Big Organic Daddy: Get to know Mendocino, mecca of organic winemaking

It may take just one person to start a revolution, but it takes lots of brave souls to spread the word. Nowhere is this more true than in the organic winemaking business. Although most consumers shirk at the thought of drinking the stuff, assuming it’s substandard in some way, they are really just ignorant. Ignorant of the fact that “organic” simply means returning to farming the way it was for thousands of years – sans chemicals.

Mendocino County, the organic grape-growing mecca just north of Sonoma, is as idyllic as all other vineyard landscapes: rolling hills covered in meticulous rows of vines; low-lying, serene mountains that keep the grapes blanketed with nurturing warm air. You won’t find showy, affluence-ridden wineries, though; the attitude here is “we’re all about the land.” Many people live “off the grid,” choosing to generate electricity from sun and water rather than stringing live wires through the trees. The place feels real – untouched by the commercialism that has permeated, and in some ways spoiled, Sonoma and Napa Counties.

Paul Dolan, considered by many to be the father of the organic movement in Mendocino, has been farming organically since 1987. Almost 30 percent of Mendocino’s grapes are certified organic, compared with five percent and three percent in Napa and Sonoma, respectfully. Dolan describes farming as “exploitative in nature, so we’re trying to create a natural ecosystem that will encourage growth in nutrients.” To create this nurturing environment, a winery must slash the use of chemicals and build health back into the soil to improve grape quality. In place of chemicals, farmers introduce ladybugs to control harmful bugs like mites and aphids, and sheep to eat weeds that suck nutrients from the vines. Dolan worked for Fetzer Vineyards up until about one year ago, blazing a trail for their successful organic label Bonterra. Now he’s exploring the possibilities of biodynamic farming to the nth degree and recently released his own Big Yellow Cab label, available only at Parducci Winery in Mendocino.

With 350 acres of land, planted with everything from olive trees to a dozen varieties of grapes, Bonterra Vineyards could easily be considered the Big Organic Daddy of Mendocino. The picturesque ranch teems with life, so abundant you hear it everywhere – frogs croak, birds chirp and pigmy sheep bellow. I can’t remember ever hearing the same level of activity on farms in other parts of California, where chemical use is still the norm. Bob Blue, winemaker at Bonterra, feels that we belong to the earth; so practicing techniques that help sustain the soil for future generations is close to his heart. Bonterra uses many biodynamic techniques – farming by the cycles of the moon, use of cover crops to increase nitrogen in the soil – so the ranch is really a holistic grape-growing experiment.

Some wineries farm organically to improve their fruit, but don’t market that fact since they are afraid of consumer backlash. Even highly respected Robert Sinskey Vineyards in Napa County is dabbling in biodynamics, but you wouldn’t know it. Lolonis Vineyards, organic since 1956, doesn’t shy away from their status but pays for it sometimes. Philip Lolonis reported he had to move his wines out of retailers’ organic sections since the wines weren’t selling. But once he moved them to the “normal” wine section, they sold well. Same wine, different aisle. Kinda sad.

Other wineries fanning the flames of progress are Yorkville Cellars, a 10-year-old winery and one of the first to obtain official certified status in California. And at Ceago Vinegarden, Jim Fetzer is producing world-class wines using the biodynamic method.

To foster this fantastic trend toward healthier wines, we need to get it into the mainstream that organic wines aren’t just for the “granola” set. They really are kick-ass wines with a healthy twist.

Recommended Wines

Ceago 2003 Sauvignon Blanc Kathleen’s Vineyard Sweetness = 2. $16.

Bonterra 2003 Viognier Mendocino County Sw = 3. $16.

Bonterra 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Mendocino County Sw = 1. $19.

Yorkville Cellars 2001 Cabernet Franc Yorkville Highlands Sw = 1. $20


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