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Mark Chien is the newely appointed inspector for Long Island Sustainable Wine. (Courtesy Photo)

For 50 years, Long Island winegrowers have worked tirelessly to preserve their crops in the face of climate change, as well as minimize any negative impact on the land, sea and air we breathe. But what ensures that the region can continue growing produce for generations to come?  

The Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing Program (LISW) was founded in 2012 with the mission to develop unique and safe practices for producing quality wine grapes, creating a system of checks and balances to certify that member vineyards are using ethical and holistic viticulture practices. 

Understanding what sustainability means is an undertaking, with complicated science and technical terms making it difficult for the average oenophile to fully grasp, especially when using those terms to discuss viticulture, which has a glossary of its own. 

LISW recently named Mark Chien as the new inspector for the non-profit, following the retirement of Allan Connel, who served in this position for over 10 years. While he lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Chien is committed to overseeing and managing LISW’s inspection program, underscoring his commitment to promoting sustainable wine-growing practices in the region. 

We sat down with Chien to ask him questions about what sustainability in wine looks like and what he plans to do in this new role. 

Northforker: First off, introduce yourself. Who are you and how did you come to work in the wine industry? 

Chien: I was the first winemaker and the second vineyard manager at Pindar Vineyards. This was my first job after attending UC Davis’s Viticulture Technology program. I was interested in working in a vineyard and [being] from New England, I wanted to go back east. I saw a job listing at Pindar and I made my way to the North Fork in June of 1983, five years after Alex and Louisa Hargrave planted their grapes. 

It was still very rudimentary at that point, but Pindar was by far the biggest vineyard. I spent three years there before I made my way to the Willamette Valley of Oregon, where I was a farmer for 20 years. [After that] I handed in my boots to get involved with viticulture research and extension at Penn State University where I was the statewide viticulturist for 16 years.

I essentially did what Alice Wise does currently on the North Fork [at Cornell Cooperative Extension on Long Island]. I was the interface between the university research and the industry, when growers had questions about diseases and pests and soils and climate they would come to us and we would be the people who would have to provide the answer. 

Essentially I’m a compliance officer — I go around to each vineyard and I check their homework.”

Mark Chien

NF: In layman’s terms, can you describe what sustainable viticulture is? 

Chien: Sustainability is the effort to minimize the number of off-farm inputs that are brought into the vineyard system and to treat the vineyard as holistically as possible. So, when I say off-farm inputs, it’s everything that you bring to the farm that didn’t exist there naturally, including fertilizers, pesticides and grass seed. Our goal is to encourage growers to minimize the use of synthetic inputs in vineyard systems.

There are different types of practices in the wine industry: conventional, organic and biodynamic. Sustainability is not just one or the other. They’re all equal in my mind and none is better than the other. We can use techniques from all to create solutions to problems with minimal impact. 

NF: How did maintaining sustainability in viticulture first start on the North Fork? 

Chien: LISW started over 10 years ago when Wise got word that the local government was going to put regulations in to protect the groundwater and they were going make sure that the grape growers were protecting their natural resources. Wise decided to head [the government] off at the pass and asked growers on the East End to write their own rules. A brilliant maneuver, in my opinion. I had just gone through that whole process in Oregon a few years earlier and we decided to set sustainability guidelines for the local wine industry. These guidelines mimicked efforts we saw in Europe as Europeans are always ahead of the United States when it comes to the environment. 

NF: Where do the parameters for sustainability come from?

Chien: The Swiss [whom we borrow a lot of practices from] break sustainability down into three categories: environmental, economic and social. Everything that we do in the vineyards is with an eye on those three criteria. Environmental is a no-brainer; we are just trying to protect the environment as best we can. The economic part is significant because, in the end, a vineyard is a business and has to make money. The third category, social, was underappreciated early on, but now more important than ever. We want to protect the human resources that are involved in farming, people who are either directly or indirectly connected with the vineyard, such as the consumer. 

(Photo credit: Randee Daddona)

NF: Can you give an example of what this looks like in practice? 

Chien: Combating a disease like powdery mildew. In the past, we’d employ synthetic fungicides invented by large chemical companies. Although they work very effectively they hurt the surrounding environment. There are products that you can use that are more environmentally friendly, like elemental sulfur. It’s a product that you’re bringing onto the farm but it’s the least impactful method to control the disease bothering your vines.

NF: Can you explain what your role is in promoting and maintaining sustainability within the East End’s viticulture industry? 

Chien: There is a list of best practices that were written into the Long Island Sustainable Wine Growing Program and growers are supposed to comply. My role as a third-party inspector means that every year, each member of LISW fills out multiple forms and I see if they comply with 18 core criteria LISW considers to be foundational practices. There are about 50 criteria as well that get scored and evaluated. The lower the score the better in this case, if you get a one out of three you’re doing something well. Essentially I’m a compliance officer. I go around to each vineyard and I check their homework.

NF: Can you give an example of one of the 18 core criteria? 

Chien: Soil erosion is very, very important to watch. We want to keep the soil on the farm. So the first criteria listed by the LISW pertains to soil management and poses the question: if the vineyard has a high runoff potential, is there a plan in place to mitigate the runoff? 

NF: What are some of the biodiversity factors of Long Island that make it difficult/easy to maintain sustainability?

Chien: In any natural system, there’s going to be a natural tendency to move towards biodiversity. The problem with viticulture is that it’s traditionally monocultural. Because of its lack of diversity, the vineyards become very susceptible to diseases and pests and there aren’t natural elements that can help balance the system. You need checks and balances on the farm to keep things under control. The more you move towards the monoculture, the less control that you have. So every sustainable system encourages the promotion of biodiversity and in vineyards that means diverse plant life, which attracts insects and organisms from above and below that create a more sustainable environment for the vines themselves. 

NF: Do all East End Vineyards comply, or are there only a select few? 

Chien: I think right now there are 17 members. If you compare that to other programs on the West Coast or up in the Finger Lakes, that amount of participation is considered pretty good. It is completely voluntary, of course, growers decide if they want to sign up or not. And some excellent growers are not in the program, whether it’s because of philosophical or economic differences. I would never think just because you’re not in the program, there’s something inherently wrong with what you’re doing in your vineyard.

NF: Is there a way for people who enjoy the wines out on the East End to get involved with supporting what you’re doing?

Chien: The best thing you can do is buy wines from LISW members. Let purveyors in the tasting room know that it is something you value and spend your money on. Drink things that are grown in a certified sustainable fashion. It always boils down to economics, so if you spend your money on sustainable products only, there’s peer pressure for others to start further researching and utilizing these practices.