Organic wine tours reveal how several Sonoma County’s vineyards are working to save the planet


Lauren and Alex Benward, sixth generation owners of Beltane Ranch Winery in Glen Ellen, Sonoma County, the word “sustainability” does not adequately convey the agricultural practices they and many of their co-owners have taken in recent years. Avoiding pesticides and industrial tillage is a breeze. They also use roaming chickens to look for pests, maximize soil fertility by planting catch crops like ryegrass, and employ a flock of sheep – known as “woolly weed killers” – to fertilize the fields. The wine deliveries of the winery also reflect the responsibility for the land: bottles – recycled, with natural corks – are transported in a climate-neutral way.

This holistic approach to land management is known as regenerative agriculture. It eschews conventional farming techniques and uses composting, habitat restoration for pollinators, and other measures to promote nutrient-rich soil.

Cabernet grapes grow on the estate of Medlock Ames, a small winery in Healdsburg. More and more winegrowers in the region are going beyond sustainability.

(Jason Henry / New York Times)

These practices also curb exploding carbon emissions by moving nitrogen out of the atmosphere and into plant roots, a practice known as carbon sequestration.

“Sustainability means maintenance. We are focused on improvement, ”said Ames Morrison, who also practices regenerative farming at Medlock Ames, the small winery he co-owns in Healdsburg.

“By creating healthier soil, we are making the soil more resilient. We can reverse climate change by reducing greenhouse gases naturally. “

Curbing climate change is the ultimate goal. And while many other wineries around the world are implementing decarbonization policies, Sonoma County’s vineyards were among the early pioneers in the practice.

Wine from a bottle of Chardonnay is poured into glasses on a table.

A hike on the grounds of the Jordan Winery ends with lunch paired with Cabernet and Chardonnay from the property in Healdsburg.

(Jason Henry / The New York Times)

“Agriculture has a unique opportunity to be part of the climate solution,” said Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers, a local trade group that, like the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance and the California Land Stewardship Institute, promotes environmental, social and economic sustainability in the Region.

“Best management practices optimize carbon sequestration, minimize greenhouse gas emissions and help protect water,” said Kruse. “This is important on site, as our multi-generational farming family sees itself as a land supervisor for the next generation.”

For the eco-conscious traveler, a carbon sequestration crash course and wine tasting – near Smart Land Conservation – is the ultimate combo.

Here are some events and activities offered by Sonoma County wineries and other businesses.

Tucker Taylor, Kendall-Jackson's master culinary gardener, inspects the plants at the Northern California winery.

Kendall-Jackson’s master kitchen gardener, Tucker Taylor, harvests some of Northern California’s most distinctive produce.

(Jason Henry / New York Times)

Garden Tour and Tasting: Kendall-Jackson

Spigarello? Shungiko? Blue oyster leaf? Ice cream salad? Kendall-Jackson’s master kitchen gardener, Tucker Taylor, continues to harvest some of Northern California’s rarest produce, unsurprisingly from the man who developed Thomas Keller’s garden in the Michelin-starred French Laundry. His vegetables can be found in some of the best restaurants in the Bay Area, but in Sonoma you can enjoy the rare reward and recognize Taylor’s commitment to pesticide-free, arable farming with a garden tour of Kendall-Jackson. Self-guided walks are free or sign up for a 90-minute guided walk through the seven plots, past beehives and bat boxes, and into sensory gardens, which provide details on the estate’s grape varieties. The tour concludes with a wine tasting and harvest crudité snack.

Details: $ 40 per person; Four-course farm-to-table dinners are available in the gardens May through October, $ 195 per person; 5007 Fulton Street, Santa Rosa; (800) 769-3649; kj.com/visit/gardens

Outside the six room inn at Beltane Ranch in Glen Ellen, California.

In the cozy six-room inn at Beltane Ranch in Glen Ellen, you can experience the weed-eating sheep up close, visit the retro camper that doubles as a chicken coop, and get into four-wheel drive.

(Jason Henry / New York Times)

Farm stay: Beltane Ranch

To get a glimpse of life in a small vineyard with everyone working on deck, book a stay at the Beltane Ranch’s cozy six-room inn. Get up close and personal with the grazing sheep (not too close, or the guard dog will treat you like a predator), look into the retro camper that doubles as a chicken coop, and get into a four-wheel drive to pick up donkeys, longhorn cattle and horses observe whose eating habits reduce the weeds, start the fire. The idyllic setting also includes a horseshoe pit, a preserved ivy-adorned “street house” from the 19th century. A stay includes a breakfast of ranch produce served under old oak trees. And yes, the leftovers are used for chicken feed and compost.

Details: Room rates start at $ 425, 11775 Sonoma Highway, Glen Ellen; (707) 833-4233; beltaneranch.com

Vines grow at Medlock Ames, a small winery in Healdsburg, California.

Grapes grow at Medlock Ames, a small winery in Healdsburg that created a self-guided audio tour to illustrate what a year of winemaking sounds like.

(Jason Henry / New York Times)

Audio tour of the vineyard: Medlock Ames

To help wine lovers better understand what’s in that bottle of regenerative organic wine they will enjoy, Medlock Ames created a self-guided audio tour to illustrate what a year of winemaking sounds like.

Put on earphones in the Weinberg, download the app with geographic orientation and hear the background story about cutting-edge cultivation methods. The tour is accompanied by sound effects: as you visit vineyards covered in sweet alyssum and Queen Anne’s lace, insects hum as you learn how catch crops attract beneficial insects and fight predators. When the visitors approach solar systems, owl boxes and drip lines for irrigation, they hear explanations, interrupted by the snapping of secateurs, the chirping of birds and the clink of bottles. A guided wine and cheese tasting rounds off the experience.

Details: $ 75 per person by appointment only, 13414 Chalk Hill Road, Healdsburg; (707) 431-8845; medlockames.com/Visit/Bell-Mountain-Ranch

A wine tour on the Bohemian Highway stops at the Beltane Ranch in Glen Ellen.

A wine tour on the Bohemian Highway stops at the Beltane Ranch in Glen Ellen. Guests on wine tours on the Bohemian Highway are introduced to soil types, grape varieties, and the differences between artisanal wine and what you’d find in a supermarket.

(Jason Henry / New York Times)

Bespoke Tastings: Bohemian Highway Travel Co.

Nigel and Allyson Weekes design day tours that focus on tastings in the kind of groovy micro-wineries you would never find on your own – those low-yielding, high-quality vineyards that are only sold directly to consumers. You will be picked up from your accommodation in a Land Rover and given an introduction to soil types, grape varieties and the stark differences between artisanal wine and what you would find in a supermarket as you drive through Sonoma’s different microclimates.

The itineraries for their new Sustainable Sonoma tour reflect the makeup of the region with small farms producing fewer than 10,000 boxes. After walking through the vineyards and wine tasting in hidden places like Littorai (single lot wines), Davero (Italian grape varieties) and Preston Farms and Winery (Zinfandel), walk away and feel a special connection with this place and the people who work the land . The full-day experience includes a bento box picnic made with local, regeneratively grown ingredients.

Details: $ 475 per person; (707) 204-9660; [email protected]; bohohwy.com/experiences

A vine-covered building at the Jordan Winery in Healdsburg.

A vine-covered building at the Jordan Winery in Healdsburg. A 6 km long hike, which is offered seasonally by the winery, leads through different altitudes and microclimates.

(Jason Henry / New York Times)

Vineyard hike: Jordan Winery

An increased interest in sustainability and wellness in general inspired Jordan Winery to create an experience for visitors to interact with nature and exercise – before diving into lunch and wine. The seasonally offered 4-mile hike leads through various altitudes and microclimates, from young Malbec vineyards to new plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. There’s also a break for an olive oil tasting high on a ridge overlooking the Alexander, Russian River, and Dry Creek Valleys. The hike continues through pollinator sanctuaries, across olive groves and over to the chef’s garden, where guests can pick and eat produce. Finally, the fruits of the land are enjoyed in the form of a harvest lunch paired with the estate’s Cabernet and Chardonnay.

Details: $ 110 per person; 1474 Alexander Valley Road, Healdsburg; (707) 431-5250; jordanwinery.com/visit

Flowers and products grown on Single Thread's farm in Healdsburg, California.

Single Thread’s farm in Healdsburg operates its own 24-acre regenerative farm that produces 80 percent of the restaurant’s produce along with eggs, honey, olive oil and flowers.

(Jason Henry / New York Times)

In their restaurant, Single Thread, the couple Kyle and Katina Connaughton offer both outstanding flavors and a commitment to sustainability. Kyle (a cook) and Katina (a farmer) are members of the Zero Foodprint program, food companies focused on converting “bad” carbon into “good” carbon, and have their own 24 acre regenerative agriculture, the 80th Percent of the fields produced the restaurant’s products, along with eggs, honey, olive oil and flowers. In addition to the three stars it received from the Michelin Guide this year, Single Thread was also awarded a green clover leaf in 2020, the new award from the organization for sustainable gastronomy.

Years in Japan shaped Kyle Connaughton’s cuisine. The 11-course Kaiseki-style menu combines light Californian products with sashimi and other proteins such as local duck and marbled Wagyu beef reared in Sonoma, seasoned with umami-rich ingredients such as Saikyo Miso.

Details: $ 375 excluding drinks; 131 Nordstrasse, Healdsburg; (707) 723-4646; singlethreadfarms.com

Koch is a freelance writer for the New York Times.
Copyright: © 2021 The New York Times Company

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