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The Wine Guys: Exploring Organically-Farmed Wines

Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr

By now you most likely have heard about organic wines. You also may have heard the terms "biodynamic" and "sustainability" so often that you don't know their difference or care enough to find out. But you should and with the recent celebration of Earth Day – April 22 – now is a good time to do it.

For decades Earth Day, created by Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson in 1970, was celebrated about as much as National Jellybean Day, which coincidentally is recognized on the same day. Grape farmers didn't really focus on organic farming until 10-15 years later.

"People would often say, 'Isn't all winemaking organic?,' pointing to a lack of awareness of what's implied by farming organically – no added pesticides," said Bonterra Founding Winemaker Bob Blue in an email.

Bob Blue and Jeff Cichocki

When Bonterra introduced organic farming in their Mendocino County vineyards 30 years ago, it was but a handful of growers to do so. Blue said they already were organically farming vegetables with success.

Blue said at first the only organic tools to fight disease were natural soaps and oils. While other growers were dousing vines with chemicals, the Bonterra crew was pouring physical labor into accomplishing the same thing but in a less invasive and more environmentally conscious way.

"To tend to your weeds under your vines, you had to use a shovel," Blue said.

Today, grape growers have many more tools in their boxes. Instead of shovels to unearth weeds, cover crops prevent them. Instead of adding synthetic fertilizer, chickens and sheep roam the vineyards to provide manure naturally. Ladybugs are even dispatched to kills insects. In short, organic growers prevented problems instead of reacting to them.

To use "organic" on a wine label producers have to meet strict USDA criteria established in 1990 by the Organic Foods Production Act. "Organically grown grapes" mean no synthetic additives have been added to the soil. For a winery to be called entirely organic, no chemicals, such as sulfites, have been added in the winery.

“Biodynamic” is a broader term that adds more layers of farm management, such as water control, natural pest control, composting, and nutrient recycling.

Frey Vineyards, also in Mendocino County, was the first organic and biodynamic winery. It's web site says it has been making gluten-free wines with no added sulfites since 1980.

“Sustainable” adds an additional, socially responsible level that includes green roofs, solar panels, water conservation and other cost-saving, ecological practices.

Yes, it is unnecessarily confusing. But those of you who want to be gluten-free or who suffer through headaches and allergies after tasting wine should unravel the jargon. Organic wines could be your ticket to relief.

Not every winemaker is on board. While organic farming is unquestionably better for the environment and costs no more, a USDA -certified organic wine presents risk. Depending on natural yeast, for instance, could mean a wine never completely ferments. More risky is avoiding sulfites that stabilize a wine and prevents it from spoiling.

Bonterra winemaker Jeff Cichocki, "We rely on the natural components of the wine for protection from spoilage." He said lower pH levels increase the effectiveness of the natural sulfites found in grapes, so Bonterra aims for grapes with higher acids and lower pH. The result, he said, is "more lively white wines and fresher and more balanced red wines."

Our tasting of Bonterra's wines prove this out. The wines have great texture, purity and freshness. You won't have to sacrifice your expectations here.

Cichocki says their biodynamic approach doesn't allow them to correct a problem with a synthetic powder or chemical.

"We simply don't have the tools to do so as you would in conventional agriculture, and that's made us more disciplined and holistic in our approach to the fruit," he said.

Hooray for the pioneers.

Here are a few organically-farmed wines and some with Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing approval:

  • Bonterra Sauvignon Blanc 2015 ($14). New Zealand -like in style, this zesty and crisp sauvignon blanc has grapefruit and notes of freshly mown grass.

  • Bonterra Viognier 2015 ($14). We love the aromatics of viognier, a Rhone grape variety, but Bonterra is able to add a delightful, textured flavor profile to this often one-dimensional grape variety. Generous peach and apricot flavors with a soft mouthfeel and hints of spice.

  • Frey Biodynamic Chardonnay 2015 ($20). Pear notes with a touch of sweet vanillin oak give this a soft but spirited personality.

  • Sea Smoke "Ten" Pinot Noir 2014 ($82). This estate Santa Rita Hills vineyard is certified organic and biodynamic. The Ten is one of the most delicious pinot noirs we have tasted, so responsible farming certainly hasn't interfered with quality here. Using 10 clones of pinot noir, the wine is multi-dimensional with a luxurious texture, rich and concentrated currant and blueberry flavors with a good dose of spice.

  • Wente Riva Ranch Chardonnay 2015 ($22). We have always been fans on this Monterey County producer's chardonnays and an even bigger fan of it being a long-time supporter of sustainable farming. It has the Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing designation. This reasonably priced chardonnay has tropical fruit aromas and pear, apple flavors with a creamy mouthfeel and long finish.

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