January 2010 Issue of Wines & Vines

Going for Gold

Wineries seek certification from U.S. Green Building Council

by Peter Mitham

Standing in the cool darkness of the barrel cellar at Sokol Blosser Winery just south of Dundee, Ore., there’s no indication that it’s one of the most ecologically advanced buildings in the country. The light filtering down from the oculi above reveals nothing more than aging wines, which don’t let on the secrets of their surroundings.

The exterior is equally discreet, hidden beneath natural vegetation that allows the cellar to blend. Viewed from the hills above, you almost need help to spot the mound.

The one indicator that the barrel cellar is something special is a silver and black plaque proudly announcing that the cellar received a LEED Silver rating from the U.S. Green Building Council in 2002. It was the first winery building in the United States to receive LEED certification, and since has been followed by wineries that are entirely LEED-certified. (Sokol Blosser’s other buildings do not have LEED accreditation.)

LEED—Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design—is one of the most widely accepted measures of environmentally  friendly construction, but only a handful of wineries has sought the accreditation it provides.

Originally developed in 1994 to assess the sustainable features of new construction projects, the LEED standard now encompasses a wide range of projects including existing buildings, interiors and even whole neighborhoods. The standard awards points in six areas of interest. Based on how many points a project accumulates, it can achieve the basic level of certification, silver, gold or platinum.

“It’s much more complicated than a conventional building,” said Sokol Blosser winemaker Russ Rosner, who served as project manager for the barrel cellar. “All the materials, all the finishes were fairly carefully spec’d in order to be LEED-compliant and to be able to get the points we needed to be able to achieve LEED Silver.”

The audit process required for LEED certification awards points to projects based on a site’s sustainability (the less impact a site has on its environment, the greater the number of points projects receive); the efficiency of water and energy use and reduction of atmospheric impacts; materials and resources (resources with a lower footprint, such as locally sourced products and renewable materials such as wood, receive more points); indoor environmental quality; and the level of innovation a project manifests (this category rewards projects that develop innovative solutions to meet LEED goals or have other notable features).

To score the 33-38 points required for the LEED Silver designation, Sokol Blosser’s barrel cellar was situated to reduce its disruption of the surrounding environment and designed to be as much like a cave as possible. A passive night-air cooling system ensures the temperature remains around 50°-55°F year-round. A layer of natural vegetation covers the cellar, insulating it and helping it meld with the landscape. A buffer zone surrounding the site provides wildlife habitat.

The materials used in the $750,000 cellar were also important. The concrete incorporated cement with a high level of fly ash, a byproduct of coal combustion that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere; the cellar’s doors are made of local timber. Waste construction materials were recycled.

Since the LEED standard was developed not for industrial-style properties such as a barrel cellar but for office buildings where human traffic helps boost a building’s environmental impact, Rosner said the scoring of enough points to achieve LEED Silver was impressive.

“Given the number of categories in which we were not able to compete for points, to actually get certified at the LEED Silver level was pretty significant,” Rosner said.

The cellar couldn’t score points for the kind of carpet it used, for example, which is not to say the temptation wasn’t there to play the standard by incorporating ancillary elements that would have scored points.

“We were doing this to make a LEED-certified building according to the rules, and not getting a few points here and there by playing the game,” said Alex Sokol Blosser, co-president of the winery.

Some wineries even opt out of the certification game altogether. While many have a green orientation and incorporate sustainable practices into the construction and operation of vineyard facilities, some wineries choose not to proceed with certification. There’s typically a premium of 2% to 5% to construct a green winery building, and the cost of certification can amount to several thousand dollars.

Work was completed in 2008 on a tasting room for the Winderlea Wine Co. in Oregon’s Dundee Hills, but architect Ernest Munch said the owners decided to put certification fees toward solar panels that improved the overall energy efficiency of the building. (The project is designed for net-zero energy consumption and plans recharging stations for electrical vehicles in addition to solar paneling for electricity and heating.)

Winderlea is a prime example of a building that could have sought LEED certification but didn’t.

“LEED certification costs more; it’s sort of an entry fee. But it’s a small building,” Munch said, explaining that it didn’t make sense for the tasting room to seek certification.

Certification was more important to Oregon’s Stoller Vineyards, a property Munch designed that became the first fully LEED-certified winery in the U.S. in 2006. (The only other U.S. winery currently with a LEED designation is Frog’s Leap in Rutherford, Calif., which won LEED Silver for its headquarters. At least 14 other properties are LEED-registered but haven’t yet received certification, and a list published by the U.S. Green Building Council doesn’t reflect 2009 registered or certified projects.

The benefit to Stoller was guidance for the construction of the winery and a distinctive element to its story after completion.

“(Bill Stoller) wanted a sustainable building,” Munch explained. “He wanted some guidance to do that, and then you have certification. And that brings you here rather than another winery, which may do the same thing, but it’s not certified.”

Making sure a LEED building lives up to its original rating over the course of its life is largely in the operator’s hands. Unlike organic certification, there is currently no ongoing audit of LEED-certified buildings. A proper maintenance schedule that keeps the building in good repair and its systems operating efficiently will ensure optimal performance and reduce overall costs.

On the other hand, sustainable practices are so ingrained among staff at Stratus Vineyards Ltd. in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, that any changes or improvements to the property are vetted against the LEED standard.

In 2005, Stratus received a LEED Silver designation from the Canada Green Building Council, which administers the standard in Canada

Suzanne Janke, director of hospitality and retail for Stratus, acknowledged that there’s always a temptation to back away from the LEED standard once the original certification conditions are met. Stratus has sought to prevent that, however. A staff committee regularly reviews current standards and makes suggestions regarding improvements and new initiatives that could enhance the winery’s commitment to sustainable practices. All new staff receive orientation regarding the LEED designation and Stratus’ rating.

In addition, Canada Green Building Council staff vet Stratus’ renovation and maintenance plans.

“We’re always in touch with the organization to make sure; to say what’s acceptable,” Janke said.

When some landscaping needed to be done, for example, Stratus consulted the council to ensure that the plans wouldn’t compromise the winery’s LEED status. Similarly, it currently makes deliveries using a Toyota Prius hybrid. It needs a larger vehicle and has sought advice from the council regarding options that would allow it to retain the point it received for the original, smaller vehicle.

In addition, accent lighting has been installed that complies with LEED lighting specifications, and faucet sensors (used to manage water use) were replaced with sensors identical to the original rather than another type of technology.

“There’s a constant check-back,” Janke said. “Our operations were very concerned with the integrity of our accreditation.”

It’s a concern that underlines Alex Sokol Blosser’s view that any sort of green designation—be it LEED accreditation or some other credential—has to be done because it’s the right thing to do.

“If it means something to a consumer, that’s secondary or tertiary,” he said. “We built this for quality, but it’s how we get to quality that differentiates us from our competitors.”

Having certification demonstrates that the commitment is something more than greenwashing, and it may also stand Sokol Blosser in good stead if regulations governing environmental performance come into place in the future.

In late 2008, he said, “I can see the writing on the wall, particularly with a new administration coming on in the United States, that we may be asked to start saying what is our carbon footprint.”

Our Northwest correspondent Peter Mitham is a freelance agricultural writer based in Vancouver, B.C. Look for his weekly dispatches at winesandvines.com Headlines. Contact him through edit@winesandvines.com.

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