Without Reservations

Pub date September 26, 2006

› paulr@sfbg.com
Many of us have now accepted that the real benefit of sustainable agriculture — whether organic or biodynamic — is, er, sustainability. A globe less beleaguered by pesticides, run-off, and soil exhausted by monoculture is a globe more likely to support life in the future. Nonetheless, it is only human to hold out hope that organic or biodynamic products will also look and taste better, if only because they cost more.
Sustainably produced wine is a more complex matter, in part because sustainable viticulture is in its infancy in this country, and also because one bottle of wine looks much like another, with not much in the way of labeling or logos at the moment to guide us. If I poured you a glass of, say, Medlock Ames’s 2002 Bell Mountain Ranch red blend or of Bonterra’s 2004 roussanne, you would have to seize one or the other bottle from my hand and look closely to notice that the former is produced from sustainably farmed grapes and the latter from organically farmed grapes. And if you didn’t seize either bottle, if you just sipped, you probably wouldn’t have a clue you were tasting earth-friendly wine.
A wine-world irony is that this is pretty much what the winemakers are hoping for: wine that cannot be distinguished on the palate from the regular stuff. The roussanne might actually exceed this standard; it is one of the most beautifully balanced California white wines I’ve ever drunk, a bewitching mix of floral perfume, citrusy acid, and fruity muscle, with enough presence to be an aperitif but able to keep its elbows in too when confronted with food. (Roussanne, incidentally, is one of those white Rhône grapes — viognier is another — that seem to produce far more attractive wines here than they do in France, and for that matter better wines than do California-grown chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. Here I opine shamelessly.)
The red, meanwhile, shows a definite cabernet sauvignon pedigree, though the blend consists only of 25 percent cabernet. (The rest is merlot.) It’s like a rich pinot noir, and although you could probably drink it with pizza in a pinch, it has a definite aristo dimension of reserved potency. The only downside I see is price: each retails for more than $20. That is a little high, but not unsustainable.