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