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Ivo Jeramaz, Grgich Hills winemaker and vice-president of vineyards and production, sees regenerative agriculture as the highest form of organic farming.Handout

Ivo Jeramaz spends more time talking about the health and structure of the soil in his vineyards than the vines and grapes they produce.

He is a strong believer in regenerative farming at Grgich Hills Estate, his family winery in Napa Valley, which has been farmed organically since 2000 and was among the first to be certified by the Regenerative Organic Alliance. But he is used to hearing skeptics asking about this approach.

“Many people have asked me, if you’re already organic and biodynamic, why bother with regenerative agriculture?” Jeramaz says. “Are you guys always looking for something new?”

The simple answer is, Jeramaz believes regenerative agriculture is the highest level of organic farming, offers solutions to pest and disease problems in the vineyard, and results in better wine. It goes beyond farming without artificial fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides to looking at vineyards as ecosystems and focusing attention on the biology taking place in soils.

It offers a tool kit to make farming more sustainable, with guiding principles that include: Cover crops are essential. Don’t till or disturb the soil, which damages soil life. Do introduce animals into the vineyards when possible. Pay farm workers a living wage.

Other wineries in California and beyond are advocates, including Neal Family Vineyards in Napa, Tablas Creek in Paso Robles and Bonterra in Mendocino, as well as Eyrie Vineyards in Oregon, Cheval Blanc in Bordeaux and Cullen in Margaret River, Australia.

“I would love for every winery, every vineyard to turn regenerative as soon as possible,” says Jeramaz, who often shares his experience at sustainability conferences, such as Napa Rise, a wine and climate symposium held in April.

“The crux of healthy farming is microbes, so we do everything possible to enhance biodiversity and the population of microbes in our soils,” he says.

He explains how there are millions of tiny organisms living in the soil, which, if nurtured, provide nutrients to the plants and protect them from disease. If he takes care of the soil of Grgich’s 366 acres of vineyards properly, the soil will maintain the health and quality of the grapes produced on the vine.

Free the microbes, your wine will follow.

The winemaker believes that regenerative organic agriculture also makes good business sense. Pests and vine disease are shortening the lifespan of vineyards in Napa. “Generations ago, vineyards lasted at least 40 years. They should last 100 years,” he says, putting the average lifespan of a vineyard in Napa at 22 years.

Grape growers have always had to contend with pests and diseases, he continues. What’s different today is how vineyards are being maintained.

His farming cost per acre of vineyard is lower than the average spent in Napa – US$11,000 at Grgich compared with US$15,000 elsewhere, according to Jeramaz – while producing 0.5 to one ton more grapes than the average in the valley.

Grgich Hills is a family-owned and operated business founded by Jeramaz’s uncle, Miljenko (Mike) Grgich and Austin Hills in 1977. Mike Grgich, who recently celebrated his 100th birthday, had previously worked at Beaulieu Vineyards, Robert Mondavi Winery and Chateau Montelena, where he made the 1973 Chardonnay that bested a selection of top French wines in the so-called Judgment of Paris tasting. The results of the 1976 competition won international recognition for California wine.

Jeramaz was encouraged by his uncle to come to Napa from his native Croatia in 1986. He got his start in the cellars washing barrels, working as Grgich’s apprentice. The winemaking style hasn’t changed much over the years. Fermentation occurs naturally. They work to nurture the flavour of the grapes through gentle handling.

“We like to produce authentic wine and you cannot produce authentic wine without authentic farming and authentic winemaking,” he says.

Several Grgich Hills wines are featured releases at LCBO Vintages outlets as well as being available through boutique wine shops in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

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One of the family's vineyards in American Canyon, in southern Napa County.Handout

Grgich Hills Estate Grown Chardonnay 2019 (United States), $78.95

Rating:93 /100

A different expression of Napa chardonnay, this is lighter and brighter with refined citrus, peach and spice flavours. The pervasive lemongrass note suggests an early harvest for the grapes to maintain freshness and intensity, which helps to make this restrained style really electric. Available at the above price in Ontario, various prices in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Grgich Hills Napa Valley Fumé Blanc Sauvignon Blanc 2019 (United States), $47

Rating:93 /100

Grgich Hills’ sauvignon blanc is labelled Fumé Blanc in reference to founder Mike Grgich’s time working as chief enologist for Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley between 1968 and 1972. (Mondavi was the first to label its sauvignon blanc as Fumé Blanc.) The 2019 vintage is made in a balanced, mouth-watering style with a satisfying mix of grassy, citrus and tropical fruit flavours. The bright acidity is countered by a fuller body (13.5 per cent alcohol) and a persistent finish. Drink now to enjoy the refreshing character, but this is sure to develop more depth of flavour with bottle age. Drink now to 2026. Available at the above price in Ontario, various prices in Alberta.

Grgich Hills Estate Merlot 2019 (United States), $67.95

Rating:92 /100

A blend of mostly merlot, with cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, and cabernet franc grown in cooler vineyard locations in American Canyon and Carneros and a warmer site in Yountville. The finished wine is nicely structured and elegant in style. Bright acidity and youthful tannins mean this is best appreciated after a long decant. Its sleek and focused character gains weight and density. Lovely balance. Drink now to 2031. Available at the above price in Ontario, $73.99 in British Columbia.

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