Meet Jeff Cichocki: Winemaker for Bonterra Organic Vineyards

Winemaker for Bonterra Organic Vineyards, Jeff Cichocki, took a few moments to share the story of Bonterra here with us at Minnesota Monthly. Find their wines at the upcoming Food & Wine Experience March 4-5.

Briefly tell us the story of Bonterra Organic Vineyards. How is Bonterra different?
Inspired by the quality inherent in organically farmed vegetables, Bonterra’s founding team embraced organic farming practices for grapevines 30 years ago, beginning in 1987. By 1993, long before organic products lined the shelves of neighborhood grocers, wines bearing Bonterra’s name and the phrase “made with organic grapes” debuted. Our wines’ signature style, offering purity of flavor alongside balanced character, laid the foundation for a loyal following that continues to grow today.

When did Bonterra become interested in organic farming and conservation efforts?
We’ve been farming organically since 1987, and we’ve done so because we feel that organic grapes truly make the best wines. Our initial inspiration were vegetables grown in our organic vegetable garden at our winery in Hopland, Calif. We were blown away by the concentration of flavor and character, and decided to apply the same philosophy in our vineyards. We were pioneers at the beginning of the organic movement, and we continue to evolve and lead with research into best practices for organic farming. It’s an ongoing journey and we’re compelled to succeed by the incredible quality and flavor of organic grapes.

What environmental certification are you most proud to receive?
We farm more than 1,000 acres of certified organic vineyards, and among those more than 250 are also certified biodynamic by the organization Demeter. We are proud of the earth-first farming approach we take in all of these vineyards: organically and biodynamically farmed vineyards benefit from the introduction of cover crops, reduced tillage, integration of wildlife and the addition of compost to soils. This enables the ground to sequester more carbon, the vines to fare better during periods of drought thanks to greater water retention, and the ecosystems within and surrounding the vineyards to flourish. In biodynamic vineyards, we add back still more vitality to the soil and vines through the application of special preparations that enhance the microbial activity in the soil and the strength and health of the plants themselves. This all shows up in the glass—I hope you’ll find the wines taste flavorful and alive.

Where is your wine made?
Our wine is made at our winery in Mendocino County’s Hopland, Calif., about two hours north of San Francisco. Set amidst rolling hills and plenty of grapevines, the winery holds numerous environmental certifications, including ZeroWaste, CarbonNeutral® and ISO 9001:2008. We’ve also operated entirely on green power since 1999 and built our energy-efficient headquarters building from rammed earth and salvaged materials found on-site. We believe in using found materials and re-using things whenever possible, so that we can minimize our environmental impact and keep land and vines healthy.

In your opinion, is great wine made in the vineyard or winery?
Great wine begins in the vineyard. One of the most exciting things about working with organic fruit is that it comes to us in an absolutely beautiful state, having been grown without any added synthetics or pesticides. It just tastes pure. As Winemaker, I strive to express the harmony of this vibrantly flavorful fruit through meticulous winemaking—bringing craftsmanship in the winery to this gorgeous fruit.

What’s the greatest risk when it comes to winemaking?
When working with organic fruit, a risk is always over-manipulating the fruit, which could mask its pure essence and character. In order to prevent this from occurring, we really take care in the winery to be as gentle as possible with the fruit to allow its pure varietal character and the essence of each vineyard site to come through. We also avoid the use of excessive oak and generally aim for freshness and vibrancy. At the end of the day, our hope is that every bottle of Bonterra Organic Vineyards wines is fresh, balanced, varietally correct and tastes of where it was grown—rather than how it was crafted in the winery.

How are you able to keep costs down for consumers?
Organically farmed products shouldn’t be beyond reach, and we are proud to offer accessible, high-quality wines from organically farmed grapes by managing our business well and by being selective in our promotional and marketing investments. This allows us to continue to invest in farming and research to ensure we’re growing the best possible fruit, which we’ve long known leads to the best wines.

What wines will be poured during the Food & Wine Experience?
I look forward to pouring a number of our signature wines for guests, including our two most popular varietals:

Where can people find your wine here in Minnesota?
In Minnesota, our wines can be found at large retailers including Trader Joes, Sam’s Club and Costco, as well as a variety of supermarkets, liquor stores, and restaurants.

Finish this sentence: The best wine is …
That’s easy. The best wine is one you enjoy with the people you love. For me, I like to unwind with those near and dear over a great glass of wine while taking in a spectacular sunset.