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Beyond Organic: The Winemakers Leading a Sustainable Revolution

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For Joseph Brinkley, director of organic and biodynamic vineyards for California’s Bonterra Organic Vineyards, a farmer’s relationship with the land is long-term.

“Regenerating it is better than sustaining it,” says Brinkley.

Regenerative agriculture is based on the idea that soil, and the environmental and cultural elements that rely on its health, can be improved by farming it responsibly. Practitioners like Brinkley often employ organic and biodynamic methods to form guidelines that the wider industry has come to refer to as “sustainable.”

But Brinkley says that a regenerative perspective “speaks to what we do way more than ‘sustainable.’ ” That’s because regenerative agriculture doesn’t seek to simply maintain the status quo but offer rehabilitation.

Content animals grazing in a vineyard for an article on regenerative agriculture
Animals at Tablas Creek Vineyard/Photo by Brittany App

Regenerative Farming and Climate Change

One of the main tenets of regenerative agriculture is carbon sequestration. Regenerative farmers employ practices aimed to restore soil health and increase organic matter over time, while they sequester carbon below and above ground. It’s often referred to as “carbon farming” because soil is one of earth’s dominant carbon storehouses. It contains at least three times the carbon found in the atmosphere, according to Dr. David R. Montgomery, author of Growing a Revolution (W.W. Norton & Company, 2018).

Scientists and policymakers believe this puts farmers in a unique position to help mitigate climate change.

The 4 per 1,000 initiative, launched by French Minister of Agriculture Stéphane Le Foll at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, includes nearly 450 partners in the public and private sectors. They believe in the potential of regenerative agriculture to mitigate climate change and foster food security.

According to 4 per 1,000, if carbon stores in soil’s top surface layer increased by 0.4% annually, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be significantly reduced.

“Even at low-end estimates, there is substantial potential for soil-building practices to sequester enough carbon to make a real difference—if we can act over large areas,” writes Montgomery in his book. Regenerative agriculture will be highlighted during his presentation, “Carbon Farming for Successful Vineyard Systems,” at the upcoming 2020 Oregon Wine Symposium.

Winegrowers are poised to make a significant difference here, too. According to the International Organization of Vine and Wine, there are around 18.2 million acres of vineyards on earth.

Mushrooms growing on dirt
Compost Mushrooms/Photo courtesy of Tablas Creek Vineyard

But How?

Brinkley sees organic and biodynamic winegrowing as a framework to embrace regenerative agriculture. The practices share key components like cover crops, compost, managed grazing, biodiversity and conservation. Each protects against erosion, helps with water and nutrient retention, stores carbon in soil and plant material, and contributes to the organisms under our feet.

In partnership with Pacific Agroecology, an ecological consulting firm in Davis, California, Bonterra conducted a study to understand how farming methods impact organic carbon capture in soil and plants. The study claimed that vineyards farmed with organic and biodynamic methods stored “9.4% to 12.8% more soil organic carbon per acre, respectively, than the conventionally farmed control vineyard.”

“Each piece can be spoken to from the biodynamic perspective,” says Brinkley. “Increasing soil organic matter and reintegrating it into the earth, where it’s helpful, where it came from.”

Biodynamic principles, which treat the farm as a living organism instead of simply a crop-producing vessel, view the soil “like a child’s education,” says Brinkley. “We can’t ‘save’ our way to the future. However, farming is the only work that has the capacity to scale, to reverse.”

Scale, a word used frequently when talking about farming concepts, means that enough farmers can adopt a practice, keep up yields and survive economically. For a conventional winegrower, to transition to regenerative farming can be a challenge, even if they’re motivated to increase the fertility of their soil, which benefits them in the long run.

In Oregon’s Applegate Valley, Troon Vineyard recently transitioned from conventionally farmed to a regenerative operation. It became fully certified Demeter Biodynamic with the 2019 vintage. The Troon property covers 95 acres. Nearly half the land, 45 acres, serve as vineyards. The remainder is dedicated to apples, grains, vegetables and pollinator habitat, all of it farmed biodynamically.

Craig Camp, Troon’s general manager, partnered with Andrew Beedy, an organic and biodynamic consultant who has worked with farming systems of all sizes. He employs soil, water and plant tissue analysis to create a database of the vineyard, and then uses biodynamic practices to amend or remedy what is identified.

Even if a full-scale revamp isn’t feasible, Beedy encourages conventional farmers to use any biodynamic practices that can work into their system.

“The more people we have doing it, the better,” says Beedy.

Camp understands that this is a long-term endeavor, but it’s worth it to rebuild soils using the vineyard’s natural resources. “Regenerative [agriculture] improves soils, vines and wine forever,” he says.

Cow horns being buried for preparation 500
Cow horns being buried for biodynamic preparations/Photo courtesy of Troon Vineyard

A Holistic Approach

Consumers won’t see a stamp that identifies wine sourced under regenerative care. It’s currently regarded as more an ethos than something to put on a label. However, some wine professionals have begun to push for a certification process for regenerative farming.

One such advocate is Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg. He and his team Tablas Creek Vineyard, in Paso Robles, California, have taken part in a pilot program for a Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC). The initiative is spearheaded by the Regenerative Organic Alliance, an organization led by the Rodale Institute, Patagonia and Dr. Bronner’s.

“With USDA Organic certification as a baseline, ROC recognizes the strong work already conducted by existing animal welfare and social fairness standard bodies, and therefore, leverages this work as part of the journey to ROC,” according to the organization.

Farms that seek certification must strive to promote regenerative agriculture in three ways: by increasing organic matter in soil, improving animal welfare and providing economic stability and fairness for workers.

“When I started dissecting what they were looking for, what really caught my eye was the social aspect,” says Lonborg. “When you are looking at the farm as a living organism, don’t forget the human aspect.”

Tablas Creek Vineyard was already carbon farming and is certified as organic and biodynamic. When he was approached to join the pilot program, Lonborg says that the human aspect of it made a difference.

“It’s such a beautiful thing, a stepping stone that takes all the certifications to a new level,” he says.

If regenerative agriculture has the potential to shift climate change and social welfare, it’s a practice worth consideration beyond the soil. Lonborg sees attention materialize as more vineyard crews express an interest to work at Tablas Creek under this new framework.

“Word gets out,” says Lonborg. “People talk. This is something cool to be a part of.”