Different Shades of Green in Wine Country

WineCountry.jpgBy Frances Lefkowitz

Once upon a time the American pork industry created the slogan, “the other white meat,” to capitalize on the popularity of health food and to attract eaters who were shunning red meat. Now the wineries in Northern California’s Mendocino county are promoting their area as “America’s greenest wine region.” But what exactly does “green” mean and just how green is this area?

Traveling this week through the county’s dramatic slopes and valleys, I first have to say that it is literally very green here. California is in the middle of a dangerous two-year drought, and this year’s winter rains are continuing to hold themselves back. But the natives–oaks, evergreens, manzanitas–know how to deal with drought. Their brittle, dark-green foliage is draped with lacy, pale-green Spanish moss, and their trunks are covered in olive-green mosses. And there was just enough rain in November to cause bright new grasses to shoot up between the trees and shrubs.

In the vineyards and wineries, I’m also discovering a broad range of greens. On my second day here, I encountered:

McDowell Valley Vineyards–run by a small grower who’s gotten his family farm certified Fish Friendly and recently started converting part of his crop to organic methods.

Bonterra–a large, corporate producer, which grows 1,150 acres of grapes organically and 224 acres biodynamically. Biodynamic is a farming method developed by Rudolf Steiner, who also started the Waldorf schools–it is kind of like organic plus. It has a spiritual as well as environmental dimension, and promotes a self-sustaining system which, for instance, composts its own farm waste rather than trucking in fertilizer from elsewhere (for more on biodynamic wines, see our Wine Buying Guide).

Albertina Wine Cellars–a very small producer whose steep, picturesque vineyards are certified sustainable, but are decidedly not organic. Owner Fred Zmarzly, a retired developer, served me a lush, soft cabernet at a cliff-side table while telling me that the synthetic weed killer Roundup is harmless, necessary, and reduces his carbon footprint (because he only has to spray it once, rather than making four or five tractor-driven applications of organic sprays).

Yorkville Cellars–a devoutly organic vineyard over the hill in western Yorkville Highlands, a lovely spot with its own appellation. Growers Deborah and Edward Wallo have had organic certification for 22 years, and recently became Fish Friendly as well, because, as Deborah put it to me, “We’re at the top of a watershed, and I have always felt that it was important for the environment as well as for the quality of the fruit.” Clearly she’s right about the quality, because as we were tasting her Bordeaux-style reds and whites, a food-and-wine writer, who’d just returned from a tasting tour of Argentina, stopped in to buy a case.

LeVin–Another small, ridge-top vineyard in this appellation growing organic grapes and olives, whose hippie-ish owner, Eric Levin, believes that Roundup “takes the life out of the soil by killing microbes and earthworms.” While the Mendocino wine industry is using “green” as a marketing term, he wants it be known that he got into organics for the right reasons–the health of the environment and of the people who drink the wine and eat his olive oil. “This is about health, not money,” he told me as we sipped syrahs in his makeshift cellar tasting room. Above that cellar is a guest house, for rent by the night, with a view that looks down on the many shades of green in the magnificent Mendocino landscape.

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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