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Sonoma County vintner Ames Morison tackles climate change as priority for his winery

As he walks around the bucolic 340 acres of the Medlock Ames winery estate, co-founder Ames Morison acknowledges the beauty of the land located in the hills east of Healdsburg.

The tranquility can be readily experienced whether from the top of Bell Mountain where madrone and manzanita trees line the base of the mountain to the fenced wildlife corridor that runs between its vineyards to allow deer to pass.

Morison, however, also knows firsthand the effect that climate change can have on the pastoral setting of the property he and partner, Chris Medlock James, bought in 1998, especially as wildfires have become more catastrophic with extreme windstorms, extended droughts and large-scale tree death.

That came to pass in 2019 when the Kincade fire ripped through the estate, turning much of its green pastures to black and in the process destroyed more than 1,000 trees along with a couple miles of deer fence.

Almost all the vines initially appeared to be unharmed. But winery staff later discovered that there were pockets of vines that suffered extreme heat exposure and damaged their productivity. The winery was forced to replant about 20% of its almost 50 planted vineyard acres.

Bell Mountain was particularity harmed as he points to the summit.

“It used to just be covered with Douglas fir trees. These huge majestic things. You couldn’t even see the top of the hill, it was so vegetative,” said Morison. “Now, it is bald.”

That experience also spurred Morison to make a dramatic change last September. He gave up his position as winemaker after 19 years at the helm of the small winery known for its Bordeaux blends from fruit grown on its estate, which is located in both the Alexander Valley and Russian River Valley wine regions. The 51-year-old Virginia native decided to concentrate full time on the winery’s sustainability goals and to speak out more forcibly for policies to mitigate climate change.

Abby Watt, who had previously worked at Peay Vineyards and Kosta Browne, assumed the winemaking duties.

“I’m kind of an optimist. I always think I can do more than I can. But once I kind of just started listing all the different things that I wanted us to accomplish ― things I've been thinking about for 20 years. They're always these someday projects that I knew there's no way I'm ever going to get to these (jobs), especially with all the other things I have to do. So that was sort of the inspiration,” Morison said.

As part of the process, Morison helped craft the winery’s five-year sustainability plan that sets specific metrics to accomplish.

They include reducing water dependency by 40%, which has become an even more pressing need given that state officials are likely again to suspend water rights in the Russian River watershed this year.

The winery also wants to eliminate its carbon footprint with an internal goal to be net zero by 2026, Morison said, assisted by a transition to electric vehicles and a pilot program that explores lighter packaging and glass alternatives.

It also wants to protect against further wildfires with proactive actions such as controlled burns to limit brush regrowth and implement a program for sheep and cattle grazing.

Medlock Ames is not alone in such efforts in the local wine industry as such large wine companies as Jackson Family Wines of Santa Rosa and Fetzer Vineyards of Hopland also have set their own targets as well. But what stands out is that Morison is working from a much smaller scale and far less resources with a wine company that employs 25 people and produced about 6,500 cases last year with almost all of the bottles sold directly to consumers.

“The fact that Ames as owner of the business is making that a priority, that sends a message all the way down,” said Julien Gervreau, director of sustainability of implementation at accounting firm Sensiba San Filippo.

Gervreau previously worked at Jackson Family Wines and is a founding board member of the International Wineries for Climate Action nonprofit group. That nonprofit has set a goal of its members becoming carbon neutral by 2050 with some intermediate targets that are set by 2030.

He added that “the fires were a wake-up call” to spur action within the local industry, which will only increase as the Securities and Exchange Commission is proposing a rule to mandate all publicly traded companies to disclose their climate-related risks.

Both Jackson Family Wines and Medlock Ames are members of the group.

“That’s how this stuff gets really developed and ingrained into the DNA of the organization, whether they’re a large winemaker like Jackson Family Wines or a mom and pop like Medlock Ames,” Gervreau said of Morison’s leadership.

Even before Morisons’ job switch, the winery had already established a reputation in the industry for its environmental commitment as its vineyards have been certified organic since 2006. Such designation is still rare locally as Sonoma County had only 1,848 acres certified as organic as of 2019 among its overall total of 59,326 vineyard acres that year, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

The move toward fully organic was driven by its commitment to the land more than consumer demand as the winery only started putting the organically grown fruit certification on its label with the 2021 vintage.

“We did it (organic) because it was important to us. It’s not like if we didn’t have the certification, we would start using Roundup,” Ames said of the controversial herbicide that is increasingly being phased out by local agriculture.

“It just helps keep me focused. The certifications are really more for me than to help sell our wine.”

Morison also wants to demystify the discussion over the topic as consumers can get easily confused over such terms as biodynamic, sustainably farmed and natural wine. He also wants Medlock Ames to serve as an example for other smaller wineries whose executives are curious to invest more in such practices, but may have reservations over such costs or worries if they have enough staff to carry out such programs.

“For all of the things we are doing, we can act like a test case and show how much money it takes or how much money you can save by doing things,” said Morison, who became intrigued by organic farming while serving in the Peace Corps in Guatemala.

He also worked as a teacher in New York before going into wine.

The latest trend in agriculture is regenerative farming, a practice that is described as helping to reverse climate change through actions like replenishing organic matter in the soil and restoring its biodiversity. One focus with regenerative farming is finding ways for less tillage of the soil between the vines, he said, which helps with water conservation. That may include more instances of mowing in the vineyard and adding more compost to the soil.

“The challenge is to eliminate tillage. And tillage is this tool that organic farmers and all farmers have relied on for 10,000 years, which eliminates weed competition,” Morison said. “It’s also destructive to the soil.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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