In early January, on the sort of bright and balmy day that would become more rule than exception in Northern California this winter, Dave Koball is escorting us about the vineyards of McNab Ranch south of Ukiah in Mendocino County.
McNab Ranch is a 378- acre spread tucked into a box canyon not far off Highway 101, yet so isolated that cellphone service is but a dream. It's at the heart of the more than 900 acres of vines from which Bonterra Organic Vineyards draws its grapes, yet the winery has no tasting room. The focus at McNab is so much on growing grapes that not even Bonterra's winemaker, Bob Blue, is around this day.
This is Koball's show, and as he makes his way from plot to plot he warms to his assignment, which is to outline how seriously Bonterra takes its commitment to the principles of organic, sustainable and biodynamic farming. There's an owl box, here's a stand of lavender, and then he gestures to the far reaches of the ranch where the resident 2,000 sheep are grazing. He strolls past a steer's horn to be packed with manure and quartz and buried in a vineyard, then grasps a clutch of cattails to show how they are used to tie vines. Recycling, reusing and renewal are his themes.
This is a special place, he muses, in large part for its isolation. The whole idea of organic, sustainable and biodynamic farming, he suggests, is to preserve and enhance an area's ecosystem without outside intervention, especially in the form of commercial pesticides and fertilizers, thus the lavender to attract helpful bees, the owls to keep pests under control, the sheep roaming through the rows, and so forth. From such special sites, goes the Bonterra mantra, come wines uncommonly expressive of the grapes and the land where they were grown.
The first Bonterra wine was released 20 years ago, but the Fetzer family, which had founded its eponymous winery in Mendocino County in 1968, sensed an environmental and marketing opportunity in the late 1980s and at that time began to cultivate vineyards organically for what eventually would evolve as the Bonterra brand. They released their first wine from organically farmed vineyards with the 1990 vintage, and in 1993 launched Bonterra as a stand-alone label.
Today, Bonterra is the nation's most visible and successful brand devoted to organically made wines. Production is at 350,000 cases per vintage, moving fast toward 500,000. The Fetzers long ago sold its brands, which since 1992 had been owned by the Kentucky spirits house Brown-Forman.
Two years ago, Brown- Forman sold the Fetzer house to the massive Chilean wine producer Concha y Toro. For Bonterra, the sale looks to be a good fit, given the recognition that Concha y Toro long has received for its sustainable farming practices.
Bonterra fit well into the Concha y Toro portfolio for another reason. It's a value brand, delivering clear quality at attractive prices, the very kinds of wines that form the backbone of Concha y Toro's business. Though Bonterra's prices have inched up in recent years, the wines continue to offer bargains both in their expressiveness and for the precise hands-on care with which the winery selects and tends its vineyards.
Mendocino County long has been celebrated for zinfandel, and Bonterra's 2010 interpretation of the varietal showcases it in a readily accessible claret style; bright berry fruit is accented with touches of earthiness and spice, creating a lighthearted zinfandel splendid for the spring table.
Bonterra's 2011 chardonnay, also made with grapes grown in Mendocino County, is husky yet buoyant, with a complexity rare for such a modestly priced representative of the genre; it has the bite of Granny Smith apples, the herbal tang of lemon verbena, and whiffs of cloves and smoke from oak barrels.
Just as Bonterra showed the way for organically made wines, it is showing that viognier yet may play a significant role on California's wine landscape; the 2010 is round but vivacious, its inherent floral aroma bolstered with a touch of muscat, its fruit running delicately yet distinctly to apricot and peach.
Bonterra also isn't giving up on merlot, nor should it, to judge by the minty, silken and persistent 2010.
Pardon me, but I've got to interject here another aspect of the Bonterra story: The brand isn't unlike a college athletic program that has done exceptionally well in its conference for years and now wants to move up a division and play with the bigger guys. Bonterra, in short, is eager to be recognized not just for producing value wines but for making the sorts of wines reserved for Saturday nights.
Toward that end, it's released a proprietary wine called "The Butler," after the Butler Ranch, an old cherry farm that looms high over McNab Ranch. Its soils, elevation, exposure and cooler temperatures, figure the Bonterra team, are ideal for Rhone Valley grape varieties like syrah and mourvedre. That's what they've used to create the inaugural 2007 Butler, which is mostly syrah but also includes grenache, mourvedre and petite sirah.
The result is a Bonterra wine darker, richer, firmer and more layered than what we have become accustomed in the brand. It's plummy and tarry, with a lashing of anise, frank tannins and a long finish. At $55, it's a Saturday wine, all right, especially when cassoulet also is on the table.
Now back to Bonterra's line of everyday wines, the most exciting of which to me these days is the Bonterra Organic Vineyards 2010 Mendocino and Lake Counties Cabernet Sauvignon. This is one focused cabernet sauvignon, the fruit all sunny cherries augmented with eucalyptus and laurel.
The color is bright, the body lean but with definition, the tannins supple and the oak coming through just as a suggestion of charcoal. It's one persuasive case that organic, sustainable and biodynamic farming may indeed give an edge to what a grape and the place where it is grown have to say.
Bonterra Organic Vineyards 2010 Mendocino and Lake Counties Cabernet Sauvignon
By the numbers:.b 13.5 percent alcohol, 110,000 cases, $16
Context: Bonterra has an "organic life aficionado," Lia Huber, a Sonoma County food writer whose company, Nourish Network, emphasizes wholesome eating. Her recipes for dishes to accompany Bonterra wines are in the "organic life" section of the winery's website, www.bonterra.com. Her dishes braised short rib and mushroom ragu and sliced skirt steak with sweet potato hash should work well with the cabernet sauvignon. Her own website, www.nourishnetwork.com, includes recipes fitting for the cabernet sauvignon, such as the double decker portabello burgers, the smoky-sweet tri tip and the "improv cassoulet."
Availability: Bonterra wines are widely available in the Sacramento region, including local branches of Whole Foods, Nugget, Raley's and BevMo.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne's selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions and visits to wine regions. Read his blog at www.ayearinwine.com and reach him at email@example.com.