I went to BONTERRA VINEYARDS because I like their wines, not because they are organically produced. Bonterra's VIOGNIER has always been among my favorite versions of this dazzling grape variety; it's a wine that spills over with vibrance and flavor.
But Viognier is only the tip of the vinous iceberg made under wine master Robert Blue's tutelage. Who wouldn't want a wine that eschews synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, yet still delivers a product that tantalizes your chemical-free lips? Add sensible prices to the equation and you have the success story that is Bonterra.
Bonterra is certified "organic" by the CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers). The United States Department of Agriculture's organic label can only be used after a winery has farmed organically for three years. Bonterra has qualified for over a decade, and their philosophy includes many ecologically sound decisions that would make any tree hugger smile: The wine labels are made from paper not derived from trees; the ink used on them is soy based; and the wine bottles are at least 50 percent recycled glass.
Walking Bonterra's vineyards and tasting wines with Bob Blue allowed for a far-ranging discussion. Blue's U.S. Army service took him to Germany, where the light, fruity, teutonic riesling was his introduction to the wine world. On his return to California in the early '80s, he apprenticed at McDowell Family Vineyards (not far from Bonterra) where he witnessed the joys of making red wines like syrah. He then headed south to San Luis Obisbo and the San Martin Winery. I have fond memories of a double magnum of 1978 San Martin Cabernet Sauvignon, cellared and finally drunk at 15 years of age. Very good wines were made there, but San Martin's operation, dating back to1908, eventually folded after an earthquake devastated their operations. (Makes me appreciate that double magnum even more!) In 1988, Blue moved on to Fetzer Vineyards, jumping right into Fetzer's organic Bonterra program and, eventually, taking over its reins eight years later.
He estimates that it takes about five years to make the transition from standard wine production to organic farming. One needs to utilize the natural tools that surround a winery that's cut into the landscape. Only 3 percent of Bonterra is cultivated to vines. The rest is in its natural state. Paul Dolan, president of Bonterra, says that "one of our investments was planting an orchard adjacent to a vineyard. The trees attract a wasp that eats leafhoppers feeding on the vines." Wasps also lay their eggs in the leafhopper's nests, thus naturally controlling the pest population. Pulling off leaves at the height of the leafhopper nymphs infestation controls them even further, as does the importation of good insects like ladybugs to eat aphids.
One can readily see that organic farming is far more creative and involving than standard viticulture. If you kill the soil with chemicals, then you kill good bacteria along with the bad. You kill the earthworms that naturally aerate and till the soil. Overuse of chemicals destroys our land, our water and, eventually--with the buildup of chemicals in our bodies year after year, decade after decade--our health.
An organic farmer keeps the vineyard tidier, staying one step ahead of problems and often using intuition to ward off trouble. Many organic farmers are biologists or entomologists with real scientific brainpower behind their choices. Cover crops planted between rows of grapevines encourage a more natural interaction between plants. They attract more varied insects, and the nutrients from clover, Queen Anne's lace or daikon radishes help to induce an overall healthier environment. Blue made one point I had never fully considered before: Wine is actually a harvest preserve. Just like jam or jelly, wine is a way of preserving grape juice for consumption well into the future.
Bonterra is a division of the much larger Fetzer Vineyards. Fetzer has been increasing its own organic potential for years and promises to be totally organic by 2010. Fetzer is a stronghold of organic farming practices and applies a holistic approach to all of its products. The estate has a magnificent, award winning, five-acre organic garden, open to the public, that produces over 1,500 edible fruits, vegetables and flowers. It is a must-see for any traveler to Mendocino. The estate holds an organic dinner party every Friday evening, where local talent entertains neighbors and tourists while organically prepared meals are served al fresco.
Organic wines make up about 1 percent of American wine sales, but the growth of organic wine sales stands at 20 percent a year. (Is there a Malcolm Berko stock tip lurking in the near future?) Some organic winemakers believe that organic wines may become up to 50 percent of total American sales by 2025. The reasons are manifold.
Many grape growers are moving toward partial or, ultimately, complete organic growing. Just as many wine producers, however, keep their organicity in their back pockets because public perception is that organic wines are inferior to big-name market leaders. This may well have been true in the past, but times are changing rapidly. A recent visit to Marin County, just north of San Francisco, showed that 60 percent of the county's farmers, ranchers and cheese producers now make totally organic products. They hope to be the first county in America to follow 100 percent organic practices in the very near future--and talking to the artisans leads me to believe it will happen.
Sulfites still cause major concern (and confusion) with consumers. Sulfur has been used since the Middle Ages to stabilize wine and prevent further, unwanted fermentation, and also to extend the wine's shelf life. Nobody wants their wine to smell like rotten eggs (an apt descriptor of sulfur's acrid aroma), so the amount added is minimal. Nature, in its infinite wisdom, produces sulfur as a byproduct of fermentation, thus providing a natural spoilage retardant. So, every wine contains sulfites.
FREY VINEYARDS, also in Mendocino County, is one of the few wineries in the world that adds no sulfites to its finished wines. There is a risk to this, but Frey manages admirably year after year. Most wineries feel that a small, added amount of sulfite before bottling is a good insurance policy for the winery and consumer alike. (Bonterra, like all organic wineries, can use up to 100 parts per million of sulfites. This is a very low figure, perhaps just enough to allow wines to keep well and further develop with bottle age.)
For those of you who truly have an allergy to sulfur, you are out of luck concerning wine. But that figure is less than 1 percent of the population. The percentage goes up to 5 when including asthmatics and those with severe respiratory problems. Thankfully, few of these unfortunates are unaware of the problems involved with wine consumption. For most of us, headaches and stuffy noses are actually the result of histamines (yes, wines contain them), other biological elements found naturally in grape skins (there are dozens), and the fact that we just possibly may have consumed more wine than is beneficial. (Not you, of course, but some people.)
Two words--balance and diversity--define Blue's mantra toward successful farming. First is the balance of the vine, its leaf canopy, the surrounding forests, fallow land and the balance of all creatures, bacteria, microbes and wildlife that inhabit a successful farming operation; this includes many domestic animals whose droppings provide a major part of the natural fertilizers. Then, as much biological diversity as the soil and vineyard can support will naturally lead to the ideal results.
Bonterra has not waited for the American public to wake up to organic superiority. In a business move that must be envied by all domestic winemakers, Bonterra sells a whopping 57 percent of its total production to the United Kingdom! The English seem to know a good thing when they taste it. Bonterra wines can also be purchased at Bonterra.com.
2002 Merlot, Mendocino $16
Nicely rounded-dark berry, cherry impressions. A spicy, brisk kick of life in the wine's bouquet. Great mouth texture, friendly tannins, heartiness but no heaviness. (Due out in January '06.) 91
2004 Roussane $18
Lovely peachy sweet impressions. Tropical, and honeysuckle aromas. Soft, supple nicely textured fruit. Soft, charming with sweet mouth impression. A bit simple. 86
2004 Viognier $18
Gorgeous freshness, orange blossom and a green cleanliness of a bouquet. Lively, crisp mouth watering acids with a green apple crunchiness to the finish. 90
2003 Chardonnay $12
Extremely fresh styling. Ripe macintosh apple nose--round and subtle acids surrounding a creaminess in the mid-palate and finish. 89
2001 Sangiovese $18
Iodine and meaty bouquet. Energized yet soft and luxurious nose. Light, bright, streaky and a bit tight on the palate. Not for everyone. 86
2001 Syrah 18
Dark, rich and profound. Really opens up in a luminous, generous way. Beautiful raspberry laden texture. Again, the acids keep all the power and texture alive and exciting. (Three percent viognier is in the final blend, just like the great syrahs of France's Cote Rotie.) Delicious! 91
2001 Cabernet Sauvignon $15
Stylish, brambly with sweet oak impressions A "dark" wine with a bit of heat on the nose. A North Coast wine of medium intensity. Lacks a bit of varietal definition. 85
2004 Muscat, Lake County $15.75 (375 ml.)
Honey and more honey on the nose. Nine grams of residual sugar makes for a harmonious sipping wine. Fermentation is stopped to achieve lightness and sweetness. Cold fermentation keeps in crispness. A lovely sipper. 87
Wine Beat appears the second Wednesday of each month. Arturo Ciompi can be reached at email@example.com.