Posted By Chris Kaplonski on Oct 7, 2014

One topic that merits further attention is the question of who decides to seek certification for their set of practices, and why. By certification I mean the process whereby a given organisation, such as Demeter for biodynamics, recognises that you are operating in accordance with their principles. There are different organisation who will certify someone is operating within organic, biodynamic, or a defined ‘sustainable’ framework. Austria, for example, is introducing a certification for sustainable wine-making, which encompasses organic and biodynamic as well as integrated pest management / integrated production. (Read more on Austria’s new programme here.)

For the end consumer, certification is an indication mark that a particular wine-maker is ‘playing by the rules,’ and usually is indicated by the appropriate symbol somewhere on the label. However, lack of certification does not mean someone is not playing by the rules; they may well be, but have opted not to undergo the certification process. Let me outline what I see as the basic issues around certification, and then explain why I think this is a more interesting, and potentially important, topic than it may appear at first.

The reasons to seek certification are fairly straightforward. It is a way of proving to your customers you are following the principles you claim to adhere to. It is a guarantee not necessarily of quality, but of methods and adherence to standards, whether organic, biodynamic or sustainable more generally. As I was told time and again, anyone can claim to be following certain guidelines. Certification ensures that they are.

So why wouldn’t a wine-maker seek certification? There are a number of reasons, both explicit and implicit. Many people seem to find certification limiting, expensive, too much effort, or a combination of these. Let’s briefly consider each of these.

  •  Limiting – I personally have not met anyone who gave this as a reason, although it is mentioned in the literature. The point here is that should the wine-maker feel something has happened that is drastic enough to require measures prohibited by the certifying organisation, they either have to pass up on such measures, or lose certification. In addition, most organisations require three years of operation following their guidelines before certification. Once lost, certification is not quickly regained.
  • Expensive – This is fairly self-explanatory, and is an issue especially for smaller producers. Certification can easily run into thousands of pounds / euros / dollars, and some schemes also demand a percentage of annual income. Unless it can be demonstrated that a premium can be charged for such certifications, they may well be economically unfeasible. (Although other certifications can lead to extra funding from the EU.)
  •  Too much effort – Again, this one is fairly self-explanatory. Certification requires a lot of paperwork, inspections and so forth. It can require soil analysis, and other tests. You may be required to show evidence not only of what you did use on the fields, but also what you didn’t use. Some of the wine-makers we have talked to feel it simply is too much work that detracts from other things they could be doing, such as looking after their vines, and making wine.

So, what makes this interesting to the project? There are two things I’ll mention here.

The first is quite simple. Things people do have multiple meanings for doing something, and not all of these drawn out in explicit explanations. Thus, it would probably prove fruitful simply to ask ‘what else is going on’ when people decide to seek certification or not? For example it could be argued that in obtaining Demeter certification, not only are you showing you follow their guidelines, but that you are making a statement about your dedication to a cause. Yet a similar argument can be made for those who don’t seek certification. A refusal to seek certification when following biodynamic principles can be read as a belief that practice is a better indication of dedication to principles than a stamp of approval. Surely you don’t need someone else to affirm you are doing what you believe in?

The second follows from my hypothetical example. At this stage in the project, we have talked to a relative handful of people following mostly biodynamic principles. Yet there is no clear cut correlation between who has sought certification – or even sees the point in doing so – and their apparent level of commitment to the principles Steiner put forward. Belief seems equally fervent on both sides of the issue. In the end, it may come down to pragmatic reasons after all. But I suspect we may find something more interesting going on. Quite what, if anything, that is, however, remains to be seen.

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