Medlock Ames is first Regenerative Organic Certified winery in Sonoma County

At its core, regenerative farming focuses on the health of the soil, which some believe is the key to mitigating climate change.|

When the Kincade Fire tore through his 338-acre Bell Mountain Ranch in 2019, Ames Morison decided it was time to make a change.

As co-founder of Medlock Ames winery in Healdsburg, Morison had spent the previous 19 years creating finessed, small-lot wines from Bell Mountain’s organic, sustainably farmed vineyards.

Land preservation and organic farming have been two of the winery’s tenets since it opened in 1997. So when the wildfire left a scar of charred hillsides, 1,000 burned trees and extensively damaged grapevines, Morison considered it a wake-up call.

“Our vineyards had been certified organic since 2006, so I always felt like I was doing the right thing, like I could just check that mental box,” Morrison said.

“But once the Kincade Fire hit, I did a lot of soul searching. I really wanted to understand what was going on with the environment and what our responsibility is. Once I began doing research, I kept hearing the term ‘regenerative’ over and over again. I didn’t know exactly what it meant, but I admired the people who were talking about it. So I was intrigued.”

Over the years, Medlock Ames had tried and discarded various farming practices “just because they seemed cool,” said Morison, like using sheep for weed abatement, planting cover crops and farming without tilling.

“I knew they were theoretically important, but I didn’t really have the scientific framework to back some things up,” Morison said. “Once I began learning about regenerative farming, it just clicked.”

What is regenerative farming?

At its core, regenerative farming focuses on the health of the soil, which some believe holds the key to combating greenhouse gases and mitigating climate change.

The goal is to build and maintain healthy soils that absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, a process known as soil carbon sequestration.

Key regenerative farming techniques include reducing tillage (not disturbing the soil), which can prevent erosion, help the soil retain moisture and protect its microbiome, a beneficial system of bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms.

Other techniques include planting cover crops, which can enrich the soil, attract beneficial insects and prevent erosion, as well as composting, organic mulching, crop rotation and adding livestock to the land.

Beyond organic

In 2021, Morison left his position as winemaker to focus solely on Medlock Ames’ sustainability efforts. That’s when he caught wind of the Regenerative Organic Alliance, a Santa Rosa-based nonprofit.

Launched in 2017, the alliance was established through a partnership between the Rodale Institute, Dr. Bronner’s and Patagonia, whose leaders felt the USDA’s organic certification standards had significant gaps, especially concerning soil health, animal welfare and social fairness.

Their solution was to create a new certification, Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC), a modern agricultural standard.

“I believe organic is a very strong designation, but there are areas where it falls flat,” said Elizabeth Whitlow, executive director of the Regenerative Organic Alliance.

“The ROC seal lets consumers know at a glance that a brand is fostering long-term solutions to some of the biggest issues of our times, like the climate crisis, soil degradation, factory farming and fractured rural economies.”

In November 2022, Medlock Ames became the first winery in Sonoma County to be Regenerative Organic Certified, a process that took 15 months.

Given Medlock Ames has been focused on sustainability and certified organic since 2006, Morison said, it was gratifying to learn they were already implementing most of the certification’s requirements.

But there were two significant changes they had to implement. One was to reduce soil tillage, which can compact the soil and reduce its crucial ability to hold water.

The other was to involve vineyard workers in the decision-making process, a key aspect of the Regenerative Organic Alliance’s commitment to social fairness.

Morison said his vineyard team has intimate knowledge about the Bell Mountain estate vineyard, and their input will ultimately help Medlock Ames produce better wines. But the certification process has encouraged him to look beyond that — toward other aspects of social justice — which the USDA’s organic certification did not.

“In its simplest form, organic certification is basically adhering to a long list of products you can and can’t use in the vineyard,” Morison said.

“It’s agnostic (on) how you treat your workers, other than the fact you’re not exposing them to dangerous chemicals. But Regenerative Organic Certified requires you to encourage vineyard workers to help make decisions, paying them a living wage and making sure you don’t have employees who are victims of human trafficking — things I never considered before. It’s been very eye-opening.”

Three and counting

Currently, there are 15 Regenerative Organic Certified wineries around the globe, with 11 in California and three in Sonoma County: Medlock Ames, Donum Estate and Truett Hurst. An additional 15 to 20 wineries are in the application process.

The Donum Estate, a 220-acre winery property in the Carneros area, is the latest to receive the certification in Sonoma County.

While its vineyards have been certified organic since 2019, said Dan Fishman, vice president of winemaking and vineyards, Donum leaders wanted to take things a step further.

“Regenerative Organic Certification really appealed to us because it focuses on the soil first,” Fishman said.

“You can meet the bare minimum of organic certification by substituting organic chemicals for synthetic ones. But you’re still fighting against nature without changing your philosophy. We wanted to take a more holistic approach and work with the land, not against it.”

Within the next few months, Gundlach Bundschu in Sonoma is expected to be the next Sonoma County winery to become Regenerative Organic Certified. After its vineyards were certified organic in 2022, sustainability manager Meghan Murphy said, becoming Regenerative Organic Certified was the next natural step.

“Regenerative farming really goes beyond organic and ensures you’re looking at the health of the entire ecosystem,” Murphy said. “You can’t be successful without soil health, farm worker fairness and animal welfare all working together in harmony.”

Murphy said she’s seen growing interest in regenerative farming from some wineries, but that others wonder whether the certification is worth it. Her hope is that Gundlach Bundschu can encourage other wineries to look into regenerative farming.

“As a luxury product (maker), I feel like it’s our responsibility to farm the best way possible,” Murphy said. “We have so many acres in this industry and we can make a huge difference if others start coming on board.”

The ultimate goal for most winemakers, of course, is to make the best wine. At Donum Estate, Fishman believes regenerative farming will go a long way to achieve that.

“As a winemaker, I think the thing that sets apart the best wines is that they have an expression of energy. That can only come from the fruit, which comes from the soil,” Fishman said.

“Ultimately, having a living ecosystem that the vines are a part of is incredibly important. We really believe that contributes a great deal to grape quality and helps us make the best wines we can.”

You can reach Staff Writer Sarah Doyle at 707-521-5478 or On Twitter @whiskymuse.

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