Beyond Sustainable Wine:
Regenerative Agriculture Sets a Higher Standard

by | Dec 8, 2020

Dry. Round. Acidic. Velvety. Soft. Smooth. Big. Sweet. Spicy. Buttery. Burnt. Brilliant. Complex. Earthy. Elegant. Fruity. Herbaceous. Tannic. Lean. Leggy. Lively. Lovely.

Yes, there are about as many ways to describe wine as there are words in the English language—and they help approximate everything from complexion to intensity to mouthfeel. 

At the same time, there are also more and more ways to describe how wine is made. Words like sustainable, natural, organic, biodynamic and regenerative are increasingly common. But they’re not always completely understood or applied the same way, which means some of the most important terms for conscious wine lovers can also be the most slippery.

Meanwhile, a range of different certifications designed to verify good practices further complicate the picture. Which is why we’re here: to explore the key terms, understand what makes a wine sustainable, how certifications can be helpful, and what the newest and most comprehensive approval, Regenerative Organic Certification, means for the wine industry and the first winemakers to adopt it.

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Meet Our Partner: Tablas Creek Vineyard

The first step to change is letting people know about the cause, and our partners at Tablas Creek Vineyard are all about making change in the world of planet-saving agriculture!

Tablas Creek Vineyard is the first Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) vineyard in the world. That means that in addition to producing top-of-the-line wines we love, their agricultural practices help reverse climate change.

Instead of extracting from nature to increase agricultural productivity and causing great harm to our ecosystems, soil, and communities, Tablas Creek Vineyard is working with nature and giving rise to big picture farming.

Check out our friends at Tablas Creek Vineyard, or learn about other Grow Ensemble partners here.

What is “Sustainable” Wine? Understanding Certifications

We all hope to continue drinking wine long into the future. Looking down that road then, we have to look at the practices that get wine to our table and consider what’s necessary to sustain wine production.  

So, the question is: How are we all defining “sustainable”? Like the process of creating wine, there is more to this definition than merely eco-friendly practices. Recently, Tablas Creek was the first vineyard in the world to achieve Regenerative Organic Certification™ (ROC), defining what true sustainable wine looks like today, so we’ll start there.

Regenerative Organic Wines

tablas vineyard grape vinesThe newest form of certification is also the most comprehensive. ROC™ considers soil health (pillar 1), animal health (pillar 2), and—notably—social welfare (pillar 3) across 24 subcategories, including crop rotations, pasture-raised requirements, and democratic management by employees, with future generations in mind. 

This certification encompasses true sustainability at every single stage in the winemaking process, from ground to bottle.

Its first participating vineyard is Tablas Creek of Paso Robles, California which made the decision to pursue the certification in 2020 despite already being certified organic and practicing biodynamic farming. They’ve shared a lot about their experience making that decision, shedding light on the philosophy and practices that come with regenerative agriculture

But let’s briefly touch on other certifications you may run into before we dive into that.

Biodynamic Wines

Biodynamic wines are made with many of the same farming methods as the regenerative organic require, like organic growing and biodiversity. The focus for these vineyards is pillar 1 of the ROC™ framework. 

Vintners use specific soil amendments, including manure buried in a cow’s horn, meticulously procured composting recipes, and time their pruning and planting schedules with lunar cycles to ensure the best agricultural health. 

Biodynamic farming means zero chemicals, GMOs, sulfites and additives across the winemaking process. This is similar to organic wines, but the difference: Biodynamic wines take a whole ecosystem approach that considers very specific, almost mystical practices to maximize the harmony of the vineyard. The objective here is reliance on the self-sustaining abilities of the vineyard.

The strict rules and regulations are overseen by two governing bodies: Demeter International and Biodyvin Biodynamic Wines.

Natural Wines

While “natural wines” have enjoyed recent trendiness, the approach is as old as winemaking. The easiest way to think about it is as super-low-intervention winemaking designed to maximize terroir. The certifications and practices above emphasize this as a main priority.

Given nothing is added or taken away—any aids, from pesticides to mechanical harvesting to filtration, are forbidden—some call it “raw” or “naked” wine. Grapes must be certified organic, harvested by hand, fermented with indigenous yeasts, with zero additives or fining. 

All yeasts are wild and, at most, a tiny amount of sulfites might be used to stabilize the wine. There is no official definition or certification outside of France, where in summer of 2020 two regulatory bodies agreed on a charter.

Organic Wines

With organic wines, we are looking at crop treatment as opposed to how those crops are being grown. Like biodynamic wines, organic means absolutely no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or other chemicals. Any additives are also organically grown, free of any genetically modified organisms and sulfites, preservatives with antioxidants and antibacterial properties. USDA Certified Organic is the go-to approving body.

Certified Sustainable Wines

sustainable wine grapesTo be described as sustainable, a winemaking process pays mind to environmental stewardship, supports social responsibility, maintains economic feasibility, and delivers high-quality wines. Some of the environmental factors that are prioritized include cultivating biodiversity on vineyards, supporting soil health, recycling water, and utilizing renewable energy technology like solar. 

A range of certifications that testify to sustainability are often regionally based. Some of the best such certifications appear here in alphabetical order: 

Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing is a certification around sustainable winegrowing practices, managed by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA), which was hatched in 2003 by Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers.

LIVE Certified stands for Low Input Viticulture and Enology and provides third-party verification of environmentally and socially responsible winegrowing throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Napa Green does its comprehensive sustainability certification program for vineyards and wineries in the Napa Valley with an emphasis on protecting and restoring the Napa River watershed, conserving energy and water, reducing waste, limiting carbon footprints, and conducting fair labor practices.

Sustainability in Practice (SIP) Certified is a thorough sustainable vineyard and winery certification, committed to standards based on science and expert input, independent verification, and transparency.

Salmon-Safe works with wineries in Oregon, Washington, California and British Columbia to implement farming practices and developments that protect water quality, maintain watershed health and restore habitat.

tablas creek sustainable wineyard

Regenerative Organic: The First Case Study in the World

Jason Haas is general manager and second generation wine proprietor at Tablas Creek Vineyard, one of the most celebrated and respected wineries in booming Paso Robles wine country.

Haas and his family-run company feel the responsibility to steward the environment acutely. In fact, they were farming organically in the 1980s, long, long before climate change and agriculture entered mainstream conversation—for a variety of reasons.

“We didn’t want to expose ourselves and whoever was working here to toxins,” Haas says. “We wanted to have a healthy vineyard and make great wines.”

That approach has earned a steady stream of awards, including the most recent, recognition as a Wine & Spirits Magazine’s “Top 100” Winery for 2020

tablas daily temperature graphBut as Haas fastidiously tracked rising drought, intensifying temperatures and record fires—and listened to experts like UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain say, “We have not reached the peak. In fact, no one knows where the peak is”—he realized great practices weren’t good enough. There had to be a higher standard than “sustainable.” 

The good news there: Tablas Creek had been invited to join a pilot program that was developing a rubric for precisely those sorts of elevated standards. Elizabeth Whitlow, executive director of the Regenerative Organic Alliance, hoped Tablas would be willing to be the first winery in the world to apply regenerative organic principles and earn a certification. 

Haas and company liked the three pillars the alliance put forth: soil health, animal health and social welfare. A look at the organizations behind the movement further vouched for its worthiness. Those foundational participants include pioneering Patagonia, Dr. Bronner’s and  the Rodale Institute, the nonprofit credited by many for starting the organic farming movement, and the global leader in regenerative organic ag for more than 70 years.

“They have resources to draw on,” Haas says. “It’s not something where we have to worry about its existence in two years or five years.”

tablas creek zoom background paco and flock

But Tablas’ own viticulturist, Jordan Longborg, wasn’t feeling it. 

“Another certification?” he remembers thinking. “Groan. Sounds like more paperwork.” 

He had a point. After all, Tablas had been dry farming for decades. It has been certified organic for nearly 20 years. Its emissions are near zero. In 2016, the winery added a biodynamic certification that applied even stricter requirements for on-farm solutions attacking disease, pest management and weed abatement, and aggressive guidelines for water conservation and biodiversity. The results spoke for themselves. 

“It’s not a coincidence that the wine we’ve been making since our biodynamic certification are the best we’ve ever done,” Haas says.

Ultimately, Longborg was won over by the third pillar: the social welfare component.

“It really is the next evolution of farming,” he says. “For us to have a chance to be in on the ground floor…it became apparent quickly we wanted to be a part of it.”

More on that third pillar in a minute. With the other two Tablas Creek has been a leader historically, which helped inspire Whitlow to extend the invitation to join the pilot program.  

Pillar one, soil health, promotes robust biodiversity and rich organic soil matter by way of crop rotations, cover crops, rotational grazing and zero synthetic inputs, genetically modified organisms or soilless systems. 

Pillar two, animal welfare, prioritizes the five freedoms for livestock: freedom from discomfort; freedom from fear and distress; freedom from hunger; freedom from pain, injury or disease; and freedom to express normal behavior. It also mandates grass-fed and pasture-raised approaches, limited transport, suitable shelter and prohibits concentrated animal feeding operations.

“We want an ecosystem that provides everything we need,” Haas says.

table creek winesPillar three, social fairness, involves a raft of important initiatives: capacity building, just pay, freedom of association, good working conditions, long-term commitments, transparency and accountability and democratic management. Always conscientious of their team’s health and safety, democratic management has proven to be a game-changing revelation for Tablas Creek. 

As part of the democratic reform, Tablas gave each of its workers a voice in new weekly team meetings to talk about what they’re seeing in the vineyard. 

“We give everyone a chance to talk about what we’re doing wrong, what we’re doing right, what we can do better, what we can change,” Longborg says. 

He admits it was a challenge at first to empower team members to open up, but once that barrier was breached, a wealth of benefits emerged.  

“We’re saying, ‘Why did we not think of that?’ ‘How has that not been a part of our program?’” Longborg says. “It’s been really powerful. It gives me chills to this day.” 

He adds that it’s not a feel-good endeavor, but one with real financial outcomes. 

“I can’t begin to quantify the savings involved with the guys doing the work every day when they aren’t just doing a task,” he says. “They’re thinking about why they’re doing it, thinking about how they could do it better and thinking, ‘I’m going to bring this up.’ We’re a team like never before. We’re all in this together.”

haas and perrin familiesThat keys into a dirty little secret of sorts to the whole inspiring endeavor: This is not purely a kumbaya, make-the-world-a-better-place undertaking—though healthier ecosystems and humane treatment of every being involved should be self-evident in their worth. Regenerative agriculture translates into tangible savings and earnings—and simply better wines.

“We can grow grapes with more character and make sure the vineyard is healthier longer and we don’t have to replant, so we have older vines,” Haas says. “We can charge more for our grapes and we can charge more for our wines.” 

The 2020 vintage will be the first with the ROC seal, which will appeal to conscious consumers. 

“I think it sends a powerful message,” Longborg says. “That the bottle you’re holding you can know, at the end of the day, [comes from] soil that is treated in the highest regard, the animals are treated in the highest, and the people who made that bottle happen are treated in the highest regard. We’re doing everything we can to be the best we can to the land, to the animals, and to the people that work it—and society, putting our foot down saying, ‘We can affect climate change.’ Even if it’s a 120-acre vineyard we’re doing everything we can.” 

Lonborg acknowledges that eliminating herbicides will be the biggest hurdle for many operations to overcome, but is also the most important. 

“People close their eyes and picture a vineyard and all they see are grape vines—we gotta try to flip that script,” he says. “That’s a monoculture.”

The big whammy there: Monocultures don’t nourish soils or prove resilient against disease or pests. A confluence of fruit trees and vegetable gardens and beneficial plants, on the other hand, provide balance, like a chemical-free immune system. 

tablas creek scruffy hill block“That looks a little scruffy, but it’s beautiful,” Longborg says. “You’re stepping into a more natural ecosystem. You want to see tons of insects, tons of birds, hawks, owls.” 

He continues from there: “If you can change your mindset a little bit and think about working with nature, it’s a lot more gratifying at the end of the day not worrying about every single weed and every single insect. You can sleep a little better.”

While working in harmony with nature is often its own reward, for Tablas Creek so is working with other wineries. Haas has been encouraged to see how many peers have contacted him to learn more about ROC certification.  

“That didn’t happen with organic or biodynamic,” he says. “Just seeing the amount of interest from other parts of the wine community is incredibly inspiring.” 

That also tracks toward the ultimate goal: Encouraging more wineries and farms to join their ranks, to seize an opportunity to save the world from burning.

“If your favorite wineries are not farming regeneratively, you should be asking them why not,” Haas writes in a piece called 2020: The Year Climate Change Got Real for American Wine. “It’s one of the tools we as farmers have to take some control over what is likely to be an increasingly volatile and dangerous future.”

His team is honored to be in a lead position on regenerative ag, but that’s not the most important point. 

“We’re super proud to be the first,” Haas says, “but I hope we’re not the only one for long.”

Mark C. Anderson

Mark C. Anderson

Grow Ensemble Contributor, Author, Explorer

Mark C. Anderson has been a professional writer, editor and photographer for 15 years, from Malaysia to Morocco to Mexico City. His nomadic base is Seaside, CA, but he finds home anywhere with a decent WiFi signal, access to good people, and avenues into the great outdoors, particularly the ocean.

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