The Natural Approach that Gave BARRA Its Identity

Decades before BARRA of Mendocino or Girasole Vineyards produced their first vintages, founder and organic farming pioneer Charlie Barra was cultivating the grapes and growing the vineyards that would later provide the lifeblood for the two affordable award-winning, consistently high-scoring California brands.

The grapes grown at Redwood Valley Vineyards were sold commercially to other winemakers and to this day, some of them still are. But in the 1990s, after a downturn in the grape market, Barra decided the time had come to bottle some of the fruit themselves, and in 1997 they produced BARRA of Mendocino’s first wine — a Petite Sirah.

Rewind to nearly a decade before that, in 1988, and Redwood Valley Vineyards was officially becoming a California Certified Organic Farm, something that remains a big part of its identity and story to this day.

But the only thing new about that designation was the title because Redwood Valley Vineyards has farmed organically since its inception.

“Charlie always made the statement that he’d been farming organic for 50 years and for the first 30, he didn’t know it,” said owner Martha Barra, who co-owned the family’s farming, winemaking, and custom crush businesses with Charlie, who died in 2019 at the age of 92.

The Uphill Climb of Organic Farming

Don’t make the mistake of using “sustainable” as a broad-strokes description of “California Certified Organic.” The two designations are not one and the same,

Certified organic foods are produced according to federal standards set by the USDA National Organic Program. The use of sewage sludge, bioengineering (GMOs), ionizing radiation, and most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers is prohibited from organic production.

Certified organic produce is grown on soil that has been free of prohibited substances for three years before harvest to ensure that the crops will not be contaminated. It’s focused on the conservation of resources, but qualifying as certified organic also includes regulations for organic processed products, including prohibiting artificial preservatives, flavors, and dyes.

“When you’re calling yourself ‘sustainable,’ you can still use commercial fertilizers, and we’re really restricted not only in the vineyard but also at the winery when we’re making our wine,” Barra said. “There’s a real difference.”

Randy Meyer, winemaker for both the BARRA and Girasole brands, said he believed the push toward sustainability had great intentions and is the right thing to do, but said it has its deficiencies when compared with the rigorous task of maintaining organic certification.

“I’ll add this little caveat — there aren’t any true regulatory agencies that keep an eye on (sustainability),” Meyer said. “Certain groups like Lodi Rules and Sonoma Sustainable do their best to regulate sustainable farming practices, but that does not translate into the winemaking side of things. Being able to say you’re a certified organic farmer adds a lot of street cred to your style of winemaking.”

Barra said many things motivated her husband to pursue the organic path before it was trendy.

“We believed the EPA was eventually going to take away the chemicals,” Barra said. “His parents and grandparents didn’t farm with chemicals, so he knew that was the way to go. Chemicals are a concern for soil health and watershed, but also for the health and safety of the employees.

“Fetzer was a big mover and shaker back then, and it was family-owned at the time, and they were paying us $100 per ton extra to be certified, so that was another reason. But truly, the motivation was soil health and caring for the watershed that goes into the Russian River.”

Make no mistake: Jumping through the hoops required to call yourself California Certified Organic is no small feat. Things like insect control that non-organic farmers can tackle with a commercial pesticide are not on the menu for the certified organic farmer.

“It’s not easy. It really isn’t,” said Barra, who oversees farming operations at Redwood Valley Vineyards, which includes more than 350 planted acres. “The biggest threat we’re dealing with is leafhoppers. Because we cannot use strong pesticides, we have to use something called Cliganic which is chrysanthemum oil. It’s more difficult when you can’t come in with a heavy hand as non-certified growers can.”

Climate change is making the plight of the organic farmer even more arduous than it was before. The pressure on farmers is greater now than it’s ever been from a pest management standpoint, Barra said.

“We used to have really cold temperatures in wintertime, and with climate change that’s really changing,” she explained. “The nymphs that used to be killed during the winter can now overwinter, so we get to the spring and there they are.”

Taking corrective action is also more difficult, Meyer added. There’s more pressure to get things right the first time.

“One difference is it’s a lot easier to add nutrients back into the soil if you’re not farming organically,” he said. “There are a lot of farmers who use methods to pump synthetics into their drip lines. It’s basically like Miracle-Gro for grapes. When you’re farming organically, you’re composting and using organic matter, and you’re tilling the soil. You’re not easily boosting the soil through liquid means.”

Without the easy application of commercially available chemical concoctions, the vineyard crew taps into its ingenuity for things like weed control.

“I was out in the vineyard this morning, and because of the high price of gas, our guys were being very innovative,” she said. “Because we don’t use herbicides, we get grass and weeds that come back up in the middle of the row after cultivating. And so we have a tractor with a blade and ripper, and we have another tractor that usually goes through with a roller.

“Our guys had rigged all three pieces of equipment onto one tractor so that they could cut, rip and roll since you can’t spray for weeds under the vines.”

Meyer also mentioned witnessing the crew coming up with creative solutions amongst the vines.

“One of the guys took a hand-held hedger and hooked it onto a four-wheeler and rigged it up so that it would slide under the fine and do a little cane cutting and cleaning so that they didn’t have to run a full-sized tractor. Selectively cleaning out part of the vine makes it easier during harvest time.”

The grapes are all handpicked. Mechanization has been tried in the past, but a lot of the older vines weren’t planted to the machine, which resulted in split vines and damage. Newer blocks, however, are being planted with machines in mind.

Like many organic farmers, they don’t have a zero-tolerance policy for weeds.

“You have to have a tolerance for a few weeds,” Barra said. “Because we don’t spray under the vines. When you see any organic vineyard, you’ll see some weeds.”

“When you drive through Napa, and you don’t see any weeds under the canopy, you know they’ve put some Roundup out there,” Meyer added.

Aside from that, the soil and climate in Mendocino County and Redwood Valley are at least conducive to organic farming, Meyer said.

“I live down in Sonoma County on the edge of the Russian River Valley appellation and it’s so much harder. You’ve got growing pressures there like rot to deal with. You’ll find the organic farmers tend to migrate to where there are fewer growing pressures that can really wipe a crop out. We’re tailor-made awesome for organic here.”

Staying Organic During Winemaking

The strict rules associated with certified organic status apply to winemaking and tank cleaning as well.

Meyer is allowed to add a very small amount of sulfites to the wines — under 100 parts per million — and still, be within the parameters of what it means to be organic.

“We are allowed to add a little bit so that we can at least have drinkable wines that are safe, sound, and healthy, and that’s difficult to do with zero sulfites,” he said. “But when there are flaws in the bottle, it’s very tough.”

Because wines sent to Japan are required to undergo sulfite testing, Barra said they know exactly how their wines measure in terms of sulfite concentration. They test all the time, anyway, she added.

The difficulty with having limited access to sulfites can arise when the wine requires revisions.

“Ninety percent of the time we have acclimated to using fewer sulfites and there are a lot of techniques that can lower usage rate, but when you have a problem it can be tough,” Meyer said. “When you need sulfur dioxide to solve problems it can get in the way of curing some ills.

“So you’ve got to be in prevention mode when you’re making organic wine. It’s like with doctors. You’ve got one doctor who is great at keeping you healthy and you’ve got one who is an amazing brain surgeon who can get in there and fix things. You’ve got to be a preventative doctor — or winemaker — more than someone who is a solver/fixer.”

Growing BARRA and Girasole

When BARRA of Mendocino started, production was only about 100 cases.

Today, BARRA of Mendocino and value brand Girasole Vineyards combine to make 20,000 cases per year, with 12 different SKUs between the two brands.

The portfolio has evolved beyond that first Petite Sirah, with Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Rose, and even Port included among the varietals that bear the BARRA or Girasole badges.

“We farm nine different varietals, so it has incrementally grown,” Barra said. “It hasn’t been fast. We haven’t thrown a lot of money at salespeople. We work with distributors, but we haven’t spent a lot of money growing the brand as quickly as we could have.”

Barra described her company’s wines as staying consistent with the varietal, with good mouthfeel and balance being the priorities.

Meyer said BARRA tends to get the grapes that can be considered the “pick of the litter,” with Girasole getting the next tier. They sell the grapes they don’t use, which roughly amounts to 85% of them.

“With each of the varietals, we have the luxury of making a heck of a lot more wine than we actually bottle because we take all of our grapes, which are about 800-plus tons, and we maybe use 15% of that for our actual wines. The rest of it is sold on the bulk market with other bulk wine contracts. We get the luxury of picking what’s best for us and we’re able to sell off the rest. The rest is still really good wine, but we get to choose the best of the best.”

BARRA wines are made in 60-gallon French Oak barrels, while Girasole is made in tanks with high-end oak adjuncts, which Meyer said allows them to make fruit-forward wines without incurring the high cost of barrels while still providing balance.

The BARRA line ranges from $20-26 per bottle and Girasole is priced at around $16.

“It’s the way most wines are made in that price category today,” Meyer said. “Using $1,100 French Oak barrels only works when you’ve got a higher price point.”

Girasole was born in 2003 when falling prices for Pinot Noir grapes led the Barras to create the brand.

“There was really a lot of Pinot Noir, and we were only being offered $3 gallon on the bulk wine market for it,” Barra said. “We knew we couldn’t do that, so we created the Girasole label. Because we only use a certain amount of fruit in our BARRA brand, and the Girasole wine was beautiful, we continued to expand that line.”

Despite being relatively new brands, there are still some old vines on the property that are producing grapes that find their way into the bottles.

The oldest vines are Pinot Blanc grapes that were planted in 1962. They’re still producing and making really good wine, Barra said, and the Pinot Blanc varietal is a relative rarity in California.

“It’s very unusual in that there are only 438 acres of it in California and we happen to have 14 of those acres,” Barra said. “Eight of those acres are new vines. There’s a real flavor profile difference between the old block and the new vines, But they blend together into a powerful Pinot Blanc.”

Meyer added, “The grapes that were planted back in the day have more of a stone fruit, apricotty juicy fruit kind of character whereas the newest clones of Pinot Blanc are more citrus, greener, and mineral. The blend of the two makes a good mouthfeel.”

The Pinot Blanc is a good choice for Sauvignon Blanc lovers who want to try something new but aren’t fans of Chardonnay.

“It’s cool-fermented with no oak and we pop the CO2 level up so it has the crispness a lot of Sauvignon Blancs have but a fun flavor profile for people who want to branch out on their wine appreciation but aren’t interested in Chardonnay,” Meyer said.

Standing Out in a Crowded Market

BARRA of Mendocino’s Winery and Event Center formerly belonged to a Champagne producer and resembles a large, inverted Champagne coupe glass.

They do a healthy wedding business, but they don’t get a lot of tasting room traffic. They’re about 2½ hours from the airport, Meyer said, unlike Napa Valley wineries, which are about a 30-minute drive.

Part of that has to do with the evolving customer base, Meyer added.

“Gen Zers and Millennials want a different experience,” he explained. “The newer generation is looking for something else with a little more excitement than the old belly up to the bar chit-chat model. A lot of folks have moved their tasting rooms away from the wineries to places like the square in Healdsburg. The dynamic has changed a bit and it affects the traffic you see in traditional tasting rooms.”

Barra said that during the early days of the COVID pandemic they upped their focus on internet sales and pumped up their social media marketing.

“Plus there was some word of mouth — people talked to each other and referred their friends to us,” Meyer said. “We got consumer referrals.”

BARRA and Girasole are distributed in 28 states and are also sent to Canada, Japan, and a few countries in Northwestern Europe. Barra described 10 of the states as being really strong ones.

“My daughter, Shelley (Maly), is the director of our direct marketing sales and I give her a lot of credit for how she works with distributors in those states. It’s tough because we’re small and our distributors are small.”

Meyer said working with larger distributors doesn’t serve a brand like BARRA well.

“Brands like Gallo have the 800-pound gorillas. You have to find brokers who can help you propel yourself into new markets,” he said. “It’s a chiseled, strategic way to go to battle these days. You can’t just sign up for Southern Glazer’s. That works for about six months and then it just drops off a cliff, because there’s always a new winery coming on.”

Barra said that they also find it helpful to submit their wines for scoring.

“We do a good job of submitting our wines to Wine Enthusiast and Wine and Spirits and getting scored. You’ve got to play the game,” she said.

Being organic has also helped BARRA of Mendocino and Girasole stand out in a crowded market.

“It sets us apart from the rest,” Meyer said. “Thankfully, the younger generation may not be flocking to tasting rooms, but they love organic farm-to-table foods and knowing where their food comes from. The organics are more front and center now because there is more of an appreciation for them. We stand to benefit from that.”

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