Story Jonah Raskin
Photos Steven Krause
“I love wine,” says Rob Izzo, an unabashed oenophile and the general manager at Eco Terreno, Mark Lyon’s organic, biodynamic, 149-acre farm in Alexander Valley.
Alexander Valley is the largest grape-growing area in Sonoma County, where it’s hotter and dryer than the Valley of the Moon. And yes, Eco Terreno is a farm. Lyon insists on it. “We are a wine farm, not a vineyard,” he tells me on a sunny, fog-less September morning. He explains, “We are growing wine.” In Lyon’s view, he is ahead of the curve and at the same time out of step with wine industry trends. Not many northern California “wine farms” can truly claim to be both organic and biodynamic which, Lyon predicts, is the way of the future. And there aren’t a lot of vintners who refuse to make the kind of wines many consumers demand these days, wines Rob Izzo calls “fruit bombs,” with very high alcohol that are “perfect for backyard barbecues.”
Lyon is in a field by himself, and his farm is in a class by itself. There are two bodacious vineyards, a river (the Russian) runs through it, there’s a reservoir, egg-producing chickens, goats, bees, and a vegetable garden bulging with heirloom tomatoes, corn, beans, and peppers. Wild pigs and nimble rabbits roam freely across the landscape. The field workers say they’re delighted to work at a place where there are no toxic chemicals and the land isn’t poisoned with Roundup.
This year, the grape harvest at Eco Terreno began on the last Friday in August, later than usual because of heavy spring rain. The harvest will continue, Lyon calculates, until early November. From late summer to mid-autumn is a long time to fret about all the many things that can, and sometimes do, go wrong, like too much sun and heat on the grapes, or an invasion of menacing insects. “This time of year it’s pretty crazy for us,” Izzo says, as he sits calmly at his desk on Broadway in Sonoma, with his dog, Carter, at his feet and his smartphone in hand. That nifty device sends him the vital signs from the wine farm (an hour’s drive to the north): the temperature of the air, the degree of moisture in the ground, down to 4 feet, and the water content of the vines. Too much water isn’t a good thing for quality grapes. Some stress is good. Of course, there’s no substitute for walking though the farm itself, which Lyon does habitually and ritually.
More than anyone else at Eco Terreno, including Izzo—who arrived in 2017 from Georgia, wet behind the ears but a very fast learner—Lyon knows how crazy it can be at harvest. “Everyone’s anxiety level goes up,” he says. “Especially the vintners who want the grapes.” Still, Lyon has been through enough seasons on the land to know that it’s essential to keep one’s cool, even on the hottest of days, when grapes can turn to raisins if the sprinkler system isn’t turned on, sparingly, in the nick of time. There have been close calls. There might be again.
At Sebastiani Vineyards, where he worked for 37 adventurous years, Lyon’s first harvest was in 1979. When he left on May 31, 2016,—he remembers the exact date—he says he “didn’t tick anyone off” and that “leaving had been in my mind for some time.” At Eco Terreno, Lyon has harvested grapes since 1980, the year when he and his father bought the property from the legendary Rodney Strong, who planted grapes and then couldn’t make the enterprise work and gave up. Some of Rodney’s vines are still there, Lyon proudly notes. Indeed, they look old and gnarly and lend a certain kind of Old World dignity to Eco Terreno, which is bordered by gentle hills, emitting a sense of serenity even in the madness of the harvest.
“This isn’t my first rodeo,” Lyon says with confidence and no hint of bragging, as he stands in a block of cabernet sauvignon and looks closely at the leaves, the grapes, the bright sun overhead, the ground that holds the roots, the moisture, and the microbes, all the elements that make farming possible.
“Eco Terreno”– which Lyon translates from the Latin as “ecological land”—exemplifies “precision farming” that links the latest technologies to ancient wisdoms that teach how to exist in a kind of intricate dance with and not against the environment.
The whole point of organic, biodynamic grape farming, says agricultural whiz Daphne Armory—who has shared her wisdom with Eco Terreno—is to “let the vines remember what their job is and then let them do it.” Lyon aims to get out of the way of nature, and go beyond the cry of “sustainability,” which he sees as mostly “green washing.” At Eco Terreno he has embraced the practice of “regenerative agriculture,” which means building soils, growing habitats, encouraging diversity, and undoing the harm that humans have done to Alexander Valley for hundreds of years. ”We aim to fix, not sustain,” Lyon says.
Eco Terreno boasts two vineyards: Lyon Vineyard and Cisne Vineyard, named after Mark’s husband, Daniel Cisneros. Both vineyards are broken down into “blocks,” or sections of varying shapes and sizes, from under an acre of petit verdot to just over eight acres of cabernet blanc. Color-coded maps on the wall of the Alexander Valley office provide representations of the blocks, all of them numbered, which help the farmworkers keep them straight. Lyon seems to know each one like the proverbial back of the hand.No two blocks are exactly the same, though in the field they might look identical to a visiting wine. Some blocks have gravelly soil, others have loamy soil; some receive a lot of afternoon sun, others not so much. A “divided canopy” serves some vines better than others. Soils with better drainage often seem to produce richer wines, Lyon says, though he also explains that one size doesn’t fit all.
At Eco Terreno, it’s too hot for the kind of pinot noir that does well near the foggy Russian River around Forestville. Italian reds don’t get to express their true identity, either, at Lyon’s farm. Old sauvignon blanc vines can be bullet proof when it comes to viral diseases that strike vineyards. More than anything else, Lyon goes after quality, not quantity. It’s not the tonnage that matters most, but rather the flavors, some of which, he says, “are amazing.” There’s quite a lot of thinning, “dropping fruit,” and as you walk through the vineyard you see clumps of grapes on the ground.
The art of cultivating grapes requires matching the personality of the soil with the unique identity of the varietals. When Lyon talks about growing grapes and making wine, he turns for analogies to sculpture and architecture. Like them, farming grapes is time-consuming and a labor of love. “We are not a model of efficiency,” he says. “If we were, we would grow one varietal, harvest everything at the same time, and send all the grapes to a big commercial winery.”Lyon considers the farm a work in progress, and over the years, through trial and error, he has learned the all-important lesson that “Great whites and great reds are made in vineyards.” When asked if a brilliant vintner could turn crappy grapes into a great wine he says, “Even the most talented winemaker can’t move a mountain,” though he adds that, “Some vintners have tricks.”
For 37 years, life at Sebastiani was good for Lyon. Indeed, he had great success, especially with his Bordeaux-style cabernet sauvignon, which received very high marks from wine maven Robert Parker, among others. As much as anyone else, Lyon showed the world that great cabs could be grown in Sonoma Valley. But little by little, as he grew restless with conventional farming, he began to pay very close attention to the natural world around him. And one morning, he had an epiphany. He looked out the window of a farmhouse and watched as a vineyard was sprayed with chemicals. “Am I going to make wine from those grapes?” he asked himself. “Isn’t it wrong to poison birds and people?” He decided it was very wrong, indeed.
Around the same time, he visited Bordeaux, the French wine region that has inspired him more than any other. At Chateau Pontet Canet and Chateau Latour, he saw that they were going the way of organic and biodynamic. If they were doing it, he concluded, he could do it, too, albeit in a California style. In Bordeaux, Lyon experienced a conversion. Now, he wants to convert others to the gospel of organic and biodynamic.
Meanwhile he’s making fine reds and whites from the grapes he farms. His cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, a barrel- fermented chardonnay, a rosé and blend of reds called “Los Quatro” can be ordered online. Lyon also sells a great deal of his crop to other wineries, including Roth, Bonterra, Foley Family, Chateau St. Jean, and Sebastiani, where he pioneered direct sales to consumers. Next year, Eco Terreno will open a sumptuous tasting room in San Francisco, where Lyon believes his biodynamic, organic wines will be particularly well received.
Izzo, a recent convert to organic and biodynamic farming, fell in love with Lyon’s merlot a few years ago, on his first winetasting tour in the town of Sonoma. That merlot changed Izzo’s life. He moved from Georgia to California, gave up his dream of becoming a college professor and embraced the California dream. “Mark has done a lot of exceptional things over the course of his lifetime, including at Sebastiani,” Izzo says. “Eco Terreno will be his legacy.” Mark Lyon’s personality is written all over Eco Terreno, and the farm where he grows grapes is written all over him.
Jonah Raskin grew up in New York drinking French wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape. He’s now a convert to cabernet sauvignon from Sonoma. See all Eco Terreno wines at ecoterreno.com/Wines.