California’s Green Wine Country

WineGrapes250x166.jpgBy Frances Lefkowitz

In Mendocino–a Northern California county known for its dramatic hills, logging and a certain illegal recreational crop–vineyards are now so prevalent that even the hippies and the cowboys have become wine snobs. Mendocino also has more organic wineries than any county in the nation, and I’m spending a week driving around these incredible peaks and valleys to visit as many as I can. It’s a tough job, as the saying goes, but somebody’s got to do it.

Actually, it is tough tasting 16 glasses of wine in a day. At my third stop, a well-stocked Mendo-only wine shop in humble Hopland called Sip!, I had to ask the proprietress to teach me how to spit like a pro. (Hint: wine spitting is just like regular spitting, only you do it into a decorative container, preferably opaque.)

My first stop this morning was the McDowell Valley Vineyards, run by Billy and Vicki Crawford, who represent the cowboy faction of the county. In their free time, they participate in roping and riding competitions, and they took me around the grounds in a horse and buggy for a true no-carbon-footprint tour. Though Billy Crawford’s “aw-shucks” drawl is real, it belies his grape-growing and winemaking talents: His wines are award-winning and sophisticated. A large portion of his grapes are certified organic, and his ranch has a Fish Friendly Farming certificate as well.

What do fish have to do with grapes? For an avid hunter and fisherman like Crawford, who watched the fish slowly disappear from the ranch pond, the connection is clear: Synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fungicides get into the water table and affect everything on the farm. “We were throwing the ecosystem off,” he told me from the front of the buggy, whip in hand. “The wastewater was going into the pond, causing an algae bloom, which was killing off the fish.” Crawford grew up fishing that pond, and he wanted his sons to be able to fish it, too.

The Crawfords, who both come from grape-growing families in Mendocino, are the first to admit that they were motivated as much by impending regulations as by their concerns for the fish (and, by extension, themselves). “We saw the writing on the wall,” said Vicki, meaning that the county agricultural laws were getting greener, and it would make bad business sense to ignore the trend. They still complain about the bureaucracy and the cost of getting organic certification. “The state should pay the growers, as an incentive to go organic,” she said, only half-joking. But in the end, they are rewarded with fish–and deer, turkey and ducks–that they feel safe eating.

The Crawfords support my theory that tree-hugging environmentalists and rifle-toting hunters have more in common than in dispute. Later this week, I’ll be visiting some hard-core enthusiasts and some of those grape-growing hippies to get their take on the trendiness of the organic movement.

But first, one more sip of that mushroomy Syrah.

Frances Lefkowitz is a writer, editor and book reviewer who publishes in Good Housekeeping, Body+Soul, Natural Health and other magazines. Her personal essays have been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, and her memoir of poverty, How to Have Not, comes out next year from MacAdam/Cage.

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