Mendocino County: Cradle of Biodynamic Viticulture

By / Wine + Drinks / September 21st, 2022 / Like

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2021/2022 print issue of Quench Magazine.

Today, Mendocino County is the center of organic and biodynamic viticulture in the U.S. How it got there is an interesting tale full of hippies and cannabis.

While its wines (particularly from Anderson Valley) are well-regarded, Mendocino is not a large producer by volume. It has only 3.7% of the grapevines planted in California. But it has fully one-third of California’s certified organic vineyards, and it has 10 times as many biodynamic vineyards as any other county.

This is not a new development. Mendocino County led the way in North America for organic and biodynamic viticulture starting in the late 1970s. It wasn’t a few small iconoclastic growers: then-radical ideas about agriculture were adopted early by the region’s largest wineries.

This is still the case today. Bonterra is the largest, most visible brand of organically grown wine in the country. Also in Mendocino County, Frey Vineyards is the largest organic, no-sulfite-added winery in the U.S. This is not a small winery or grower with a vision: it’s a thriving multigenerational family business. Many smaller Mendocino wineries and growers also are dedicated to organics and/or biodynamics.

How did this come to pass? Why Mendocino? The answer will take you into a deeper consideration of the meaning of “terroir.”

We often think of terroir as the climate and soils of a site: its geographical potential, essentially. Geography is destiny, and that plays a role in the development of Mendocino County into the fine wine region it is today. But terroir also has a human element: the culture of the people who grow the grapes and make the wine. Champagne tastes like Champagne not just because the soil and grapes make it possible, but because the community decided long ago that that’s the kind of wine they want to make.

In Mendocino County, wine grapes eventually became organic and biodynamic because of first a hippie migration, and then because of what Stanford University history professor Martin W. Lewis calls the “hippie-redneck synthesis.”

Let’s start with the migration. In the late ‘60s, many of the hippies who had flocked to San Francisco for the Summer of Love were dissatisfied with the urban lifestyle. Their optimistic spirit about creating a new type of society led them to want to move to the countryside. Many formed communes.

The main industry in Mendocino County had been logging, but the coast was mostly logged out. Inland land was cheap — one famous commune (Albion) bought 120 acres for $50,000. The county is relatively close to San Francisco, about a three-hour drive, and it was so underpopulated that it was also possible to squat in remote locations, so that’s what many people did.

While they wanted to grow their own fruits and vegetables, they quickly discovered that farming was difficult. This was not the rich loamy soil of the Midwest. Like a lot of post-logged areas, the clearings that existed in Mendocino County tended to have poor soils. The weather was often cool and foggy. (Your vinous brain is saying, “That’s a perfect recipe for great wine!”) The one cash crop they could reliably grow was cannabis, so they did. Even today, cannabis is the most important crop in the county.

City-bred hippies desperately needed farming advice. But they weren’t looking for Monsanto to teach them how to use herbicides. Enter Alan Chadwick, the father of biodynamics in the U.S. Chadwick was a Shakespearean actor who arrived at University of California, Santa Cruz in 1967 with a self-assigned mission of teaching young people to garden.

Chadwick’s mother was a follower of Rudolf Steiner,who created the theory of biodynamics, and she hired Steiner to teach her sons how to grow plants with his system.

Chadwick is now considered one of the founders of the organic food movement, but he was an eccentric with a bad temper and he wore out his welcome at the university.

Jonathan Frey and son Johnny Frey | Photo Credit: Supplied

He left in 1972 to manage the gardens at a Zen retreat in the Muir Woods just north of San Francisco, but he wasn’t a Buddhist and lacked patience with the retreat’s culture. So he ended up where so many other disaffected hippies did: Mendocino County, as manager of the Round Valley Garden Project.

Chadwick was ahead of most people at the time in considering the importance of soil health. In the early ‘70s, the prevailing belief was that if soil wasn’t producing large enough crops, that could be remedied with chemical fertilizers. Chadwick believed that soil is alive and he nurtured it with compost. This was radical thinking that would not have been embraced by farmers in most places.

“I know a number of local cannabis growers,” Lewis said. “They grew up in the area. Some of them had hippie parents. There are plenty of people who went to school together, they played soccer together. You’ve got to get somebody to grade your road. You’re cooperating with people. You’re raising your kids together. Growing up in Calaveras County, I witnessed hippies growing cannabis. Struggles with their neighbors. In Calaveras County the conservatives won, and the hippies left. In Mendocino County cannabis has become a part of the culture. For the most part it’s pretty chill.”

The first major winegrowers to be influenced by Chadwick’s garden were the Frey family.

“In the mid-’60s, the Army Corps of Engineers was going to build a dam where my parents had a place,” Jon Frey said. “It would have flooded a front field at my parents’ place. My father figured he would plant grapes to improve the value of the property in case it was under eminent domain. He was friends with John Parducci. (Parducci) said, ‘Maybe try this newfangled Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s all the rage down in Napa.’ We started planting in ‘66. They had a real tough time getting them going. My dad was never much of a farmer.”

Jon Frey left home after high school but came back to take care of the grapes. In the summer of 1976, he signed up for a horticulture class at Chadwick’s garden.

“It was a pretty interesting place to go to school,” Frey said. “Also it was free, which was very helpful at the time because I was broke. It was a pretty rigorous curriculum. It was very formal. He was very eccentric. A very interesting character and a little bit tough to work with. You had to be at his lectures on time or he would get mad and stomp up and down. That’s where I first got turned on to the topic of organic agriculture. I had done field work in pears and grapes. You would see agricultural ingredients: bags with skull and crossbones on them. You would go out and spread them on the landscape.”

What Frey learned through Chadwick cemented organic viticulture for him as a philosophy: concern for soil health, and for the health of workers in the fields.
“We don’t have a lot of immediate neighbors,” Frey said. “We had a neighbor who planted a Cabernet vineyard. They were all in favor of (organics).

Mendocino County’s kind of a far-flung place. I don’t think it’s quite the same as if you were in the Midwest cheek to jowl with everyone.”

Organic viticulture spread from Chadwick to the Freys, and from there to their good friends the Fetzers, and that’s when it made the leap to being big business. Moreover, the Fetzers’ enthusiasm led to dozens of other farmers throwing away their pesticides.

Jim Fetzer, one of 11 siblings who ran Fetzer Vineyards, came to visit Chadwick while Jon Frey was there. So when Fetzer winemaker Paul Dolan expressed an interest in farming organically, he found a receptive audience.

This was very unusual at the time. Jon Frey said that even though his family’s winery was certified organic in the 1980s, they didn’t put the word “organic” on the label because there was a stigma.

“Back then it had the negative connotation of hippies eating wormy apples,” Frey said.

But as Fetzer Vineyards continued to expand, when Dolan began asking farmers to grow organically for him, they were more open to it than farmers elsewhere might have been: the hippie-redneck synthesis in action.

“They thought we were nutcases,” Dolan said. “But we were buying a lot of grapes by then. We had become a big company: a million cases. I really became close to the farmers, telling them what I thought was quality, every year tasting wines with the growers. When we started doing organic, we created a forum where we would have topics and I would bring in guest speakers and we would talk about different aspects of organic farming. And we were successful. Some were reluctant, but the farmers wanted to participate with us and there was a level of curiosity there.”

In 1990, Fetzer created Bonterra, an organic-grapes-only brand that was way ahead of its time. Bonterra might have disappeared, or become just another conventional wine brand, when Brown-Forman — best known as the producers of Jack Daniel’s whiskey — bought Fetzer in 1992. But Dolan and the Fetzers had not only created a network of organic growers; their wines had found a market.

Concha y Toro bought Fetzer and Bonterra in 2011; they were easy to convince to stay the course because the company makes wine from organic grapes in Chile for the Emiliana brand.

That’s a living remnant of Mendocino’s hippie agriculture roots, just like the Hog Farm, the longest-running commune in North America. It was founded by the hippie clown Wavy Gravy and today it runs Camp Winnarainbow, a nonprofit performing arts school for kids. Camp Winnarainbow teaches classes in, among other things, unicycle, stilt walking, clowning and clown philosophy. I bought some cannabis grown at a nearby farm — organic of course — and went on Twitter to express my delight at the idea that people might have taught clown philosophy in the morning and harvested my weed in the afternoon. A Twitter follower responded to me and we had a nice conversation: he’s from Sonoma County but had been a student at the Mendocino camp, and he called it “the happiest place on Earth.”

You know what he does for a living? He grows wine grapes — biodynamically of course.

“There are people who are still attracted to Mendocino because it is one of those places to get away to,” Dolan said. “There’s still the feeling that people can go up there and do their own thing. You look at the geography of it. There’s lots and lots of woodlands. That gives people a hideout and shelter. This feeling of being on one’s own. Sonoma’s much more developed now and Napa has become the high-end world. In Mendocino, spiritual seekers are looking for a setting. An environment. A space to explore in.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

W. Blake Gray is US editor for Wine-Searcher, the world’s most-visited wine website. He has written about wine for many publications including the San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Times. In 2013 he won the Roederer Award for best online wine writer in the world. During the pandemic, Blake rediscovered his childhood love of cheeseburgers, but his death-row meal is steamed crabs. His cocktail of choice is a Manhattan. Blake lives in San Francisco.

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