The Roots of a Better Future: Regenerative Viticulture: the views of Jessica Villat
Whether you’re a winegrower, winemaker, or involved in any other aspect of the wine industry, you understand that producing high-quality wine is not just about taste, but also about the overall quality of the final product. Did you know that the soil in which your grapes grow plays a crucial role in producing a wine that is not only delicious but also nourishing and full of antioxidants?
Unfortunately, the agricultural sector, including large-scale wine production, is contributing to the degradation of our soil, which has far-reaching consequences for the environment, ethics, and nutrition. The good news is that by regenerating the soil, we can reverse this trend and promote the restoration of biodiversity and human health.
Soil scientists are warning that if we don’t take action soon, we could face a severe shortage of arable soil for food production within the next half-century, and the loss of nutrients will inflict significant damage on public health. But there is hope. By adopting regenerative agriculture practices, we can restore the delicate balance of the soil and produce wines that are not only delicious but also nutritious.
In fact, recent research has shown that the use of harmful chemicals, such as glyphosate, can destroy essential mycorrhizae and beneficial soil microbes, negatively impacting over half of the species that make up the core human gut microbiome. By avoiding these harmful chemicals and using regenerative agriculture practices, we can produce wines that not only taste great but also contribute to the health of the planet and our bodies.
Within the wine industry, there is a unique opportunity to play a vital role in promoting the restoration of soil health and mitigating the impact of climate change. By embracing regenerative agriculture practices, such as minimizing soil disturbance, incorporating cover crops, and promoting biodiversity, you can help create a healthier and more resilient ecosystem for your vineyard. This not only benefits the environment, but it also has the potential to enhance the quality of your grapes and the flavour of your wine. Additionally, prioritising sustainable practices can help position your winery as a leader in the industry, appealing to consumers who prioritise environmental and social responsibility. By making a conscious effort to incorporate regenerative agriculture into your winemaking process, you can make a positive impact on the planet and its inhabitants.
Regenerating vineyards through soil health
A range of factors contribute to soil health, including biodiversity, water quality and the availability and density of nutrients in the soil. These factors contribute to the vineyard’s climate resilience and the rate at which carbon is sequestered into the soil and biomass of the vine.
There are many practical benefits to cultivating healthy, living soils. First and foremost is the long-term fertility of the soil itself, making reparations before soils are beyond redemption – the ultimate loss of value to any land-owner and the planet. Cultivating soil biodiversity encourages friability and oxygenation of soil structure, supporting root health and more balanced water drainage and retention. Living soils can stave off erosion, and are more resilient to drought and extreme weather events. They also positively impact water absorption and retention.
Amidst the challenges posed by climate change and the looming biodiversity crisis, sustainable management and cultivation practices are being implemented worldwide. Yet, there is a distinction between the terms ‘sustainable’ and ‘regenerative’. While the former aims to maintain the status quo over the long term, regenerative strengthens the health of the soil ecosystem by rebuilding soil organic matter, promoting biodiversity, and enhancing ecosystem services. By prioritising soil health, regenerative agriculture aims to create a resilient and sustainable food and beverage system that benefits not only farmers but also the environment, consumers, and society as a whole.
How Regenerative Surpasses Sustainable
Figure adapted from Fitzgerald (2021)
It is clear that for our economy to promote our evolution or even our survival, the wisdom on which it is founded must be rooted in a shift towards viewing the world through the lens of regenerative, living systems. In the context of viticulture, decades of extractive farming methods have taken their toll. While sustainability efforts aim to maintain living systems to prevent further degradation, regenerative viticulture offers a new path forward that seeks to revitalise the terroir, our wines, and our bodies. By prioritising soil health, biodiversity, and ecosystem services, regenerative viticulture holds the potential to transform the industry and bring it into alignment with a more holistic and sustainable vision for the future.
Regenerative viticulture and terroir
By focusing on living soil, regenerative viticulture builds robust ecosystems that are less susceptible to climate change and biodiversity loss. Adopting management practices for living soil can increase soil organic matter and promote carbon sequestration, a crucial component of the United Nations Climate Change Conference’s plan to reduce global carbon emissions.
In addition to reversing carbon emissions, regenerative viticulture contributes to healthy soil and increased fertility, biodiversity, and ecosystem health and resiliency. By promoting water percolation and retention, it also ensures water security for communities. Ultimately, the goal of regenerative viticulture is to guarantee food security, nutrition, and community health and well-being, making it a vital component of a sustainable future. It has even been described as the fourth agricultural paradigm, making it the single most vital and exciting frontier for the wine industry today.
Yet in viticulture, that excitement about soil is nothing new. As soon as you step into a winery, someone might hand you a rock and describe emotionally the triple-layered soil formations in the vineyard. The idea of ‘terroir’ has long been rooted in the belief that the environment in which a vine grows is the blueprint of the resulting wine. A wealth of research now shows a direct correlation between soil health and nutrient density and diversity in food. This means that soil health and the environment in which a plant grows can impact the quality of the final product. Even the flavour of wine can be affected by soil life via the grapevine’s phytochemicals, although their composition can be harmed by chemical pest management and fertilisation. Sunlight, altitude, temperature, water availability, and surrounding air quality all contribute to terroir and can affect the flavour compounds and structure of wine. The wine industry is one of the few obsessed with soil; even the tea and coffee industries don’t come close.
Wine is a cultural product that is emblematic of the soil of origin. This emphasis on terroir in wine has led to extensive research in the field of agronomy. Soil sampling is a common practice in vineyards, and the idea that quality can be linked back to the soil is fundamental to the concept of terroir. It is a universal argument for the benefits of regenerative farming.
Despite this, conventional agriculture has taken over, replacing the ancestral knowledge of maintaining soil and environmental health with industrialization. Winemakers face the same challenges as other commodity producers, such as climate change shifting the wine map further north and higher in altitude, new pest and disease pressures from insect migration, and depleted soils that easily wash away with increasingly extreme weather events, leading to water shortages and more. It is tempting to blame farmers, but our current food and beverage industry rarely compensates them for their efforts to protect the ecosystem and its regenerative pillar, the soil.
In the vineyard
Regenerative viticulture, as agroecology in practice, seeks to create a self-sustaining system that maximises soil health, natural resource conservation, and ecosystem regeneration. This is achieved through a combination of practices that include reducing tillage, cover cropping, crop rotation, composting, integrating livestock and diversified cropping systems, and minimising the use of synthetic inputs. As an example, eliminating synthetic fertilisers incentivises vines to send out sugars into the soil to feed beneficial microbes, which have enzymes that can absorb nutrients from the earth to provide the vine with the inputs it needs.
Although regenerative viticulture is much larger than a set of technical farming practices, there are practical ways that winegrowers and investors manage the vineyard for regeneration. Some of the practices that sequester carbon and can have positive effects for biodiversity and human health include those in Table 1. According to a report from the Textile Exchange and other sources, regenerative agriculture practices follow a similar spectrum.
Table 1. Regenerative viticulture management practices
|Integrating trees (and bushes) within and around an agricultural field.
|Cover crop (non-legume)
|Having vegetation in vineyard alleys (and under the vines).
|Cover crop (legume)
|Using a nitrogen-fixing-cover crop in vineyard alleys or under vines instead of high nitrogen fertilizer inputs.
|Combining crop and animal systems to reduce the negative externalities of cropland being separate from animal feeding operations.
|Reducing heavy traffic loads and farm machinery.
|Eliminating chemical/synthetic inputs and using organic fertilisers instead
|Non-chemical pest management
|Eliminating chemical inputs such as herbicides and pesticides to preserve the biological system of soil life
|Completely eliminating soil ploughing in agricultural systems
|Redesigning the system at the landscape level
|Viewing the landscape and the vineyard within it as an ecosystemic continuum
Source: Villat, 2021
Regenerative agriculture practices rely on a systemic approach, emphasising the importance of employing multiple practices in conjunction for maximum effectiveness. Animals, for instance, can contribute to regenerative viticulture by aiding in the restoration of soil through their waste and encouraging the growth of grasses for carbon sequestration, microbiological diversity enhancement, and reversing desertification. This emphasis on healthy, living soil is not only essential for grape and wine production but also for human health, given the complex relationship between the human gut microbiome and the soil microbiome. As such, regenerative viticulture offers benefits to consumers by producing nutrient-dense crops and reducing reliance on toxic agro-chemicals. Additionally, it is more visitor-friendly and offers greater opportunities for socialising vineyard practices to reach their audience, making it an appealing choice for winemakers and tourists alike.
Profoundly indigenous, local, and intergenerational
It must be acknowledged that regenerative management practices are not new, and are often profoundly rooted in the millenia of local and Indigenous agricultural practices that form the basis of agroecology. One thing they have in common is that they include local, human community elements, such as access to local markets. And having people on the land as stewards is integral to regenerative mindsets and practices thriving.
It has been highlighted that for adopting soil regeneration practices, land ownership by local communities may matter for stewardship motivation and decision-making authority. For soil regeneration, winegrowers need to have active, majority decision-making power over the land and ecosystem they steward. However, it must be acknowledged that private land ownership is a European commercial invention and other forms of collective lands rights may also lead to net-positive soil stewardship. Indeed, land tenure security is linked to positive conservation outcomes. The key is that for regenerative results, land tenure security is more important than the type of land tenure.
Centuries of Indigenous knowledge and extensive scientific evidence show that regenerative practices are critical for community and ecosystem health. In the worldview held by the Indigenous Maori people of New Zealand, for instance, the whole living system is interconnected by intergenerational symbiotic relationships, such that viticultural land, its soil, the terroir is not seen as a resource but as an ancestor. Soil stewardship is therefore taking care of an ancestor, which makes a lot of sense for winegrowers that are seeking a long-term return on investment over generations. This perspective aligns with the long-term return on investment sought by winegrowers like Jackson Family Wines, a pioneer in Regenerative Viticulture, which seeks to safeguard multigenerational family wine businesses and build agricultural heritage for future generations.
Is regenerative viticulture profitable?
Extractive agriculture is defined by a focus on increasing productivity at the expense of ecosystem services. This trend can only be reversed through a systemic shift in the values and goals of our food production system to prioritise high-quality food production while conserving natural resources.
A study by La Canne & Lundgren (2018) found that regenerative practices can lead to equal or higher productivity, with lower yields not necessarily indicating lower profitability. The study showed that although there was a 29% lower production, profits were 78% higher, with profit positively correlated with the particulate organic matter of the soil, not yield. Furthermore, insect populations were found to be ten times more abundant in insecticide-treated fields than on insecticide-free regenerative farms. Soil quality has been linked to higher profitability due to higher germination and fertility rates, lower mortality rates of seedlings and plants, and increased plant resilience against pests, diseases and climate events.
Regenerative practices promote profitability through decreased input costs and greater control over variables, as well as price premiums and crop diversification, which are common in regenerative agriculture. Additionally, these practices increase land asset values, lower risks of degraded land, and provide opportunities for winemakers to commercialise services to the ecosystem, such as carbon sequestration and increased biodiversity.
Regenerative farming challenges the current food production paradigm by prioritising net gains for the farmer rather than gross profits. Key elements of this successful approach include promoting soil biology and organic matter to manage pest populations effectively, marketing products differently, or having a diversified income stream from a single field.
Drivers of Profitability in Regenerative Viticulture
- Comparable or better yields
- Lower operating costs and less reliance on external inputs, thus reducing risk from input cost and profit margin volatility
- Enhanced natural capital, providing an opportunity to increase asset values by regenerating degraded land and to reduce stranded assets (in the form of degraded land, soil, or water resources)
- Climatic resilience from healthy soils that can better cope with droughts and floods
- Positive environmental externalities including payments for ecosystem services, for example through carbon credits based on sound methodologies that mitigate unintended consequences
- Ability to sell to higher-value organic, biodynamic, grass-fed, and other markets
- Less volatility thanks to greater control over variables than conventional agriculture
Investing in regenerative viticulture and transitioning
Regenerative Viticulture, with its broad scope encompassing almost every SDG, is an enticing prospect for impact investors, philanthropy, and project financing. For farmers transitioning from a baseline of low margins, access to independent advice, knowledge about new markets, and funding are equally critical. This is why leading regenerative agriculture investors offer services alongside investment vehicles, such as consulting, market access, and technological solutions. In contrast to conventional viticulture, climate-smart and regenerative organisations offer more resilience and risk-adjusted returns, particularly given the challenges of climate change and changing consumer habits.
Transitioning to regenerative viticulture requires significant research and investment, with many solutions still in the research stage. Some farmers dedicate sites to research in regenerative practices while maintaining conventional practices on the rest of the vineyard to ensure revenue and lower risk. Knowledge, independent consulting, supportive networks, tools, materials, machinery, infrastructure, and labour all require funding. Some wineries raise green bonds for such projects, while others seek loans, funding, and grants. Sustainable financing mechanisms are often the only solution for small and medium enterprises and those who lease land.
Long-lived perennial farms like vineyards face significant challenges in transitioning to new crops, infrastructure, and plantation architecture. It can take 5-10 years to yield a decent crop, making any change a significant commitment. Though transitioning to regenerative practices can be resource-intensive, with some farms taking five or more years to attain necessary certification, it is worth noting that regenerative practices can offer access to premiums for certified crops and new markets. Yet information about regenerative practices is often less readily available than conventional practices provided by chemical input suppliers.
To support farmers, some providers offer financing geared specifically towards those transitioning to regenerative agriculture. Examples of such funders include Perennial Fund, RSF Social Finance, Steward, FarmTogether, Iroquois Valley Farms, and Slow Money. Some provide loans and independent consulting services on transition practices, or help farmers access new markets.
Viticulture is at a critical juncture, undergoing a remarkable metamorphosis. What was once a heavily subsidized and commoditized industry with alarming suicide rates is now a leading exemplar of regeneration in practice. Through its commitment to ecosystem services and human health, viticulture is embracing a systemic approach that requires more than mere policies, financing, and markets to support farmers in delivering the monumental promise of regenerative agriculture. However, to attain its full potential, regenerative viticulture must flourish within a regenerative culture that encompasses not just policies, but also rituals, foods, ceremonies, songs, stories, music, and all the other elements that embed agriculture in a supportive and meaningful community. This transformation necessitates a paradigm shift that will contribute to solving the biodiversity and climate crises. It is already taking root, and the future is bright.
by Jessica Villat
(with input from Anna Chilton, Biodiversity Specialist at Nestlé)
A few resources
van Seijen, K. (n.d.). Investing in regenerative agriculture. Retrieved January 15, 2023, from https://investinginregenerativeagriculture.com/
Articles, reports, books and studies
Goode, J. (2022). Regenerative Viticulture. University of California Press.
Montgomery, David, & Biklé, A. (2022). What Your Food Ate: How to Heal Our Land and Reclaim Your Health. W.W. Norton & Company.
Gracia, M., Broncano, M. J., & Retana, J. (2021). Manual for the design and implementation of a regenerative agri-food model: The Polyfarming system. CREAF. Retrieved from https://polyfarming.eu/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/Manual_Polyfarming_Web.pdf
Kelley, S. (2022). Regenerative Agriculture Landscape-Analysis. Textile Exchange. Retrieved from https://textileexchange.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/Regenerative-Agriculture-Landscape-Analysis.pdf
Sanford, C. (2020). The Regenerative Economic Shaper Perspective Paper—Part 1. The Regenerative Economy Collaborative. Retrieved from https://medium.com/the-regenerative-economy-collaborative/the-regenerative-economic-shaper-perspective-paper-part-1-8cd56d77f4b0
Villat, J. (2021). Down to Earth: Identifying and Promoting Regenerative Viticulture Practices for Soil and Human Health [Harvard University]. Retrieved from https://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/37370042
Movies and videos
Tickell, J. (2020). Kiss the Ground. Big Picture Ranch. Retrieved from https://kissthegroundmovie.com/
Havemann, T., Bauman, K., & Werneck, F. (2022). Financing the transition to regenerative agriculture in the EU. Clarmondial. Retrieved from https://www.clarmondial.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/Fin_Regen_EU_Report_2022.pdf
Farm like the World Depends on it. (n.d.). https://regenorganic.org/
Networks and further links
The Porto Protocol. (n.d.). https://www.portoprotocol.com/
Soil Heroes Foundation. (n.d.). Retrieved October 9, 2022, from https://www.soilheroesfoundation.com/
Soloviev, E. R. (2017). Re-Source: Regenerative Agriculture, Business and Life. Retrieved from https://ethansoloviev.com/
The Regenerative Viticulture Foundation. (n.d.). https://www.regenerativeviticulture.org/
 Textile Exchange. (2020). Regenerative Agriculture Landscape Analysis. Retrieved from https://textileexchange.org/knowledge-center/reports/regenerative-agriculture-landscape-analysis/
 Villat, 2021
 Robinson, B. E., Holland, M. B., & Naughton-Treves, L. (2014). Does secure land tenure save forests? A meta-analysis of the relationship between land tenure and tropical deforestation. Global Environmental Change, 29, 281–293. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2013.05.012
 La Canne & Lundgren, 2018
 LaCanne & Lundgren (2018)