WWC22 – Robin Renken

Healthy Vines

This entry to the WWC22 competition describes the adoption of regenerative viticultural practices by wineries in California and Oregon. See our WWC22 guide for more.

Robin Renken is a wine writer and Co-founder of www.CrushedGrapeChronicles.com. A Certified Specialist of Wine & WSET3 certified, she is fascinated by the stories behind the bottles and the people who care deeply for the land as they create wines. She and her husband Michael travel to wine regions interviewing vineyard owners and winemakers, learning and sharing the stories behind the glass.

Regenerative Viticulture: Building a Better Ecosystem for a Better Planet and Better Wine

I grew up in a household with the Mother Earth News on the coffee table.  We were not farmers and my parents weren’t hippies, but we almost always had a small garden while I was growing up.  As a child, the tiny 8 x 8 patch in our little backyard brought adventure and once a very large garter snake.

Digging in that garden, I learned about planting marigolds in the garden to keep the bugs away and rotating plants to keep the soil healthy.

It’s not that I even consider myself a gardener.  I’m not.  I often struggle to keep houseplants alive.  I do have romantic visions of what being a gardener must be like, the peace and zen that having your hands in the earth must bring.

I also care about the planet. I’m sure you do too.  Now, in my grown-up life, I’m a step or two detached from the food that I eat.  I do have herbs growing in the yard and we try to go to the local organic farm to pick some vegetables now and again, but most of my food comes from the store. (I am working on changing that).

Wine for instance.  It comes from a glass bottle on a shelf. Sometimes you might find it in a can or a box, or if you are very lucky, a growler.  It is often far from the vineyard and far from the date that the fruit was picked, unlike the produce we pick up.  Nonetheless, wine is an agricultural product.

Do you ever take a sip of wine and close your eyes, picturing the vineyard where the grapes for this wine were grown?  When you do that, you likely picture rolling hills with rows of vines, a breeze rustling through them.  It’s peaceful.

Maybe you picture harvest, with early morning workers in the vineyard, hand picking bunches and gently tossing them into bins, dawn is just breaking, perhaps a low fog lifting as the sky brightens.

Clos Pepe Morning Pick
Clos Pepe Morning Pick

It’s unlikely that you envision tractors digging up soil or people in hazmat suits spraying the plants.  But viticulture is agriculture, it is farming, and farming my friends, is not always bucolic and pretty.  It’s backbreaking work trying to get a crop harvested and sold and often, it becomes detached from the earth and the people who produce the crop.

I have always been drawn to biodynamics.  I find the wines to be more dynamic and more than that, the growers are just people I like.  They have a deep respect for the soil and the planet.  You see these methods used around the globe by people who are looking long-term, they want their property to be healthy and remain healthy and productive for future generations.

As we watch the climate change, people who are farming are becoming intimately aware of the changes year to year, and the added difficulties of extreme heat, fires, frosts, rains, and storms.  

I have been lucky enough to see vineyards first-hand that are adjusting their practices to both make better wine and to work to make a better eco-system that allows the earth to regenerate. Vineyards look towards sustainability through organic or biodynamic agriculture and some are now moving to Regenerative.

Regenerative Agriculture uses sustainable tenets to look at the vineyard, the soil, the livestock, and the people, to create a healthy eco-system that looks, not just for the status quo, but to improve the environment and the culture.

Regenerative is about letting the systems get back to what nature intended, those holistic systems that include all the life on a farm, including livestock and the people. We need to help nurture this process so we can be part of the solution.  

Regenerative Organic Certified – ROC

Hope and determination are what started Regenerative Organic Certified. It was founded by three companies who, as Elizabeth Whitlow, the Executive Director of the ROC told mehave organic as part of their DNA”.

Patagonia, Dr. Bronner’s, and the Rodale Institute came together in 2017.  These were businesses that based their brands on helping to make the planet healthier.  Their goal was to use their influence to encourage people to “Farm like the World Depends on it”.  

When I spoke with Elizabeth, she told me that Dr. Bronner’s was well on their way to move all of the farmers, for things like mint, palm, and cocoa, in their supply chain to Regenerative Organic Certified. 

Patagonia of course has always been an advocate for the planet.  Their founder Yvon Chouinard had a vision to use their resources and voice to make a change in the climate crisis.  While they have a billion-dollar clothing business, they are pivoting to their food division Patagonia Provisions, “because food is a much more powerful tool for making change”.  As a company, they are dedicated to making Yvon Chouinard’s vision come to life.

The Rodale Institute was instrumental in bringing organic agriculture to the United States.  They continue with their four-decades-long study “The Farming Systems Trial”, which shows daily that organic agriculture is the way of the future.

Together these three companies created a pilot program of 19 farms around the world based on three pillars, soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness.  Elizabeth came on to launch the pilot after having spent years with CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers). She watched the transition from conventional farming to Organic and now gets to watch it move beyond that.

One thing that she mentioned about these changes in agriculture is that farmers, need to see it happen firsthand. 

“…every farmer is always looking over their neighbor's fence. What is she doing over there? What is he doing? What is this new rotational grazing thing like? I remember everybody in the dairy world in Sonoma County used to make fun of this one farmer…And every one of them now does it because they also saw that the feed truck quit coming over there because the cows were eating off the pasture… he was getting an extra two months of grazing. And guess what? The vet didn't have to go over there anymore… because the cows were walking out in the pasture like they are supposed to and they were eating grass…The milk tank kept coming and picking up milk. He got a new tractor, he got a new car… So that's how farmers make change. They're smart business, people, but they do need to see it in action.”

Tablas Creek Vineyard – the 1st ROC certified Vineyard

Tablas Creek is leading the charge with Regenerative Agriculture for vineyards.  They were part of this pilot program for “Regenerative Organic” in 2019 and became the first Regenerative Organic Certified vineyard in 2020.  Leading by example they are showing what this type of farming looks like in the vineyard, and how it can impact the health of the property and increase the quality of the wine.

Since Tablas Creek was certified Organic & Demeter Certified for biodynamics, I wondered what additional steps they needed, in this already sustainable vineyard to become Regenerative Organic Certified.

I had an opportunity to speak with Jason Haas when they had just been certified.  He told me they had a good base to build on, the ROC just continued things they felt were important. As far as the certification, they were well on their way as far as soil health and animal welfare.  It was the Social Welfare aspect that they focused on.  

Farmworkers today are often overlooked.  Tablas Creek has a full-time team and has always worked to treat their team fairly and with respect, but this new certification allowed them to dive further into team-building with their crew.  The training allowed for more openness in a two-way conversation, which will only serve to strengthen Tablas Creek as a whole, as everyone feels their ideas and thoughts will be heard.  Many minds working together for a common good is always beneficial.

When I spoke with Jason again recently to see how things were going and he told me…

 “Instead of our equipment breaking, and then us finding out when it was broken, we were having guys coming to us and saying ‘this doesn’t sound right, we should get this checked out before it breaks” 

Developing trust and breaking down barriers makes for a happier and more efficient workplace.

Each time I speak with Jason, I am reminded that at Tablas Creek they feel strongly about using their position to do what is right and push the needle for positive change. They got into biodynamics because they saw how it impacted the health of the soil and the quality of the wine.  With biodynamics, there is a lot of mysticism built-in and while it worked, they wanted the science behind it.  Regenerative allows them to do those measurements and see the science.

When I asked Jason what the draw was for ROC, he mentioned that he liked that it was not just a wine-specific certification.

“This was something where wine was just one of many product types that are under this umbrella and that meant that it really had the chance to move the needle societally we felt in a way that we hadn’t seen before.  And if we were given the opportunity to help craft these standards within the world of wine and then promote them within the world of wine and show that it works and it’s possible in the world of wine, that has the potential to make a real difference.”

Troon Vineyard – the 2nd ROC certified vineyard

We had a chance to visit Craig Camp at Troon Vineyard in Southern Oregon’s Applegate Valley. Troon was the 2nd winery in the world to become Regenerative Organic Certified.

Troon began as a commercial vineyard in 1972.  In 2017 Dr. Bryan White and his wife Denise bought the property and began the conversion to biodynamic.  Seeing the process in the vineyards is amazing.

They are redeveloping everything, replanting about 10 acres a year due to issues with red blotch.  As they replant, they are moving to no-till, which is a 3-year process for each block.  They are also moving to head-trained vines, which protect better from the sun and create less water demand as the vines shade the area around the base of the plant causing less evaporation. 

The gardens for biodynamic preparations at Troon
The gardens for biodynamic preparations at Troon

The property is thriving.  They have beautiful gardens that grow the important plants for their biodynamic preparations, they have sheep that graze, and are planting orchards for making cider, bringing biodiversity.

“I think the major difference between Regenerative Organic and these other certifications is, in organic agriculture, they are basically telling you what not to do, and biodynamics I see as this kind of proactive probiotic program, you’re doing all these ferments and so on. Regenerative Organic you actually have to prove you’re making the soil better. Every few years… you submit your soil samples and show you are increasing carbon sequestration and organic matter in your soils. I think we do that by biodynamics, but they don’t actually measure that.”

We also spoke about the social fairness pillar and how it affected them at Troon.  Craig actually spoke about biodynamics here.  

“I think people often don’t understand that a part of the value of this type of farming is these things you do as a team, as a group, like making the 500 together, going through the applications, sitting down at the end of the year and looking at the calendar trying to figure out optimum dates, for all these things, it brings you together as a team.  Regeneration isn’t just the soil, it’s the people too.  You regenerate your culture as a group. We watch the tasting room people now, they have a real pride in this, that they are out with the sheep digging up the horns and all that stuff.  It’s a cultural experience besides just regenerating the soil.

…We tend to always focus on the farm and the dirt but we’re part of the farm too.  Grapevines all lined up in a row, doesn’t happen naturally.  Obviously, this is a human endeavor, so you can’t leave out that human element to it. The spirit and the drive to make all this happen changes everyone and the farm.”

There is so much to all of this, taking care of the soils, allowing the micro-organisms to re-establish themselves, adding cover crops to protect the soil, encouraging beneficial insects, and adding nutrients back to the soil.  Protecting resources like water, and energy. Encouraging biodiversity through livestock, who graze, and then fertilize and aerate the soil. And of course, there are the people, who when they are invested in a place are happier and make the place better.

All of this is about restoring the ecosystem and allowing the natural systems to do their thing.  As humans, we often work “on” things rather than “with” them.  Pulling back on that need to control, giving the ground and environment the time to regenerate, and then finding a way to work in harmony with that, makes better safer sustainable places for all of us. The food is healthier for us and the other creatures, the wine tastes better and more alive, and being in these places that are now more alive, well, those benefits are undeniable.

Ladybug on Grapevine at Tablas Creek
Ladybug on Grapevine at Tablas Creek

When I spoke with Elizabeth with the ROC, who has been watching these farms all over the world she told me…

“one repeating refrain of feedback that I got after the pilot…from India to Kansas, people talked about how songbirds had returned to the farm that they remembered from when their grandparents farmed.”

I have been lucky enough to speak with vineyard owners from Australia to Alsace and along the Western Coast of the United States who are passionate about the environment and the eco-system that they are working with.  Hearing that passion in their voices, knowing that they doing what just feels like the right thing, taking care of the land and the plants, animals, and people on it, well, that gives me hope.

Elizabeth also mentioned something that Paul Dolan says that is inspired by Hunter Lovens' recent book. It’s the phrase “Farming in the service of life”.  Elizabeth believes this captures it beautifully. I can’t help but agree. 

All photos courtesy of Crushed Grape Chronicles.