By: Gerald Dlubala
The Neal Family Vineyards in Napa Valley have always been known as prestigious, organically farmed vineyards. And now, going back to their beginnings over 50 years ago, they’ve shown the world what can be accomplished through mindful, organic farming methods and practices. Recently named the first Regenerative Organic Certified® vineyard in Napa Valley, the Neal Family Vineyard Estates becomes one of only five Regenerative Organic Certified® vineyard estates in the world as recognized by the Regenerative Organic Alliance.
Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) is an agricultural certification for food, fiber and personal care ingredients. ROC was initially created to address our climate crisis, increased soil degradation and biodiversity loss while also addressing factory farming and fractured rural economies on a global scale. At its core, the certification is based and awarded on the farmer’s ability to adopt and use agricultural techniques that ensure healthy soil, provide ethical and humane treatment of animals and guarantee fairness for all farm employees and workers. There are no gray areas or exceptions within the mandates of the Regenerative Organic Alliance, established in 2018 and now recognized as the highest level of certification available. If a farm fails an inspection, there is a three-year waiting period to try again. One simple mistake or misuse of materials can cause a farm to start from scratch in the certification process.
Organic from Their Beginnings, Neal Family Vineyards Became Pioneers in Grape Growing Excellence
All four of the Neal Family Winery’s estate vineyards were certified organic by the California Certified Organic Farmers Foundation (CCOF) in 2009, followed by a biodynamic farming certification through Demeter Biodynamic Federation in 2021. In 2022, Patagonia’s Regenerative Organic Alliance added the coveted Regenerative Organic Certified® label to the Neal Family Vineyards after successfully meeting the stringent certification standards.
“It was really an interesting and eye-opening experience,” said Mark Neal, vintner, founder and owner of Neal Family Vineyards. “I’ve been raised in an organic farming environment going as far back as 1984, so based on the length of service, number of years we’ve been certified organic, and the successful farming techniques we’ve always used, I truly believed that gaining the Regenerative Organic Certification was within our reach. Sometimes if you’re just starting in organic farming, it can be a lot of work to bring your soils back to an acceptable condition. Fortunately, being organically certified in 2009, our soil was already very healthy and pretty much up to standard, so there wasn’t much more that we had to do. It was pretty simple to check those boxes. Additionally, with our chickens, cattle and goats, we met the corresponding acceptable standards for their use, care and overall management.”
But Neal told The Grapevine Magazine that the new and intriguing part of this certification was the component of worker and employee fairness. “It’s obviously important, but maybe hasn’t been formally addressed as part of an official certification process before, and I honestly wasn’t sure where it would lead,” said Neal. “It was a two-day process of interviews that included all of our workers, from the tractor drivers and operators up to our supervisors, many of whom are already considered generational or long-term employees because of their family histories of involvement and acquired quality skillsets within our vineyard operations in full-time, part-time and seasonal capacities.”
Neal said that while farms may find workers with organic or biodynamic farming experience, it’s more about finding that experience that coincides with the techniques, equipment and way of under-the-vine organic farming practices that the Neal Family Vineyards uses.
“Finding those workers can be hard, so I can see how caring for the overall wellness, safety and wellbeing of employees makes this a top-shelf certification that is more well-rounded, relatable and understandable to consumers,” said Neal. “Gaining the Regenerative Organic Certification demonstrates that a vineyard is all-encompassing in its operations and going above and beyond the organic process that is concerned mostly with the soil and land. We’re taking care of all components and contributors to our operation, including the employees, their wellness and their safety. And it’s very important to me to serve as a steward to Mother Earth and implement practices and policies that demonstrate our commitment to the three pillars included in the Regenerative Organic Certification mandates.”
Neal tells The Grapevine Magazine that the people aspect of the certification proves that it takes special people to want to work in a farm environment and in the fields. “In our line of work, everyone wants to talk about the harvest,” said Neal. “But if you really think about it, although harvest is a hectic time, it’s also singularly focused on one goal for the entire vineyard. For me, all of the other tasks that coincide from budbreak through June and on, like suckering, planting, cultivation and more, demand great focus, impeccable timing and a willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done on time. Due to research, farming configurations have changed over the years, but the necessary related tasks can still be the most manual, strenuous tasks in the vineyard. Having and retaining quality people with specialized skillsets to take up the bulk of these person-hours is critical.”
Neal said the cover crops in his vineyards are generally half permanent and half cultivated, depending on the water capacity of the soil in that specific area. The areas that hold less water get cultivated, while those holding more water may be left to grow and remove or draw out the water naturally.
“It’s decisions like these that also show the tradeoff with certifications,” said Neal. “Particular types of soils allow for different methods. But if you leave more cover crops, you may have to irrigate more. When you turn that irrigation pump on, do you really know where the power is coming from to operate the pump? Is it coal, natural gas, wind, solar or hydrogen? As a user, you may never know what the real impact of the environment is in some situations.”
Helping Others through Leadership and Mentoring
“I love being a leader in soil health and generational farming,” said Neal. “We are the largest organic farmer and one of the largest biodynamic farmers in Napa Valley. But I wasn’t aware of how few farms were under the certified organic label until I applied. Currently, only six to seven percent of Napa wineries are certified organic, and I desperately want that rate to increase and gain more of a foothold in our region. For the doubters out there, our experience spans more than 50 years, and I believe that I’ve shown that organic and biodynamic farming practices not only work in Napa, but they work well and present legitimate, beneficial choices to current vineyard owners. Organic options are so much more plentiful and available now that it’s much easier to achieve organic certification than just a few years ago. And in some cases, it’s actually more economical.”
Neal backs up these comments with his offer to help other farmers through discussions, seminars and through Jack Neal & Son Vineyard Management Services.
“I want to continue promoting soil health,” said Neal. “I want other farmers to know and realize everything they need is right there in front of them, from Mother Earth. In some instances, it’s even more cost-efficient to go organically. I currently participate in seminars regarding soil health and certified organic growing. My advice is to not leave any gray areas and get your farms certified. It’s no longer enough just to say that you’re growing organically. Get certified and remove any doubt. I want to see Napa Valley grow in organically certified farms, and I’m currently consulting with some of the biggest vineyards in the area to help them be successful. The previous higher cost of going organic is not as much of a hindrance anymore, especially when considering things like the cost of diesel fuel.”
Neal told The Grapevine Magazine that the decision to grow organically certified is the simple yet critical decision between farming for now versus generational farming with proper soil care.
“Honestly,” said Neal, “You can’t farm generationally if you’re abusing the soil with increased herbicides and fertilizer use. Why constantly pour more insecticides into the soil and then combat that with extra fertilizers that systematically destroy the very soil you need? Organic alternatives are readily available, so there’s no excuse not to find the one that works for you. With all of the options available now, growing organic is achievable and the right thing to do, and I’m excited to work with those that decide to do so. You’ll create better products, gain wider acceptance and most importantly, preserve our earth.”
Neal hopes to start a movement in the Napa region, helping farmers make changes that matter. He’s shown that after 56 years of organic farming practices, his methods can be very successful in the Napa region, and he is looking to be a leader in growing the number of farmers that move to organic growing methods. That movement started with Neal now working with major wineries in the region to convert their land to organic growing methods.
The Value of Regenerative Organic Certification to Neal and Napa Valley
Neal said the all-encompassing aspect of the Regenerative Organic Certification most moves him. “The practice of renewing and maintaining the health of the soil and land, ensuring proper care and management of the animals and of course taking care of the people that help you touch on the most important buttons of any undertaking,” said Neal. “This certification addresses everything related to our future. ROC presents a well-rounded organizational picture that gives the holder a prestigious place worldwide. It’s the highest mark we, as farmers, can achieve, and honestly, I’m honored to be a leader here in Napa, one of the most prestigious grape-growing parts of the world. I was raised with organic farming in my blood, pushing my dad to get our vineyards officially certified even when we were already doing everything right and farming organically from the start. I wanted to remove any doubt, so we can say that we’re not just farming organically; we’re certified in farming organically.”
More than anything else, Neal wants you to know that you can do it too.