I had come to California because I was interested in learning more about organic and biodynamic farming, specifically as it pertains to wine. Like, oh, pretty much everyone I know, I've become more and more invested in making sure that the things I put into my body are as devoid of harmful chemicals as possible, but my interest in organic farming goes beyond myself, and extends into putting more care into how we are treating the land—particularly as we are faced with the looming specter of catastrophic climate change.
Nothing seemed particularly ominous as I walked through the vineyards late last September. Rather, it felt Edenic. Mendocino County has a very low population density, and as I was led up a steeply curving road to the top of the vineyards in Hopland, I thought I'd be more likely to see deer, coyote, or even bears than other people. (In fact, as Cichocki told me, "the bears have been getting into the grenache" as of late.) The air was still, and even the sounds of distant cars were barely audible. It was the kind of place whose beauty is remarkable—literally, I couldn't stop myself from saying, over and over again, how beautiful it was. Words failed me, so stunning was the interplay of velvety green vines and the vast expanses of tawny hillside. It was the height of the dry season, or, as Bob Blue, Bonterra's founding winemaker, told me, it would have been a lush, verdant setting, more like Ireland than anything else.
These extremes in climate-related conditions are typical for California, which, as a state, has been dealing with extreme weather for some time now. Part of that is due to long-established weather patterns, but not all of it, and recent droughts and fires are thanks to the larger climate changes that the whole world is facing. And farmers are on the front lines of noticing these changes as they are happening; their livelihood is the land, and its health is of paramount importance to them.
This, then, is why I was so interested in talking to people who are in touch with the land and committed to treating it with the reverence it deserves, by refusing to inundate it with pesticides and promoting biodynamic farming, which is predicated upon promoting the health of the entire farming ecosystem, from the crops and the surrounding flora and fauna to the nearby waterways and even relationships between farmers themselves. We're all part of this world, the thinking goes, and so we ought to take care of each other as well as our shared home.
Beyond that, though, organic and biodynamic farming results in heartier crops that are less likely to falter during weather fluctuations. As I was told on my tour of Bonterra, "If you're living on synthetic fertilizers, a simple thing can knock you out." In essence, it is through this type of farming that crops—and the people who depend upon them—can survive pests or deficiency or drought. Rather than reacting to calamity, they're already prepared. As was explained to me, "Organic farming offers some terrific climate-resilient buffers, helping vines to better withstand heat spikes in warmer months and erosion during winter storms. Balancing organic farming with awareness and preparedness on the human side is our best approach to ensuring the long-term vitality of [the vineyards] in all conditions."
Organic farming can seem like such a simple good that it's sometimes surprising to think of how many people have an almost knee-jerk resistance to it. In part, this is because the "organic" designation is viewed as being associated with elites and high prices. This is understandable—food and drink are a necessity, and few people want to spend more than they think they can afford on basic staples. And yet, it is also a way of thinking that must be changed, because the people who are most affected by non-organic farming are those who live off polluted waterways; a shift toward organic food as being integral to populism is important as we understand better and better that healthy soil equals healthy people.
And organic wine is a huge part of that. Something that I learned at Bonterra is that harvested grapes are never washed before being made into wine—this goes for organic and non-organic wines. That means that everything on the grapes, including all pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, goes directly into the wine you drink. For someone like me, who would never dream of eating a grape from the supermarket without washing it first, that really gave me pause. Yet, even for people who eat organic food and drink organic milk, organic wine isn't always a top priority. Perhaps this is because alcohol inherently feels like an indulgence, so they don't think it matters if the wine is organically produced? Or perhaps it's because they view organic wine as being as cost prohibitive as other organic products? Perhaps both things! But this is a thought process that needs changing. While organic wine can be more expensive, it is still possible to find it at not too high a cost (most of Bonterra's wine can be found at between $14 to 18 a bottle), and it's a price worth paying when you realize what it is that you'll actually be consuming, i.e. pesticide-free wine.