Net Positive - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Net Positive

Giancarlo Bianchetti, CEO of Bonterra Organic Estates, on managing Regenerative Organic Agriculture at Scale

Giancarlo Biancheti (Photo: Kaare Iverson)

Giancarlo Bianchetti was the US export director for Concha y Toro when the company purchased Fetzer Vineyards, including Fetzer’s Bonterra brand, launched in the 1990s. Appointed CEO of the new acquisition, he left Santiago, Chile, for Hopland, California, in 2011. Since then, he has overseen the company’s certification as a B Corp and, more recently, its work in regenerative agriculture. Fetzer Vineyards now has a new name: Bonterra Organic Estates. I caught up with Bianchetti over Zoom to discuss the change and some of the challenges of implementing regenerative organics on a large scale.

Bianchetti explained the main reasons for the new name. First, he said, organics is part of the ethos of the organization: The Fetzers had been farming under organics since 1987; the company now has 960 acres of vines, all farmed under organics and biodynamics, some under a Regenerative Organic Certification. Then he added that they work organically in the winery. That organics is now more mainstream than in the past. And that, while Fetzer has been focused on sustainability for decades, sustainability is no longer enough. “We want to continue to move our business toward regenerative organics,” he told me, “and to minimize our impacts in terms of climate change.”  — Joshua Greene

W&S: How do you define regenerative organics?

GB: To make it simple: sustainability is minimizing your negative impact. You have emissions, you try to reduce emissions. You try to be more intelligent in how you use water. It’s extremely important that in agriculture, in every aspect of the business, we need more companies jumping into that first step. Through the unfortunate impact of the pandemic, we have seen this high interest in sustainability, understanding that we need to do something.

Then, in terms of agriculture, you go to organic—no synthetic pesticides, and some ways we manage our vineyards and also winemaking. You try to have zero negative impact; you try to be neutral. We have been using 100% renewable energy since 1999. We are zero waste certified. The vineyards are managed to take any negative impact to zero.

Then, you have regenerative organic. There is regenerative that is not necessarily organic and there is regenerative organic. We are certified as of last year, we are the largest winery certified ROC, that is the Regenerative Organic Certification. It expands the scope, it is not only the vineyard, it is your relationship with the farm community, with your workers and, of course, the well-being of animals. It’s a larger way of facing the way we manage our business.

The ROC is more for our operations and the way we manage our operations, including the vineyards, and B-Corp is the way we manage the overall business. In both cases, they force you to evaluate yourself in all these different pillars.

When you get into the vineyard itself, Regenerative Organic is about the health of the soil. There are a lot of measures, like lowering tillage. But what is very important is that you are trying to have a positive impact.

We work on the way we treat our water with an innovative approach: We have some pools of worms that clean the water from the vinification process and we use their casts to help create compost. The water will not go away and be lost. I’m cleaning it, I’m getting compost and using some of that water for irrigation. At the end, we are regenerating that water—producing water, in that sense.

Bonterra’s Butler Ranch (Photo: Erin Malone)

W&S: Is there another example you can give of a positive impact?

GB: Since before I started here, we have been using sheep for grazing our vineyards. We have 3,000 sheep around the vineyard; they are eating the grasses we don’t want and, with their droppings, they are helping with the quality of the soil. Now it’s very trendy, you see a lot of wineries grazing sheep; because the sheep are cute, too. They give an energy to the vineyards. What I like about that is that we don’t charge the young couple who raise the sheep, and they don’t charge us; it’s a cooperative approach. They manage the 3,000 sheep in our vineyard, their sheep grow and do well. You have the environmental component that’s a win-win. And at the same time, we have a win-win relationship in terms of the community.

W&S: A lot of these tools and techniques of biodynamic and regenerative organic farming were developed for work on a small scale. There are a lot of people who say that it’s one person and one farm that make it work. You are trying to do something on a much grander scale and I wonder what challenges you find.

GB: My background is not agriculture, so I have been learning here. But having more of a helicopter view, I’d say there are two elements that are critical. One is what I would call the internal knowledge of your team—cultural knowledge—that the team, working with the vineyards for 30 years, some for 40 years, that they know about the site. That is very difficult to replicate or replace. That site knowledge, technical cultural knowledge, is critical; that is one of the biggest challenges to succeed at a large scale. It’s difficult to quantify. And it’s something that I think some people don’t realize. They think that this is just a different way of farming. So, that is one challenge, related to the cultural knowledge of how to run a specific site.

The second one, that is critical in agriculture in general, but is more critical than anything in organic or biodynamic farming, is timing. Timing is everything, as you have windows to address something that may be happening in the vineyard, to do whatever you need to do in that moment for the vineyard—that is critical. To have, first, a crew with the knowledge and, second, the mastermind, as your head of the vineyard, really understanding what needs to be done. In conventional farming, you can be off by a couple of days and, well, you apply more (okay, I am oversimplifying). In this way of doing agriculture, that precision, the boots on the ground, is critical.

Sheep grazing at Bonterra’s McNab Ranch (Photo: Erin Malone)

W&S: In the current economy, staffing is super challenging; especially for farm workers, it’s become a real challenge. It there some way you’re managing that staffing issue, given that you need a lot more human input in this type of farming than in conventional farming.

GB: We try to have a tight team. The beautiful thing about being 100 percent organic in what we farm is that there is something beyond doing the traditional agriculture and people buy into that. Of course, they need their salary and fair conditions. But, at the same time, there is something larger, and that is something that applies to everybody: Purpose is important to everybody. We’re launching this new name now, we launched it with our employees last week. With the crew in the vineyards and on the bottling line, I’ve been doing personal presentations. A lot of them have been for many years with Fetzer; there is an emotional attachment to the name. But they have been extremely excited with the move, saying, ‘Yes, that is what I do. That is what I believe.’ I see it as an added value to attracting better talent. Having the right compensation with the team, the right interactions with them, and sharing that we do something different and they appreciate that.

Joshua Greene is the editor and publisher of Wine & Spirits magazine.

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