In 2019, the Kincaid Fire ravaged Bell Mountain Ranch, the Sonoma home of winery Medlock Ames and its 55 acres of organic vines. The disaster led cofounder Ames Morison to soul searching: “What is our role in the world? How are we impacting the environment? We were focused on protecting this land, but we didn’t think beyond our borders.” Climate change, once an abstraction, had come painfully into focus.
In response, Morison devised six pillars to work toward: reducing water usage, increasing biodiversity, boosting fire resistance, diversifying his workforce, engaging with community, and encompassing all others, eliminating the winery’s carbon footprint. “A lot of these I’ve wanted to do, and I couldn’t get to them,” he says. So he resigned as winemaker, hired Abby Watt to replace him, and got busy.
Across the wine world, a similar awakening is underway, as producers long attuned to the effects of terroir on their wines now battle a mightier influence: anthropogenic climate change. “We’re on the frontlines of the climate crisis, the canary in the coal mine as far as industries go,” says Jessica Baum, the director of regenerative development and sustainability at the 1,000-acre, organic-certified Bonterra in Ukiah, California. “It’s something we live and literally breathe, and it affects long-term decisions but also everyday, operational ones.”
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As more producers examine their impact, renewable energy has become a no-brainer. Regenerative agriculture, not long ago eyed dubiously by scientists, is a buzzword. Wine drinkers, meanwhile, are primed to support such practices. Though conventional wine still dominates, the market for greener bottles is thriving. Organic wine represented 2.75 percent of global wine consumption as of March 2021 and is projected to reach four percent by 2024, according to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis. A separate report estimates that by 2027, the category will grow to nearly 11 percent of market share.
Climate-conscious producers aren’t stopping there. With millenial and Gen Z respondents worldwide listing climate change as their top concern, leading-edge producers are innovating hard in carbon reduction and sequestration—for the sake of their vineyards, their brands, and the planet.
Certifications, Memberships, and Measurements
The most significant climate innovation is the push for data-driven results, via new organizations and certifications that support and reward carbon reductions. Such is the work of International Wineries for Climate Action (IWCA). Founded in 2019 by Spain’s Familia Torres and the U.S.’s Jackson Family Wines, IWCA aims to meet the challenge of the U.N.-backed Race to Zero—an initiative to cut emissions by 50 percent by 2030—and go beyond it to zero emissions by 2050. Members undergo a third-party, greenhouse-gas (GHG) audit across their enterprise, as per the World Resource Institute’s Greenhouse Gas Protocol. This includes Scope 1 direct emissions, Scope 2 indirect emissions from electricity, and Scope 3 emissions in supply chains. Data must prove they’re reducing emissions year over year.
Complicated, time-consuming, and potentially expensive, the process is achievable for companies like Jackson Family, which controls 40 wineries worldwide, but can be insurmountable for producers with limited resources. So IWCA’s ethos is inclusiveness. “Because we’re such a large company, we have to do things that can bring the whole industry along,” says Katie Jackson, Jackson Family’s senior vice president of corporate social responsibility. “We can’t do enough alone, so we set up an organization to share best practices.”
Though the third-party audit is a requirement, IWCA created a GHG calculator that helps smaller wineries first inventory emissions without hiring pricey consultants. “Jackson Family has been hand-holding us through that huge spreadsheet that helps us calculate our carbon footprint,” says Medlock Ames’ Morison, an IWCA applicant.
Morison is also pursuing the new crop of climate-friendly certifications, among them the California Land Stewardship Institute’s Climate Adaptation Certification. Piloted by Sonoma County Winegrowers, it’s designed to create custom climate-agriculture plans for vineyards and farms. “It’s nice to be recognized, and having certification helps keep you honest,” he says.
“Regenerative agriculture takes the best parts of biodynamics and makes it measurable.” —Jason Haas, Tablas Creek Vineyard
The Climate Adaptation Certification covers farming only. But Bonterra recently became the first winery to be certified by the non-profit Climate Neutral across all sectors of its operation. Encompassing more than 300 companies across industries, the certification requires brands to measure GHG production using the organization’s brand emissions estimator. Companies must compensate for 100 percent of their output by purchasing verified carbon offsets, while implementing a plan to reduce emissions within two years.
Offsets—investments in reforestation and other external, carbon-reducing activities to make up for your own fossil fuel use—are controversial among climate activists. “The problem comes when you see it as the solution,” says Baum. “You must be doing more than offsets.” Contrary to many for-profit offset providers, Climate Neutral’s science-based targets are “specific and rigorous,” she insists, “including social impacts,” which addresses another problem: the displacement of indigenous and underserved communities by offset projects. “We can’t snap our fingers and reduce emissions by 40 percent,” says Baum, “but we can move as fast as we can and do the best we can to offset them now.”
As a possible model for Bonterra’s future, IWCA member Cullen Wines recently became Australia’s first company to be verified as carbon negative—or “carbon positive,” as managing director Vanya Cullen calls it. Analyses by the company Carbon West, which measured carbon levels at 30 centimeters deep over six years on Cullen’s land, showed soils sequestering more carbon than the business emits by 80 tons. “Now we don’t have to offset anymore,” says Cullen.
Cullen’s “carbon positivity” came through its viticulture. Certified biodynamic since 2004, the winery engages in practices—cover cropping, composting, rotational grazing, integrating biodiversity and beneficial insects—that boost microbial life, water retention, and carbon sequestration in soils. In other words, its viticulture is regenerative. It makes the soil healthier and more able to act as a carbon sink.
Jason Haas, a partner and the general manager at Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles, calls regenerative agriculture “the gold standard of farming.” In 2019, Tablas Creek, then three years into its biodynamic certification, was the pilot winery for the Regenerative Organic Alliance’s Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC). Chief among ROC’s benefits is its scientific approach. “Biodynamics talks about process but not results. Regenerative agriculture takes the best parts of biodynamics and makes it measurable,” says Haas.
ROC applicants must first certify in organics and animal welfare, as well as social fairness—an ethical approach that also helps wineries retain the experienced workers that do the tasks leading to carbon reductions. Then applicants follow additional ROC guidelines, which Tablas Creek is helping to refine. For example, because tillage disrupts soil microbiology and releases carbon, the ROC discourages it. Yet data from Tablas Creek shows that, in drought zones like Paso Robles, a practice called dust mulching, in which viticulturists surface-till clay soils to make a crumbly layer that protects deeper moisture, actually allows the earth to retain more carbon during the dry months when it would otherwise crack open. In this way, Tablas Creek is helping to create what Cristina Lazcano, a professor of soil biology at UC Davis, calls “precision regenerative farming.”
“There has been a lot of research on no till, compost, cover crops, and now, grazing in vineyards that shows the practices work to build soil health and sequester carbon,” says Lazcano. However, the benefits vary. Cooler, wetter climates tend to sequester more carbon than hot, dry areas. To best understand the effects of regenerative agriculture, she concludes, “We need a systematic way of evaluating these practices across different climates and soil types.”
Though larger companies like Jackson Family are still in the process of converting their many holdings to regenerative agriculture, they are contributing to the science of the methodology as they do. Jackson Family’s five-year study at Saralee’s Vineyard in the Russian River Valley is testing different iterations of carbon farming and their effects on the soil’s total organic carbon. In Paso Robles, Robert Hall Winery is conducting three years of research on 40 acres to compare yield, cost, quality, and carbon capture in conventional and regenerative viticulture. The goal is to prove the commercial viability of the latter. So far, says managing director Caine Thompson, regenerative farming is trouncing conventional. “The canopy looks really healthy with good vigor,” he says. “Fruit set looks well and good. Yield looks good, and flavor-wise, you can taste the difference. There’s more interest in the grapes, more character.”
The study is important for its potential among mainstream wineries. Robert Hall is owned by O’Neill Vintners and Distillers, the U.S.’s 11th-largest wine company. “If we prove it on 40 acres, then we can take it to 1,000 acres,” says founder Jeff O’Neill. “The outcome is massive.”
Wildlands and Reforestation
Bonterra, recently also Regenerative Organic Certified, conducted a soil study that found their regenerative vineyards store nearly 13 percent more carbon underground than a neighboring conventional vineyard. Even more carbon capture came from uncultivated wildlands, which cover nearly half of Bonterra’s property.
Studies like this are a good omen for the 1,000-acre Crimson Wine Group, which is experimenting with increasing carbon sequestration by returning vineyards to forest. At their Central Coast property, Chamisal Vineyards, they’ve established a fast-growing, compact Miyawaki forest. At Oregon’s Archery Summit, they swapped 10 acres of low-producing vines for trees. The project uses regenerative agriculture to counter conventional wisdom about dropped fruit and low yields.
“Opening soils at the right time so water penetrates better, planting the right cover crop to return nitrogen to soil or host a beneficial parasite—as we improve the health of the vineyards, we can increase our yield,” says Nicolas Quille, MW, the chief winemaking and operations manager for Crimson Wine Group. “I don’t think we believe there is any correlation between yield and quality. If we can grow the same amount of grapes on 30 percent less acreage, we can return acreage to forest, and that creates a carbon sink.”
Tablas Creek’s forested areas offer brush and fallen timber for a biochar kiln that produces natural charcoal. “You can turn woody material into biochar, and 20 percent of its carbon is stored long term to be used as a soil amendment for better water-holding capacity and availability of nutrients,” says Haas.
Chile’s Viña Tarapacá has been creating wildlife corridors to reconnect 2,000 hectares of its property between the Maipo River and the Altos de Cantillana mountains. Through reforestation, native plantings, and their attendant benefits to soil health, the project promises to sequester even more GHGs on an estate that is already 60-percent wild. The winery is working with the University of Chile to measure its carbon-capture capacity.
“This is a long-term journey and process,” says Barbara Wolff, the chief of corporate affairs and innovation for VSPT Wine Group, which owns Viña Tarapacá. “Carbon sequestration does not happen overnight, nor does its measurement.” But as an IWCA member, VSPT is in it for the long haul to net-zero emissions.
Fuel and Transport
Solutions for fuel reductions are proliferating, starting in the vineyard and winery. Bonterra is buying its first electric Solectrac tractor. Jackson Family Wines is trialing the self-driving electric Monarch tractor. New Zealand’s Villa Maria switched to electric forklifts in 2011.
Wineries are also measuring and curbing fuel for travel. Finding an average employee commute of 35 miles, Bonterra is installing free EV charging stations to encourage staff to switch to plug-in vehicles. Spottswoode, an IWCA member in Napa, is devising an emissions-busting policy for business trips; it’s still in the works. “We can’t be jumping on planes anymore,” says president and CEO Beth Milliken. “We don’t have the carbon budget to allow it.”
The biggest fuel guzzler is getting wine to consumers, but Villa Maria’s new lightweight bottles knocked 16 percent off the poundage of their packaging and reduced emissions in the manufacture and shipping of their glass as a result (they have also turned to rail shipping, where available, to avoid the emissions of trucks and planes). In a move that belies the notion that high-end wine drinkers require heavyweight bottles, Spottswoode is doing the same for its 2023 vintage. Tablas Creek has switched to a spoke-and-hub model, working with warehouses in central locations to ship direct-to-consumer orders, bundled in fuel-efficient pallets.
Renewable and Efficient Energy
According to Kimberly Nicholas, an associate professor of sustainability science at Sweden’s Lund University, a winery’s energy use is a fraction of its overall carbon output. This is due, in part, to today’s prevalence of renewable energy. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not important because if you have to get to zero, you have to tackle everything, and that’s probably the easiest to fix,” she says. Energy efficiency also saves money, incentivizing producers to act on it.
For wineries using 100-percent renewable energy already, further savings come with innovations like O’Neill’s massive BioFiltro vermiculture system, an energy-efficient means of water treatment that brings significant carbon savings. Processing 80 million annual gallons of water, it converts nutrients into worm castings to fertilize soil-amending alfalfa fields.
Spottswoode invested in backup solar batteries. “Because of regulations, our solar has to go through the utility company PG&E and back to us, but if PG&E goes down”—a likely scenario given annual wildfires—”our direct default is our own array,” says Milliken.
In the windy, foggy Salinas Valley, Scheid Family Wines is powered by a 400-foot wind turbine. “It’s a beast,” says executive vice president Heidi Scheid. Because the winery is in the endangered California condor’s flight path, it took five years of study to ensure the high-flying bird would not collide with its blades. The wait was worth it. The windmill has saved Scheid 3,000 tons of carbon emissions since 2017 and feeds enough juice back to the grid to power 125 nearby homes.
Climate-smart building design ensures energy efficiency. Rather than air conditioning, Tablas Creek’s cellar has an automatic louver system that opens to cool night air. At Languedoc’s biodynamic Château Maris, the winery is constructed from double-walled brick made of lime, waste straw from hemp production, and a molasses-based fixer. “The plant-based bricks sequester carbon, the U-value [or thermal transmittance] is amazing, and the building breathes,” says winemaker and owner Robert Eden. “We have no need for temperature control inside.”
Beyond individual wineries’ operations, “we need cultural change to stop catastrophic climate change,” says Nicholas. “Businesses have a role in what they offer, how they position themselves, and what they influence.”
“This is an opportunity for us to lead,” says Milliken, who serves as Napa Valley Vintners’ environmental stewardship committee chair. She plans to send 2,000 copies of Nicholas’ book, Under the Sky We Make: How to be Human in a Warming World, to top Spottswoode customers to “inspire change.”
Tablas Creek has hosted personnel from more than 200 vineyards and wineries since 2020 to examine its regenerative practices. As Haas spreads the word, he strengthens Tablas Creek’s image. “There are huge benefits for us to have people look to us to see what to do next,” he says. His influence extends to consumers via biweekly Instagram and Facebook Live conversations. “Wine is in a unique position to translate regenerative organic agriculture in a way consumers can understand,” he adds, “because they are used to wine coming from a place and the farming having an impact on quality.”
Bonterra has merged its climate agenda with its response to the clean wine movement, which calls for transparency and healthfulness in wine ingredients. Called Beyond Clean, the campaign aims to broaden consumers’ concern for their own health to the health of the planet.
But winery personnel also delve into policy. “We’re always advocating at the state and federal level for more clean energy,” says Baum. They’ve called for turbines off the California coast, fought for regenerative agriculture funding in the Farm Bill, and lobbied alongside heavy hitters like General Mills and Microsoft for climate-smart policies in Washington as members of the Ceres Policy Network. “Any plan without advocacy and lobbying is incomplete,” says Baum.
The Bottom Line
All these efforts are having an impact. “We’re just a tiny company, but it’s amazing to have lived through this negativity about organic, biodynamic, and carbon capture and now to be on the other side of the tipping point. A lot of wineries are getting certified and changing,” says Cullen. “We’re also making better wine.” A study in Ecological Economics showing certified organic and biodynamic wines rating higher than conventional ones supports Cullen’s claim.
Improved quality, and increased resilience, speak to climate-smart wineries’ bottom lines. “The biggest challenge for smaller wineries is dollars,” says Morison. “A lot of organizations like IWCA are made up of larger companies. We want to show that smaller companies can do these things, too. They’re the right things to do, but there’s also an economic benefit to using less water, being more fire resistant, and the like.”
O’Neill believes what’s right for the planet is right for profits. “If you do the dirty math, for about $1.50 or $2 a bottle increase, you can tell a consumer that you have farmed regeneratively, and they will pay a premium,” he insists. “I think the supermarket consumer cares about this. We will need to be showing them ways of growing that are meaningful and sustainable.”
And the bottom line isn’t financial anymore; it’s existential. “The science has been really clear for a really long time. The planet is warming. It’s because of us. We’re sure of it. And it’s bad. But we can fix it. Even now at this late hour where we have missed a lot of opportunities, we still have a lot of power in our hands,” says Nicholas. “We are the people who are the most important in human history because we are alive in this critical moment with a few years left to act.”
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Betsy Andrews is an award-winning journalist and poet. Her latest book is Crowded. Her writing can be found at betsyandrews.contently.com.