Charlie Barra is the 83-year-old proprietor of Barra of Mendocino, a winery producing organic grapes in Northern California’s Redwood Valley. He purchased the land in 1954, and planted new vines the next year. As a California winemaker for over 60 years, he’s a legend just for longevity if nothing else. But Barra has also taught other winemakers, people who went on to found classic wineries of their own. And, he grows his grapes organically.
Organic wine grapes are still pretty unique, even in the U.S. Perhaps it’s a cost issue, perhaps it’s because organically-grown wines usually can’t be labeled as such: most organic vineyards, including Barra, add sulfites to the barrel (to stabilize the wine and prevent rot). Even if those sulfites are natural, their presence makes the wine non-organic, at least according to the government.
Still, the Barra winery is certified by California Certified Organic Farmers. Practically speaking, this means that the grapes are “grown without conventional pesticides or herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation.”
And in terms of what visitors might see at this organic winery: grape plants planted along the perimeter not for harvesting, but for animals to harvest. The lovely idea behind this is that the deer and rabbits will stuff themselves before ever needing to enter the vineyard; Mr. Barra has made himself the kindly alter ego of Beatrix Potter’s Mr. McGregor. Also, plants like clover and peas are used as groundcover, and returned back into the soil to serve as nutrients for the grape vines.
This embrace of nature takes place across 175 acres, where grapes are grown and stomped into Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Grigio and Muscat Canelli. (Yes, that is a lot of variety for one vineyard.)
The Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah are the most consistently excellent varietals at the label. But the winemakers are especially excited about their 2009 bottles of every kind: the grapes were picked later than usual after a warm summer and fall, giving them time to develop a lot of flavor.
Barra’s used the same wine growing and making methods for the history of the winery. Obtaining the third party organic certification just put a label on what they had already been doing for years. As Charlie Barra famously says, “I’ve really been farming organically for 50 years…I just didn’t know it the first 30!”