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What Is Carbon Sequestration and Why Is It Important for the Wine Industry?

What Is Carbon Sequestration and Why Is It Important for the Wine Industry?

carbon sequestration

As global warming continues to wreak havoc worldwide, some vineyards consider carbon sequestration an antidote.

Simply put, carbon sequestration sinks carbon into the soil rather than into the atmosphere, reducing harmful greenhouse gases. Find out how these three wineries use carbon sequestration to help Mother Earth beat the heat.

Montes Winery – Chile

“If all the agricultural soils in the world increase their organic material by 1.6% through cover crops and regenerative agriculture techniques, the CO2 level would return to pre-industrial times,” contends Rodrigo Barría, agricultural manager at Montes Winery.

A soft-spoken man with a broad smile, Barría oversees the winery’s approximately 1,729 acres of vines located throughout Chile. Founded in 1987, Montes Winery proved to be an early adopter of sustainability and conducts annual sustainability audits to measure business, environmental, and social improvements.

Barría introduced carbon sequestration as a tool to reduce the winery’s carbon emissions. For example, he inoculates cover crop seeds like legumes and clover with bacteria at the estate winery in Apalta in the Colchagua Valley of central Chile.

carbon sequestration
Apalta vineyard / Photo courtesy of Montes Winery

Sowing the cover crops as seeds enhances atmospheric nitrogen capture through the rhizome in the roots. It also reduces the need for fertilizer. “Normally, during fertilization, carbon is freed; this is the carbon we are not ‘throwing’ to the atmosphere,” says Barría. “By using this bacteria, not only do we not need to fertilize, but we do not produce carbon normally produced during the fertilizing process.”

Moreover, cover crops dig down into the soil with their roots, creating capillaries for vines to grow through. Montes sows cover crops in every other row and native crops in the other rows. Different cover crops build their own symbiotic relationships with microorganisms, allowing them to exchange materials.

Encouraged by the results, Montes joined Spain’s Associación Viticultura Regenerativa, the first winery in Chile to do so. The association promotes regenerative agricultural practices worldwide, including carbon sequestration.

“By joining, we are sure to be at the forefront of any new developments in this field,” says Barría.” We want to be leaders of regenerative agriculture in Chile. For this, we need to be in the international arena, where things are being developed at the highest standards.”

Troon Vineyard –  Applegate Valley, Oregon

“The way I often think about carbon sequestration is in the wider conversation about soil health,” says Garett Long, the director of agriculture for Troon Vineyard, a Demeter Biodynamic® Certified and Regenerative Organic Certified™️ winery and vineyard in Oregon’s Applegate Valley. 

Long, who holds a Master’s in Soils and Biogeochemistry from UC Davis, employs the “five principles of soil health” at Troon: composting, avoiding soil disturbance, keeping living roots growing, maximizing diversity, and integrating livestock. (The five principles derive from teachings by Ray Archuleta, a 30-year Certified Professional Soil Scientist formerly with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.)

Carbon sequestration proves integral when applying these principles. “It has almost this exponential effect from a one-time addition of compost,” says Long. “We think about that as inoculation by diverse soil microbes. It’s the fungi and the bacteria that are essentially helping build carbon in the soil, as partners with plants, segueing from compost additions, into cover crops.”

carbon sequestration
Garett Long adding biodynamic preps to a vermicompost system.

Unsurprisingly, cover crops abound at Troon. Over 30 species grow throughout the vineyard and vegetable garden, and about a dozen more species germinate in grazing fields. “The diversity of plants feeds a diversity of microbes,” explains Long. “We’ve seen in our studies how our practices impact soil health.”

Troon initially measured soil metrics like organic matter and carbon upon implementing regenerative agricultural practices in 2018. Long re-measured the same metrics four years later in the same locations.” We looked at the top eight inches of soil, then eight to 18 inches, and then 18 to 36 inches deep,” says Long. “We found an incredible accumulation of carbon at all depths, especially at the lowest horizon, between 18 and 36 inches.”

Minimizing soil disturbance helps, too. “By not tilling and not disturbing the soil, we’re able to maintain soil structure. It gives us not just porosity and the ability to infiltrate water, but also allows those fungal communities responsible for secreting compounds like glomalin – catalysts for carbon sequestration – in and around the root zone.”

So does maximizing biodiversity. Consequently, Troon earmarked ten acres of the 100-acre working farm, winery, and vineyard for biodiversity reserves, like a pond, riparian habitat, and dry swale. These areas brim with wildlife corridors, a native botanical garden, and pollinator habitats. “By maximizing biodiversity, you not only create a resilient system; the more diverse wildlife plants, insects, microbes, as well as systems that we have on the farm – including our chickens, sheep and dogs – are a part of the system as well. There’s associated microbial diversity with all of those animals as well.”

“We have all these practices at Troon in which we are actively sequestering carbon,” concludes Long. “But we’re also asking questions like ‘What can we do less of?’ or ‘How can we avoid emitting carbon in the first place?’ That’s a version of turning carbon sequestration on its head.”

Hope Well Wine – Willamette Valley, Oregon

“I want people to know unequivocally that soil is the largest reservoir of terrestrial carbon. It represents our greatest hope for sequestration,” says Mimi Casteel of Hope Well Wine in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. A noted authority on regenerative farming, Casteel holds degrees in forest science and biology. She’s also the daughter of regional pioneers Ted Casteel and Pat Dudley, Bethel Heights Vineyard on Eola-Amity Hills co-founders, and a wine grower in her own right.  

In 2015, Casteel and her family purchased a former commercial Christmas tree farm. After ripping it out and planting an organic vineyard, she introduced regenerative methods such as no-till farming, cover crops, and biodiversity, all designed to enhance carbon capture. Recently, Casteel downsized to a smaller site, restarting her carbon sequestration efforts anew.

Given her unique background, this scientist-farmer understands both the science and business of wine growing. “The carbon cycle has been very, very damaged by the burning of fossil fuels,” she says. “Mending the biological cycles of elements is the greatest charge of anyone who works on land, depends on land, or profits from the land. If we took that responsibility seriously, things would change very quickly.”

Casteel considers carbon sequestration a solution. She cites three ‘bioenergetic’ pathways to repairing elemental cycles: fermentation, respiration, and photosynthesis. Fermentation presents a tiny part of the process. Respiration, or breathing, burns carbon into the atmosphere. “Because we’ve been doubling down on the burning end, we need to balance that with the photosynthesis end,” Casteel says. “I want people to understand that photosynthesis was the beginning of the carbon cycle. It was the greening of our globe. It’s why there’s oxygen in our atmosphere. The power to rebalance the carbon cycle is through photosynthesis.”

How? “We need to do everything about emissions because the end of readily available fossil fuels is very near,” Casteel cautions. “We need to focus on rehabilitating our soil bank. To start banking soil carbon, we need that carbon cycle to start again.”

Additionally, Casteel points out the link between carbon and water cycles. “Increasing soil carbon means increasing soil water holding capacity due to carbon’s affinity for binding water. The more carbon you have, the more water you can have. And as a winemaker, what that means to me is virtually everything.” This proves especially urgent as climate change-induced fires, droughts, and heat domes continue to increase each vintage.

Ultimately, as a member of The Regenerative Viticulture FoundationSustainable Wine Roundtable, and Porto Protocol, Casteel considers carbon sequestration a global effort. “I think it is important for everyone to recognize that we have everything to gain by working together and sharing our challenges and successes locally, regionally, and internationally,” she sums up. “When we create consistent land-based learning networks, we see the greatest gains. When we spend our time arguing over which practices store X amount of carbon and trying to prove one methodology over another, we waste precious time and add to the gulf between where we are and where we need to go.”

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