"Green" Wines of California

As many of my readers know (and many of my exasperated friends will tell you!), I love learning about wine. Lately, I have been dedicating myself to finding and trying as many environmentally friendly wines as possible, especially biodynamic wines. I think the environmental aspect of winemaking is so important and engaging, and is gaining a huge amount of momentum both from producers and drinkers now that the stigma of "organic" (read: formerly horrible) wines is finally fading and people realize that these wines are among some of the best in the world.

My own personal interest lies mostly in biodynamic wines, since I think producers who choose to go this route make an unprecedented commitment to the labor and quality that goes into their wines, and so every trip I have taken in the last few years, I have made it a point to go wine-tasting when possible, and to find organic and biodynamic wineries to visit.

I am planning a whole “Green Wines” series where I will tell you about my favorites from different wine regions across the globe. Coming up: Languedoc, Bordeau, Austria and Germany. For now, take a look at some of the best ones I’ve come across from California.

Peter Work and his wife Rebecca retired from careers in finance after 9/11 and devoted themselves full-time to working their land. Now they are turning out some fantastic wines, and they are doing it biodynamically, as Peter will be happy to show you if you are lucky enough to be able to visit him up at his house in the Santa Rita Hills (and play with his friendly Labrador retrievers, of course). If you can’t make it there, stop by the winery itself at Lompoc’s “Pinot Prison,” and get a well-rounded (and mathematically educative) tasting by sampling the Rosé of Syrah ($16), the Rho Pinot Noir ($48), and the Gamma Syrah ($35).

Benziger Family Winery
The best known biodynamic Sonoma biodynamic winery, Benziger takes pride in their environmental program, and offers tram rides every day to show visitors how exactly the vineyard functions successfully without artificial intervention or aid. Besides the educational aspect, it’s just a plain fun place to visit, with a lively tasting room, and a gorgeous, hilly setting outside Glen Ellen. Some signature vinos: the 2007 Carneros Chardonnay ($29), the 2006 Sonoma Mountain “Tribute” Cabernet ($80), and the 2005 “Oonapais” Sonoma Mountain Red ($50).

One of the foremost names in California biodynamics, Demetria’s pinot noirs are widely recognized as some of the best in the state, even though they only produce about 2000 cases. The estate itself is only open to visitors by appointment only, and sits up in the hills on winding Foxen Canyon Road, in an imposing compound several miles from Los Olivos. For a good idea of just what powerhouse wines they can produce, try the deep red Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir ($40) and the spicy “North Slope” Syrah ($35).

Gargiulo Vineyards
Though not biodynamic, Gargiulo Vineyards is committed to environmental consciousness in all aspects of its operation. Case in point: the new tasting room, which was made from site-specific materials like the indigenous red rocks found in their vineyards, chandeliers made from wine barrel staves, and reclaimed wooden flooring from the old gymnasium of nearby St. Helena High School. No forests were harmed in the building of this winery. The wines are a little more on the expensive side of the spectrum, but you’re paying for authentic quality here. Also keep in mind that compared to some of Gargiulo’s neighbors, like Screaming Eagle, you are getting a real bargain on some fantastic juice. We’d suggest the incredibly rich 2005 Money Road Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon ($85), though you can get their merlot for half that ($45). The Rosato (or rosé) of Sangiovese ($30) is also bright and lively. If you can get your hands on their 575 OVX Cab, do it. Now.

Grgich Hills Estate
Ever since the Chardonnay he made won the Judgment of Paris in 1976 (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,947719,00.html), Mike Grgich has been one of the legends of California winemaking. That’s why, when he decided to start converting all Grgich Hills vineyards over to biodynamic agriculture in 2003, the rest of the California winemaking community took notice. And what they noticed was that the quality of this venerable winery’s vintages was consistently high, and as good if not better than when Grgich was making wine conventionally. Today, the winery is known for crisp, golden Chardonnays like the 2006 Napa Valley ($42), and powerful, spicy Zinfandels like the 2006 Napa Valley $35).

Robert Sinskey
Located right in the heart of the Stag’s Leap District, Robert Sinskey uses biodynamic viticulture in vineyards scattered around Napa to produce some very fine wines, especially the Burgundian-style reds they are known for. They also feature regular cooking and wine-pairing demonstrations led by the winemaker Rob’s (Robert Sinskey’s son) wife (and a cookbook author in her own right), Maria, and the winery chef de cuisine, Alex Bolduc. Perhaps the most fun are the “culinary” and “bento box” tours where you get goodies to nibble along with the wines. We’d suggest the surprisingly profound Pinot Gris ($30), their unusual Vandal Vineyard Carneros Cabernet ($48), and their signature Four Vineyards Pinot Noir ($50).

Tablas Creek
One of Paso Robles’ best-known wineries also happens to be one of its best, thanks in no small part to stringently environmental viticulture that includes organic certification (since 2003) and dry-farming to bring out the terroir in the grapes. It’s also just a beautiful spot to visit up in the hill country west of the town between Paso Robles and the ocean. To sample a good range of their wines, try the Antithesis Chardonnay ($27), the 2006 Syrah ($35), and the 2006 Cotes de Tablas ($25) blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Counoise—a traditional Rhone-style wine for which Tablas is known.