We do have a 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon 3 litter on our list that is probably getting really good. Remember 1997 was an incredible year for California.
Since Bonterra started their organic practices many other vineyards have followed. The choices are now endless with organic options. Be careful because organic grapes does not mean organic wine.
Aroma Thyme Bistro
Bonterra Vineyards: Ground Zero
for Organic Grapegrowing
by Eleanor & Ray Heald
July 4, 2008
In the Russian River benchlands of California’s Mendocino County, there’s serene beauty evoking images of unspoiled land. Thus it comes as no surprise that a winery there has become a leader in the organic and biodynamic grape-farming movement. Founding winemaker Bob Blue shares his perspectives on more than two decades of progress in eco-agricultural grape growing and winemaking at Bonterra Vineyards.
Appellation America: Some consumers are confused by jargon phrases referring to organic grape farming. What is the current nomenclature used for this type of farming?
Bob Blue (BB): Wines with the phrase “made with (or from) organically grown grapes” on the main label are produced at a certified winery, under National Organic Program regulations and may have added sulfites, but at levels less than 100 parts per million (ppm) total and 35ppm free to prevent oxidation and ensure shelf stability.
Grapes that are considered organically grown are in accordance with the California Health and Safety Code, Sec. 26569 and are certified by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), a third-party inspection and endorsement organization with exacting standards. The certifier must be listed on a back label. Certification requires a three-year period of regular inspection to ensure that regulations are being met.
AA: What are the elements of certification today?
BB: Organically-grown grapes are produced without the use of artificial fertilizers or synthetic chemicals, which include pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, soil fumigants and growth-regulating
Cover crops in McNab Vineyard sustain ecological balance – and beauty - in organic vineyards.hormones. Emphasis is put on building a living soil and an environment encouraging beneficial organisms in the vineyard, establishing a natural pest-predator balance.
AA: How does an organically certified winery like Bonterra differ from another wine producer who only practices organically-certified grapegrowing?
BB: What that producer cannot do is put the “made with” wording on the front label. On the back label, they are allowed to state the percentage of organically-grown grapes. The concept there is similar to organic produce that is not brought directly to market by the organic farmer, but is sold to an uncertified handler. The product is not really changed, but to continue the organic link, the handlers must also be certified. There must be product integrity every step of the way.
AA: Consumers encounter the expression “organic wines.” What does this mean?
BB: Wines that are labeled “organic” follow a similar grape farming regime as wines made from organically-grown grapes. However, no additional sulfur dioxide is permitted during fermentation, despite the fact that some sulfites are produced naturally during the fermentation period. Organic wines are made at a certified winery under National Organic Program regulation and no sulfites may be added. For reasons of preventing oxidation and bottled wine stability in the marketplace, Bonterra has sulfite levels below the certifiable amount.
Any use of the term “organic” on a wine label or in advertising of wine must comply with the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) National Organic Program rules as interpreted by the USDA.
AA: What is the location of Bonterra’s certified organically-farmed vineyards?
BB: In Mendocino County AVA, Bonterra Vineyards owns or leases more than 1,000 certified acres of organically-farmed grapes. More than 500 additional certified organic vineyards, farmed by independent growers in Mendocino County, also supply Bonterra with organically-grown grapes. We source some certified organic Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier from Lake County AVA. Everything that Bonterra does is certified organic.
AA: In what year did Bonterra become certified by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF)?
BB: Bonterra started farming organically in 1987 and the first vineyards were certified in 1990. In those days, though, we could not certify the winery, and could not until 1998.
AA: What are the most important practices in Bonterra’s organic farming?
BB: Whenever someone chooses to farm, they impact the native environment. We strive to minimize the impacts. We start by soil management to strengthen the vines with addition of organic matter from decomposing winter cover crops, water and minerals. When organic matter increases so do microbial populations, which break down organic matter into soil-enriching humus.
Healthy grape vines resist disease pressures from insects, and pest populations are checked by predator pests. To increase the population of predator species, we create an attractive environment by planting cover crops and flowers that are part of the predator species diet.
AA: How are vineyard weeds controlled?
BB: With low impact mowing and hand-hoeing.
AA: With what products are vineyards sprayed?
BB: To prevent mildew, we apply organic sulfur and occasionally use plant extracts for insect control. Fungal diseases such as mildew and Botrytis are controlled by vineyard practices that maximize air flow in the canopy and fruit zone and the use of stylet oils. We work in the prevention mode. We have to. With organic farming, there are no quick fixes.
AA: With The McNab ($45 and blend of 47 percent Merlot, 36 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 17 percent Petite Sirah), Bonterra introduces the consumer to the concept of a biodynamically-farmed vineyard, certified by the Demeter Association, or what might be called holistic farming. How does this differ from the organic practices at Bonterra’s other ranches and vineyards?
BB: Biodynamics does much of what Bonterra already does for pest and disease management and cover crops, but extends it to the development and management of our vineyards as a whole. We’ve brought in livestock, such as sheep and chickens, to eat cover crops in winter when vines are dormant. After bud break at the beginning of the growing
David Koball, Bonterra’s Director of Mendocino County Vineyards.season, animals maintain vineyard periphery and the face of the property dam. There’s also a greater diversification of plants, including olive trees, persimmons, apples and peaches.
David Koball, Bonterra’s Director of Mendocino County Vineyards, also uses two field sprays, one is cow manure made into a tea and sprayed on the ground to help stimulate organic matter decomposition. The other is ground up silica quartz sprayed on foliage to stimulate photosynthesis. A number of fermented herbs are made into a tincture and sprayed onto the compost.
AA: Why are you blending grapes from two AVAs for Sauvignon Blanc?
BB: Our Lake County sources have deep soils that produce Sauvignon Blanc with powerful gooseberry, grapefruit and cat pee characteristics. Mendocino has a lot of lemon grass quality, citrus and melon. I really like southern hemisphere Sauvignon Blancs and I wanted to take a run at doing a wine in that style. Bonterra 2007 Sauvignon Blanc ($13) is appellation driven in the sense that Lake County characteristics can’t be ignored but they are mitigated by Mendocino fruit.
AA: Are Lake County characteristics driven by the soil composition?
BB: Soil is heavier and deep black: what we like to call “pear ground.” Vines therefore have a big canopy and grapes have intense character - almost too much, so we back it off with our Mendocino fruit which does not yield this individuality.
AA: Are there other dual-appellation wines in the Bonterra portfolio?
BB: Viognier from Lake County AVA, but 73 percent of the fruit is Mendocino, giving it the regional stamp of apricots, peaches and what I like to call sunny flavors.
AA: What are the other principal Bonterra wines in the portfolio?
BB: There’s 2006 Chardonnay with lemon, citrus and baked green apple characters. Zinfandel 2006 which was sold only in Canada and some parts of Europe until the 2005 vintage. It’s not jammy but has noticeable peppery spice. Merlot 2006 showcases lots of red cherry aromas and flavors from the McNab Ranch. Syrah 2005 has smoky notes surrounding blackberry and raspberry fruit. Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 is generous but not over the top with 13.9 percent alcohol and loads of dark berry fruit and an elegant finish.
AA: What is your take-home message about Bonterra’s wine made from certified organically-grown grapes?
Echinacea flowers maintain a pest-predator balance at Bonterra’s organic vineyards. BB: I’ll never say that Bonterra’s practice of organic viticulture is perfect or that it has all the answers. It’s a set of rules and one can argue about them. And yes, some are totally judgmental. Currently though, certified organic viticulture is a standard that has been agreed upon. Viewed in a positive way, organic viticulture is best practices and a means of stepping away from the grape growing approaches of the 1950s through 1980s when the use of chemicals turned soil into cement because we viewed it as inanimate. We planted and fed the plants and forgot to take care of the soil. Today, both organic and biodynamic farming methods focus on healthy soil to produce better tasting grapes and wines.