Mendocino County: Home of Organic Wines

By Mike Geniella
The Press Democrat
November, 2006

Caroline Frey at Frey Vineyards
Caroline Frey of Frey Vineyards surveys a biodynamic vineyard planted with petite syrah grapes in the Redwood Valley north of Ukiah. The Frey family’s winery was the first in Mendocino County to produce organic wines in 1980. JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat

Mendocino County leads nation in acreage devoted to grapes grown using certified process

UKIAH - Mendocino County has more certified organic wineries — 15 — than any county in the nation, making it home to more than a third of all certified organic vineyard acreage in California. It’s a trend receiving national attention, and its success is a combination of visionary winemakers and a climate and geology that makes Mendocino County an almost perfect environment for organic farming.

The Wall Street Journal has taken notice of the rising popularity of Mendocino County wines made from organically grown grapes.

“Organic wines are hot,” Journal wine columnists Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher wrote in their first-ever article devoted to organic wine production.

That was in May, and the news since then has gotten even better. Two weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times declared Mendocino wines are of “astonishing quality.”

“While California’s better known wine regions have settled into comfortable regional characters — Napa is Bordeaux, Sonoma is Burgundy, the Central Coast is southern Rhone — little Mendocino is joyous anarchy,” declared Times writer Russ Parsons.

The attention is welcomed by Mendocino growers who experiment with just about every grape variety, from Navarro Vineyard’s spicy gewurztraminer to Jeriko Estate’s Brut, the nation’s first sparkling wine produced from organically grown chardonnay grapes along the Russian River at Hopland. Jeriko this summer beat other premium sparkling wine producers in the state by winning best of show at the prestigious Orange County Fair wine competition.

Governed by state certified practices, the grapes are grown organically without the use of synthetic fertilizers, fungicides, pesticides and herbicides.

In a new report called “Pure Mendocino,” prepared by growers, wineries and marketers involved in Mendocino’s organic wine industry, the statistics tell the story.

About 18 percent of Mendocino County’s vineyards are certified organic, compared to just 1 percent in Sonoma County and 5 percent in Napa County. By acreage, Mendocino has 2,820, Napa has 1,686, and Sonoma trails with 565.

The report contended that when noncertified organic vineyard production is taken into account, the total acreage dedicated to organic wine growing reaches almost 25 percent in Mendocino County.

Mendocino County growers have increasingly turned to organic grape production as a means to carve out a niche in a fiercely competitive global wine market. But there’s more than marketing behind the Mendocino move.

Shaped by colder winters and hotter summers, Mendocino’s grape-growing regions show a resistance to many vineyard-related diseases including powdery mildew.

Neighboring Lake County shares similar climate characteristics.

As a result, Mendocino and Lake counties do not have moth pests, and leafhoppers and mites are minor problems compared to more temperate growing regions in Sonoma and Napa counties. Lake and Mendocino counties have no confirmed cases of Pierce’s disease, for which cold winter conditions are credited. And most of the rainfall in both counties occurs during winter months, avoiding fungal diseases that occur during the growing season such as bunch rot.

Grape-growing experts said in essence it’s easier for organic farming practices to take hold in Mendocino and Lake counties than in the cooler, damper conditions of Sonoma or Napa.

“There’s bigger disease pressures in Sonoma County, just as there are in Napa,” said Nick Frey, executive director of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission.

Shannon Gunier of the Lake County Winegrape Commission said there’s growing local interest in organic farming practices, but “there’s no doubt Mendocino growers and wineries got the jump on all of us.”

Glenn McCourty, a University of California viticulture adviser, credits Mendocino growers for being willing to experiment while holding onto sound farming practices.

“This effort is a collaboration that has evolved over the last 20 years between young and old, farmer and university researchers, and alternative agricultural practitioners,” he said.

McCourty noted Mendocino’s grape-growing heritage dates to the 1860s, and while new organic farming techniques are proudly touted, “we’ve held onto the good traditions of growing vines the old way.”

Among them are those practiced by Redwood Valley grower Charlie Barra, who recently completed his 61st harvest. In his 200-acre organic vineyard, Barra produces 10 varietals for wines produced and bottled entirely in Mendocino County.

Barra said he stopped using non-organic practices after witnessing the effects of chemicals on his land, his workers and water and wildlife.

The oldest organic winery in the nation is operated by the Frey family of Redwood Valley. Founded in 1980, the winery remains a family operation.

Fetzer Vineyard’s organic label, Bonterra, has seen sales approach 200,000 cases a year. Bob Blue, Bonterra’s general manager and winemaker, said he believes Mendocino is the “epicenter of organics.”

“The message is spreading as each farmer discovers the benefits of organic farming and passes on that information,” said Blue.

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