were a little surprised that there seemed to be more farming by recipe,” Shinn said. “And not only out here – a lot of farming was that way in the country and all over the world.

“We said there must be a better way.”

That was more than 15 years ago. Today, Shinn Estate Vineyards is a model of sustainability — as are the 17 other East End vineyards that belong to Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing. The nonprofit was founded in 2012 by Shinn; Bedell Cellars winemaker Richard Olsen-Harbich; Jim Thompson vineyard manager at Martha Clara Vineyards; and Channing Daughters Winery CEO Larry Perrine.

“Like sustainability itself, there was a complex web of things taking place at the time,” Olsen-Harbich said of the group’s origins. “There was growing interest to do better, consumers wanting more eco-friendly options and the local food movement was taking off.”

LISWG endorses farming practices designed to protect the land for future generations. Its mission is to ensure the wine region’s future through the use of low-impact farming techniques that not only protect the environment, but also the people and businesses that depend on it. While the organization’s certification program draws on principles of both organics and biodynamics, the real focus is on terroir — an understanding of the East End’s unique ecosystem, especially the bays, creeks and groundwater that are the area’s lifeblood.

“What’s nice about the program is it’s flexible, it does have responsiveness to what’s going on,” Olsen-Harbich said. “There are materials that become available at the spur of the moment or changes in the season that alter the dynamics of the growing conditions, whether it’s drought or excess rainfall.

“Those things can make or break a grower, and for a particular year we may say you can do A and B, but next year B is off the table. It allows for real-world conditions that are not static, especially in the Northeast.”

A key aspect of LISWG’s program is third-party certification, ensuring that sustainability is more than just a catch phrase. The practice is documented through adherence to strict guidelines — from prohibiting the use of certain chemicals to encouraging soil management techniques that minimize the impact of grape growing on the environment.

“It’s not the honor system. There are a lot of practices that have to be followed,” Olsen-Harbich said. “Sustainability, in general, is a term that’s been thrown around loosely and a lot of self-proclaimed companies say they’re ‘sustainable,’ but we wanted to be different, valid and real.”

LISWG certification is verified by Allan Connell, a former district conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture who oversees a checklist of some 200 sustainable grape-growing practices. Vineyards wishing to become new LISWG members are inspected in fall, at the end of the growing season. A vineyard can be certified after this initial inspection, but must undergo a second inspection the following year and every third year thereafter.

Barbara Shinn. (Credit: Vera Chinese photo)
Barbara Shinn. (Credit: Vera Chinese photo)

“It’s a very dynamic document – other regions in the east have general guidelines, but no one has a program with this level of detail and a certification component,” said Alice Wise, a viticulturist at Suffolk County’s Cornell Cooperative Extension who helped design the program. “Really at the end of the day, it’s what instills credibility in the process. For me, it was gratifying to see a local group interested in taking those guidelines and honing in on what’s important for this industry and this region.”

Group for the East End’s vice president Aaron Virgin explained that third-party certification is what ultimately convinced his organization to officially endorse the LISWG program back in 2013.

“That’s key,” he said. “If you look at … the East End, it’s gone from potato farms that required herbicides, pesticides and irrigation to a crop you don’t irrigate at all. You have this complete transformation — from one monoculture to another — and the less you have to put on the plants to make them viable, the better.”

By all accounts, 2015 is looking to be a great year for LISWG, which currently has 18 members with vines covering 800 acres on both the North and South forks.

The organization is also in talks with a handful of other vineyards, which would push its total acreage to more than 1,200 acres, or half the vines on the East End.

“Sonoma is trying to be the first region with 100 percent under certification,” said Olsen-Harbich. “Right now, they’re at 32 percent — we’re at 33 percent and headed toward 50 percent.”

LISWG is funded primarily through member dues — $500 annually for the first two years, $300 each year thereafter. The group also receives support from organizations like the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, which last year gave LISWG a $20,000 grant for continuing education. That money was used to bring in speakers from around the country who shared their expertise on topics related to sustainable farming.

This year, thanks to a $15,000 grant from the New York Farm Viability Institute, LISWG plans to upgrade its website and enhance outreach and marketing to prospective vineyard members and the community. That outreach effort will include the creation of a sustainable vineyard touring map for visitors. LISWG also plans to host guided walking tours of member vineyards this August.

For Shinn, LISWG has become a validation and realization of the winemaking philosophy she’s held since day one. Today, she’s at the forefront of a movement and wants to share her knowledge with other vintners — not just on the East End, but around the country.

Along the way, she has found that a fringe benefit of the sustainability program is the level of communication and openness that’s developed among members.

“Any time there’s a group of growers wanting to form a consortium that addresses farming practices, people get nervous that there will be an ‘us and them’ mentality,” said Shinn. “All of us who are part of this group remind ourselves the basis is to share information and help our fellow winemakers find success in clean farming practices.”

For Shinn, who endorses a biodynamic farming method, sustainable practices offer a more holistic approach.

“I just think that the cleaner your farming can be and the less the impact of your footsteps on your land, the more your farm is engaged in farming itself and creating its own rhythm.” she said. “It’s not just taking from the land.”