Charlie Barra has been growing grapes in Mendocino's Redwood Valley for more than 50 years. His family came to California from Italy in the early 20th century to grow the native grapes of his land--Sangiovese, Pinot Grigio, and Pinot Bianco. For the last fifteen years, Barra has modernized the estate and become one of California's premier organic grape growers, cultivating Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Petite Sirah, and Muscat.
His estate, Redwood Valley Vineyards, is annualy certified by the California Certified Organic Farmers. Barra's commitment to organic practices is a commiment to his vineyard workers, the local habitat, and the surrounding land. Barra's vineyards are located on an agricultural benchland whose runoff feeds the headwaters of the Russian River. This kind of strenuous stewardship is especially priceless since it protects the soil and drinking water of the valleys below it, namely Sonoma.
For many years, Redwood Valley Vineyards grapes have fetched a hefty premium for their outstanding quality. And many of California's top wineries that are commited to making wines from organically grown grapes have queued up for Barra's produce and growing expertise.
Only in the last 10 years has Barra begun making and releasing his own wine. During a recent conversation, he clearly defined the direction of the winery: "I'm really the happiest on my tractor, you know. I remember this vineyard land when I bought it in 1949--disrepaired, diseased, and nearly dead. Today, it's filled with life and good. I don't know much about winemaking--I leave that to the winemakers--but I do know that the produce that comes from our land is second to none."
We visited Barra intending to taste his cool-climate varieties like Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, and Riesling. To our surprise, we left with a most favorable impression of his heartier wines, like this Cabernet Sauvignon. Experts like Steven Tanzer described the excellent 2001 vintage as the North Coast's answer to Bordeaux 2000, especially for Cabernet-based wines. The fine growing season gave dark-berried ripeness (blackberries and currants), coupled with an almost haunting minerality--like wet stones. It's a wine to drink now, or maybe a few more years, for its vibrancy and concentrated fruit.