Regenerative Viticulture

Anyone who’s browsed a wine shop lately will have seen bottles marked organic, biodynamic, vegan or (if you’re in Oregon for example) LIVE or Salmon Safe.

Wine blurbs talk about sustainable, low impact or ‘respectful’ viticulture.

Where does Regenerative Viticulture stir into the soup? Like biodynamic, it is an ethos; like Salmon Safe it is a specific organization. Vinediction caught up with Regenerative Viticulture CEO Cameron Christie to learn more.

How did ‘Regenerative Viticulture’ come to be?

It originated with Stephan Cronk, the founder and proprietor of Mirabeau. He came to Provence from England over a decade ago to make wine.

Mirabeau purchased a domaine, a vineyard, that was surrounded by natural forest on all sides, but it been intensively farmed for the last 40-50 years. The intensive farming had left the soil almost desertified. It still had vines but the soil was hard, infertile. To continue to farm it, the choices were to regenerate the soils, or to add ever-increasing amounts of synthetic products to maintain production.

Even before completing the purchase, Stephen initiated a conversion to organic, a process that takes three to four years in France. But he wanted to go beyond organic and help regenerate the soil.

He did some reading about regenerative viticulture techniques, a term that originated in the United States. It has a lot in common with traditional farming, with biodynamic farming. Stephan was frustrated with the lack of a single, reliable resource to help him on this journey. He thought, ‘there must be others in the same situation.’

After searching, Stephen found there wasn’t an organization dedicated to regenerative viticulture (RV). There were biodynamic organizations, organic organizations, regenerative agriculture, but nothing with a specific focus on viticulture, nothing focused on the actual farming of the grapes.

To cut a long story short, he approached Mirabeau’s investors and they were receptive, but felt he didn’t have time to run it; so we started talking. I’m passionate about conservation and ecology, which is how I found myself CEO of RV. We are a non-profit, our success is purely determined by the impact we have.

What is the goal of Regenerative Viticulture as an organization?

To have regenerative viticulture and greater biodiversity to be recognized as best practice. That may sound a little lame but, if it were recognized as best practice, the question would become, ‘why isn’t everyone doing this?’

Photo: Mimi Casteel, Bethal Heights

How do you achieve that goal?

There are two facets: Enabling viticulturists to make the transition from conventional or organic to a more biodiverse viticulture and creating a database of evidence and a platform for advice, support and education concerning regenerative viticulture. You can read more about it on our Theory of Change page.

Wine-growers and farmers need to have everything at their disposal to make the change – data, contacts, resources – and they need to be convinced it is the right change. Then the question becomes, if everything is available, you have the contacts and resources, then why aren’t you doing it?

The second point is more to do with education and research. When you speak with wine-growers, the question everyone asks is, ‘how much will it cost me, as an individual and a business?’

What we intend to do as a foundation is sponsor research and provide resources and tools to researchers, to build a database of evidence showing the costs of RV, which methods have greater impact, how they can be approached, and so forth. It’s about equipping farmers with the knowledge they need.

Where does RV fit on the continuum of sustainable/organic/biodynamic?

Regenerative viticulture refers to a holistic way of farming whereby the aim is to farm the grapes in sympathy with nature, doing the maximum to regenerate soil, to bring life into the soil and the vines. There are several techniques that can do this, depending on where the vineyard is. We don’t promote a standard certification of what is RV, or what isn’t. We provide information and ideas so wine growers can access them.

Organic and biodynamic practices are prone to certification. Every vineyard is different, what is applicable in one place may not be in another. We are here to provide practices that regenerate soil, regenerate life, that affect areas like water management and sustainable growing techniques. One of our trustees is not keen on the word ‘sustainable’ because it promotes the status quo. We intend to go beyond that, to improve; not just sustain, but make the process better.

How important is certification to RV?

We want to promote RV with as few barriers as possible, and certification is a barrier to entry. However, some farmers have asked about it. We will refer them to certifying bodies [such as organic or biodynamic].

We don’t go as far as biodynamics in that we don’t prescribe specific treatments, planting routines or schedules. We leave that up to the farmer. RV is about understanding what is happening in your vineyard and how to work with it.

Photo: Mimi Casteel, Bethal Heights

How can consumers support RV?

Wine is one of the few products where the consumer is aware of the soil that the plant grows in. That is to say, terroir, which is fundamental to RV and viticulture in general. I can’t think of any other product where you’d say, ‘this was grown in limestone soil.’ But these conversations happen around wine every day. People know about where wine is grown. That provides wine with an opportunity to kickstart public awareness.

More and more people are asking how the objects they consume are produced, and how it impacts the environment. We are there to provide as much education as we can.

How are wine-grape growers responding to RV?

Nobody wants to watch the world burn. Everyone agrees it’s important to farm as responsibly as possible. The questions farmers ask are: ‘how much would I need to invest? What tools do I need? Where can I find more information?’

We will be providing information to winegrowers who want a step-by-step guide to how to adapt their workflow to incorporate regenerative practices.

Where would you like the organization to be in a year?

The goal within six months is to bring people together, to creating a community. We are reaching out to organizations and individuals who are involved in RV and are gathering. From that, more will arise. Bringing together people, raising awareness of the ideas, creating a support structure, and informing the educators at wine institutions is part of it.

We are creating webinars to connect people at different stages, including people who have completed a transformation to regenerative viticulture. In research, we intend to co-fund or fund, research into regenerative viticulture. Then we have an aim to get RV taught at colleges and agricultural institutions, the same way organics is.

Website: RegenerativeViticulture.org

Photo: Mimi Casteel, Bethal Heights

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