Organic and Biodynamic Wine Camp

March 30, 2009


Utah restaurateurs learn the ropes

by Scott Evans

With the title Organic and Biodynamic Wine Camp, it was impossible to pass up the offer from Francis Fecteau to attend his first formal foray into the vines with some icons in the organic and biodynamic wine industry.

Fecteau’s wine brokerage company, Libation, Inc., works with select wineries to bring their products to Utah. He organized a trip for Salt Lake restaurateurs to visit some of his favorite producers of wine in the Mendocino region: vineyards that focus on organic growing and biodynamic winemaking.

Organic wine is made from grapes grown without the use of pesticides, herbicides or chemical fertilizers. Biodynamic wine goes the extra mile and is a more esoteric creature: Developed by theosophist Rudolf Steiner, biodynamics incorporates the ecological, spiritual, and energetic aspects of farming. The entire vineyard is viewed as a living organism.

Fecteau chose the group of us because we shared an interest in sustainable wine and supported Francis by putting the wines he represents on our wine lists. The entire group was excited to learn more about organic and biodynamic wine.

Our hosts were members of the Fetzer family who own Jeriko Estate, Saracina and Atrea Vineyards in Hopland, as well as Will Bucklin of Bucklin Old Hill Ranch in Glen Ellen. The attendees consisted of about 15 wine buyers and restaurateurs from Salt Lake City and Park City.

After an uncomfortable night in my rental car on a side street in Napa, I decided to jaunt up to Yountville to see the town that hosts the world-famous restaurant The French Laundry. I found the town charming in a Park City Main Street way. I enjoyed a perfect pistachio brioche and an iced Ameri­cano from Bouchon Bakery, sister to The French Laundry, before I met up with my group at Bucklin Estate.

Bucklin Old Hill Ranch lies tucked behind the town of Glen Ellen in Sonoma County. Will Bucklin greeted me warmly as I pulled up the dirt road to his vineyard. His property was reminiscent of the cabins that line portions of Mill Creek Canyon; it communed with the surroundings humbly yet beautifully, with gnarled, graceful vines that at first glance appeared wild.

A spicy and floral Gewürztraminer made its way to my hand as the rest of the group arrived. At $13 retail, this Alsatian-style white wine is a must-have. Buy it while you can, as this may be the last vintage produced by Bucklin.

As we tasted the 2000 through 2006 Bucklin Zinfandels, Will shared the rich history of Old Hill Ranch, organic winemaking, and his sumptuous “field blend” Zinfandels. Old Hill was established by William McPherson Hill in 1851. At the time, today’s practice of planting grapes in neat rows with blocks of varietals grouped together was not followed. As a result, it is necessary to harvest all the varieties together, resulting in the “field blend.” Although the blend consists predominately of Zinfandel, numerous other grapes add complexity and create a one-of-a-kind flavor profile that cannot easily be duplicated.

For at least 50 years, Old Hill Ranch has been farmed organically; it has been certified organic since 2000, when Will produced his first Zinfandel from the property. Dry farming is another vineyard management tool that distinguishes this property. Dry farming simply means not irrigating the vines, which causes their roots to seek water deeper in the soil. The yield of grapes is reduced, but their flavor is concentrated and intensified by this treatment. Combining old vines, dry farming, and organic viticulture makes for wines that are sumptuous and complex.

After a beautiful meal prepared by the Bucklin family under mature oak trees, we made our way along windy roads to Hopland. Our group split to visit two properties: Jeriko Estate and Saracina, both owned by members of the Fetzer family.

Fetzer was a pioneer in the organic wine movement in California, and their impact has been well documented. What is less known is the sale of Fetzer Vineyards to Brown-Forman in 1992, when the Fetzer family agreed to the sale of their family name and the Fetzer and Bonterra brands. The family kept a majority of the land they had purchased in Mendocino. The 11 Fetzer siblings each received a ranch or vineyard as a result of the sale, and two of these siblings hosted our group. The eldest brother, John, who ran Fetzer Vineyards at the time of the sale, owns Saracina and Atrea Vineyards along with his wife Patty Rock. Danny, the youngest sibling, owns Jeriko Estate, where I stayed.

The tastings began with 2006 Saracina Sauvingon Blanc, which expresses captivating acidity with peach and citrus flavors. All Saracina, Atrea and Jeriko wines are certified organic, and most will be certified biodynamic in the near future. Atrea offers two exciting blends-Old Soul Red and The Choir. The 2004 Old Soul Red is a ripe blend of Zinfandel, Syrah, Malbec and Petit Sirah featuring chocolate-covered raspberry and coffee aromas with a dark fruit palate. Their 2006 The Choir is a Rhone-style white wine blending Roussanne and Viognier perfectly to bring forth orange blossom and floral characters while allowing dried fruit flavors to add more structure and depth.

Jeriko is more established and has been known for producing quality organic wine for several years. Recently, George Viera became their winemaker, and after tasting barrel samples of his 2007 Pinot Noir, I am incredibly excited about Jeriko’s future. The sample was a departure in style from previous Jeriko vintages; they are moving towards more roundness and more layers of texture. Other exciting wines we tasted were the 2005 Jeriko Sangiovese with red currant and spice and America’s first sparkling wine made from organically grown grapes, the 2005 Jeriko Brut. I particularly enjoyed the 2005 Jeriko Brut Rosé with fresh raspberry scents and flavors.

After tasting nearly 50 wines over the weekend, I am convinced that organic and biodynamic winemaking is reaching new heights. The old saw that organic wine is flat and poorly made has been contradicted by an ethos that embraces quality and sustainability. Salud!

Scott Evans is a manager and liquor buyer at Squatters.