You cannot predict the quality of wine by its label, but sometimes you can learn something from its name. Bonterra – a word meaning “good earth” – is a Mendocino County vineyard that produces Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Zinfandel, Rose and Viognier varietals. And the company’s sustainable growing practices live up to its eco-moniker.
Bonterra Vineyards’ wines have been pressed from organic grapes since the company’s first vintage became available to customers in 1993. Bonterra’s pesticide-free legacy is no surprise. Chief winemaker Robert Blue mastered the wine trade under the guidance of sustainable wine-gurus Paul Dolan and Dennis Martin at Fetzer Vineyards. Meanwhile, Bonterra’s director of vineyards, David Koball, boasts 14 years of grape-growing experience, all of it in Mendocino County, and all of it in certified organic and biodynamic vineyards.
Together Blue and Koball, along with their equally accomplished staff, employ an impressive array of earth-friendly tactics to coax their award-winning wines from the California soil. In fact, Bonterra claims to be the leading producer of wines made from organic grapes in the world.
Instead of synthetic pesticides, they rely on a series of integrated pest management strategies such as carefully placed birdhouses, which attract swallows and bluebirds that eat harmful insects. And while most commercial vineyards stretch out into long, pristine rows of perfectly trimmed vines, Bonterra’s vineyard has the charm of a crowded – and sometimes even squawking – farm. Free-roaming chickens and goats graze among the vines, snapping up weeds, cutworms and other pests while “fertilizing” the soil. (Anyone who has read the Polyface Farms section in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma will be intimately familiar with this process.) During the fall, it is not uncommon for bands of wild pigs to venture down from the hills to nibble at the weeds – luckily, they show little interest in the grapes themselves.
According to a recent article on organic wine making posted on Treehugger, Bonterra’s winemakers also experiment with biodiversity. “If you have nothing but grapes, then you can have a specific population of bugs that can live alone on those grapes,” Koball told the Web site. Instead, Bonterra grows compatible plants like lavender and olives alongside the vines to help establish a “web of natural balance,” attracting certain bugs away from the grapes. The lavender is, meanwhile, used by a local organization to make soap, and sold in San Francisco’s fresh flower market.
An assorted collection of cover crops – from barley and oats to Queen Anne’s Lace and yellow mustard – are planted between the rows of vines to enrich soil quality. Koball believes that the extra challenges associated with organic and biodynamic grape growing are part of the joy of his job. He told Treehugger, “… it makes it a lot of fun to be a farmer. You get to play with different plant materials, different locations, try out different theories and methods.” Luckily, Koball leads tours, wine tastings and other educational events at Bonterra Vineyards for trade customers, which means his enthusiasm and wisdom is regularly accessible to the public.
In addition to their growing techniques, Bonterra also uses environmentally friendly packaging: recycled glass in their bottles, recycled paper stock for their labels and they're looking into soy ink on their packages. And all of their wines are vegetarian-friendly, meaning they use no animal derivatives in their winemaking process – something a surprising number of wineries use to fine their product before bottling. (Although they do use egg whites to fine red wines -- vegetarian friendly, but not vegan.)
In a food society still dominated by conventional, mono-crop growing practices, and a general disregard for the people farming the soil, the work that Bonterra does to foster a more conscious, sustainable vineyard stands out as an inspiring example of change.
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