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Growing Grapes in Mendocino

Back in April, I had the good fortune to have lunch in Toronto with David Koball, Vineyard Director for Fetzer-Bonterra Vineyards which are situated in Mendocino County, California just above the Sonoma and Napa valleys.

Back in April, I had the good fortune to have lunch in Toronto with David Koball, Vineyard Director for Fetzer-Bonterra Vineyards which are situated in Mendocino County, California just above the Sonoma and Napa valleys.

From northern California, David earned an undergraduate degree in Plant Science at UC Davis, and a Masters degree in Plant Pathology at Cornell University inNew York.

After a short time doing research, he decided he missed the land too much and 18 years ago returned to California, and amazed at what you can do with grapes, he established his own vineyard in Mendocino.

Since 2003, he has been working with Fetzer and their organic Bonterra brand which produced its first vintage in 1993.

Currently, they farm 960 acres, of which 284 acres over 3 ranches adhere to the requirements of Biodynamic farming.

In 2011, the Bonterra and Fetzer properties were purchased by Chile’s Concha y Toro, and David says it is great being owned by what is first and foremost a wine company.

It is extremely refreshing and positive, and Concha y Toro is fully supportive of redeveloping the vineyards.

Amongst other reasons, David believes in an organic approach to bring out the fruit flavours, resulting in wines that are crisp, fresh and varietally correct. 

Getting it right is a big learning process, but, in paying attention to the natural cycles and balancing the ecology, the result is more natural farming.

Efficient function involves diversity, David said, and so for grass and weed control, sheep are run in the vineyards from December to  March and one of the outcomes is that Bonterra is using half the diesel fuel they had been using previously.

Often, in more conventional practice, the absence of animals can have a negative impact on the diversity of microorganisms that the soil needs.

Being close to the Pacific, they are also able to source a natural fish fertilizer that they apply in August.

In doing things organically, everything is intentional and ‘attentional’, says David, as, in making good wine, they strive to either be competitive or over-deliver.

Mendocino has the highest percentage of organically certified grapes in Californiaat over 20 percent, with the state overall standing at just 3 percent.

While Bonterra grows almost all of its Merlot, it purchases about 40 percent of this Chardonnay; this means that David is very busy communicating with and educating their growers.

There are acceptable organic pesticides and herbicides available today, but Koball acknowledged that they grew up learning to do without, and so rather than using insecticides, for example, they cultivate beneficial insects that will eliminate unwanted species.

In rugged Mendocino, hillside farming can be difficult, with lots of winter rain and erosion to deal with, and much of the property is “unplantable”; for example, Bonterra’s bio-dynamic Butler Ranch has only 90 out of 750 acres suitable for growing grapes.

Koball feels that, as a comparison, Mendocino is more like the Rhone in style than Bordeaux.

As Vineyard Director, Dave feels he works at the pinch-point between wine-making and Finance, with Finance wanting more efficiency and the winemakers better fruit, and so throughout the growing season he and the winemakers are often in the vineyards together making decisions.

With David, I was able to taste a number of the Bonterra wines all of them $19 or $20 a bottle, and most of them currently in our stores.

The first tasted was the Bonterra Sauvignon Blanc 2012, $18.95, with approximately half the fruit coming from Mendocino, and the other half from Lake county, where, with heavy, peaty moist soils,  the fruit carries more of that New Zealand gooseberry muskiness.

With the fruit picked at different sugar levels in order to add complexity and manage the acidity, the wine has a grassy, new-mown hay nose, and good grapefruit character on the palate, but not overwhelmingly so.

The Bonterra Viognier 2012, $19.95, will appear in our stores at the end of September, and is well worth the wait, with a lush and creamy melon mouth-feel and a good backbone of citrus.

This wine saw 20 percent new oak, and the rest stainless steel, with the grapes picked at a super-ripe 27 brix, partially achieved by removing the leaves on the sunny side of the vine three weeks before harvest to burn off the greenness, says Dave.

Dave explained that Viognier can stand up to the heat in early September, and won’t burn as Chardonnay might.

The Bonterra Chardonnay, $18.95, is a Vintages essential ($2 off after May 25) and so always available, with the current 2012 vintage seeing 30% stainless steel and 70% oak, of which 16% was new to provide the attractive vanililins.

David indicated that the best way to farm Chardonnay in Mendocino is to have the vines sprawl, keeping direct sunlight off the fruit and letting the air flow through.

This wine was crafted to show the typical Mendocino profile of green apple and baked apple with the oak used to highlight the texture resulting in rich flavours with caramel overtones and an element of citric tartness.

Bonterra has its own min-winery just for its Pinot Noir, with the 2011, $19.95, scoring 90 in the Wine Enthusiast magazine –they use small open-top fermenters and a dedicated little basket press in the process.

After nine months in French oak, this has resulted in a very gentle wine, perfect for food – light and soft, it sneaks up on you with some savoury spice notes and cherry/berry flavours.

The Bonterra Zinfandel, $19.95, has the largest component of American oak of all their reds, making it very approachable with a gentle bramble nose, light tannins,  and fruity, but not jammy character.

David explained that winemaker Bob Blue wants the fruit to be a little soft, but not raisiny, in order to get deeper fruit components and concentration; as well, a little Petite Sirah is added for complexity.

This is another good food wine, one that doesn’t bash you over the head, but instead presents everything in balance – it is slated for release at the beginning of July.

With 22 percent of the fruit grown in Lake County, the 2011 Bonterra Cabernet Sauvignon, $19.95, is nicely structured with polished tannins and good flavour components, as Lake County’s volcanic soil promotes deep roots that can handle heat, and, with higher elevation the vines experience lower highs and higher lows; this affects colour and the ability of tannins to ripen.

The addition of Syrah and Petit Verdot gives a yummy juiciness to the mid-palate.

While all of the Bonterra wines are either in or cycling through the LCBO, their two Bio-dynamic wines, The McNab and The Butler, are not, but they are both very impressive.

The Mcnab is a Bordeaux blend, predominantly Merlot and then Cabernet Sauvignon, which sees about 80% new French oak.  The different grapes are fermented separately and then blended and put through malolactic fermentation which softens the acidity.

This is a rich, delicious, deep dark wine with beautifully soft tannins and a lengthy finish.

The Butler, grown on what was originally a cherry ranch, is a deep, inky  Rhone blend with rich dark fruit flavours – growing at a higher elevation , the fruit develops more slowly and steadily because of less fluctuation in temperatures.

Slightly tannin at present, this is a wine which will evolve wonderfully.

In the States, these wines are retailing for $55 from the vineyard, but I am not sure what their price will be here in Canada – if you’re interested, contact their agent, Select Wines & Spirits, to determine availability

The phone number is 416-367-5600, or you could e-mail the marketing manager, Angéline Prodhon at

Vintages May 24 Release


For fans of “uber- musky” Sauvignon Blanc, Stoneleigh Latitude 2012, $21.95, should thrill you as it is “pungently vegetal” with “sweaty armpit aromas” (Honest!) and a “sweet-fruited palate” according to New Zealand’s Michael Cooper, who gave it 4 and a half stars out of 5.

I am more inclined personally to Portugal’s Aromas Das Castras Alvarinho/Trajadura 2012, $15.95, a wine worth having around if our weatherever warms up, with its typical crisp mineral notes and some stone fruit and apple elements.

If you are one who appreciates aromatic wines such as Gewürztraminer or Riesling, then you will be quite happy with Crios De Susano Balbo Torrontés 2013, $13.95 – the nose is quite floral, the palate quite fruity, and it is a wine that would work well with moderately spicy food.


Some of my favourite wines come from the Rhone and southwest regions ofFrance, and on this release I am looking forward to Chateau Vincens Prestige 2011, $17.95, a 5-star winner in the Decanter World Wine Awards, with excellent depth and length and concentrated plummy fruit.

Domaine La Guintrandy Côtes du Rhône 21012, $15.95, earned a very admirable 2 out of 3 stars from the Guide Hachette for its intensity, maturity, elegance and generosity – and it is capable of evolving even further over the next 5 years.

From the same house as the Torrontés, Dominio Del Plata Crios Limited Edition Red Blend 2012, $14.95 garnered a 90 from Decanter for being “zippy” and fresh with “chocolate, black cherry and blueberry notes.”

If you’ve been able to chip the ice off your barbecue, then the Santa Ema Barrel Reserve Syrah 2011, $14.95 is calling to you with rich, ripe dark fruit flavours and campfire overtones.

Compare the Santa Ema to South Africa’s Audacia Shriaz, 2011, $13.95, in which the tannins are soft, the fruit plummy, and spice notes linger.

For those who like textbook Chianti Classico. Fattoria di Montecchio 2008, $17.95 is a must with its traditional ripe cherry flavours offset by the typical grip provided by wines of this character - 4 stars from Decanter.

In spite of its being $24.95, Portugal’s Meandro do Vale Meão 2011 is a best-buy blend of 5 native varietals, lauded by David Lawrason of for the concentration of its fruit and for its refinement, and for “a lovely evergreen note on the finish” – this is wine that can be kept and enjoyed over the next decade.