Most drinks enthusiasts are familiar with the concept of terroir—the manner in which climate and terrain affect the flavor of wine and even spirits. But what about the rich, invisible universe that populates the soil? Many farmers and winemakers are now saying that its relative health—which, thanks to industrial farming techniques, is in rapid decline—has a much greater effect on what you taste than had previously been suspected.
“A handful of healthy soil represents the farm’s rhizosphere; it contains many millions of micronutrients and fungi, a complex system for building the components of wine, which we are just beginning to understand,” says Thomas Niedermayr, the winemaker at the organically farmed Thomas Niedermayer-Hof Gandberg estate in the Trentino-Alto Adige region in northern Italy. “It takes millennia to create healthy soil, but it only takes a few years to destroy it and so much that depends on it.” He points to the vast degradation of the Amazon’s soil due to deforestation, and the cascade of effects it has had on the climate and biodiversity in the region and across the world.
The desire to increase the fertility and health of soil is intrinsically linked with the perils of climate change, say Nidermayr and other regenerative farming advocates. “Healthy humus (the organic component of soil) can store nutrients for plant energy, absorb water better for times of drought and absorb carbon from the air, which fights climate change,” says Christine Wolfram, Neidermayr’s assistant winemaker. Indeed, in the World Bank and the U.N.’s World Resources Report, carbon sequestration in soils via regenerative agriculture was deemed essential to cutting emissions and feeding the world’s population, expected to grow to 9.8 billion by 2050.
The Birth of Regenerative Farming
A new laser-focus on the rhizosphere—the soil and its microorganisms—by farmers and winemakers is analogous to the surge of interest in the human microbiome among nutrition and health advocates, with the producers linking soil health to the overall wellbeing of the farm and even the planet. It’s a movement that has been gathering steam for more than a century and is currently feeling increasingly urgent amid climate change and the resulting increased incidents of unpredictable weather.
The term rhizosphere was coined in 1904 by German agronomist and plant physiologist Lorenz Hiltner to describe the area of soil around a plant root. It is, as he explained, inhabited by a unique population of microorganisms that have a symbiotic relationship with the plants themselves.
Put simply, the tiny microbes in the soil can determine the fitness—and taste—of the plant. But scientists say that industrial farming methods, particularly the copious use of chemical sprays, have robbed soil of these essential microorganisms, creating swaths of unproductive and essentially “dead” soil, increasing erosion and limiting soil’s ability to filter and absorb water. Most importantly, degraded soil is less able to produce edible and drinkable products. If the current pattern of degradation continues, Maria-Helena Semedo, the deputy director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization, has warned that the world’s topsoil will be unable to be farmed within 60 years.
In the face of such dire predictions, some farmers—including several wine and spirits producers, whose work is defined by their terroir or the nuances in flavor their particular patch of land generates—are determined to renew and replenish the micropopulations of their soil through regenerative agriculture.
Creating Healthy Soil
“Any farmer will tell you that good soil produces better crops,” says Brian Kirschenmann, a potato farmer and the producer of “grain-to-glass” vodka Blood x Sweat x Tears, which sources all of its wheat from Hamilton Ranch in Washington State. “For me, I’ve found that rotating crops is key. I am a potato farmer first and foremost, but if I don’t rotate the fields and use wheat and barley to rebalance the soils on the fields some years, the ecology of the soil plummets and the quality of the product goes down too.”
Simple crop rotation provides soil microbes with different sources of food and creates a more complex array of root structures in the soil, increasing the diversity and health of the microorganisms necessary to help those crops thrive.
Some producers, like Kevin Pike of Branchwater Farms in Red Hook, New York, feel they can’t just maintain soil health. They have to create it, especially when, as with Pike, part of the goal of his and his wife Robin Touchet’s enterprise is to not merely abstain from adding to the earth’s woes but to actively combat climate change through carbon sequestration.
“We quickly found that conventional wisdom about what makes for healthy soil just isn’t true,” says Pike, adding that in their region of the Hudson Valley, once known as America’s breadbasket, much of the soil has been overused for decades. “It goes back to right after World War II, when we had to find a use for all of the nitrogen we were producing for bombs. Scientists discovered that spraying it on the soil caused crops to grow quickly. The use of chemical pesticides and fungicides also became standard, and everyone used tractors. On top of that, instead of growing a variety of crops, most farmers focused on one.” Put together, the “homeostasis and biodiversity of the farm, and the soil, diminished. Mycorrhizal activity and communication petered out,” says Pike.
When Pike and Touchet bought their farm in 2014, they planned on contracting out the farming so that Pike could focus on his wine-importing company, Schatzi Wines, Touchet could focus on her work with Polaner Selections, and they could both learn how to launch and run the distillery. It didn’t go as planned. “We did soil samples and found that it was so acidic that we had to bring in about 80,000 pounds of crushed limestone to mix into our fields,” says Pike. On the 100-acre property, about 25 acres are devoted to heirloom varieties of wheat, rye and corn. “The more research I did, I realized that all of the plowing the farmer we were working with wanted to do was counterproductive.” The process of plowing not only releases carbon dioxide into the air, it also destroys mycorrhizal activity and demolishes the plants’ root systems, which allows for erosion and diminishes water absorption, says Pike.
Instead, Pike and Touchet consulted with Mimi Casteel and Hans Reisetbauer, the farming and distilling legends, respectively, on how to proceed in their fields and distillery. They nixed the tractor and purchased a roller-crimper to manage their soil. They instituted a new composting regime to maximize soil biodiversity, which included adding kelp and molasses to the horse manure they were getting from a neighbor’s farm. Pike and Touchet also added cover crops (including red clover, daikon radishes, Austrian winter peas and oats) to boost the soil’s water absorption abilities and optimize the biodiversity of the soil. Finally, instead of using chemical intervention, Pike started spraying organic and biodynamic-style “teas” in lieu of chemicals on plants to combat the many diseases that plague the Hudson Valley.
And yes, Branchwater is working on becoming completely organic, but Pike and Touchet prioritize practicing regenerative agriculture over being certified organic. “I’d love to be completely organic, too, and we are working toward that, but if our goal through regenerative agriculture is to sequester carbon, how does it make sense to fly in organic daikon radish seeds from Wisconsin when it’s possible to source them locally from farmers who aren’t certified organic?” says Pike.
This year, the couple harvested 14 tons of wheat and 10 tons of rye from their fields, the majority of which they are leaving untouched as forest and wetlands in a bid to further increase the biodiversity and health of their 25 acres of planted land. The first batch of Branchwater’s efforts will be available in spring 2021, including gin and apple and carrot brandies. Rye whiskey and bourbon are expected to follow in a few years.
A Rapid Turnaround
While the full impact of a farm’s new regimen won’t be seen overnight, eliminating chemicals, excessive irrigation and machines in favor of biodynamic teas, cover crops and sheep can instigate relatively quick change.
Joe Nielsen, the winemaker at Sonoma’s Ram’s Gate Winery, noticed a surprisingly fast response in his fields once regenerative practices such as cover crops and the halting of chemical interventions were put in place. “I came to Ram’s Gate three years ago, and the winery was already committed to changing its practices,” says Nielsen. “We immediately put several programs in place to boost the soil health, including using organic compost, bringing in sheep to graze and do natural weeding and planting cover crops such as daikon radishes to naturally break up the clay-heavy soil and allow water to really penetrate the soil. That’s key in California, where drought conditions have been extreme. Without those deep reserves of water, we would either have to constantly irrigate or watch the vines die.”
Nielsen says that even the sheepherder was impressed by the difference. “The other day, we were looking out at the vineyard together, and we saw mustard, rye, poppies and a riot of wildflowers that just naturally came up once we stopped spraying,” he says. “We saw life. The leaves and the fruit look so much better. The farm can naturally balance itself out and save water for drought times, if you let it.”
A Matter of Flavor
At Sonoma’s Hamel Family Wines, which became certified organic in 2012 and then Demeter-certified biodynamic across all four of its estate vineyards between 2015 and 2017, winemaker John Hamel has become increasingly convinced that only truly healthy soil can deliver profound wines.
“You can still have amazing wines from Burgundy that are produced conventionally,” says Hamel. “But by cultivating the character of each of our vineyard sites through regenerative farming, we are linking the character of the wine to the place through the soil in a deep and complex way that goes far beyond the cosmetic.”
The winery’s soil-first paradigm encourages deep and prolific roots in the vines to stabilize them against the increasingly erratic climate. A root reservoir of two feet allows them to absorb water from deep in the earth during droughts. Cover crops also shade the soil and prevent the sometimes delicately balanced rhizosphere from suffering mass die-offs during extreme heat.
“Healthy soil is like music,” says Hamel. “If you don’t have life in the soil, it’s like listening to music without a speaker plugged in. It’s there, but you can’t connect with it. By adding life to soil, you amplify it, turn it up and clarify it.”
Pike also believes that healthier farming practices will pay more than just karmic dividends. A growing body of research shows that conventionally grown plants have lost nutrient density. Protein concentrations have plummeted by 30% to 50% between 1938 and 1990 in wheat and barley, and six minerals have declined by 22% to 29% in 14 wheat varieties developed in the past 100 years. Many are hoping that healthier soils will produce more nutritious and delicious food and drinks.
“One of our goals with regenerative farming was to increase the carbohydrate uptake in the grain,” says Pike. “That would lead to higher sugar, higher alcohol and higher complexity.”
It makes sense, say plant scientists. “The way a plant reacts to the environment it’s in will inevitably change its taste,” says Glenn McCourty, the winegrowing and plant-science advisor at the University of California. “We’re in a climate crisis, and unless we strengthen our soils and create stronger plants, they won’t be able to survive the droughts, heat waves and everything else.”
Farmers and producers have clearly taken note. So have policymakers. In 2017, California launched its Healthy Soils Program, which gives grants to farmers and ranchers who adopt regenerative farming practices with the coal of sequestering carbon. New York, Oregon and Washington have also launched similar programs, providing millions of dollars to farmers dedicated to increasing the health of their soils.
It’s now possible to seek out wines and spirits whose makers would never dream of treating their soil like dirt.