by Liz Thach
Forbes: Food + Drink
Mark Neal, founder and owner of Neal Family Vineyards, credits his Greek grandmother for influencing his organic farming philosophy. Growing up on the island of Crete, her family didn’t just grow grapes, but also farmed vegetables, fruit, olives, and raised animals, as part of a naturally biodiverse farming system. These same practices were adopted by his parents when they moved to Napa Valley in 1968 to purchase land and start an organic farm.
“They farmed tomatoes, grapes, prunes, walnuts and raised cattle,” stated Neal, in an online interview. “Everyone in Napa Valley farmed diverse crops back then. It was a way to hedge our bets as farmers, because you never knew what Mother Nature would bring.”
Now that same focus on biodiversity is back in style, prompted not only by changing climate conditions, but by consumers who are becoming more concerned with sustainable and organically farmed products. And because of all of the hard work the Neal family has performed in obtaining previous organic and biodynamic certifications for their vineyards, it was relatively a quick process to achieve the first regenerative organic certification in Napa Valley.
Defining Regenerative Organic Certification
Regenerative Organic Certified® (ROC) is the newest in a pyramid of sustainably-minded certifications available for agriculture, and is considered to be the highest. Established in 2018 by the Regenerative Organic Alliance, to date there are only 5 vineyard estates in the world to hold this status, and Neal Family Vineyards became the first in Napa Valley this November.
“Regenerative organic agriculture is a collection of practices that focus on regenerating soil health,” reported Neal, “ensures fairness to farmers and farm workers, and improves animal welfare.” In order to be eligible to apply, Neal Family Vineyards had to first achieve organic certification, which they started in 1984, and then began pursuing Demeter Biodynamic® certification in the 1990’s when Neal did some work with Grgich Hills Estate.
“Today we farm 1800 vineyard acres that are California Certified Organic Farming (CCOF),” stated Neal, “and manage 720 vineyard acres that have Demeter Biodynamic certification. So when we decided to apply for ROC, we wanted to start slowly and focused on our Howell Mountain Estate, which is 12 acres in total. Next we hope to start the ROC certification process on our Rutherford Estate vineyard.”
Neal explained that the first part of the ROC process was completing the application and obtaining all of the necessary documentation. Next they had to schedule several days of interview with the auditors, who not only interviewed employees, but also inspected the vineyards, winery, animals, and supplies. Then everything had to be reviewed, and finally the certification was achieved this November, just after the conclusion of the 2022 harvest. The total process took them 8 months and around $1000 in fees for the first year.
Unique Aspects of Regenerative Organic Certification
Whereas organic certifications primarily look at products used in farming, and biodynamics looks at the ecosystem of the land, ROC is unique because of its in depth focus on employees, animal welfare, and soil health.
“Our employees were a little surprised that they had to be interviewed,” stated Neal. “Many of them have worked for our family for 40 years, but once we explained about this new certification, they were happy to help.” ROA interviews employees on working conditions, wages, benefits, and work culture.
For the animals, ROA inspected the cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, and turkeys that Neal Family Vineyards uses in its operations. “They checked to make sure we provide clean water, a good food source, shade, shelter, and free-run pastures,” said Neal.
He further explained that the sheep and goats are used in the vineyard for weed control, wildfire suppression, and fertilizer, and that the turkeys and chickens eat bugs and till the soil with their feet. Cattle dung is used for fertilizer. In addition to their own 4000 case estate winery, the Neal’s manage hundreds of acres of organic and biodynamic vineyards for other Napa Valley wineries, and loan out their sheep and goats to mow those vineyards.
The soil health part of the certification focuses on increasing organic matter, adaptive grazing, and adopting a low or no-till regime.
The Controversial ‘No Till’ Aspect of Regenerative Agriculture
One aspect of regenerative agriculture that has created some controversy is the concept of ‘no tilling.’ The idea is not to plow up the soil, because it releases carbon into the atmosphere, which can worsen global warming. However, tilling of soil, especially in vineyards, has been practiced for hundreds of years.
The ROC has three levels of tilling that are considered to be certified: 25%, 50%, and 75%. “We are certified for 50% tilling,” explained Neal. “That means that we use cover crop in our vineyard, but plow up every other row, or 50% tilling. The reason we till is because we want to mow the nutrients from the cover crop back into the soil, and also to reduce competition for water. If we have a drought year with very little rain – like now – the cover crop takes the water from the vines.”
“In every certification there is a trade-off,” continued Neal. “If we don’t till, then we have to use more water. This means power to turn on a pump. We have to look at these things.’
Benefits of Regenerative Organic Certification at Neal Family Vineyards
“I am happy, and I believe are employees and neighbors are pleased, that we are continuing to focus on improving our land and community,” stated Neal. “I didn’t realized that we would be the first vineyard in Napa Valley to receive the regenerative organic certification, but it is an honor.”
Moving forward, Neal has just finished his 56th harvest this year. “We started in mid-July and didn’t harvest the last vineyard until Oct. 31 this year,” he said. “It was one of the longest harvests ever.” But Neal seems pleased with the long days in the vineyards, and now has his two daughters, Jessica and Demitria Neal, assisting in the cellar and with marketing. “We are now working with the third generation of our family in Napa Valley,” he said proudly.
The wines produced at Neal Family Vineyards are crafted by winemakers, Martin MacKenzie and Jeff Keene, along with consulting winemaker, Tony Biagi. They use low intervention techniques with natural yeast to allow the flavors of the organic vineyards to shine through. The winery produces stunning Howell Mountain and Rutherford cabernet sauvignons, as well as a unique white wine from the vermentino grape.
Other California vineyards to receive Regenerative Organic Certified® include Fetzer Vineyards, Bonterra Vineyards, Truett Hurst, and Tablas Creek.