By contributing writer Joe Roberts
If you’ve ever gotten frustrated over the state of your garden, just imagine how Bonterra winemaker Jeff Cichocki must feel. Cichocki is the man behind the wines at Bonterra, one of the world’s largest organically-focused wine producers.
At a time when we’re all more focused on how the food we eat is farmed, produced, and shipped, Bonterra’s focus on sustainable winemaking practices and organic grape farming seems poised to take the wine world by storm. Farming organically introduces many challenges that have to be handled differently than in conventional farming, which makes Cichocki’s work at Bonterra all the more impressive, as they continue to offer high quality, tasty wines at affordable price points.
In this interview, we talk to Jeff about what makes organic wines special, how his love of brewing beer turned into a winemaking career, and why it’s important for winegrowers to be stewards of the land.
How did you get to your current position overseeing Bonterra’s winemaking?
It has been a relatively long journey. I studied environmental studies at Sonoma State University in CA, and worked in the environmental planning field for a short time. I really didn’t care for the work. I took a job as harvest help at a great little winery in Healdsburg, Mill Creek Cellars, in 1993. I loved the work, even though it was strenuous and dirty and had long hours. It helped that I had been a home brewer for a couple of years, so I already had an interest in fermentation and knew the importance of sanitation. Over the years, I have done almost every job there is to do at a small winery, from vineyard work to TTB compliance.
Over the years I worked my way up the production ladder: Cellar worker and Cellarmaster at Matanzas Creek, Cellar Supervisor at Cakebread, and Cellarmaster BR Cohn. After a move up to Mendocino County in 2004, I took a wine making position at Jeriko Estates, a small winery owned by Danny Fetzer, that introduced me to wines made from organic grapes. When a position at Bonterra opened up in 2008, I jumped at the chance to make these great wines. It’s been great ever since. I make all the Bonterra wines here in Mendocino and represent the brand and wines all over the world.
Do you have a particular consumer in mind when crafting wines for Bonterra?
I think our wines have a pretty diverse audience. There may be people who just like the wines for their style—vibrant wines that are varietally correct and balanced. Others are drawn to the fact that all our vineyards and winery are certified organic. Either way, we appeal to many people. We know we compete well with all wines on the shelf, being organic is an added bonus.
Bonterra’s specialty is offering high-quality organic and Biodynamic wines at affordable prices. Do you think that farming in organic and BioD ways offers something special to the wines?
Knowing where your food comes from is important. Wine is no different. We farm 900-plus acres without pesticides, herbicides, or synthetic fertilizers. Our wines are traceable back to our healthy, balanced vineyards. Our sustainable grape growing methods encourage biodiversity and constantly improve the soil and surroundings each year.
You have a degree in Environmental Studies; do you see that background as affording you a ‘leg up’ when it comes to addressing the challenges of crafting organic wines?
Technically, there wasn’t much overlap, but the ideals of preserving our natural surroundings is at the core of both disciplines. Grape growing and wine making are very close to the natural environment, and if we have an opportunity to be good stewards of the land, we should do so. Organic farming is a way to continue these ideals.
What do you drink (or not drink!) to unwind after a difficult or particularly long day?
I have always enjoyed a nice beer. After tasting dozens of wines each day, a nice refreshing beer really cleanses the palate. My beer likes are all over the map. Very seasonal and not snobby at all. I can get as excited over a cask finished nitrogen pushed porter as finding a sixer of Olympia at the local market.
What wines and/or wine regions have you most excited as a wine lover right now? If you could make wine anywhere but CA, where would that be?
I have to support my own back yard. Mendocino County is really a great place to grow grapes. I chose to move here and become part of it ten years ago. We have very diverse micro-climates and lots of variety, from cool coastal areas in Anderson Valley to great mountain top vineyards like McNab Ranch (which I am lucky to get Biodynamically grown grapes from).
I am really proud of the wines that come from Mendocino. Unfortunately, we often don’t get the respect we deserve. I think there are not enough Mendocino producers putting the Mendocino Appellation on the label and getting the message out. Most grapes grown here get shipped south to wineries in Napa and Sonoma for blending into their own blends. Lots of Sonoma and Napa wines have Mendocino grapes in them, and I would think the quality is improved for it. I am proud to be the largest producer of wines from Mendocino County. We are really highlighting what this Appellation can do.
Any thoughts on the Wine4.Me app and how it might help wine consumers?
I think any method of eliminating a fear of choosing wine is great. Wine should be fun and based on your own personal preferences. Using sensory data is a great place to start. When an app can get you info on many wines and rank them according to your likes and dislikes, I think it’s great.
Bonterra Wines in the Wine4.Me App
If you want to know which wines YOU will like best, download the FREE iPhone app Wine4.Me. Tell it what wines you know you like and get your own personalized rankings of best-selling, widely available wines in the US.
Joe Roberts is a writer in the greater Philadelphia area. His work has appeared in Playboy.com, Answers.com, PalatePress.com, Publix Grape Magazine, The Guardian, and Parade. He holds the Level 2 and Level 3 Certificates in Wine & Spirits from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust in England, the Certified Specialist of Wine certification through the Society of Wine Educators. Roberts was included among the top fifteen entries in IntoWine.com’s list of 100 Most Influential People in the U.S. Wine Industry for 2013, and his website received the Wine Blog Awards honor for Best Wine Blog in 2010. Follow him on Twitter at @1winedude.