This Winemaker’s Trellis Innovation Sequesters Carbon—and Produces Twice the Amount of Grapes | Wine Enthusiast
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This Winemaker’s Trellis Innovation Sequesters Carbon—and Produces Twice the Amount of Grapes

Second-generation grape grower Mark Neal grew up in Napa Valley helping his Greek grandmother make compost for the family garden and his father plant vineyards, build barns and fix tractors. Those were the beginnings of a long career in conscientious farming for Neal, now 65. He became an innovator in viticulture and green farming, leading by example on his own properties and others that he managed, including Martha’s Vineyard in Napa, the legendary site of Heitz Cellar’s most collectible wines since the 1970s.

Working with his dad beginning in 1968 at Jack Neal & Son Vineyard Management, which he now owns, Neal pioneered or popularized practices that have become standard in Napa Valley and beyond: night harvesting, dual driplines for irrigation and converting vineyards to certified organic and certified biodynamic status. In late 2022, his Howell Mountain estate winery, Neal Family Vineyards, became the first in Napa Valley to become certified by the Regenerative Organic Alliance.

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Neal and his 420 employees manage the most CCOF-Certified acres in Napa Valley and claim the largest biodynamic farming operation in the United States. He has worked quietly over the decades, not looking for public credit for his accomplishments. However, one of his innovations is starting to make some noise. It’s an unusual vineyard layout and trellis system that’s been hiding in plain sight since he implemented it in 1997 on a quiet side road in the Rutherford AVA. The 18-acre property on Mee Lane is named Rutherford Dust Vineyard and includes 16 acres growing on a dual trellis that is rare if not unique in the world.

No Half Measures

Last fall at harvest time, the wide-spaced vine rows here on the land where he was raised appeared simply tall and bushy. Looking closer, especially after veraison when red wine grapes turn their dark color and white wine grapes turn golden, the unusual nature of Neal’s setup became clear. Red grapes and white grapes occupy the same trellis, but with the red ones on top and the white ones below.

Neal planted a white-wine vine in between each red-wine vine, so that the trunks alternate. The red vines, in this case, Cabernet Sauvignon, are trained up high where they get lots of sun, and the white vines, Sauvignon Blanc in some blocks and Vermentino in others, are trained on low wires in the dappled shade below.

This dual-trellis vineyard yields twice the tonnage of grapes that the land used to, and with similar high quality, Neal says, yet the cost of farming both together is only less than 50% more. With the Cabernet Sauvignon leaves on top shading the white grapes below from sunburn, it’s possible to create a relatively cool environment in this warm appellation. Neal remembers drinking white wines grown in Rutherford when he was young, but now the district is virtually all red. This is a way to make whites feasible again in the mid-valley in a changing climate riddled with heat spikes, wildfires and drought, he says.

Laura May Everett was inspired for similar reasons to grow white grapes in Martha’s Vineyard, her 32-acre property on the western side of Oakville, Napa Valley. Long renowned for its Cabernet Sauvignon, the property included seven acres of Riesling made into wine by Heitz Cellar when she was growing up there. This section was long ago converted to Cabernet Sauvignon, but the vines have been overly vigorous, so this year she is having Neal replant it in the dual trellis mode with Cabernet Sauvignon on the top and a mix of Albariño, Fiano and other whites on the bottom.

Neal has managed Martha’s Vineyard since the late 1980s and Everett trusts his judgment on the unusual vineyard layout. She says, “I didn’t find it unbelievable, I just thought, ‘Why hasn’t someone else thought of this?’ If you’re farming it correctly and you’re not taking everything out of the soil without putting it back, then it’s a slam dunk. I am very excited to see the results. It feels very natural, a good use of the land and very symbiotic.”

Neal is equally passionate about the environmental benefits of the dual trellis and its high yield per acre. Producing more wine on less land and doing it with earth- and climate-friendly regenerative practices is a win-win, he says. Less land is taken away from the shrinking wild spaces in the valley, and more wine is available for people to enjoy.

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Mark Neal at his Howell Mountain Neal Family Vineyards estate
Photography by Jak Wonderly

Dual Purposes

Carbon sequestration, the act of putting carbon back in the ground rather than leaving it in gaseous form in the air where it increases climate change, is a big part of Neal’s climate-action push. He says that the densely planted vines in his dual-trellis vineyard sequester 3.5 times more carbon per acre than the University of California’s experimental vineyard in nearby Oakville, Napa Valley.

“I’ve returned so much more [carbon to the soil] because I’m mulching all the canopies and I’ve got the leaves, all that,” he says. “I’m really building more organic material than ever before with that dual system. And I’m watering less and using less fungicide. I’m using less of everything because I’m not farming two times more, just growing two times more. Not taking out forests, doing everything within the property.”

Despite all the apparent advantages, the dual trellis may face a challenge with perceptions. It’s practically a commandment in winemaking that lower yields make better wines, and the yields per acre here are as high as in the industrial-farmed vineyards around Fresno, California. But the proof is in the bottle. I blind-tasted wines made from this vineyard for his Neal Family Vineyard label against similar wines. The 2021 Vermentino Rutherford Dust was savory and subtle, rating 91 points, and the 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon was elegant, expansive and velvety, rating 97 points.

Others have favorable opinions, too. One is winemaker Mike Hirby, co-owner of Relic Wine Cellars, a small Napa operation making high-end wines from varied vineyard sites. He bought two tons of Neal’s Vermentino from the 2023 harvest grown on the dual trellis, enough for at least 100 cases.

“The wine turned out great,” Hirby said, citing vibrant, complex and sunny flavors in the grapes with 13.5 percent potential alcohol, low malic acid and a pH of 3.5. “When I first saw the trellis, I thought a pitfall was the question of light and shade for the lower canopy. But his crew handles it well, with good dappled sunlight getting through, no botrytis—and it was a tough year for that.”

It will be Relic’s first-ever Vermentino. Hirby says, “I am always a fan of supporting uncommon varieties, partly just to keep Napa Valley more diverse and learn more about what Napa can do for the future.”

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Doubling Down

Neal returns to the question of yields and wine quality when I visit with him again at the Neal Family Vineyards winery on Howell Mountain, where his wife, Laura, and daughter Demitria also work. The vineyard here is an organic, biodynamic and Regenerative Organic Certified property, where the family’s resident herd of sheep grazes the cover crops in spring and the emphasis is on building healthy soil.

The expansive winery and cave are adorned with graceful copper light fixtures and other copper furnishings designed and welded by Neal himself. He is both polymath and jack of all trades, equally deft at handling soils, plants, metals and machines.

How is it that a piece of land can produce twice the yield of demonstrably high-quality wine grapes than virtually any winemaker or master sommelier would expect? He breaks it down into measurable factors including the length of a vine’s shoots, looseness of the clusters, small size of the berries and also a grapevine’s inherent ability to simply get the job done.

Neal describes how the Rutherford Dust Vineyard dual trellis takes advantage of a good groundwater supply, with 2,200 vines per acre competing for water and sunshine. The competition keeps them from growing too many shoots and leaves, he says, and instead sends a generous amount of ripening energy into the grapes.

Neal says, “Our canopies are right there at that 36-inch, 40-inch shoot length, which is your balance for two clusters per shoot. Over the 25 years that I’ve been doing this trellis I’ve noticed that basically the vines will find that balance within themselves with that dual system. And that’s why I’m a firm believer in it, because I’m not having these five-foot or six-foot canes and a crazy amount of crop. You could see that these vines really want to do well for you. Why wouldn’t they? You’ve just got to support them by doing the right thing.”


Another Napa Valley vineyard owner who has faith in Neal’s innovations is Miguel Solares. His property on Zinfandel Lane, Solares Vineyards, holds 20 acres of organically grown vines, including six acres that Neal converted from diseased Cabernet Sauvignon vines to a dual trellis four years ago. Solares now has new Cabernet and Petite Sirah grapes on top and white Albarino grapes below. He says Lola Wines is taking the Albariño and Hourglass Winery is taking some of the reds.

Solares believes in calculated risk, having come from the tech world before acquiring his vineyard property. He was not overly hesitant to try the unorthodox dual trellis. “We decided together to take a leap of faith. If it didn’t work out, I would still have the Cabernet. It was a risk but it wasn’t a binary risk. It wasn’t an all or nothing. Plus, I drink the Neal Family Vermentino two times a week at Cook restaurant when I am in town. I thought the reward was well worth the risk.”

At least two other Napa vineyards are also lined up for similar conversions. All of them may face some skepticism from winemakers and the wine trade. And there is at least one other challenge: Ag officials are having a difficult time with the concept. Neal says he had to do a lot of explaining when first filing reports to Napa County about the number of grape acres he owns. Officials had difficulty grasping how a 16-acre vineyard could produce 32 acres of grapes. They better believe it.

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2024 of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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