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Regenerative Viticulture: the ‘new viticulture’ or a backward step?

Humans have been farming for at least 12,000 years, advancing from nomadic hunter-gatherers to settled farmers independently in numerous disparate territories. Nomads domesticated animals first, followed by the founder crops of neolithic agriculture. Early farmers implemented rudimentary irrigation systems, used simple ploughs, and practised companion planting. Improvements continued in earnest during the Middle Ages; iron smelting led to developments in the production of hand tools, horseshoes and ploughs, and water and windmills were improved and used to cut wood and process wool and mouldboard ploughing led to the clearing of European forests. Subsequently, crop yields peaked in the 13th century and remained steady until the 18th century. The first major agricultural revolution followed the Renaissance, beginning in Britain between the 17th and mid-19th centuries, enabling significant population growth, liberating workers and helping fuel the Industrial Revolution which brought about industrial agriculture. British polymaths and agriculturalists promoted the Dutch four-field rotation system, selective breeding and scientific investigation into fertilisation. Mechanised tools also reduced workload; seed drills, threshing machines and the Rotherham iron plough were welcome aids. And, by 1900, the first petrol-driven tractor was in use.

Remarkably, global food production doubled four times between 1820 and 1975. Conversely, between 1930 and 2002, total American farm workers fell from 24 per cent of the labour force to 1.5 per cent. And, in 1940, each American farm worker supplied just 11 consumers; by 2006, each worker supplied nearly 144. Hitherto, agronomic labour had been toiling, demanding workers sweat morn till night, tying men and women to slavery and serfdom. Crop yields were low, famines from crop failure were typical and poor weather frequently destroyed entire harvests. Thankfully, industrial agriculture alleviated Western workers of gruelling manual labour. Synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides relieved disease pressure while fertilisers and agriculture machinery increased productivity and reduced labour costs. Finally, beginning in 1950, the Green Revolution marked the beginning of post-war technology transfer initiatives resulting in the adoption of new technologies, including high-yielding varieties of cereals, chemical fertilisers, agrochemicals, irrigation, and newer methods of cultivation, including mechanisation in Mexico, the Philippines, India, China, Brazil, and some limited African nations. Studies show that the Green Revolution contributed to a widespread reduction of poverty, averted hunger for millions, raised incomes, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, decreased land use for agriculture, and declining infant mortality. Incidentally, modern no-till farming began simultaneously—glyphosate, first used in 1974, made this practice possible on a much larger scale than before

Since the enlightenment began, there has been a pervasive and vocal opposition; as industrial society flourished, prominent philosophers rejected rationalism, emerging markets, and industrial agriculture. Marx wrote that ‘capitalist production disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth’ and that ‘all progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art … of robbing the soil’. Meanwhile, Jean-Jacques Rousseau romanticised the idea of the ‘noble savage’, a romantic conception of man enjoying a natural and noble existence before civilisation corrupts him. Other scholars expressed practical concerns about the influence of nascent scientific discoveries on human and earthly health.

Just as industrial agriculture came of age at the turn of the 20th century, Albert and Gabrielle Howard and Rudolf Steiner founded modern organic agriculture’s antecedents, synthesising and reinvigorating occult, ecological, and sociopolitical concerns. Steiner’s biodynamics instructed farmers to prepare concoctions of various plants, animal organs, and remains, to enliven cosmic and astral forces. Maria Thun built on Steiner’s work with her pseudoscientific biodynamic calendar, advising farmers to carry out specific work depending on the moon’s position in the zodiac. The Howards’ work was less esoteric; inspired by traditional Indian agriculture, the pair emphasised maintaining humus and retaining water in the soil. Lady Eve Balfour and Lord Northbourne propagated these methods in Britain, and J. I. Rodale bankrolled American efforts. Despite differences in their methodologies, all eschewed synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and fertilisers, and organic farming quickly became a philosophical preoccupation opposed to a scientific endeavour.

Despite disastrous failures—Sri Lanka’s neo-Lysenkoist ‘sustainable’ policies might starve millions—and fundamental shortcomings—widespread adoption could lead to net increases in greenhouse gas emissions—public interest in organic produce is growing, as is pressure from supranational political institutions and activists to convert farmed land to organic practices. Sadly, contemporary organics relies more upon ideology and intentions than evidence and outcomes, epitomising the appeal to nature fallacy, whereby something is assumed inherently good merely because it is ‘natural’. Today, advocating synthetic chemical agriculture is tantamount to blasphemy among modern, effete, urbanite trendies.

The wine industry has been a comparatively early and fervent adopter of organic and biodynamic farming, not least because it can afford to—retailers can augment prices much more aggressively than ‘regular’ agricultural produce. More charitably, in its infancy, indiscriminate synthetic chemical application and industrial agriculture ravaged European vineyards, and notable chemical additive scandals have harmed wines’ reputation too. Moreover, since humans have made wine, they have attributed magical, religious, ecclesiastic, philosophical, and medical properties to it. Consequently, wine has been heralded as sacred and unique, not least in its ability to absorb the earth itself. Louis de Jaucourt exemplified this sentiment as early as 1765, purporting that Mosel wines were ‘enriched with slate itself’ and that coal fossils induced yellow amber flavours and aromas in Hochheim am Main wines. This deterministic, inextricable interpretation of terroir has prevailed in western Europe since Rousseau. Since then, writers have transmogrified terroir from undesirable stain to desirable identity. Subsequently, anti-industrial sentiments have thrived and anything unnatural is commonly considered to taint or obscure terroir. This sentiment persists in modern establishment discourse. So, one might sympathise with winegrowers’ antipathy toward purported ‘unnatural’ inputs and practices.

More cynically, as Princeton economist Richard Quandt observes, the wine trade is ‘intrinsically bullshit-prone’—marked information asymmetry and complexity means consumers regularly default to experts. Alas, what defines a wine expert is not altogether clear. Subsequently, contemporary establishment communication is replete with intoxicating, romantic falsehoods about viticulture, winemaking and what makes great wine. Professor of Viticulture at the University of California, Davis, Mark A. Matthews, excoriates many of the most popular myths in his elucidating Terroir and other Myths of Winegrowing. Nevertheless, received wisdom, casual observations, and pseudoscience still litter popular wine texts. Simultaneously, luddite commentators and excitable, pliable consumers reify pithy maxims and outright absurdities. Unsurprisingly, organic and biodynamic farming has flourished among wine circles, as have other dubious horticultural beliefs and assertions. Glyphosate is understood to be a deadly carcinogenic (newsflash, it’s probably not); journalists castigate synthetic crop protection chemicals; magical preparations of animal organs and wildflowers are purported to be vitalising additions for soil and plants; and growers perform vineyard work, and tasters drink, according to moon cycles. This same anti-industrial phenomenon extends to winemaking; author Clark Smith laments this aversion in his stimulating Postmodern Winemaking. Wine press and drinkers denounce innocuous techniques; micro-oxygenation, reverse osmosis, clarification and stabilisation, chaptalisation, and acidification are frowned upon—despite the latter being commonplace in the world’s greatest wines.

Organic and biodynamic agriculture emerged amid growing trepidation about industrial agriculture’s impact on local ecosystems and wellbeing. Today, national governments, international organisations, and radical activists pursue and promote ‘net-zero’ policies to combat earth’s impending ‘climate apocalypse’. Reasonable concerns notwithstanding, contemporary climate activism is steeped in anti-industrial, anti-capitalist, and anti-enlightenment philosophy. Advocates romanticise a time before man ‘plagued the earth’, advocating a more sustainable, simple and equitable existence by whatever means necessary, such that we might transform, liberate and save humanity. Unsurprisingly, ideological agricultural practices thrive in this landscape—European nations have mostly banned ‘GMOs’ and mandated that 25% of member nation’s agricultural land must be organic by 2030; EU organic regulations promote homoeopathy, and the UN’s revolutionary Sustainable Development Goals surreptitiously steer global agricultural policy and spending.

Amidst all this, Regenerative Agriculture*, farming’s new sensibility, is the latest buzzword in sustainability circles. Pitched as a panacea to earth’s apparently moribund soils and warming climate, Regenerative Agriculture is the nexus of esotericism and anti-industrial dogma. Piggybacking off well-established, robust, regenerative (building organic matter) practices—minimal soil disturbance, cover cropping, integrating livestock—Regenerative Agriculture hypothesises that nature ‘contains everything needed to sustain itself’ and that pests and ailments are mere consequences of humans disrupting complex, natural ecology. In practice, Regenerative Agriculture decries ‘synthetic’ crop protection, fertiliser additions and tilling, promotes homeopathy, and infuses farming with quasi-religious, political fervour.

Unsurprisingly, select winegrowers and industry commentators now promote Regenerative Viticulture* as wine’s own gnostic salvation, reigniting anti-industrialism, disparaging inputs and merging global political activism with viticulture. Of course, astute winegrowers and viticulturists have long recognised the relationship between healthy soils and resilient, flourishing vines, judiciously restricting soil disturbance and inputs to maximise fruit quality and commercial viability. So, in this respect, Regenerative Viticulture is hardly new. However, where those farmers have chiefly been concerned with outcomes, Regenerative Viticulture is preoccupied with means, convinced that only by returning to a more ‘natural’ means of ‘regenerative’ farming can humans be liberated, and planetary crisis be averted. Much more than mere farming, Regenerative Viticulture advocates purport to revolutionise agriculture, ‘squarely aligning’ themselves with the UN’s utopian Sustainable Development Goals, aiming to ‘respect human rights’, ‘foster equality and inclusion’, ‘generate prosperity, pride and passion’, and bring about a ‘healthier and happier planet’. It’s not entirely clear what this means in practice, nor what it has to do with making great wine.

Vagaries notwithstanding, Regenerative Viticulture is gaining steam, excitably and uncritically promoted as revolutionary and transformative by journalists and advocates selling books, seminars and group memberships. However, while addressing climate change is a necessary, praiseworthy endeavour, whether Regenerative Viticulture constitutes the ‘new viticulture’ demands closer interrogation.

The natural world is inconceivably complex; viticulturists know this more than most—various natural pests, diseases, and ailments have blighted them for decades. The answer to combatting these challenges within the confines of commercial viability (the first non-negotiable stepping stone of sustainability is that farms must be profitable) is never rigid nor prescriptive. Not only are the core principles of Regenerative Viticulture unsuitable in many scenarios, but farmers regularly achieve exceptional outcomes faster even when incorporating supposedly harmful practices. Yarra Valley viticulturist and Viticulture Australia founder, Steve Faulkner, has recorded soil organic matter readings of 7% in vineyards under his management despite annual deep ripping—to combat compaction and cultivate amendments (gypsum, lime and compost)—and fungicide application. Importantly, Faulkner acknowledges the impacts of both practices and incorporates ‘restoration’ into his farming methodology. After ripping, Faulkner sprays humic and compost tea to promote mycorrhizal fungi and bacterial life. Then, he plants cover crop in alternating rows with select multi-species seeds to maximise root diversity and biological life, creating more glomalin and benefitting earthworm ecology and soil structure. Steve’s cover crop generally sprouts within ten days, rapidly sequestering carbon and dressing bare soil.

Old vine enthusiast and experienced consultant viticulturist, Dr Dylan Grigg, has also achieved rapid increases in soil organic matter and biomass even when tilling. Grigg notes that if growers select the right implement and till at the right time, they can add air, open the ground, and encourage and enhance the growth of fungi, bacteria, and protozoa, as well as encourage deeper root proliferation of their cover crop which in some soils can generate greater biomass more quickly than would have been the case had they done nothing. ‘Sometimes, vineyards need taking to the emergency room’, Grigg jokes, hinting at the pressing need to act within commercial, not geological, timeframes. Regenerative Agriculture poster child Tablas Creek demonstrated similar results in a three-year soil health trial. Organic matter and soil quality ratings increased most in minimal till settings, outperforming no-till in both cases. Finally, tillage can help reduce direct competition with vine roots in young vineyards. In her new, sticky, clayey English vineyard, journalist and winegrower, Christina Rasmussen, uses a small electric tiller to gently clear undervine grasses and weeds without applying herbicide.  

Upon inspection, an indisputable naturalistic, pseudoscientific thread characterises mainstream Regenerative Viticulture. Vocal advocates attribute a rise in type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s to soil quality; peddle Malthusian falsehoods on population growth and consumption; forecast an impending apocalyptic reckoning; lament fewer people being tied to manual farm labour for fear of its impact on children’s ‘intimate relationship with the natural world’; label glyphosate a deadly carcinogen; and decry GMOs.

Experienced agricultural scientist, consultant and writer, Steve Savage, bewails this disappointing anti-scientific inclination, troubled by how it might inhibit farmers from tackling climate change and food security concerns. Organic crops (without fertiliser) are 15-50% lower yielding than fertilised crops, widespread rejection of fertiliser would result in greater land use and incur a negative environmental impact; glyphosate is reasonably innocuous, has not been to shown to be carcinogenic and has enabled a no-till revolution, rejecting synthetic herbicides is irrational and risks farmers reverting to tillage; conventional pesticides are effective, benign and rigorously tested, requiring less frequent application than rudimental counterparts accepted by naturalistic proponents—copper sulfate is acutely toxic, mutagenic, and can bioaccumulate in the ecosystem. Steve also resents how unscientific fearmongering precludes considering technological advancements like Nitricity, which uses solar electricity to extract nitrogen directly from the air to produce nitric acid for fertiliser, and genetically modified crops, which might be crucial in reducing global dependency on pesticides.

French poet and gastronomist, Joseph Berchoux satirised the ambiance of nineteenth century sociétés d’agriculture. Berchoux observed that the sociétés had become a meeting place where bourgeois intellectuals philosophised abstract and affected reflections on agricultures’ high-minded intellectual components instead of practical conversation. The sociétés were criticised for their lack of practicality and romanticisation of georgic and bucolic ideals, influenced intensely by Rousseau. Most notably, at sociétés meetings, the real work was a secondary concern. Viticulture’s burgeoning concern with regenerating soil health represents a profound opportunity to empower farmers to pursue and promote open-minded, non-partisan farming centring soil health, ecology and fruit quality. Alternatively, anti-industrial, anti-scientific, dogmatic ideologues might co-opt this promising, inchoate effort, reincarnating the nineteenth-century sociétés spirit. 

Present-day manifestations of unscientific ecological dogma, quackery and ideological politicking are wreaking havoc; UNESCO recommends the natural sciences and scientific method be modified—incorporating alternate ways of knowing—to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations Agenda 2030; the Dutch government is planning to buy and shut down 3000 farms in a bid to meet arbitrary EU emissions targets; and one million Sri Lankan farmers whose crops failed under a botched organic farming scheme will receive $200m compensation. Winegrowing is uniquely positioned to buck this trend and serve as a beacon of pioneering, robust, and innovative farming to restore global soils and tackle climate change. To maximise opportunity and resources, grapegrowers need more freedom and broader options with less ideology, political crusading and arbitrary limitations. Most importantly, our concern must be with outcomes, not methods. After all, there’s more than one way to sequester a carbon.

*my capitalisation of both Regenerative Agriculture and Regenerative Viticulture is intended to differentiate between the general application of ‘regenerative’ farming practises within a broader agricultural framework, and nascent movements and advocates promoting an ideological, romanticised, rigid regime purporting to fulfil dubious claims. 


This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. Stephen Skelton MW

    Thanks for the great article and for putting Regenerative Agriculture (and Viticulture) into perspective. You are brave to call it out as mostly BS and just a new name for what many sensible, conservative, and profitable farmers have been doing for ages.

    PS. I’m old enough to remember ‘direct drilling’ in the early 1960s which relied on Gramoxone (Paraguat) to clear post-harvest trash prior to replanting.

    1. wordonthegrapevine

      Thanks, Stephen. Nice to hear from you! There’s an obvious air of greenwashing to most of it, and a more pernicious activism running through the rest. Hopefully folks realise this sooner rather than later.

  2. Marcelo Solá

    Always a good read and a window to rational thinking. Thanks!

    1. wordonthegrapevine

      Thanks, Marcelo. I appreciate you taking the time to read this (I know it’s a long one). If I can share even the most remote plea to rationality I’ll be pleased.

  3. Tony Skuriat

    Having been involved in wine production for some 50+ years in England, I fully endorse your reasoned observations. One thing I will never understand is how the “organic” producers justify the use of copper when opposing glyphosate.

    1. wordonthegrapevine

      Thank you, Tony. This has been on my mind for a while, even before I knew much about grapegrowing. I’ve always thought many ‘organic’ tents seemed obviously hypocritical. There’s a fallacious, naturalistic thread that runs through organic agriculture, I’m optimistic it can be unwoven!

  4. Simone Fiorino

    This is a great article, bravo! As we discussed more than once, it’s easy to talk about regenerative agricolture or other alternative ways, because they’re trendy and so you are ‘cool’. The real sustainable agricolture, that increase organic matter, soil health, biodiversity and maybe plant resilience, and provide crop (because only in this way it’s ‘sustainable agricolture’), it requires a lot of knowledges, but many people that talk about that don’t have it.
    In nature there is not only one solution, the truth is always ‘in the middle’ and every case, every wine region requires different approaches.

    1. wordonthegrapevine

      Indeed, Simone. There is never only solution, not least in nature!

  5. Justin Howard-Sneyd

    Hi Josh – sounds like we need to have a chat!

    I have personally become convinced by the regenerative approach precisely as it offers a science-based approach to understanding soil health. Most of the leading practitioners of RA have a pragmatic attitude that allows necessary interventions if the alternative means losing your crop.

    I admire your crusade against the ‘woo-woo’ of some belief systems, and can understand why you are driven to debunk magical thinking. You do the world a favour when you challenge romanticised groupthink, and ask for evidence and accountability.

    However, by grouping everything ‘regenerative’ under one banner, and then characterising all practitioners as backward, anti-progress Luddites, you are gravely misunderstanding the movement, and what it has to offer modern agriculture (and we hope, viticulture).

    I’d like to introduce you to Mimi Casteel, a forest biologist and wine producer from Oregon, and one of the leading thinkers in the Regen Viti movement. She’s a scientist, and a thoughtful advocate, with a lot of detail at her fingertips. Let’s arrange a call.

    Stephen Skelton (hi Stephen!) in his comment above is guilty of the gravest cakeism when he says: “You are brave to call it out as mostly BS and just a new name for what many sensible, conservative, and profitable farmers have been doing for ages.” It can’t be both. Stephen is quite right that ‘good practice’ that has been developed through years of trial and error should be preserved and celebrated. But when a new theory (or marketing term) comes along that enshrines some of that best practice, and makes it attractive and persuasive to a new generation, it shouldn’t be shot down.

    For sure, there is a broad spectrum of RA advocacy, some of whom have opinion about other things that you have reasons for disagreeing with. It doesn’t mean the regenerative baby should be thrown out with the biodynamic bathwater (after it has been shot down, obviously)

    The way I see RV is that it will become the ‘third way’ that provides an evidence-based explanation for why we need to cultivate complex, biodiverse ecosystems in which to grow our vines, and how reductionist science is sometimes ill-equipped to describe and understand complex systems.

    As a scientist, I hope you’ll keep an open mind.

    So, how about that call? My email is justin@thehivewine.com, and Mimi is happy to join us if we can find a time that works for Oregon and the UK.

    Speak soon

    Justin

    1. wordonthegrapevine

      Hi Justin,

      Thanks for your considered response, and for reading my work.

      I’m interested in science-based agriculture too, and in promoting sustainable, sensible, and viable farming methodologies. I spend several paragraphs here detailing thoughtful, evidence-based work being done by smart, considerate farmers. Many of the practices these growers incorporate are regenerative, and I celebrate them. So, I must object that I ‘group everything under one banner’ or that I characterise practitioners as ‘backward, anti-progress Luddites’. I think I make quite a clear distinction between the general application of regenerative practices and groups purporting to have discovered a ‘new way’ of farming, I capitalise the latter. Importantly, it’s those groups whose claims I believe need closer scrutiny.

      The most pressing issue I see in this instance is that many vocal proponents of Regenerative Viticulture begin with a set of beliefs which they set out to prove—most of these beliefs have naturalistic presuppositions (i.e. nature offers everything farmers need if we just treat it right). The very fact that one sets out to prove a specific belief, as opposed to testing a hypothesis, demonstrates a profound bias. Whether a person is a scientist or not doesn’t change this, nor does it offer any validity to the substance of an argument. I mean hell, you can find an abundance of ‘scientists’ offering up crackpot ideas the world over. I’ve detailed some ludicrous claims made by RV advocates in the piece, a few of them are close to home. Finally, we haven’t even touched on RV’s political affinities, which present their own distinct set of problems (the UN SDGs are wholly unscientific for starters).

      The answer to ‘reductionist science’ is not new-age woo woo. It’s to present hypotheses and test them with a completely open mind. One such hypothesis is that chemical crop protection, fertilisers and industrial agricultural science might be part of a perfectly viable future for sustainable farming. It might even turn out to be preferable to the methods promoted by your group, or render RV tenets entirely undesirable to some farmers. Who knows? Alas, I’m not sure RV groups are best suited to discover such a reality while such a pervasive naturalistic persuasion prevails among key proponents.

      So, as I conclude in my piece, whilst I do recognise that viticulture’s burgeoning concern with soil health presents a profound opportunity. Alternatively, it might also hinder farmers to dreadful effect if sweeping claims by nascent groups go unchallenged. Perhaps we can catch up in the new year and talk in more detail. Thanks again for reading!

      1. Justin Howard-Sneyd

        Hi Josh,
        Thanks for taking the trouble to reply so fully, and it sounds like we have a lot of common ground, but also some areas of difference to explore. Let’s speak in the New Year!
        All the best
        Justin

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