When I walk through the wine section at my local Whole Foods, I know right where to find whichever bottle I’m looking for: the European and southern hemisphere wines are sorted by country; the American versions by grape variety. It’s a workable system, assuming you have a basic understanding of wine.
But one day I noticed a small collection of bottles (a few shelves, at most) called Environmentally Conscious Wines. How had I not stumbled upon it before? As I looked around, it was easy to see why not: tucked between the jug wines and no-alcohol wines, it lay squarely in the No Man’s Land of the adult beverage section. I’d probably walked by it dozens of times, never once stopping to give those bottles a glance.
Shame on me.
There were sustainably farmed wines from Argentina, California, and France; varietal wines and blends; reds, rosés, and whites. And there was one label that popped up several times, a name I knew well: Bonterra Organic Vineyards.
My first experience with Bonterra was 15 years ago, when I came across a to-die-for recipe for Indian Spiced Chicken Salad in Food and Wine magazine. Their recommended wine pairing for the dish was Bonterra Viognier.
I’m a long-time lover of Viognier, but often find new-world versions lacking the finesse (and acidity) of their old-world cousins. That said, the Bonterra exceeded my expectations and was a phenomenal match with the salad. The best part? It was made with organically farmed grapes but still affordable. Looking back, I consider the Bonterra my gateway bottle to California Viognier appreciation.
Since then, I’ve enjoyed many other Bonterra wines: Sauvignon Blanc, Rosé, and Merlot among them. All represent excellent value, delivering wines of varietal character that reflect a sense of place. It’s not cheap to farm organically, yet these wines easily fit into most budgets.
Note: Both wines described in this post were given to me as samples. Opinions expressed herein are mine, all mine.
Organic and Biodynamic Methods
Beginning in 1987, Bonterra committed to organic farming methods, believing that fostering biodiversity in the vineyards exerted positive effects on the grapes, allowing pure varietal character to come through in the wines. If you stroll through the vines, you’ll notice pops of color here and there: native flowers blossom between the rows, attracting beneficial insects and birds. And you might come across a chicken or two, or even a sheep! Both contribute to the vineyard’s ecosystem – the chickens eating harmful pests, and the sheep trimming the grass that grows around the vines. Nature’s lawnmowers, if you will.
During our #winestudio session with Bonterra, we tasted the 2015 California Merlot, a blend of grapes from several lots. Each lot was fermented separately to ensure its special aromas and flavors would be represented in the final wine. All underwent malolactic fermentation before being added to the blend, which was ultimately re-blended with small amounts of Petite Sirah and Malbec. Aging (12 months) took place in a combination of French and American oak (45% new).
Notes: 2015 Bonterra Organic Vineyards California Merlot (13.7% abv; $16 retail)
Color: Deep purple core, lighter magenta at the rim.
Nose: Ripe black fruit – think plum and cherry – mingle with vanilla, fresh-ground coffee, and cinnamon. There’s a lot happening here!
Palate: All the fruit on the nose, plus a hint of bittersweet chocolate. A creamy vanilla swirl complemented by baking spices. Medium body, medium acidity, long finish making me remember the lovely ripe fruit.
Verdict: A very nice wine for sipping on its own but would pair well with grilled steak or roast pork. Brilliant to have organic wine at $16 a bottle.
Embracing Biodynamic Principles
In several plots, however, Bonterra has gone a step further and introduced biodynamic principles into its viticulture. Many of the tenets of organic farming are observed in biodynamic methods as well, but there are additional requirements that, according to Bonterra, “treat the land as a living organism that is self-contained, self-sustaining, and follows the cycles of nature.” Skeptics liken it to astrology, doubting any real effects on the fruit.
Whether you believe in biodynamics or not, it’s hard to argue with an approach that espouses a holistic view of the vineyard and everything connected to it. Bonterra embraces this philosophy, calling it an homage to the family farms of yesteryear, where humans, animals, plants, and the land itself were interdependent, each sustaining and relying on the others for a successful harvest. You can read more about their methods here.
Currently, Bonterra has four separate parcels that are Demeter-certified biodynamic (an achievement that must be reviewed annually): the Blue Heron, McNab, and Butler vineyards. #Winestudio participants sampled a beautiful Chardonnay, The Roost, from the Blue Heron Vineyard in Mendocino County.
The vineyard takes its name from the graceful blue herons that nest in the trees along the banks of the Russian River. It’s the perfect spot for growing Burgundian-style Chardonnay, as the climate is cool, and the soils are an ancient alluvial mix. To ensure perfect ripeness of the fruit, harvest takes place over an extended period, with grapes from different vineyard blocks kept separate, allowing the winemaker to create a blend using only the very best. The wine was aged in 100% French oak barrels (30% new) for 18 months.
Notes: 2015 The Roost Single Vineyard Mendocino County Chardonnay (14.2% abv; $45 retail)
Color: Medium lemon yellow.
Nose: A profusion of lemon, pear, and pineapple, with soft notes of vanilla and hazelnut.
Palate: A bit buttery, with bright lemon flavors and tart acidity. Medium- to full-body, with a rich mouthfeel like cream. The finish is long, with notes of lemon zest and roasted hazelnuts.
Verdict: A rich yet balanced style of Chardonnay that paired beautifully with roast chicken and vegetables.
Bonterra Wines: A Balanced Approach to Life
As I pondered both of these beautiful wines, my first thought was appreciation: for having had the chance to learn about and taste them; for Bonterra’s commitment to protecting the environment, way before it was cool; for the reminder that a balanced approach to life is our best path to health and happiness. It’s a mind-set inherent in many cultures, key to Buddhist practice, Taoist philosophy, and the clan stories of the First Nations people. That got me thinking about symbolism, particularly the use of animals, birds, and mythical creatures to represent values like bravery, wisdom, and resilience.
I spent 10 days in Vancouver a few years back, and had the good sense to take a guided tour of the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology. Over the course of a couple of hours, I learned about the tribes of the First Nations, from their family structures to their totem traditions. It was by far my favorite part of the trip, and that’s saying something! Vancouver is breathtakingly beautiful and there’s lots to do, but this museum gave me an experience that will stay with me forever.
The clan stories fascinated me. Each family or clan, has a totem, usually represented by a creature (real or mythical.) Only members of a particular clan are permitted to tell that clan’s story. If you’re born into the raven clan, for example, you can share the raven’s story, but you may not share the bear’s story. Anyway, what does this have to do with my Bonterra story?
As I took a sip of The Roost Chardonnay, my mind wandered to the blue heron and what it might represent. Maybe Bonterra simply named the vineyard after the birds who returned each year to nest nearby; but perhaps there was more to it. Maybe a clan story?
I did some internet digging on the blue heron and its role in native people’s history. What I found was quite interesting:
According to the First Nations Museum site, the heron symbolizes going with the flow, working with the elements and Mother Nature rather than struggling against them. And, according to myth, the heron is able to communicate with supernatural forces.
Ted Andrews, author of Animal Speak: The Spiritual & Magical Powers of Creatures Great & Small says the heron represents balance; an ability to be sure-footed on the ground and to fly gracefully through the sky. It is a reminder to proceed through life without fear, ever willing to evolve and learn, relying on ourselves to meet challenges and solve problems. Best of all, though, the blue heron is considered to be the spiritual guardian of the nature-lover’s soul.
Sure, the Blue Heron Vineyard is probably named for its avian neighbors. But I can easily imagine the folks at Bonterra Organic Vineyards as proud members of the Blue Heron Clan: Mother Nature’s deputies, charged with protecting her treasures and teaching the rest of us to appreciate them. A life-long mission to improve things, one row of vines at a time.
If you’re a wine lover but are not familiar with the #winestudio program run by maestro Tina Morey, click here immediately! Each Tuesday evening at 9pm ET, Tina leads a wine safari in which we learn, directly from winemakers, the hows and whys behind their prized bottles. It’s unlike any traditional wine program I can think of, and I mean that in a good way. Wine professionals, journalists, educators, and marketers join the on-line discussion, making it the most dynamic program out there. And we manage to have a pretty good time while we’re at it. Interested? Tune in via Twitter, following the hashtag #winestudio.