By Ian Consoli
As the vineyard that participated in the Regenerative Organic Alliance's pilot program and the first Regenerative Organic Certified® vineyard in the world, we at Tablas Creek have kept a watchful eye on the growth of wineries pursuing and achieving ROC® status (For more info on ROC, start with this blog post from our viticulturist Jordan Lonborg). Their current membership is 15 vineyards from around the world. That number includes wineries in California, Oregon, Chile, and Argentina, with 15-20 more applications from wineries in Austria, Japan, Italy, Chile, and California. I recently had an excuse to stay on the North Coast (Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino) for a week, and I thought, "What would my perfect wine trip look like?" The answer is one composed of all ROC vineyards. After looking at the ROA's directory, I found five on the North Coast (four with tasting rooms and one without), and the four with tasting rooms line up to form a perfect one or two-day wine trip.
I took notes on my experience to share it here and encourage you to take the same trip. Here they are in the order in which I visited each of the four ROC wineries, with a bonus vineyard visit at the end:
Donum Estate is an absolutely stunning 200-acre estate in Carneros. The property went through two significant revolutions since its original planting in 1990. First, when it was purchased by art collectors Allan and Mei Warburg in 2008, who adorned the estate with a globally renowned sculpture collection. Secondly, when they hired Director of Winegrowing Tony Chapman in 2019, and he made the ambitious decision to pursue biodynamic and, eventually, regenerative organic agriculture. These two passions combine to make one of the most memorable vineyard experiences in the world.
Tony and Associate Winegrower Derek Holmgren were my guides when I visited Donum. These guys both worked at Tablas Creek in 2013-2014 and witnessed the start of our animal program. What they are doing at Donum is extraordinary, from composting to on-site biochar production, a beneficial insect habitat program, and multi-species grazing with sheep, chickens, and ducks. Their cover crop included insectary rows of flowers like bachelor buttons, farewell to springs, California native poppies, and yarrow to attract beneficial insects that combat mealy bugs. They create compost teas from on-site biodynamic preparations. They even have their own Huglkultur site. Combine these practical, beautiful applications of regenerative agriculture with the world's most extensive accessible private sculpture collection, and you have one of the most beautiful vineyards I have ever seen. Donum has 340 acres over four properties with 160 acres under vine in Carneros, the Russian River Valley, and Sonoma Coast, all certified ROC, with a recently purchased 52-acre estate in Anderson Valley that they plan to convert over.
Donum specializes in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with other small plantings of Merlot and Pinot Meunier. I tried their Rose of Pinot Noir, White Barn Pinot Noir, and West Slope Pinot Noir. One Pinot showed lovely bright yet intense fruit, while the other showed an earthy, serious character. You can find their wines and book your visit on their website. Their first ROC vintage is 2023, so expect to see the seal on their wine labels over the next year or two.
Grgich Hills was founded by Napa pioneer, Miljenko "Mike" Grgich, who happens to be celebrating his 100th birthday this year! Happy birthday Mike. The pioneer of California wine is also a pioneer of organic and biodynamic agriculture. Our history with Grgich goes back over a decade. It was after a visit to Grgich that Robert Haas took back in March of 2010 that we decided to pursue biodynamics. So it was no surprise to hear Grgich joined ROC earlier this year.
I visited Grgich Hills' American Canyon vineyard, one of their five ROC vineyard sites. My hosts were the Head of Regenerative Organics, Bernat Sort Costa, Marketing Director Sally Camm, and Digital Marketing Specialist Luke Jeramaz. The site is stunning. There are beneficial flower plantings all along the road. They have begun experimenting with row hedges, where they sacrifice four rows of vines to plant a beneficial flower habitat that never gets mowed. They are one of fifteen wineries participating in a bird monitoring experiment with UC Davis. Each winery has multiple birdhouses staged to attract specific native birds. The houses track habits and collects feces to determine what birds eat what bugs. They graze hens, ducks, and Guinea fowl along with their sheep. They also built permanent beehives to home bees within their vineyards.
After touring the vineyard, Luke took me to their tasting room on Highway 29 to try some wine. An incredibly friendly and inviting staff was there to greet me near their closing time. I very much appreciated the experience. I tried multiple wines from their estates with standouts like the 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon Yountville Old Vine and 2018 Zinfandel. Their wines showed why they are Napa classics that I could go back to repeatedly.
You can purchase their wines and book a visit to their tasting room on their website. They also received ROC in 2023 and will put the seal on their bottles starting with the 2023 vintage.
Medlock Ames was established in 1998 by college friends Chris Medlock James and Ames Morison. Ames grew up on his father's organic farm but was really pursuaded by the value of organic farming when he was stationed in Guatemala with the Peace Corps. He saw how unsustainable crop planting led to a need for synthetic inputs and limited farmers on what they could do. So when Ames and Chris bought their vineyard, they knew they would farm and certify organic. More recently, Ames heard individuals he admired in the wine industry talking about regenerative viticulture. Their team visited Tablas Creek shortly after we became ROC, and they jumped into the certification process. They have a tasting room in Healdsburg with more immersive experiences at their Bell Mountain Ranch location. I met with Ames and their Head of Sales Operations, Isabella Bandeira de Mello, at the Bell Ranch location.
Their property is 338 acres, of which only 44 are planted to vines, all farmed ROC, and straddles the line between Alexander Valley and Russian River Valley appellations. Their practices include on-site composting, cover crops, and grazing sheep within vine rows. I joined Ames on a tour he gave to guests thrilled by the pillars and concepts of regenerative agriculture. Ames took the time to emphasize the importance of the Social Fairness pillar in regenerative agriculture. This pillar is one we see overlooked as the term "regenerative" is used increasingly, so seeing the founder of Medlock Ames' emphasis on it was what I would expect from a Regenerative Organic Certifed brand.
The wines at Medlock Ames are absolutely fantastic. I have seen their labels multiple times and, for whatever reason, their contents haven't made their way into my glass. It almost happened on this visit as well because I spent so much time absorbing the property I had to run to my next appointment. Luckily, I stopped into the tasting room on my way out for a splash of 2019 Bell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon and 2019 Fifty Tons Cabernet Sauvignon. Both are different in character, despite being made with the same grape. Bell Mountain is almost refreshing on the palate, with bright fruit flavors and soft tannins. Fifty Tons shows more of the new oak it was aged in with a robust palate. Their flavor lingered on my palate even as I ran off to my next visit.
You can purchase their wines and book a visit on their website. I highly recommend the Bell Mountain Ranch experience.
Truett-Hurst Winery was co-founded by the late Paul Dolan. A true pioneer in organic, biodynamic, and regenerative agriculture, his recent passing was felt deeply by many in the wine industry. Paul was instrumental in establishing the Regenerative Organic Alliance by serving on its board and recruiting Executive Director Elizabeth Whitlow to run the organization. The Truett-Hurst winery is a tangible piece of his lasting legacy in viticulture, nestled along Dry Creek. Their tasting room is beautiful, serene, and a must-see experience.
The Truett-Hurst estate underwent revitalization after they purchased the land in 2007. It had been farmed conventionally for decades, and the process of converting to organic, biodynamic, and ROC was a challenge they were happy to accept for the sake of the land and the wine. They focused on the soil, creating on-site compost from pomace and organic cow manure, cover cropping, biodynamic applications, and grazing their goats and sheep during the dormant season. They utilize their property to help with Dry Creek's restoration, which reflects their appreciation for life and the land. Their estate stands as an example for conventional farmers interested in ROC but hesitant because of the road ahead. Truett-Hurst proves that the conversion can be done, and the results are worth every effort.
In addition to what they grow on their estate, they source exclusively from organic and biodynamic vineyards. I wanted to try all of their ROC wines, so the tasting room attendant was kind enough to pour me their 2019 Estate Zinfandel, 2019 Estate Petite Sirah, and 2019 Dark Horse GPS from Paul's home vineyard in Ukiah. All were rich and delicious.
You can buy the wines and book your visit on their website. You won't see the ROC seal on their bottles anytime soon because they use a custom crush facility for making their wines. It brings up a hurdle for smaller producers who go ROC in their vineyards but don't have a wine production partner willing to certify their facility organic.
Bonterra Organic Estates, formerly Fetzer Vineyards, is the bonus winery on this list. They do not currently have a tasting room, but I was invited to visit their estate in Mendocino County, the old Fetzer property called The McNab Ranch. In 1985 the Fetzer family built a food and wine center on this property, and the then-CEO of Fetzer Vineyards, Paul Dolan, inspired the company to pursue organic grape growing and establish the brand Bonterra in 1993. Bonterra grew to become one of the world's largest wine producers to exclusively utilize organic grapes. Their decision to pursue ROC is huge for the certification and wine industry. With about 850 acres Regenerative Organic Certified, they have the power to make wines with the ROC seal on their labels commercially and readily available. Their Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon bearing the seal have already hit shelves nationwide. I met with their winemaker, Jeff Cichocki.
The McNab Ranch location is around 200 acres in Mendocino County. It is a beautiful place with beneficial flowers planted throughout and a creek running through the center of the property. Bonterra was an early adopter of biodynamics, and they continue to utilize biodynamic preparations and techniques. They limit their tillage, plant cover crop, and work with a local sheepherder to bring in around 3000 sheep to graze the property. Jeff showed a marked enthusiasm for ROC because of its benefits to the soil and how well consumers respond to the three pillars in the market. We were both in agreement that brands like ours still have a long way to go in communicating what makes regenerative agriculture important, but the Regenerative Organic Alliance developed a valuable platform for helping a broad range of consumers understand why regenerative agriculture matters to them.
As I mentioned above, Bonterra already released their ROC Chardonnay and Cabernet into the market. They currently sell them as a two-pack on their website for $40! Delicious and accessible, the opportunity to get great ROC-certified wines around $20 will open up the ROC world to a whole new audience of consumers.
It was evident from my trip that enthusiasm for ROC is at an all-time high. We have already heard from multiple wineries in the process of going Regenerative Organic Certified. It is exciting to feel what early pioneers of organic viticulture must have felt as they educated an entire generation of wine drinkers on the importance of organic grapes. I hope you'll take the time to visit these wineries and support everything this new age of pioneers is working towards.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments!