Capturing Carbon in Vineyard Soils

Fetzer marks 50th anniversary and reaffirms commitment to organic, biodynamic growing

by Laurie Daniel
Elizabeth Drake, regenerative development manager for Fetzer Vineyards, discusses the results of a study on soil carbon content.

Hopland, Calif.—It’s been 50 years since Barney Fetzer and his family founded Fetzer Vineyards in Mendocino County in California’s North Coast region. The Fetzers started farming organically in the 1980s, and even after the company was sold in 1992, the Fetzer name has remained closely associated with organic and, later, sustainable practices.

But by the time Chilean wine giant Viña Concha y Toro bought Fetzer Vineyards in 2011, the brand had lost momentum. Current company officials like to say that sustainability is in Fetzer’s DNA and that the winery’s efforts on that front had never waned — in fact, the company now talks about “regeneration,” or actually making the planet better — but it was time to get the word out again.

“It may be our 50th anniversary, but this company is truly in a new era,” Courtney Cochran, the winery’s communications director, told a small group of media assembled for an event the company called “Cultivating Change.”

Fetzer officials took the opportunity to disclose some new research regarding carbon content of vineyard soils; tout some recent awards related to the company’s sustainability efforts; and roll out a new wine brand.

Fetzer, which also owns Bonterra Organic Vineyards, farms about 1,000 acres organically or biodynamically in Mendocino County. A similar amount of company-owned acreage is left as wildland. Fetzer and Bonterra partnered with Pacific Agroecology, based in Davis, Calif., to analyze the carbon content of soils in both the cultivated and wild areas, comparing uncultivated soils with soils of vineyard areas that are farmed organically and biodynamically, as well as some vineyards that are farmed conventionally.

Joseph Brinkley, vineyard manager for Bonterra, said the most carbon was stored in the uncultivated soils. In cultivated soils, those farmed biodynamically had the most carbon, followed by the organically farmed soils. Conventional farming resulted in the least.

Elizabeth Drake, regenerative development manager for Fetzer Vineyards, explained why that’s important. “From a climate change perspective, soil organic carbon is an important stock of carbon, and practices that sequester additional carbon in the soil reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, mitigating climate change,” she said. “Soil organic carbon is also an important component of soil health and fertility.”

Brinkley said he was unsure why carbon levels were higher in the biodynamically farmed soils, but he speculated that it had something to do with the holistic approach and the microbial diversity in the soil. Drake said she hopes the study will “start a conversation” about carbon storage in soils.

As for awards, the company was honored late last year with the Momentum for Change Climate Solutions Award for climate action at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Germany. It was the only winery and the only U.S. company to receive the award.

More recently, Fetzer was named a 2018 Changemaker by B Lab, which certifies B Corporations. The certification is given to companies that meet certain standards for social sustainability and environmental performance. Fetzer has been a B Corp. since 2015, and the Changemaker awards are given to companies that make the most progress on the standards. (Fetzer’s case boxes note the company’s B Corp. certification with the phrase “People Using Business as a Force for Good.”)

The Fetzer team also offered a preview of a new brand that will make its debut in October: Fringe Collective. Winemaker Sebastian Donoso, who is also on the winemaking team at Bonterra, said the idea behind the Fringe Collective wines is to source fruit from marginal sites where the grapes really struggle. The first two wines are the 2016 Seafall Chardonnay, whose grapes come mostly from Heintz Vineyard, in the western part of the Sonoma Coast AVA, and the 2016 Rockbound Pinot Noir, from old blocks at Bien Nacido Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley AVA. Next up will be a Coombsville AVA (Napa Valley) Cabernet Sauvignon.

Vineyard sources for Fringe Collective won’t necessarily be organic, but Cochran said “sustainability is still the message” for the company. Fetzer produces 2.7 million cases in a zero-waste, certified-sustainable facility that operates on 100% renewable energy. The company’s goal is for at least 90% of the grapes it purchases by 2020 to come from growers who are certified organic or sustainable; as of 2016, two-thirds of growers were certified or in transition.

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