Last month, I had the privilege of moderating a panel at the Net Impact Conference on sustainability in the beverage industry. Encouraging information was shared that day about how the wine, beer and spirits industries are working together on issues like supply chain sustainability and responsible, recyclable packaging.

Josh Prigge, director of regenerative development at Fetzer Vineyards, was one of my panelists. As he was telling the audience about some of Fetzer's specific sustainable initiatives, two things caught my attention: his use of the term "regenerative sustainability" and the winery's new regenerative, wastewater decontamination process that uses earthworms.

I wanted to know more, so I spent some time talking to Prigge about how they both play out at Fetzer.

What is regenerative sustainability?

"We've really been trying to lead the way for sustainability in the wine industry," Prigge said. "We have been for decades. In the '80s we went 100 percent organic with grapes. In the '90s we were the first to use 100 percent renewable energy. We were also the first to report and track greenhouse gas emissions."

All of those practices are considered sustainable, but Fetzer Vineyards wanted to go further.

"Over the past couple of years our corporate strategy has been to move beyond sustainability and become regenerative," Prigge said. "Instead of just trying to reduce negative impacts, we try to create positive impacts."

Regenerative sustainability restores and revitalizes the material and energy resources that are used instead of simply trying to use as few of those resources as possible.

Fetzer has been practicing regenerative agriculture for years by using cover crops in the vineyards, applying compost every year, bringing in sheep to graze, and planting different plants to enhance biodiversity — all regenerative because they restore health to soil year after year.

These regenerative agriculture practices allow the vineyards to sequester more carbon.

"The Rodale Institute did a study and found that using regenerative practices, like the ones we use at Fetzer, sequesters so much more carbon that if all agricultural lands were to use regenerative practices, we could hold more carbon in the soil than we emit and reverse climate change," Prigge said.

Fetzer is now taking that regenerative philosophy to all facets of the business, including wastewater.

Using earthworms to naturally remove contaminates from wastewater

Water usage is always an environmental concern, particularly in California where the ongoing drought affects its use, particularly in agriculture. Currently, Fetzer uses aeration ponds on a hill on its property to treat its wastewater, water that's left after everything they do at the winery like cleaning wine tanks and all water used in the wine making process. While aeration ponds do clean water and make it usable again, they require a lot of energy.

Fetzer is shutting down those aeration ponds and will soon be using the BioFiltro BIDA System, a "passive aerobic bioreactor that catalyzes the digestive power of microbes and selected species of red earthworms to naturally remove up to 99 percent of contaminants from wastewater." It takes as little as four hours for water to move through the entire chemical-free system, which consists of various layers including the earthworms that eat contaminates on top and materials like wood chips and charcoal below.

"It's a good example of regenerative, letting nature do the process for us," said Prigge. "The system takes dirty winery wastewater and returns clean water to irrigate organic vineyards. It also provides worm castings to use as fertilizer in the vineyards."

And Fetzer isn't the only company using this system to achieve regenerative sustainability goals. It's currently operating in more than 130 plants worldwide and has filtered more than 27 billion gallons of sanitary and industrial organic liquid waste.

This graphic explains a bit more about how the process works:

fetter-worms-wastewater-filter Graphic: Fetzer Vineyards

The millions of earthworms in the system pull double-duty. They efficiently process the wastewater on site at the vineyards and restore it to beneficial use and create fertilizer in the process. All of this happens without significant use of energy or output of emissions.

"We chose the BioFiltro BIDA System because it was most in line with our values and goals as a company," Prigge said.

"Our ultimate goal," he said, "is to get to the point where we are net positive and creating more of a positive impact on the world than a negative one. By 2030, we want to eliminate or offset all of our negative impacts."

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Earthworms do double-duty at Fetzer Vineyards
Earthworms decontaminate water and create vineyard fertilizer at Fetzer Vineyards as part of regenerative sustainability program.