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Drink Deep of Life: Organically grown wines differ in the growing, but not in the sipping: It's all in the nose, the legs, the body.

Off the Beaten Vine

The best organically grown wines of California

By Mari Kane

Everything is organic these days, but perhaps you think that organic wines are somehow inferior, as if made in less-than-sterile labs by aging hippies with more ecological motivation than enological experience. You know this because the one organic wine you tried years ago proves it.

The reality is that today's organically grown wines have come so far from their well-intentioned roots that you would be hard pressed to single them out from the chemically raised ones. Few wines are entirely organically made (and therefore entitled to use the moniker "organic wine"), meaning they don't use sulfites as a preservative. Without these sulfites, wines can go bad, which is why the naturally occurring chemical is used, albeit sparingly, in the organically grown wines.

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The Producers: A list of organically grown winemakers.

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While the following wines do not necessarily taste superior by virtue of their chemical-free farming, I have found that knowing they first did no harm to the environment tends to make them taste all the more sweet. In essence, organically grown wines are good karma in a glass.

Here now, in order of weight and color, are my top picks among the current releases. (Note: the prices are suggested retail from the winery and may be 15 percent to 20 percent less at local outlets.)

White

Alas, I could not find an organic-anything sparkling wine from California, so I'll start with the next bubblicious thing: Everett Ridge's 2001 Sauvignon Blanc from the Powerhouse Vineyard in Mendocino County ($14). Slightly sweet and very crisp, with zesty slices of grapefruit and lemon-lime, vanilla, and hazelnut, make it perfect to partner with a strawberry-filled fruit salad with whipped cream.

Who'd have thought Humboldt County raised grapes, given the other high-profit crop they grow, but Briceland Vineyards has some interesting offerings. Their 2001 Sauvignon Blanc ($14) is full-bodied with a soft mouthfeel, but it's a little too oaky for Thai food. Lolonis Vineyard's 2000 Fumé Blanc ($13) from their Redwood Valley vineyards in Mendocino has a nose of marshland air and melons; a palette of kiwi, apricot, and cantaloupe; and a long finish of nuts and spices. It could stand up to the spicy and salty alike. Lolonis' 2000 Chardonnay from the Redwood Valley ($17) is earthy and well-oaked with lovely fruit--an able mate for fish, foul, or veggie.

Bonterra Vineyards has the only organically grown Viognier I could find. Their 2000 Mendocino County ($18) has bright fruit: peaches, apricot, butterscotch, and hazelnut with a hint of sweetness, though not cloying. And what a pleasant surprise from Madonna Estate/Mont St. John--Pinot Grigio! From the Carneros region of Napa, their 2001 Grigio ($22) has forward fruit of lemon-lime, with lots of herbs and nuts and well-balanced oak. A delightful wine to pair with any spicy food. Their 2000 Carneros Chardonnay ($22) is also smooth in the mouth and has ripe fruit, spices, and butterscotch that feel soft, yet chewy and substantive.

Benziger's 2000 Semillon, Sonoma Mountain ($22) has good tropical fruit--grapefruit, lemon--but not a ton of it. It's an oaky Semillon with an edge of fruitiness. But if you want a consistently typical California Chardonnay, check out Bonterra Vineyards of Mendocino County. Their 2000 Chardonnay ($13) features clean, fresh apple-pear-peach and figs with well-integrated oak and a soft mouth that's made to appeal to a broad array of palates. Perfect for summer or to cut the heat of a curry.

Red

Starting off the light summer reds collection is Lolonis Vineyard's Non-Vintage Carignane from Redwood Valley ($12), an easy, late-afternoon wine to sip on the veranda. It's approachable and almost refreshing with tannins that don't bite back.

One of the finest organically grown Pinot Noirs is Davis Bynum's 1999 from the Lindley's Knoll vineyard in the Russian River Valley ($45). With big flavors of bright cherry, raspberry, peppers, tobacco, and wood ash, this is a real California-style Pinot. Pair it with pork loin and savor. Briceland Vineyards' 2000 Pinot Noir from Phelps Vineyard in Humboldt County ($22) is way fruity on the palate, with woody spices on the long finish--the kind of Pinot that grabs you below the throat. Madonna Estate/Mont St. John's 2000 Pinot Noir of Carneros ($26) has a similarly big schnozz of cherry and tea, and follows with smoky fruit and peppers and hints of Burgundian funk. Perfect with duck breast pâté.

Yorkville Cellars 1998 "Richard the Lion-Heart" Bordeaux blend Red Table Wine from the Rennie Vineyard in Yorkville Highlands ($25) is earthy, complex, and brooding, but with a sweet side. Yorkville also makes the only organically grown Malbec with grapes raised in the Rennie Vineyard. The 1999 Malbec ($17) has a nose of blanched raspberries and cooked eggs followed by a big mouth of roast turkey, blackberries, plums, and black cherry. A bit inky and pleasantly chewy, it's a wine to accompany blackberry pie. For Rhone lovers, Bonterra Vineyards makes a delicious 1999 Syrah that possesses big aromas of earth and black fruit, a mouth of rich plumminess and smoke with a fleshy edge.

Excellent organically grown Zinfandels are also abundant in California, making it hard to pick a favorite or put them in order. Everett Ridge Vineyards of Dry Creek Valley has a 1999 Estate Zin ($26) that tastes like the fruit in the middle of a blackberry pie. Lush and deep with a smooth mouth, this has concentrated fruit with hints of licorice and a long, jammy finish of blackberries and cocoa.

While less impressive than their Zinfandel, Everett Ridge's 1998 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($24; 10 percent Cabernet Franc) is similarly rich and complex. Wild Hog Winery's 2000 Estate Zinfandel, Sonoma Coast ($20) is luscious, complex, and full-bodied, bulging with blackberries and candied cherries.

Wild Hog's 2000 Estate Pinot Noir ($22) is fleshy, with cherry and strawberry, black tea and wood notes. The Frog's Leap 2000 Zinfandel ($22; 7 percent Petite Sirah, 6 percent Carignane) from Napa Valley is big and spicy with notes of wild cherry, raspberry, and smoke. Soft and silky in the mouth--just what you'd expect from a Napa Valley Zin. Fife's 2000 Zinfandel, from the iron-rich Redhead Vineyard in Mendocino's Redwood Valley ($24), is the more delicate of the bunch and unusual in that citric notes accompany the forward fruit of cherry and raspberry. Subtle, but with attitude--perfect for summer barbecues.

The Madonna Estate/Mont St. John's 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon ($28) is dark and lush, with black fruit, dark cherry, toffee, cocoa, and tobacco in its fat schnozz. With a smooth, velvety mouthfeel, it's every inch a Napa cab. For their 1997 Petite Sirah, "Private Reserve Orpheus" ($30), Lolonis received a laudable 92 point rating from the Wine Spectator. One look at the inky purple color and dark, hairy legs of the 1999 vintage explains why. This is a great big, voluptuous Petite, rich in plumminess, blackberry, wood smoke, and licorice, with the consistency of a port. Slurp!

What's left to say but so long and thanks for all the wine!

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From the June 6-12, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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