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Wine grapevines and native plants make a fine blend, study shows

December 13, 2011

Grapevines and native plants are a fine blend for the environment, suggests a team of researchers led by a plant ecologist at the University of California, Davis.

According to their research, reported in the online journal Carbon Balance and Management, vineyard landscapes that include both vines and native vegetation provide more environmental benefits than vineyards planted solidly in grapevines.

Potential ecological benefits include habitat for wildlife, pollinators and other beneficial insects; water quality enhancement; and mitigation of damaging greenhouse gases.

“All too often, natural ecosystems are rapidly lost in regions where intensive agriculture becomes economically successful,” said John Williams, a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy, and lead author of the study. “The results of this study clearly indicate that agricultural systems that include a mosaic of both natural vegetation and planted crops can yield significant environmental benefits.

“What is needed now are land-use policies that will include incentives that will make it economically viable for landowners to develop and manage such complex agricultural landscape mosaics,” he said.

“Agriculture has dramatically transformed both land-based and aquatic ecosystems around the world and much of that land will continue to be in agricultural production for years to come,” said Louise Jackson, a professor and Cooperative Extension specialist in the UC Davis Department of Land, Air and Water Resources. “It is imperative, therefore, that we promote a multifunctional approach to agricultural land use.”

UC Davis has for decades led California in research devoted to all aspects of grape growing and winemaking and to solving real-world environmental problems, including climate change and habitat conservation.

The new study examined the amount of carbon storage on five ranches that produce organic grapes for the Bonterra label of Fetzer Vineyards, located in Northern California’s Mendocino County. Altogether, the ranches cover 2,962 acres, with roughly one third each devoted to vineyards, forested wildlands or grasslands. The ranches have been organically certified since the late 1980s.

Carbon storage is the process through which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and stored in wood and soil, lessening its impact on global climate change.

The researchers found that the level of carbon storage varied throughout the wildland areas, depending on the type of native vegetation, and, as expected, was much lower in the vineyard areas. In addition, the areas of conserved wildlands also retained habitat for native plant and animal species.

Funding for the study was provided by Brown-Forman Corporation, Fetzer Vineyards, the Kearney Foundation of Soil Science, the U.S. Department of Agriculture — Agricultural Research Service, the California Energy Commission and the UC Agricultural Experiment Station.

About UC Davis

UC Davis is a global community of individuals united to better humanity and our natural world while seeking solutions to some of our most pressing challenges. Located near the California state capital, UC Davis has more than 34,000 students, and the full-time equivalent of 4,100 faculty and other academics and 17,400 staff. The campus has an annual research budget of over $750 million, a comprehensive health system and about two dozen specialized research centers. The university offers interdisciplinary graduate study and 99 undergraduate majors in four colleges and six professional schools.

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