Green New Deal News

The ROC certification could become the gold standard for wineries, and the earth

Tablas Creek winery, in the Paso Robles region of California's Central Coast, makes wines from organic grapes, following the biodynamic principles established by the Demeter certification program. Yet the winery has never advertised organic or biodynamic certifications on its bottles. Soon, however, consumers will notice a seal on Tablas Creek labels touting the Regenerative Organic Certification.

The ROC is a new program launched in August by the Regenerative Organic Alliance, a group based in Santa Rosa, Calif., dedicated to reforming agriculture and fighting climate change. The certification emphasizes three "pillars" of regenerative farming: Soil health, eschewing synthetic chemicals and practicing carbon capture to trap more carbon in the soil than is released; animal welfare, including a strict ban on CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations; and social fairness, including living wages and good working conditions for farmworkers.

This program is not just for wineries but also food and clothing industries - anything based on agriculture, really. The alliance's main financial supporters are Patagonia, the clothing company that increasingly is selling food items, the Rodale Institute and Dr. Bronner's, a producer of socially and environmentally responsible soap, hair and body care products.

Like Certified B Corporations, 1 Percent for the Planet and Kiss the Earth, the new ROC program aligns companies who reject the "greed is good" ethic that says their only purpose is to maximize profits. Rather than focus solely on the bottom line, these companies accept a degree of stewardship for the planet and for their communities.

For wineries, the ROC will be "the gold standard" of certifications, says Jason Haas, second-generation proprietor of Tablas Creek. Tablas was the only winery among 10 companies that participated in a three-year pilot program that ended this summer. The ROA approached Tablas to join the pilot because "we were already doing a lot of what they wanted, but we weren't really measuring the impact of what we were doing," Haas told me. He was attracted to the program because it included the good farming practices of biodynamics without the mysticism that has vintners burying manure-stuffed cow horns throughout the vineyard and farming tied to the phases of the moon.

Haas also appreciated the program's transparency and global view.

"The ROC is built around the idea that agriculture has to be involved in the fight against climate change if that fight is to be successful, because such a large part of the earth's surface is used for farming," he says. "If that surface can be used for carbon capture, it will go a long way toward controlling carbon emissions." The main tenet for wineries is to avoid tilling the ground between vine rows, a common practice designed to return nutrients to the soil from cover crops. Under regenerative farming, tilling is considered bad because it releases carbon from the soil and disturbs the microbial life that gives soil its vitality. Soil with high organic matter retains water better, making irrigation less necessary - an important factor for drought-stricken California.

Tablas Creek has a flock of about 200 sheep that roam its land and a spot on its org chart labeled "Shepherd," so it was pretty strong on the animal welfare pillar of the regenerative certification. But Haas says the social fairness requirements had the winery implementing changes.

"You're audited to ensure you're paying workers a living wage, giving them safe conditions and a meaningful say in the work they are doing and the choices that are made. Our decision-making had always been hierarchical, but today it's more collaborative. We now have weekly roundtable discussions with our vineyard crew about the work to be done."

That social fairness component is especially important in light of the coronavirus pandemic and its heavy impact on agricultural and service workers, says Elizabeth Whitlow, the ROA's executive director.

"Many of these workers do not have health insurance, and they can't afford to stay home when they are sick," she told me. "We need to pay them a living wage. It's good for the economy and the health-care system."

The new certification has already generated interest among other eco-minded wineries. Frog's Leap in Napa Valley and Radio-Coteau in Sonoma County are also expressing interest, their owners told me. Troon Vineyard in Oregon's Applegate Valley, is also certified biodynamic and organic, and quickly applied for the new label. "The focus on regeneration is what is key to me," says Craig Camp, the winery's general manager. "We have to put back more than we take to establish a natural food growing system."

Paul Dolan, who helped spur U.S. wineries to adopt organic and biodynamic viticulture over the past three decades through his work at Benziger, Fetzer and Bonterra wineries, is now championing regenerative agriculture as an ROA board member.

"Farming is exploitive," Dolan says. "But regenerative farming is not about the extraction, it's about farming in service of life - microbes in the soil, animals above the soil, and the humans as well. That's what makes regenerative farming unique."

For consumers, the ROC logo on a wine label is "not going to tell you much about the wine, but it's going to tell you a lot about the company," says Haas of Tablas Creek. "It's the most rigorous evaluation of farming and business practices that we've seen. It says this is a company that treats its people well and does what it can to be a part of the solution to challenges like climate change."

Dolan believes the logo's message will resonate with today's consumers, especially what he calls "a new young audience that is more active, and more conscious about their health and the health of the planet. Call it a Conscious Revolution."

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