The green vines sprawling down hillsides and across fields at Gamble Family Vineyards are as picturesque as those found anywhere in Napa. But to Tom Gamble, what’s under the trunks and trellises is just as important as what’s above.
Gamble is a practitioner of regenerative agriculture, a sustainable farming model that’s taking off worldwide. The driving force behind regenerative agriculture is that growers should put their focus on building soil health. This seemingly simple idea offers numerous benefits, including better water retention in the soil, more resilient plants, and greater biodiversity in fields.
But there’s also a broader benefit to society. Healthy, active soil with long-lived plants is better able to pull carbon out of the atmosphere and sequester it in the earth — making regenerative agriculture part of the fight against climate change.
Gamble describes regenerative agriculture as an additive process. He has preserved natural areas around his farm to provide habitat, which brings in beneficial insects that can help fight off bad ones. (Keeping a green barrier of trees and shrubs around waterways has the additional benefit of preventing runoff from reaching them, which benefits local fish populations).
He is also adding compost and planting cover crops to reinvigorate the beneficial bacteria, fungi, and other organisms that are already in the ground. A spoonful of soil has as many microbes as there are humans on earth, Gamble says. Without the right nutrition, those microbes often lie dormant, unable to feed and reproduce. When they are properly nourished, they come alive and play an essential role in transferring nutrition to the Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Petite Sirah, and other Vitis vinifera vines Gamble grows.
When Craig Camp took over as general manager of Troon Vineyard in southern Oregon in 2016, the property had been conventionally farmed for many years, and the plants were missing many of the basic nutrients they needed. But when he had the soil tested, he discovered those nutrients were already there.
“You ask yourself, ‘Why isn’t it going from the soil to the vine?’” Camps says. “The answer is typically that the soil microbes that act as a conduit from the dirt to the plant can’t do their job properly because they’re lacking nutrients. That’s when you discover you should be farming the soil and the vine will take care of itself.”
He looked into organic farming and ultimately decided to pursue biodynamic certification, but he’s intrigued by the potential of regenerative agriculture.
“This seems to me like the next evolution [in farming],” he said. “In the most simplified way, it’s putting back more than you take out and making an investment in your soil for the long term.”
In February, Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles became the world’s first Regenerative Organic Certified winery. This relatively new program, which finished its pilot phase and began accepting applications in August 2020, recognizes agricultural producers dedicated to building soil health through smart organic farming practices.
Tablas Creek was already certified biodynamic, so the jump to regenerative agriculture wasn’t a big one. But Jason Haas, the winery’s second-generation proprietor, says there were a few things that made the program stand out. One was the focus on increasing soil microorganisms and trapping carbon, something the winery was already doing but wanted to focus on more. “It’s nice to have independent confirmation of stuff that we thought was happening, and to see it really was happening,” he says.
There’s a mysticism component to biodynamics (think the buried cow horns) that never really appealed to the team at Tablas Creek. “We like having something that feels a little more scientifically based,” Haas says.
He was also drawn to the certification’s emphasis on animal welfare and farmworker fairness. To receive the certification, agricultural company owners must show that they’re providing fair wages and working conditions to employees, and humane conditions for animals, in addition to meeting their goals around producing food and beverages more sustainably.
“We felt like everything was under one umbrella, and this was going to become the gold standard for truly great farming,” Haas says.
In his mind, regenerative agriculture produces wines that truly emphasize terroir. “The less you put on [your property] from the outside, the more the wines are going to taste like your place,” Haas says.
Camp makes the argument that grapes grown with regenerative practices make better wine. A grape plant has natural systems and rhythms it wants to follow: “If you allow that natural system to function, you’re going to get a healthy plant. And a healthier plant is going to make healthier grapes,” he says. “It’s going to ripen more efficiently, so there’s a natural balance of acid and sugar. You do see a difference. I’ve seen the chemistry change dramatically in our old vines and grapes.”
Gamble agrees. “There’s a freshness and vivacity to the wines from replenished soils, versus a tiredness and lack of freshness from others,” he says.
But there’s a deeper reason some producers are making this switch. The slogan of the Regenerative Organic Alliance, which issues the Regenerative Organic Certification, is “Farm like the world depends on it.” To paraphrase Michelle Obama, that’s because it does. “The whole idea behind regenerative organics is that the only way that we can be successful in fighting some of these big-picture climate change, water use, and energy use challenges we know we are going to be facing in the coming decades is if agriculture is part of the solution,” Haas says.
With climate change, droughts and extreme weather will become more frequent and more severe. Plants will need to be able to sustain with less water and survive in harsher conditions. Having good soil that retains water will help them do that.
In his book and continually updated website, “Drawdown,” prominent environmental advocate Paul Hawken makes the argument that while reducing emissions is the most important component of stopping climate change, it isn’t enough. We must also invest in carbon sinks that transfer carbon out of the atmosphere and back to earth.
This puts farmers at the center of mitigating the coming climate catastrophe. But consumers can also play a part by supporting wineries that are thinking about how to grow their grapes, in addition to how they’ll taste in the bottle. Buy wine like the world depends on it — because it just might.
Published: April 19, 2021