Evidence, quite tangible evidence, of the Bass family's commitment to the principles of biodynamic farming isn't hard to find. Just a few minutes into a short stroll through the Port-Bass vineyard, I step right in it.
In a fresh cow patty, that is, and how perfect is that? Luke Bass takes the opportunity to explain that cows are central to the farming philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, the father of biodynamic agriculture, so he's glad they finally got one. She's just one brown cow, but her contributions to the fertilization program here have been impressive.
Luke's parents came out west from upstate New York around 1980—a little late for the back to the land movement, but with a somewhat upgraded business model. They wanted to work on the land in two ways: his father established an architecture studio, and his mother, until five years ago, was the chief tractor driver for the vineyard, says Bass. They bought an old farm that looks carved right into the sylvan hills south of Guerneville, but it's the other way around—first, the forest was carved out in the 1800s. Then, a family planted grapes just in time for Prohibition. Much of the topsoil washed away into the Russian River long ago, says Bass, so it's a struggle to get a thousand dollars worth of grapes out of some parts of the vineyard, even after treating them to several thousand dollars more worth of compost. "When I hand this over to my son, it will be more healthy and more vibrant," Bass says. He takes the long view: "Maybe he'll get rich!"
Tastings at Porter-Bass are by appointment only and are held in the shade of a walnut tree, with mismatched patio chairs and a wood slab over two barrels. So, what does a ramshackle setup in the woods, native yeast fermentation, and no new barrels buy you? Well. Porter-Bass 2016 Chardonnay ($40) is the kind of Chardonnay that California Chardonnay detractors do somersaults for when they don't know it's California Chardonnay. It's 100 percent malolactic fermented, but the lemon-lime acidity, tangy kiwi fruit and native microbial actors only shrug a bit toward caramel aromas, dominated by dried lemon blossom. Their 2016 Pinot Noir ($50) shows woodsy spice, with a barge of black cherry and plum paste fruit steered by a stony hand of minerals. The 2015 Zinfandel ($40) is a "take that, Zin haters" kind of Zin, enticing with lingonberry and olallieberry fruit, green peppercorn, and finishing fresh and firm—tangible evidence that this winery's practices are yielding even more pleasant results.
Porter-Bass, 11750 Mays Canyon Rd., Guerneville. By appointment only. Tasting fee, $15. 707.869.1475.