In this carefully cultivated jungle of variegated green and golden grapevines, you’ll find many things you’d expect; undulating hills, bucolic patchworks of colour and probably a flitting butterfly or two. But this is California’s Sonoma County, the world’s most eco-conscious wine region, so you may be more surprised by what you don’t find. Here, more than 425 wineries flourish over 70,000 vino-producing acres, and 99 per cent of them have been certified sustainable. With nine out of 10 cellar doors being family owned this isn’t just your impersonal, mega-corp winery destination, either. Come taste for yourself, and maybe even peek behind the curtain. It’s only an hour and a half from San Francisco’s International airport.
Happy grapes make tastier wine
Sonoma (and its sister wine region, the Napa Valley) are second only to Disneyland as the most visited attraction in the state. Not sure about you, but I know which one I’d call the “happiest place on earth” … vice over mice, I say. The only mouse you’ll see here is the one not yet stalked by the barn owls and other birds of prey; at almost every winery, these natural exterminators joyfully pick them off like it’s their job – which, in fact, it is. Nestled amidst the grapes and the surrounding sugar pines, bird boxes and raptor roosts provide auspicious vantages for resident swoopers to rid the vine’s juicy jewels of flying insect, larval and rodent infestation. No chemicals? No problem. In Sonoma, sustainability isn’t something that’s an afterthought to all that comes before it, it’s what’s front of mind, always.
Chris Benziger of Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen believes care for the land and its biodiversity leads to authenticity. He says, “It allows the vines to grow naturally deep into the soils and pick up the true terroir of the site. This leads to wines that are more expressive and unique. They will have four distinct fingerprints that will give that wine its soul. Those are the fingerprints of the vineyard, the vintage, the varietal, and the winemaker.”
The real magic happens below the ground
Ames Morrison of Medlock Ames Winery on Bell Mountain is very passionate about the symbiotic way we take from the earth and how we best nurture that resource. He’s also a huge fan of fungi, which along with specific bacteria, bring the soil to life in a biological ballet of nature knows best. The living soil holds more water, reducing the need for supplementary irrigation, and forms a complex relationship with the vines, feeding off the carbohydrates released through photosynthesis. Microbes protect the vine from soil-borne diseases while pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequestering it in the loam. Chemicals? Who needs ‘em? The rugged wisdom of the land is a better choice every time, and Sonoma proves it.
One thing not to miss at Medlock Ames is the self-guided immersive audio tour. It’ll take you strolling at your own pace through the growing grapes with natural sound effects. Mid-vineyard is a wildlife corridor that allows deer to migrate through to the 3300-acre preserve next door, and with only 20 per cent of the land farmed, the remainder is reserved for native fauna including mountain lions (and the occasional pesky wild pig interlopers) – to roam free. Tread quietly through the trailing vines and use your senses to discover. Listen to the land.
Did I mention the winemaker here is a Kiwi? Abby Watt found her way to Sonoma many years ago and says, “The wine industry in California and New Zealand have a lot of similarities, so it eases the difficulty of missing home (Auckland) a little bit. There is a big community of farmers and winemakers who are always collaborating and sharing ideas, just like in New Zealand; though I would say in California the wine industry is subject to more severe extremes in recent years. Sonoma is a special place in California – it’s not really what we know America and California to be like back home.”
Naturally cool since 1984
Innovations in eco-cred go a good way beyond the obvious and expected like growing and cultivating the product. At Nalle Winery in Healdsburg, they’ve been thinking like revolutionaries since the early 80s. Seeking a cave for storing their highly-regarded zinfandel, the Nalle family were disappointed to find that the ground wasn’t conducive to digging. With a bit of ingenuity, that problem became one of their best assets with the construction of a Quonset-style hut sheathed in packed dirt several metres thick. Hundreds of rosemary seedlings grounded the soil and in turn attracted bees for pollination. The above-ground “cave” keeps a constant cool temperature without the need for artificial cooling and provides a habitat for native bees, birds and other beneficial insects. Not only is it practical and environmentally fruitful, but it’s also a beautiful sight to see.
Coming next on the innovation list is the utilisation of recycled wine glass to bottle the vintages, which will mitigate landfill and cut carbon emissions significantly. Visit the living roof cellar for yourself and enjoy a friendly game of horseshoes or pétanque while tasting the unique drops here.
Investing in a sustainable workforce
Paul Draper is the winemaker at Ridge Vineyards in Lytton Springs – renowned for its old-vine zins. Long a leader in sustainability (before all the cool kids were doing it) he says the most important part of his approach to sustainability is his workforce. That’s right, his human resources. He says that maintaining the same core group of staff ensures consistency and familiarity with maximising the potential of each harvest. They learn the land, the soil conditions and limitations, the growing conditions and the minutiae of detail that can make or break a crop. His employees have healthcare, housing and educational opportunities and many of them have sons or daughters who also work at Ridge. Grapes here are hand-harvested, insectary plants are nurtured for increasing pollen and nectar, and the facility itself is built of straw bales and vineyard clay which runs primarily on solar power. The winery, the largest grower of organic grapes in Sonoma County, takes pride in listing its ingredients on each bottle of wine, like the 2020 Pagani Ranch Zinfandel: “Hand-harvested grapes, indigenous yeast, naturally occurring malolactic bacteria, oak from barrel aging, S02.” That’s all.
Sonoma or Napa, a quick note
Sonoma and Napa, while similar, are also quite different, much like, say, New York and L.A. Both are worthy, both are exciting, but don’t go thinking that they’re interchangeable. Napa lies a quick 20 minutes west of Sonoma and is known to be more of a splash-out destination; think limousines and limited supply. It’s about half the size of Sonoma, and due to its smaller size, it can be busy – especially on the weekend. Sonoma is more of a dirt roads and laid-back leisure vibe, but ritzy experiences can certainly be had. Each destination is what you make of it, kind of like life.
Everyone’s in on the game
- Champagne label Korbel harvests grapes at night to reduce the energy needed to cool them. It’s one of the only wineries outside France that can legally call its sparkling “champagne”.
- Anaba WInes with its well-loved chardonnay and pinot noir, was the first in Northern California to harness wind power in helping to power operations. They also have an electric car charging station for guests’ use.
- Biodynamic winery Truett-Hurst believes in a holistic approach to farming. They use cover crops and hedgerows to sequester carbon and utilise compost made from grape pomace and cow manure on-site. When the vines are dormant, goats and sheep graze the grounds.
Air New Zealand and United Airlines fly direct from Auckland to San Francisco. Sonoma County is about 90 minutes’ drive north of San Francisco.