I knew I had reached the Fetzer vineyard when I saw the sheep.

In the vineyard. Hundreds of sheep. Happily grazing. This was news. On my trip up and down the Camino Carbon in California recently, I had seen a lot of vineyards out the car window. Miles and miles of grape stumps in row after row. It was hard to imagine how so much wine gets consumed in this nation, and beyond, but apparently it does. In no vineyard that I saw, however, from Santa Barbara to Santa Rosa, did I see sheep. Only at Fetzer.

That’s because Fetzer is a different sort of wine company, for a major label. While many wine makers have gone “green” in recent years, whatever that means, few (if any) have gone as far as Fetzer, especially on the carbon front. That’s why I drove all the way to Hopland, near Ukiah, CA, to see for myself. I just didn’t expect to see sheep!

I had first heard about Fetzer’s sustainability program at a conference on climate change and agriculture at UC Davis in 2011, organized by the California Climate and Agriculture Network, or CalCAN, a great group. (see: http://calclimateag.org/)

Program Director Dr. Ann Thrupp told the large audience that Fetzer had implemented a variety of carbon-friendly practices, including: composting leftover grape skins and stems, which are then added to the soil to boost carbon stocks; planting cover crops between the vines in order to protect the soil from erosion (this is what the sheep were eating); attracting beneficial insects with the type of cover crops they plant; and eliminating fossil-fuel based chemicals and fertilizers (this is another reason why the sheep were there).

There was more: the grapes for its Bonterra brand are certified organic, biodynamic, and sustainable (by the California Certified Sustainable Winegrowing program, which was established in 2009). Started in 1992 – making Fetzer a pioneer – Bonterra has become, Thrupp said, the number one selling brand of wine made from organic grapes.

Better still, unlike the wall-to-wall grape stumps that I had seen in other vineyards up and down the state, Fetzer is dedicated to conserving its oak woodlands and riparian areas. As much as 45% of its land is protected by the company as wild country.

This is important, said Dr. Louise Jackson of UC Davis, who followed Thrupp’s presentation, because mosaics of vineyards and wild land can store a lot of carbon. Jackson had directed a comprehensive assessment of the carbon stocks across Fetzer’s various land holdings, including its undeveloped woodlands and determined that the ecosystem service being provided by Fetzer – voluntarily and unremunerated – was substantial. This has policy implications for California, Jackson said, because there is a lack of focus on the benefits of carbon sequestration among policymakers, who are more focused on emissions. Changing this focus would encourage better farm stewardship and habitat conservation. (see: http://www.cbmjournal.com/content/6/1/11)

Good stuff!

Earlier in the day, I had visited with Dr. Jeffrey Creque at the McEvoy Olive ranch, near Petaluma. Jeff is an agroecologist who has been working at McEvoy since 1997, primarily on their composting program. I went to see Jeff because I knew McEvoy had doubled the organic content of its soil in ten years, which is amazing. I won’t go into the technical details here, but raising the amount of organic material in your farm or ranch’s soil has HUGE benefits, including increased fertility, water holding capacity, nutrient uptake, and carbon sequestration.

As regular readers of this blog should know by now – this is a GOOD thing.

Jeff told me they did it by (1) applying lots of compost to the soil, made up of 25% olive waste + off-farm compost + livestock waste + landscaping waste + willows from riparian area via chipping; (2) cover-cropping between the rows of olive trees; (3) rotational grazing of sheep through the orchard; and (4) riparian area restoration, which reduces erosion and builds topsoil.

Jeff takes dozens of soil samples every year from all over the farm which are then sent to a laboratory for analysis. While results have shown year-to-year fluctuations in the organic content of the soil, due to weather variables mostly, the trend has been clear: upward. Jeff notes that millions and millions of tons of green waste – food, grass clippings, branches – go into landfills every year. Why not divert them instead to farms and rangelands where they could be composted for multiple benefits? There’s a cost, of course, but it could be offset by increased ecological productivity + profits + potential carbon credits.

In fact, Jeff wants to see if the farm can double the organic content of its soil again – to levels higher than what nature might have had there originally. Why not? There’s nothing in nature that says we can’t, Jeff said. Besides, there are no downsides to trying and lots of upsides, especially for climate change. If we can encourage soils to store more carbon than normal, and keep everything functioning properly ecologically, then that’s a BIG upside.

More good stuff!

Here’s a photo I took of the Fetzer sheep: