Bonterra Mendocino Reds from Organically Grown Grapes
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Bonterra Mendocino Reds from Organically Grown Grapes

Bob Blue was the founding winemaker at Bonterra Vineyards in Mendocino County in 1990, and he's still at it nearly twenty years later. Vigneron (they sometimes call him a “Vineyard Steward”) Dave Koball has been working certified organic vineyards in Mendocino for 14 years and has been with Bonterra for eight. This pair is dedicated to producing “wine made from organically grown grapes.”

It would be so much easier to call the beverage “organic wine,” but legal considerations dictate labeling. In the United States, a wine labeled “organic” must have a sulfur dioxide level lower than 10 parts per million. Most winemakers, even the most green-oriented, shudder to think of the oxidation, call it “spoilage,” that can occur at such low sulfite levels. You don't see much “organic wine” on the market for this reason. Legally, in California, wines may be certified as being made of “organically grown grapes” if they contain fewer than 100 parts per million of sulfur dioxide; this is ten times the threshold for organic wine and yet far lower than the level of many commercial wines.

Bonterra controls more than 1000 acres of certified organic vines and accesses grapes from 25 outside organic producers. Free of agricultural chemicals, the soil lives in balance with its natural organisms; pest control is accomplished naturally. Bonterra produces a wide range of wines, including several biodynamic offerings I shall review separately, but here I want to review a quartet of mainstream red varietals I feel are real winners. Each of these wines retails for a reachable $16—and that's a maximum; I've seen a few on wine shop shelves for considerably less. The appellation on all four of these wines is Mendocino.

The Bonterra 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon is 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Syrah, 6% Petite Syrah and 2% Merlot, aged 18 months in French and American oak, 30% new, 40% gently used, and 30% neutral. In color, the wine is deep purple with a slightly lighter rim. The pronounced nose (you open the bottle and it hits you) is a rich amalgam of blackberry jam, nutmeg, licorice, violet, black cherry, vanilla, and a mint-like basil element. The wine is decidedly dry, its acidity somewhat energetic, the tannins soft and fine grained. The palate is luscious: cassis, dried black plum, cranberry, blackberry jam, cedar, and that commonly-found dynamic duo of chocolate and vanilla. The long finish brings persistent cranberry tang, cocoa and cedar. Despite its youth, this wine is styled to be ready to drink now.

The Bonterra 2007 Zinfandel is 86% Zin with 11% Petite Syrah and 3% Syrah. This wine sees eight months in French and American oak, none new, 40% once-used, the rest twice-used or neutral. The wine is a deep ruby with a barely perceptible rim. The nose requires a good swirl to express itself in raspberry, black pepper, cedar, orange peel, and thyme. The Zin is dry but not overly so, with respectable acidity, not particularly tannic. My palate registered sour cherry, raspberry, cocoa, tobacco barn, nutmeg, and black pepper. The finish is stimulating, revealing pleasant tannins not previously evident, with a background of cocoa. I believe every Zin is either a shining statement of individuality or an abject failure, and since this is hardly a failure…but I ramble. Enjoy it now.

The Bonterra 2006 Syrah is 97% Syrah, 2% Petite Syrah and 1% of that grape I always like to see, Grenache. As in previous vintages much of the Syrah was sourced from the mountain-top Biodynamic Butler Ranch, though unlike some of its predecessors this vintage contains no Viognier. This wine sees a good deal of oak: 18 months with a significant 42% in new barrels, the remainder divided between partially used and neutral. In color, the wine is a very deep nearly opaque ruby. The nose is pronounced, with baking spice, violet, raspberry, vanilla, pie crust, and smoky oak. The dry wine has some forward acidity; the tannins are a bit chunky and yet soft. The palate is raspberry jam, chocolate, vanilla, pepper, cedar, and smoke. The finish is quite fruity, mouth involving and nicely balanced between elements, with a good smoky ending. This wine is a mouthful, it's most significant element very well-used wood. Put this one aside a few years if you can, but I cannot; it's my favorite of the bunch, at a superb quality price ratio.

The Bonterra 2006 Merlot is 86% Merlot, rounded out with non-Bordeaux varietals: 7% Zinfandel, 4% Syrah, and 3% Petite Syrah, shepherded through twelve months in oak, just 17% new. Biodynamic Merlot from the McNab Ranch makes up about a third of the mix. The color is interesting, a uniform medium-depth clear ruby with barely a rim that connotes the stolidity and solidity I associate with a serious varietal Merlot. The nose is mid-intensity: red plum jam, raspberry, clove, vanilla, and cranberry. In the mouth the Merlot is dry with moderate acidity, very soft tannins, medium body, soft mouthfeel, all vectored along with flavor elements of black cherry, cocoa, vanilla, cranberry. The finish is decidedly fruity, led by black cherry with some sour cherry and cranberry tang. This wine is ready to run but don't leave it alone; it is desperately lonely for food.

Verdict: Mendocino Value

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Mendocino is neither Napa nor Sonoma, for now. Good: we pay less for super wines.

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award

Bonterra Vigneron David Koball inspects vines for leafhoppers

Bonterra Vigneron David Koball inspects vines for leafhoppers.

Bonterra winemaker Bob Blue

Bonterra winemaker Bob Blue.

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