NAPA’s Regenerative Vineyards

napa valley vineyard

By Igor Sill

Napa Valley is world renowned for its fine wines, and Napa’s wine appellation that surpasses all others is its famed Atlas Peak, Napa’s volcanic mountain wine growing region. Atlas Peak is the highest point in Napa at 2263′ above sea level. Our vineyards rest atop a plateau off of Atlas Peak Road, the main artery that leads you to stunning vistas with purity of air, serenity and diverse wildlife transporting one back in time.

The curvy, windy road remains lined with burnt oak trees and blackened rocks, a reminder of the 2017 Napa wildfires. In between the trees are modest looking estates and pristine vineyards spared from the fire’s devastation. Thankfully, vineyards act as a natural firebreak and prevented further destruction. Even though it’s just minutes from the hustle and bustle of tourist-rich Napa, Atlas Peak remains a quiet oasis, wine country’s hidden gem. Farming these soils is immensely challenging, but well worth the effort as vintners continue Atlas Peak’s reputation for consistently producing the finest wines since 1870.

We are now well into Napa’s deep winter season, a vine’s dormant period and a time when our mountain vineyards generally experiences that quiet tranquility of cold temperatures. This season’s snow and lots of it, froze Atlas Peak’s vineyard soils and halted all farming activity.

The late winter freeze swathed cover crop and vines with snow, six inches of it! With continued forecasts of more freezing rain in March, Atlas Peak is off to a prolonged series of winter storms that should continue to drench vineyards till Spring! All this much needed rain will also preclude irrigation until late summer, which is good for vineyards and good for our planet..

The goal of sustainably regenerative farming is to build healthy soils in harmony with a nature-based approach to decreasing carbon emissions and increasing carbon uptake and storage. This is accomplished primarily through the use of cover crops which can sequester up to two additional tons of carbon per acre while improving soil microbe diversity and increasing water absorption. Planting cover crops such as mustard, legumes, oats and clover significantly improve soil quality by enriching organic matter with nutrients, increasing microbial activity and attracting beneficial arthropods by providing a healthy ecosystem during the dormant season. The regenerative approach strengthens the health of vineyard soil, and yields tastier fruit while reversing the effects of climate change.

As Franklin Delano Roosevelt once noted, “The nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself.

From the UC Davis CARC and the CITRIS Climate Initiative’s co-Director, Michele Barbato:

“Extreme weather events are increasing in frequency and intensity due to climate change, which impacts soil and growth conditions of vineyard crops. Regenerative agriculture looks to not only stop damaging our ecosystem but actually improves soil health by moving carbon from our atmosphere back into our soils using a variety of agricultural management practices that work in alignment with natural systems. I’m delighted to know that Napa is on the leading edge of environmental awareness and action.” says Professor Michele Barbato, co-director of the UC Davis Climate Adaptation Research Center (CARC) and director of the CITRIS Climate Initiative. “Regenerative farming is a vital solution to both mitigating the emissions of greenhouse gases from the agriculture industry and to limit the damaging impacts of climate change to crops and ensure a resilient and sustainable food system. The UC Davis Climate Adaptation Research Center is looking forward to working with local farmers to quantify the benefits of regenerative farming.” says Professor Erwan Monier, Co-Director of the UC Davis CARC.

In a natural process called “weathering”, Atlas Peak’s volcanic basalt rock terrain naturally absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.  Some Atlas Peak growers have added additional exposed volcanic basalt rock to this natural weathering process by relocating large amounts of stacked rocks where they surround vineyards and absorb carbon dioxide.

The 2017 Atlas Peak fires, and several more recent Napa and Sonoma fires, confirmed the need for reforestation to keep carbon absorbed and stored.  Post fires, many Atlas Peak growers planted new oak trees and carbon sequestering coyote shrubs in their vineyards to restore and capture carbon dioxide. Turns out that while Atlas Peak vines, trees, and shrubs capture carbon dioxide as they grow, they also provide a natural fuel source in a process called “bioenergy generation,” absorbing and holding carbon for a longer time.

It all starts with the burning of biomass, such as vine cuttings left over from pruning, to produce Biochar, a charcoal-like substance that stores carbon. Biochar is then raked into the soil to keep carbon out of the atmosphere for longer periods while it improves our soil’s health and sustainability. A recent Columbia Climate School scientific report highlighted both positive and negative impacts of climate change on plant growth. By proactively building soil health, growers are preparing their vineyards for changing climatic conditions, so that they can minimize negative impacts and capitalize on a potential CO2 fertilization effect.

Another component of responsible farming is that one honors farm workers fairly by paying a livable wage, which tends to be much higher than the national average, given Napa’s higher cost of living. Of course, nearly every aspect of this regenerative farming costs more than conventional farming and using organic compost preparations with natural nutrients versus chemical-based fertilizers, manual weed removal rather than spraying herbicide, all drive up the total costs. The economics matter, and Napa’s grape growers have had a tough time of it lately given Napa’s rigorously regulated agricultural compliance. Over these last year’s though, Napa growers have embraced their responsibility, and the fiscal requirements that come with it, to preserve their soil’s health for our generation and the many generations to come. The payoff of regenerative farming extends well beyond the benefits of establishing a climate-friendly farm to the rising awareness of our environment, protecting our water sources, storing carbon, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and maintaining soil health.

We all agree that we must dramatically cut our carbon dioxide emissions to limit global warming and avoid future climate catastrophes. The wonderful thing is that cutting carbon emissions and redirecting carbon into the soil significantly benefits the quality and health of Napa’s vines, ultimately the crafting of exquisite wines while continually adopting low-cost ways to operate more sustainably.

About the Author:

Igor Sill is living his dream pursuing his passion for regenerative farming on Atlas Peak Mountain in Napa. He’s a commonsense environmentalist, wine lover, winemaker, vintner, writer, Court of Master Sommeliers, attended UC Davis’ winemaking program, a Judge for the International Wine Challenge, London, UK; and holds his masters from Oxford University. Many thanks to Derek Irwin, Sill Family Vineyards’ Agronomist & Enologist, and UC Davis Climate Adaptation Research Center (CARC) and director of the CITRIS Climate Initiative, Michele Barbato.

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