It’s easy to focus on the bad news.
Climate change has made headlines in recent years like never before, perhaps due to the fact that so many of us are witnessing the real-life consequences of extreme weather on a daily basis. In recent months, we’ve learned that we’ve broken multiple global indicators of the climate crisis, with temperatures that humans cannot survive for extended periods registering in India and Pakistan. Wildfires, extreme heat, surprise frosts and hailstorms have been impacting harvests across the globe for the past several years.
Closer to home, we have seen the vineyard-threatening lanternfly invasion, which scientists say climate change may only exacerbate. The slow but steady build-up of carbon in the atmosphere, and its effects on our daily life now and in the future, can feel untenable.
Which is why it’s good to check in occasionally with people like Dr. Timothy Martinson, senior extension associate emeritus at Cornell University, and recipient of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation’s Sustainability Award.
“I’ve been working on sustainability initiatives in wine for my entire career,” says Martinson, who currently works as a contractor inspecting vineyards seeking to be part of New York Wine & Grape Foundation’s new sustainability program. “And in the beginning, it felt daunting, like an impossible task, something that would be difficult to make any progress on, in the short or long term. But now looking back, it feels like as an industry in New York, we’ve accomplished a great deal together.”
Martinson completed his master’s and PhD degrees in entomology at Cornell, and from 1991-1996, worked as a research associate with the grape entomology program at Cornell’s New York State Agricultural Experimental Station in Geneva. In 1997, snagged a slot as the Finger Lakes Grape Program’s Area Extension Associate, based in Penn Yan, NY at the Yates Co. Extension office. And in 2007, Tim was appointed Sr. Extension Associate with the “Statewide Viticulture Extension Program”, again at NYSAES, more recently renamed Cornell AgriTech.
“In the beginning, I was completely focused on water quality,” Martinson says. “We were taking inventory of everything that went into the watershed, and that of course included runoff from vineyards, which are all planted around lakes.”
The work he is most celebrated for though, is his role in creating the VineBalance Workbook, with Alice Wise, Jamie Hawk, Tim Weigle and Libby Tarleton. It was designed to document sustainable grape growing practices that are already in place and promote ever-greater ecologically responsible measures in the future. The workbook serves as an educational tool, so that vintners and growers can fully understand the environmental effects of their practices, but it also creates an action plan for the future.
Published in 2007, the creation of it was a monumental task.
“We looked at templates from farmers in Wisconsin and worksheets from dairy farmers in New York,” Martinson says. “We considered all of the typical growing and production practices for grape growers, looked at whatever data we had measuring impact, and explained best and worst case scenarios for each practice.”
The Workbook set performance targets, conducted field trials and growers put all of that research into practice.
Martinson also began publishing the Veraison to Harvest newsletter, and the quarterly publication Appellation Cornell, both of which shared insight into research projects and trials in viticulture. In 2022, an updated version of VineBalance was published.
“From the beginning, talking to growers across the state, I’ve been so impressed by how committed they are to doing the right thing,” Martinson says. “Winegrowers have been putting cover crops in their vineyards since the 1980s. New York growers have been on the forefront of carbon sequestration for decades, and they are also deeply committed to water quality and reducing emissions.”
That dedication, and the role Martinson’s work has had in it came to the fore when the New York Wine & Grape Foundation introduced the Pilot Program for statewide sustainable winegrowing certification in March of 2022. Certification is based on a grower’s self-assessment and a third-party audit (which Martinson and a team of other experienced assessors are currently conducting) using the latest version of the VineBalance workbook.
“More than 40 grape growers signed up for the program, and it has been rewarding to go out and visit them, and find out just how much they’re already doing,” Martinson says. “And here’s the thing: it really matters. Even seemingly small steps, like adding cover crops, has a long-lasting and cumulative effect on the health of the vineyard and the surrounding community, and the quality of the wine.”
Next year, the growers who pass the audits and self-assessments will be certified, and consumers, for the first time, will be able to select wines labeled as certified sustainable by the state of New York. Knowing that they’re about to uncork something sustainable, as well as tasty, will surely make every sip just a little more delicious.
About the Unity Awards
The Unity Awards were created in 1990 as a way to recognize, encourage, and celebrate cooperation among grape growers, wineries (and their staff), researchers, retailers and others to advance the entire industry. The winery and grower community in New York state has a rich history of working and succeeding together despite facing a variety of challenges through the years. Recognizing the longstanding and bold spirit of our community members and their numerous achievements, the New York Wine & Grape Foundation is proud to continue honoring industry leaders & champions of New York wine for more than 30 years.