Monday, June 13, 2011

Organic Sonoma!

Lucky me, sipping Dragonsleaf Syrah!

I spent the past few glorious days touring organic and biodynamic wineries in Sonoma.

Organic basically means nothing chemical or toxic is used in the growing - no pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, etc.  This means either a lot of hand-weeding, or some really creative use of predator bugs and beasts to eat other bugs and to graze the weeds down.  Sheep, for example, is favored alternative to the herbicide.

Biodynamic is something similar, with an additional concern for the vineyard ecosystem in it's modern manifestation, and with an almost cultish set of practices in its early manifestations.  While I am glad when wineries opt to respect the ecosystem, a primary concern for me is toxic residue in the wine.  I want my produce free and clear of toxic residue.  Click here for a little primer on biodynamic wines.

The desire to drink organic and biodynamic wines shouldn't surprise anyone who knows me, but the idea moved from desire to imperative while walking the vineyards of the Castle de Amorosa.  My trip companions wanted to tour the castle, but...I hate to admit how snobby I am...I did not want to tour a fake castle.  Boring.  So I opted to walk the vineyard, for the fresh air and the opportunity to fiddle around with the settings on my newish camera. 
Along the road from Castle de Amorosa

Except...the overpowering stink of pesticide made the vineyard a truly unpleasant walk.

Plan B was an exit strategy - walk 3 miles to Calistoga to find breakfast.  Down the long, long driveway away from the Castle I tried breathing through the fabric of my shirt.  I thought about how right this minute pesticides were being absorbed through the skin of the fruit and the leaf system, and later how pesticides would be taken up through the vine's roots.  Making its way into the fruit, the pesticides would tinge the  flavor of the fruit with a tinny, bitter chemical taste reminiscent of the odor I now smelled.

While I appreciate the unique flavors imparted by a mineral laden soil, or even the smokey ash overlay from the 2008 wine country fire, the idea of pesticide-flavors sickened me.  Maybe most people, used to buying non-organic produce, have acclimated to this overlay of toxic flavoring, but I - whether imaginary or not - believe I can taste it.

Porter Creek vintner's home
That was Thursday.  Friday we hit Sonoma, where I was responsible for the tour itinery.  Our first stop was Porter Creek, a tiny little organic-biodynamic winery off the beaten path - so small you cannot find their wines in a store.  Their store is reminiscent of the old local general store - small, cozy, a place where friends might like to gather to catch up on the news of the day.  Their wines are complex but a bit pricey for me.  I'd read online (sorry can't remember where) that this is one of the premier wineries in Sonoma, and I can understand why after learning about their vintner, who has wine making credentials from both France and the U.S.  His broad education translated into a host of unusual wines.

I learned from the tasting host too.  One wise gem: "Don't join a wine club unless there's a quality about the vintner's work that you like across the board, in each of their wines - so that even if you don't necessarily prefer that particular grape regularly, you can recognize a quality that you like when you drink that grape from the vintner."   Heeding his advice (and my wallet) I did not join the Porter Creek wine club.   I did, however, buy a couple of bottles of a luscious 2008 old vine Carignane.  Loved that!

Portner Creek vineyards

The other thing I'll remember from Porter Creek is the big piece of heavy equipment visible through the picture window directly behind our tasting host, making its way between rows of vines behind the Porter Creek tasting room.  Those vines belong to Gallo.  Gallo purchased the acreage next to Porter Creek from the MacMurray - as in "My Three Sons" Fred, the deceased actor - Ranch.  Friday, Gallo crews were spreading RoundUp, the infamous Monsanto herbicide that kills everything it touches.  Except, that is, crops that have been genetically modified not to be effected.  But that's another post for another day.

I asked the fellow at Porter Creek how they keep their own vineyards - immediately next door - free of the RoundUp.  He pointed out a rather wide swath of land, a drainage area, that successfully keeps the run-off away from Porter Creek dirt.  But, what, I asked him, about the air drift?  He shrugged his shoulders and promised me that the vineyards were certifiably biodynamic.  It must be a de minimus theory or perhaps the wind patterns at Porter Creek are favorable, because I could not smell the RoundUp outside the tasting room.  

The one bad memory I'll take from my June vineyards visit will be the pesticide odor tinging the beauty of the vineyard environment.  I do not want RoundUp in my wine.  

Sonoma and it's little-bit-wild, rustic feel does something for me, and for the wine too.  We tasted all over Sonoma.  I don't have time to give you the whole rundown, so I'll do an old favorite and a new favorite.

The old favorite: Of course, I made my must visit trip to Peterson Winery on Dry Creek Road.  I've been happily drinking Peterson since 2006.  Fred and Jamie, father and son vintners, must have purchased their taste buds from the same bin where I drew mine.  My favorite Peterson wines are their Bradford Mountain wines.  I learned from the Petersons that grapes grown on the hill have a more concentrated flavor due to the rain downhill run-off, leaving the grapes less hydrated and more full of flavor.  Valley grapes, by contrast, get more water sitting on the field, settling into the ground to be drawn up into the plants.

Bradford Mountain wines must be everybody's favorite because they are the most expensive at $48 a bottle.  However, Peterson's has a bottle called Zero Manipulation ($18) that has that same mouth feel as the bigger bottle, along with whatever creates that Peterson magic.  Jamie gave us a wonderful tour of their very small, very garage feel wine making facility in the warehouse behind the tasting room.  You can see pics on my facebook wall if you're so inclined.  With my hefty wine club discount, the less expensive Peterson wines have long been my favorite go-to reds.  The Bradford Mountain reds are my favorite birthday present to self. 

The new favorite:  My happy discovery whose wines have that something the Porter Creek host was talking about, something that appealed to me across every bottle we tasted:  Imagery Estate Wines. Imagery Estate is the only winery whose wine club I joined this trip.  There wines are right up there with Peterson, so much so that I was moved to tell our tasting host about Peterson.

Imagery Estate Winery is out in the middle of nowhere, so it surprised me to find a thriving little community set into a piece of landscaped heaven.  The tasting room was modern, a big, rectangular bar set up in the middle of a large, airy room full of stuff for sale, art work, and lots of people.  The tasting hosts were friendly and knowledgeable.  Ours, Jen Patterson, let us taste pretty much everything we wanted, even insisting that I try one of their whites over my protests that I'm not a white drinker.  I didn't buy it but even the white had that something.  Or at least it didn't have the other thing that makes me complain.  All Imagery Estates' wines, by the way, are either sustainable, organic or biodynamic, and they are working constantly to improve all things sustainable about their winery too.

Right this minute, I'm sipping a glass of Imagery Estate Dragonsleaf Syrah, the bottle I chose to purchase on the spot and carry home in my suitcase.  However, I joined the wine club, and ordered a case of mixed wines to be shipped.  If you like a beautiful red with a long finish, you owe it to yourself to try Imagery Estate wines.  I even loved their Tempranillos, which were seriously different than wines of the same grape I drank across Spain, complaining the whole way. 

Oh, and the winery has a reputation for a fine gallery of artwork that is also the art for their labels.

Imagery Estate was the last winery of the weekend.  I almost didn't make it there because I was busy enjoying a meal of spanish tapas at the Vineyards Inn on the corner of Adobe Canyon Road and Highway 12.   Luckily I was motivated enough to pull away from the table before the day ran out.  If I'd missed Imagery Estates, I'd have missed a wine I will be drinking for years to come.

And I'm very happy to share this amazing find with my friends who want to have their green and drink it too.

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