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The Better Soils Edition
A story of dirt, wine, and the future of sustainable farming
Ab Ovo is a twice-weekly newsletter produced by Clay Dillow (CD) and Tim McKirdy (TM). If you enjoy our work, we’d love to have you as a subscriber (it’s free!). If you already subscribe, we appreciate the support — and don’t forget to forward this to a friend. Thanks for reading.
In February of last year, just a few weeks before the whole world took its long breather from normalcy, I packed into what now feels like a very small space with a few hundred people at the massive global wine trade fair Vinexpo Paris to learn about dirt.
Moët Hennessy, the wine and spirits division of the global luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, had convened a marquee “Living Soils” conference within the Vinexpo exhibition hall. I had traveled to Paris to listen to a battery of agronomists, hydrologists, climate researchers, biologists, and viticulturists talk about land degradation, soil biodiversity, the impacts of climate change on the global water cycle, and the like. It was more interesting than it sounds.
I was thinking about this expo-within-an-expo earlier this week while reading a Modern Farmer piece in which Shelby Vittek described how alcoholic beverage producers are cottoning on to the notion of regenerative agriculture. As a quick, oversimplified primer: Regenerative agriculture focuses on crop rotation, minimal soil disturbance, and topsoil regeneration. Ultimately, the aim is to boost biodiversity within soils while making them more resistant to pests, resilient to extreme weather, and better absorbers of carbon from the atmosphere — a method of sustainable farming-plus, in other words.
It’s an expensive practice, however, and high-margin alcoholic beverage products like wine, beer, and cider are increasingly bridging the gap between unprofitable sustainable farming and financial solvency. Quoting Modern Farmer here:
Converting to regenerative farming processes can be a costly endeavor, but many believe the future of the land is worth it. That cost can be offset by higher profit margins that added-value products such as wine or cider make possible. Over the last 20 years, the added-value model has helped save dairies in Vermont, where struggling farmers turned to making artisanal cheeses as a new, more reliable source of income. Can producing alcohol be part of the answer for other struggling farmers interested in regenerative methods?
It’s an interesting notion, alcohol as the product that makes sustainable agriculture feasible — not least because many large commercial beverage producers now view sustainable agriculture as key to the future of beverage alcohol. For the small regenerative farmer, producing and selling an alcoholic beverage creates added value, perhaps even making the difference between failure and profitability. For many large alcoholic beverage producers, the ability to farm sustainably (if not necessarily regeneratively) at scale can itself be a huge value-add. It’s the thing that just may allow them to continue making products at a consistent quality as shifting climate patterns complicate every aspect of agriculture.
Nowhere is this more true than in winemaking, where the impacts of climate, soil, weather, and agricultural processes carry straight through to the product in the glass. So it’s no great surprise that, as Modern Farmer notes, wineries may just be regenerative agriculture’s next fertile ground.
Why does this matter? While reading this piece, I was also reminded of a particularly perfect late-summer morning a couple of years ago spent walking the vineyards with Elisabetta Foradori. We were at her family-run winemaking operation in Trentino, at the foot of the Italian Alps, and a friend and I had traveled up for the day basically just to stand in her presence. Foradori’s credentials as a biodynamic viticulturist are unimpeachable, but her vineyards of little-grown, little-known grapes like Teroldego and Nosiola go beyond what’s listed in the biodynamic winemaker’s user manual. They are monuments to the kind of practices and thinking celebrated by regenerative agriculturists.
For starters, her grapevines themselves aren’t the typical clones you’d find in most commercial vineyards but a genetically diverse group of vines that are free to adapt and evolve over time, resulting in more resilient plants and — Foradori believes — better, more complex wines.
As she walked us through the neatly ordered rows of pergola trained vines, she also pointed out the rainbow chard and other leafy greens sprouting from the ground, a project managed by her daughter Myrtha that boosts plant and insect biodiversity in the vineyard and helps to maintain healthy soils. Insects and birds were in abundance, including a handful of chickens scratching anxiously at the dirt. There were cows elsewhere on the property as well, though apparently we’d just missed them. She seemed genuinely sorry that we hadn’t been able to meet them.
All of this additional life in and around the vineyards — the vegetables, the cows, the insect life — doesn’t only serve as biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake. On the weekends, Foradori sells vegetables and cheese produced at her vineyard-farm, creating a little value-add for the winery in the same way some regenerative farmers have turned to selling wine or cider to augment their own bottom lines.
And this is not exactly unique (even if Foradori’s wines are pretty singular). Winemakers in many parts of the world have long traditions of co-planting/co-farming within their vineyards, if not as a deliberate means of regenerating soil and promoting biodiversity in the vineyard then as a means of making optimal use of space.
That’s all to say that many of the ideas underpinning regenerative agriculture — not least a focus on mitigating the effects of climate change and a push for community engagement and social equity — are decidedly modern. But a lot of its practices have been alive and well in winemaking for generations, if not at scale, and they’re a natural fit for winemakers that can make the economics work.
But scale, naturally, is the big differentiator between small farms in New Jersey and California and the many thousands of hectares under vine in regions like Champagne and Cognac. At Vinexpo Paris last year, Moët Hennessy made it clear that it’s concerned about the future of agriculture in those places, starting with the management of its own soils (and the soils of the many, many producers from which it buys grapes).
I don’t question the company’s sincerity. The strength of its brands is tied inextricably to the company’s ability to deliver a consistent quality of product, and that consistency is seriously threatened. Finding solutions that work at scale is a bottom line, billion dollar issue facing the entire industry. To put it as Moët Hennessy CEO Philippe Schaus did when I spoke with him last year, “everything has to change so that nothing changes.”
What’s more significant is the way the existential concerns of massive beverage alcohol conglomerates are increasingly aligned with those of small farmers and vineyards, at least where a more holistic approach to agriculture is concerned. That regenerative farmers are turning to alcoholic beverages to plug a hole in their business models seems fitting, considering they’re evangelizing the kinds of changes that may eventually solve some of the wine and spirits industries’ thorniest challenges.
The 150-Word Endorsement
We promise not to abuse the trust you’ve placed in us by flogging every limited edition what-have-you or small batch so-and-so that comes across our radar, but this one’s worth a moment of your time. The gents over at @scotch_in_the_city — and if you don’t know them, you should — have collaborated with Highland Park (also very much worth knowing) to bring an eponymous new edition of HP’s Single Cask Series to market. All of HP’s bottles are special, and this particular liquid, rested for 11 years in a sherry seasoned American oak puncheon, meets that standard. But if you need an additional reason to explore this bottling further, know that a portion of sales will go directly to the First Responders Children’s Foundation COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund. Help someone else while helping yourself and pre-order one of the 594 available bottles via Caskers.