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Mendocino Coast vineyard pilots regenerative ag certification

While the concepts behind regenerative agriculture are ancient, the effort to plant verifiable industry standards for such farm practices has been growing rapidly in recent years. And a Mendocino County wine grape grower and vintner is at the forefront of one such global effort to expand into the wine business.

In the Mendocino Ridge appellation overlooking California’s North Coast, Mariah Vineyards has become part of pilot project by Savory Institute to adapt its Land to Market third-party verification program to viticulture. The credential was received in June, and in October the winery released its first wine with that verification mark on the label.

According to the National Resources Defense Council, regenerative agriculture principles include “re-establishing relationships between people and land, building soil health, reducing or eliminating the use of harmful chemicals, growing diverse crops, holistic and humane livestock management, innovative and efficient use of resources, and equitable labor practices.”

Based in Boulder, Colorado, Savory Institute has confirmed that 39 million acres of farmland are being managed holistically according to the its ecological outcome verification protocol, which takes before-and-after measurements of above-ground and below-ground measures of soil health, biodiversity and ecosystem function.

“We were on a path for regeneration already,” said Michael Frey, son-in-law of Dan and Vicki Dooling, who started Mariah in 1979 with the first planting of vines.

Though the vineyard isn’t certified organic, the family has been farming it according to those standards, such as leaving vine rows untilled. The property has also been dry farmed, which means no additional irrigation is supplied during the season.

That has helped in the past two drought years, as the normal 100 inches of annual rainfall the property gets amounted to only 36 inches for the winter and spring of 2020-2021. Wine grape yields for the 2021 harvest were in line with normal, compared with reductions of up to half in other parts of Mendocino County.

Because of the remote location, at an elevation of over 2,000 feet and about 5 miles from the Pacific Ocean, the 90-acre property with 30 planted vineyard acres has been run off only solar panels and batteries.

For Mariah, the Land to Market verification process started last year by working with Savor’s only California accreditor at the time, Jefferson Center for Holistic Management. Since then, White Buffalo Land Trust also has come on as a Land to Market accreditation hub for the Golden State.

The process required a couple of days of on-site baseline tests and surveys, including soil core samples and gauging how water percolates into the ground. Verification visits will be in three years and then every five years thereafter.

The family received a $5,000 grant to cover the testing cost, with the requirement to take online courses in holistic financial management, grazing and ecosystem management.

One of the biggest changes the family made after the first visit was to stop mowing under the vines, leaving the vegetation to grow, said daughter Nicole Dooling.

David Rizzo, chief operating officer of Land to Market, said the wine business is but one part of the role that agriculture can play in sequestering gases fingered for climate change and for restoring the soil.

“It requires action and support by wine consumers,” Rizzo said in a statement. “The Land to Market verified seal allows consumers to know that their purchase of Mariah Vineyards wines is making a positive impact on the planet.”

Consumer interest in certification of winery and vineyard sustainability practices is growing, according to research commissioned by the San Francisco-based industry advocacy group Wine Institute. Over two-thirds (71%) of U.S. wine drinkers surveyed in early 2020 said they would consider buying sustainably produced wine.

And millennials led other age groups in the poll on whether sustainably and environmentally produced wine warranted a premium price, with 9 in 10 “willing to pay” more for it. And that premium was $3 per bottle extra among all age groups.

The survey found that millennials and Generation Z drinking-age adults were most interested in certification for sustainable wine.

The U.S. wine business already has several certification programs related to sustainability. California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, a spinoff from Wine Institute, has certified sustainable. Sonoma County Winegrowers and California Land Stewardship Institute created climate adaptation certification. The institute runs the Fish Friendly Farming program. Other programs are Napa Green Winery, Napa Green Vineyard, Sustainability In Practice and Lodi Rules.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before the Business Journal, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. He has a degree from Walla Walla University. Reach him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

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