Wine Chat with Robert LaVine
Why do you believe Sonoma County grape growers are well equipped to achieve the goal of being the nation’s first 100 percent-sustainable wine-growing region in the next five years?
Okay, how do I answer this without sounding like the high school football coach talking to the kids before the big game about focus, desire and drive? Because, you know … the way forward is all about focus, desire and drive. Sonoma County Winegrowers are ready to play … so game on!
In 2006, winegrowers here in Sonoma County had the foresight and were motivated to organize themselves into a Winegrape Commission. The grower leadership at the Commission has been highly successful at creating a vision of a shared future winegrowers here can focus on. Clearly, a great organization does not become great without a clear vision of its future; and our community of 1,800 winegrowers, along with our board of directors, our president and our entire staff are all fully committed, focused and passionate about successfully reaching our goal. They all understand this is a game changer not only for Sonoma County, but also for our community, our industry and beyond. Their commitment will ensure our land stays preserved in agriculture, that our neighbors and works are treated with respect, and that our multigenerational winegrowing businesses will endure.
The desire and passion of our winegrowers comes from a proud and humble view of who they are, where they come from, and their responsibilities to family, neighbors and business partners. Most Sonoma County winegrowers have a history measured in generations, and it is shown by their lifetime dedication to the land and the grapes they grow. Farmers by nature have a deep connection to the land they farm, and they persevere no matter what Mother Nature throws at them or other challenges they face from increased regulation, the economy and more. They do what they know best, which is work hard, farm the land as softly as possible, and build relationships that will last generations.
In addition to this undeniable passion that embodies every grower in Sonoma County to continue their legacy of sustainable farming practices, the Sonoma County Winegrowers have put together a strong plan and a lot of resources to ensure we achieve our goal.
Why does sustainability interest you – and how has your understanding of it grown over the years and during your previous positions?
As a boy growing up in the Central Valley town of Modesto, I watched a city spill over and spread across the agricultural landscape like lava spilling out of a volcano. There was simply no stopping it … and the finality of it was jarring. Forever gone were the fields of grapes, almonds and watermelons I once rode through on my bike. No more were the open vistas and the sights and sounds of agriculture. In their place was suburbia, its noise and its problems. Even though I was growing up on a farm, I was too young then to understand the economics of farming, the intricacies of land use and the way of politics. However, I knew this much … I did not like what my little town had become … for me the agricultural charm and attraction were gone.
Fast forward a few decades and 35 vintages. I have had the opportunity to work alongside people of great depth and wisdom. Especially during my 20 years with Robert Mondavi Winery, I saw a family and a company culture that was driven by a vision of excellence while never flinching in its adherence to its core values. The boldness of that family’s dedication to be the very best inspired me then and inspires me now. I have learned that it is not enough simply to succeed; the path you take and the legacy you leave matters, too.
What challenges do you foresee during the implementation of the program?
Challenge might be too strong a word, but the one thing we face is grower’s limited time and availability. Winegrowers are extremely busy and most prefer to spend their time walking the vineyards, meeting with winemakers, and dealing with all the other issues related to running a vineyard business rather than taking a step back to review their sustainability practices and self-assess their vineyards. We know they are all practicing sustainability in their vineyards, so it’s just a matter of spending time with each grower for a few hours to help them document what they’re doing, finish their self-assessment and certification process and plan for continuous improvement. It takes some time out of their normal day-to-day responsibilities, but I am here to help guide them through the process and ensure they’re getting all the resources available to them to be successful.
Who inspires you and why?
This is an easy one to answer: my dad and my wife. My dad was a farm advisor in Stanislaus County, at a time when many of the growers he worked with were new to this country and often times lacked much formal education. He loved his role as an educator, helping his growers learn both technical and life skills. He taught me to find value in everyone and to judge a person not by where they are at in life, but by what it took them to get there.
My wife Lori teaches me every day what dedication and service look like. At work and at home she never stops looking for ways to contribute to better those around her. I also find inspiration from so many in our Sonoma County wine industry who are obsessed and tireless in their pursuit of discovering how to make our winegrapes and wines better every year.
The last word is yours – anything you’d like to add?
I am honored to be part of this great quest the winegrowers of Sonoma County have embarked on. Becoming the nation’s first 100 percent sustainable winegrowing region will send a message of trust to our community, contribute to Sonoma County’s status as a world-class wine-producing region, and provide a lasting foundation for the preservation of our land and homes for many years to come. SD
SONOMA LOCAL BIO
Robert LaVine is the sustainability manager for Sonoma County Winegrowers. He has more than 30 years of sustainability and grower relations experience, including positions with Robert Mondavi Winery and Fetzer Vineyards.
After a nationwide search, the Sonoma County Winegrowers Board of Directors recommended LaVine unanimously for the new position, which started in May 2014. “We needed someone with an understanding of viticulture, who was good at developing relationships with growers, a good public speaker capable of presenting workshops and education, as well as someone who had a passion for both sustainability and Sonoma County agriculture,” Sonoma County Winegrowers president Karissa Kruse said. “It doesn’t take more than a few minutes with Robert to understand why he was the perfect person to step into this unique role and lead the sustainability effort. He is humble, funny, and genuine. He has a deep connection to farmers and agriculture. He lives in Healdsburg and is committed to this community. He knows sustainability and vineyards. He is driven and passionate to help Sonoma County growers.”