Vineyards Are Laying the Groundwork for a Regenerative Farm Future | Is the Future of Vineyards Regenerative?

Vineyards Are Laying the Groundwork for a Regenerative Farm Future

A new study finding that regenerative practices build more soil carbon in vineyards points to a path for the industry to create broader models for agriculture.

Sheep graze among the dormant grapevines at Dodon. (Photo credit: Tom Croghan, Dodon)

Sheep graze among the dormant grapevines at Dodon. (Photo credit: Tom Croghan, Dodon)

On a cold, rainy day in late February, it’s hard to picture the bunches of juicy cabernet and chardonnay grapes that will decorate the Vineyards at Dodon’s neat rows of gnarled vines come summer, the fruit ripening in the hot sun.

But even during these dormant months, across 17 rolling acres just 30 miles east of Washington, D.C., the landscape is filled with life.

Long, diverse grasses blanket the ground around and between the vines. In one section, two dozen vocal sheep munch happily on those plants, leaving their waste to stimulate regrowth up and down the aisles. Three acres of meadows provide habitat for insects. A petite blue bird darts across the horizon, flitting between a few of the 600 diverse young trees—loblolly pines, hazelnuts, and plums among them—that are just establishing themselves around and within the perimeter.

This is what Tom Croghan means when he says that, “under the right conditions,” grapevines are especially good at executing nature’s most common magic trick: absorbing carbon dioxide from the air during photosynthesis and then depositing it far below ground, hopefully for a long while. “We can pay [to create those conditions],” says Croghan, Dodon’s co-owner, “because we can use a byproduct of that system to produce wine.”

In other words, farmers lucky enough to produce a high-value product—especially when it’s intrinsically tied to the soil it’s grown in—may be uniquely positioned to help experiment, develop, and de-risk regenerative practices across all kinds of farms.

“If we take this as a holistic system . . . we probably shouldn’t even be looking at practices, we should be looking at outcomes, but the practices are a way to get there. Soil carbon sequestration is one indicator that we’re on the right track.”

That’s the conclusion researchers came to in a study published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems earlier this year, which found that a slew of soil-building practices, especially in combination, added more carbon to soils when used in vineyards compared to being used on annual cropland.

“If we take this as a holistic system . . . we probably shouldn’t even be looking at practices, we should be looking at outcomes, but the practices are a way to get there,” explains researcher and study author Jessica Villat. “Soil carbon sequestration is one indicator that we’re on the right track.”

Compared to staple crops like corn and rice, wine grapes barely occupy a speck of the world’s farmland, at about 18 million acres. As a result, carbon stored in vineyard soils won’t ever add up to a meaningful reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions. But Villat and others see the fields as unique spaces where innovation can happen, spurring the ability to improve regenerative practices and increase adoption across agriculture.

“The viticulture sector is notoriously one of these ‘bubble sectors’ that stays within itself and isn’t talking as much to the rest of the ag community,” she said. “They’re trying to solve the same problems and the same issues. We’re talking about animal integration, we’re talking about integrating trees, we’re talking about integrating other crops. It really is regenerative agriculture, even if we might take a viticulture lens.”

A Model for Maximizing Soil Carbon Storage (and Other Benefits)

Zoom in on a map of California farms that have become Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) and you’ll notice a theme: More than a third are vineyards.

ROC executive director Elizabeth Whitlow attributes that partially to the fact that since ROC’s launch in 2017, Paul Dolan, a pioneer of organic, biodynamic, and regenerative winemaking in the state, chaired the organization’s board. Dolan spearheaded the certification of the big-name wineries he worked with, Fetzer and Bonterra. Other lauded wineries, such as Tablas Creek and Grgich Hills Estate, were also early adopters of ROC standards.

“I do think vineyard operators are not under the same stress of harvesting kale and rushing to market five days a week, so there’s a real cushion,” Whitlow said. “It is a rapidly growing category.”

Dodon is not certified organic and still applies pesticides when needed, especially fungicides, which East Coast vineyards often rely on due to a much more humid climate than California’s. But most of its other regenerative practices overlap with what ROC vineyards are doing on the West Coast: Living roots in the soil year-round, animal integration, and biodiversity boosts.

Since Croghan first planted the vineyard, he said that based on soil testing, organic matter in the soil increased from .3 percent to 3.2 percent. About 60 percent of organic matter is carbon. Croghan is so proud of those results, he jokes that he introduces himself differently now.

“I’m in the carbon capture and storage business,” he says.

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Villat’s research supports the general idea.

In reviewing studies done to date that fit their criteria, Villat and her co-author, Kimberly Nicholas, found that many common regenerative practices—such as grazing sheep between vines, cover crops, and non-chemical pest management—resulted in much more carbon sequestration in vineyards compared to in fields dedicated to annual crops.

However, the number of available studies was too small to come to big conclusions about any individual practice resulting in more sequestration over another.

“We actually need a lot more studies to prove those claims. However, what we are seeing is that across the board there is carbon sequestration happening,” she said. “So, what we can say is that all practices sequester carbon . . . and that when you mix different practices together, it actually increases the benefits. So, there’s something to be said for a holistic view of integrating practices together.”

Clover grows among the grapevines at Dodon in August 2020. (Photo courtesy of Dodon Vineyards)

Clover grows among the grapevines at Dodon in August 2020. (Photo courtesy of Dodon Vineyards)

Why exactly vineyard soils might hold onto more carbon compared to annual cropland is also a complex, open question. Villat said the soils might have started with less carbon to begin with. But the deep roots of the vines are also likely interacting with the cover crops and increased microbial activity as a result of animal waste, possibly holding it there longer. With cover crops, it could be as simple as the fact that the plants remain year-round rather than only being planted in between crop cycles, said Paul West, a senior scientist for ecosystems and agriculture at Project Drawdown.

West said that while the volume of carbon held in vineyard soils wouldn’t be significant enough to affect global greenhouse gas reduction goals, he said the conclusions could be used to identify best practices that could also be used in farming other crops. They might especially apply to other shrubby perennial crops, like blueberries, but the practices are similar across agriculture. A diversified farm that is growing vegetables and raising livestock, for example, might incorporate more perennial plants into their system to encourage carbon storage in deep roots.

And he pointed to other important factors for the grape growers themselves. “Many of the other benefits [of these practices] in addition to [building] soil carbon likely help the health of the vineyard even more,” he said. “For example, as you’re building up organic matter, the soil is able to hold a lot more nutrients. It’s able to hold a lot more water.”

Building Resilience in Vineyards—and Beyond

At Dodon, for example, Croghan hasn’t had to irrigate in years. Of course, there’s been a lot of rain. Too much, in fact. But the healthy soil dense with living roots has also prevented the vineyard from getting muddy and inaccessible. In the past, he said, when the soil was bare between the rows, it could be three days before the team could take a tractor back out in the field after a big storm. Today, it’s usually 30 minutes.

On the other coast, regenerative practices are also helping vineyards deal with hot, dry summers.

In Napa in 2022, Whitlow remembered, a particularly searing heat wave hit right at harvest time. “Truly, it was like biblical devastation,” she said. “Fruit shriveled on vines, and there was a complete crop failure for many operations.” At ROC vineyard Grgich Hills, where lush cover crops blanketed the ground in between vines, the team measured significantly lower temperatures just off the ground compared to a neighboring vineyard with bare soil.

As the climate crisis intensifies and extreme weather events become more intense and more frequent, these practical advantages could make or break a vineyard—or any farm’s—ability to save a single harvest and make it to the following season.

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Harvesting grapes at Dodon. (Photo courtesy of Dodon)

Grape harvest photo courtesy of Dodon.

For example, Croghan is currently focused on pests called sharpshooters, which have been given a boost by rising temperatures. While a few days of cold-enough temperatures can kill off the population before grape season begins, fewer of those days come around. The sharpshooter drills and deposits bacteria into vines, causing the devastating Pierce’s Disease. At a recent gathering of winemakers in the region, the majority reported they already had sharpshooters in their vineyards, and Croghan was anxiously anticipating their arrival.

A more traditional-leaning agriculture consultant advised Croghan to mow down his grasses to destroy potential habit the sharpshooters might live in. He was resistant, since he’d already put in so much time building up that habitat to accommodate insects that like to eat other pests, and the meadows that will bloom in a few months host crucial pollinators, providing countless other ecosystem benefits beyond the vines. Instead of chopping it all down, Croghan is betting on the whole regenerative system working in his favor, from carbon-holding roots up to the insects flying above ground.

“We’re gonna stick to our guns,” he said.

If it works and his vineyard is better able to manage the pest pressure with its cover crops in place, in the future, other farmers could benefit from his willingness to take the risk.

As Villat says, “The nice thing I think about viticulture is that, it’s not always the case, but often you have farmers who can . . . innovate, do something a little bit differently.”

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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