California’s winegrape growers and wineries have significantly improved their sustainable practices during the past five years, according to a report card released recently by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance.

As part of the announcement, the alliance—which is a cooperative effort between the San Francisco-based Wine Institute and the Sacramento-based California Association of Winegrape Growers—unveiled a voluntary third-party verification program.

The voluntary sustainability program is based on the Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices Self-Assessment Workbook that’s divided into 16 sections. The grower workbook covers slightly different topics than the one for wineries.

Among the grower topics are viticulture, energy efficiency and human resources.

The report card highlights data on 227 different best management practices collected as part of participants’ self-assessments.

All of the participants receive a customized individual report about their operation and how they compare with growers in their region and statewide. The data is reported publicly in such a way that individual growers cannot be identified so their privacy is maintained.

The alliance issued its first report card on sustainability in 2004.

The program’s goal is not to praise or penalize participants on their practices. Instead, it’s to point out areas where they may want to focus extra attention, says Jeff Delott, president and founder of SureHarvest, a Soquel, Calif.-based consulting firm that also conducts third-party sustainability audits.

The results from the 2004 report card were used to target educational sessions in areas that needed improvement.

For example, participants scored well in the viticulture area but didn’t perform as well in energy efficiency. The result was 29 workshops on how to improve energy efficiency that drew a total of 900 participants.

By 2009, participants showed a five-fold improvement in their energy efficiency scores.

The earlier grades caught the attention of Pacific Gas & Electric, which provides electricity to Northern California. The utility helped fund the educational sessions and provided incentives, such as rebates, to boost energy efficiency.

During the past five years, participants received $625 million in rebates and $20.5 million in solar incentives from PG&E, Delott says.

Neil Roberts of Roberts Vineyard Services in Paso Robles, Calif., says he views the program as a holistic approach to growing winegrapes.

“To me, this program gives us all of the tools and the tool box to make better decisions in everything we do,” he says.

Bill Cooper of Cooper-Garrod Estate Vineyards near Saratoga, Calif., says the self-assessment provides him with critical feedback. He also participated in a pilot program where the 58 criteria used for third-party certification were evaluated.

“As I told people about this, you’re going to learn to improve your business, and the people who are going to participate are going to be better than those who don’t” he says.

The voluntary Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing program focuses on 58 different criteria. Participants will be graded and must make at least a 2 on a scale of 4, with 4 being the highest.

Participants also must conduct a self-assessment annually and must develop an action plan with the third-party auditor. In addition, they must continue to improve their sustainability scores. They will not be able to affix a certified sustainable seal to their wine bottles.

Kim Ledbetter Bronson of Vino Farms near Lodi says her family’s vineyards already participate in the Lodi Woodbridge Winegrape Growers’ Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing voluntary certification program. But the business also will be participating in the statewide program.

“For us, it makes sense because we are in so many different regions,” Ledbetter Bronson says. “I think we are going to do both because I think that each one adds value. You get different aspects from each certification program. It makes us better farmers, and we’re able to get the best practices out of both certification programs.”

Delott says efforts are under way to develop memorandums of understanding with the regional sustainability certification programs, such as Lodi’s or the Central Coast’s, to eliminate duplication.

So far, 1,566 vineyards and vineyard organizations representing 68.1 percent of California’s 526,000 winegrape acres have participated in the self-assessment.

In addition, 62.5 percent of the state’s wineries representing 240 million cases have conducted self-assessments.

The next report card is scheduled to be released in 2014.