What does “sustainable” mean? Can you taste it in wine? When I picked up a bottle of Cline Family Cellars’ 2018 Sonoma County Syrah the other day, I chose it mostly for its $15 price tag, frankly.
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But a simple line of small print across the front label caught my attention and promptly sent me down a fascinating rabbit hole. “Sustainably farmed in Sonoma County,” it read. “Certified California sustainable vineyards and winery.”
Then I turned the bottle around and was bemused by a row of icons across the back label laying claim to sustainably farmed grapes, vegan and gluten-free status, “Wooly Weeders” sheep and goats that maintain the vineyards; and a commitment to renew and reuse rather than throwing things away.
“Sustainable” I get, more or less. It’s about “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” as the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development puts it. It’s about taking care of the earth so our descendants can enjoy it. I’m down with that. I’m proud of my little Prius.
But to be honest, I’ve long thought of Cline simply as a reliable source of drinkable if not memorable Zinfandel from Contra Costa County in California’s East Bay, and I didn’t recall it as a producer noteworthy for things like sustainability, environmental, and general greenness.
Researching their Sonoma County Syrah changed my attitude. And I liked the wine. I liked it more than I expected, and I didn’t put my $15 down in search of disappointment.
Cline’s Farming Practices page explains in detail, but let me hit a few high points before you go.
“Our aim is to be stewards of the land,” they write, “not only through our natural and sustainable Green String farming methods, but through an awareness of bringing interconnected systems into harmony. We are committed to nurturing the land and creating wines that reflect the bounty of these complex and perfect ecosystems.”
Among highlights, they note that Cline has been designated Certified California Sustainable and Sonoma County Sustainable, marking “a long-term commitment to continual improvement in the field of sustainable winegrowing and business practices, from grape to glass.”
Cline’s Green String Method is the sustainable farming method developed by soil manager Bobby Cannard and owner Fred Cline as “a system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. These methods minimize pollution from the air, soil, and water, and optimize the health and productivity of soil, plants, animals and people.” It makes every effort to reduce soil erosion, and other harmful ecological footprints while yielding excellent quality crops.
The “Wooly Weeders,” 1,500 sheep and 500 goats, roam the vineyards as they munch weeds. “In spring, they munch on new growth between the vine rows. During summer months, sheep clear the weeds from the vineyard floor while chomping on vine leaves, allowing more sunlight to stream into the canopy and ripen the grapes.”
Cover crops, compost and compost tea, and minerals from ground volcanic rock all reduce waste and amend and improve the soil, nurturing deep roots and healthy vines without use of commercial fertilizers. Owl boxes and raptor perches and habitat for beneficial insects invite natural predators in lieu of spreading harmful pesticides. The winery is solar-powered, and it does not use genetically modified organisms in farming or winemaking processes.
In short, Cline is just about as green as green can be, and if you can’t explicitly taste sustainability in the bottle, I have to believe that such a strong commitment to the environment and the earth – sustainability – is bound to reveal itself in quality. Certainly the 2018 Sonoma County Syrah is exceptional, and a tremendous value in the mid-teens. You’ll find my tasting notes below.
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Today’s Tasting Report
Cline 2018 Sonoma Coast Syrah ($14.99)
This 100-percent Syrah shows dark purple with a thin, clear garnet edge. Black plums, black cherries, and a whiff of something like tobacco leaf on the nose, leading into a mouth-filling black-fruit and black coffee flavor framed by fresh acidity. Its 14.5% alcohol and persistent tannins dry the insides of your cheeks; an aftertaste of fragrant black pepper, typical of Syrah, becomes more evident with time in the glass. Interesting wine. Its origin in Sonoma County’s cool-climate Diamond Pile Estate vineyard and its subtle French oak imparts a surprisingly Rhône-like character for a California Syrah. (Feb. 6, 2020)
FOOD MATCH: Syrah’s natural companion is rare red meat, beef, lamb or game, or flavorful Cheddar and similar cheeses.
WHEN TO DRINK: Its fruit and tannin and sturdy Syrah backbone suggest that it should cellar well and perhaps gain complexity over up to five years.
It’s a great value in the range of my local $15 price and Wine-Searcher.com’s $14 average U.S. retail, and is available for as little as $10 from a few vendors listed at Wine-Searcher. It sells for a bit more from the winery, going for $18 on the Cline website.
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