by Christina Kelly & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & M & lt;/span & ore than 20 years ago, Bart and Victory Alexander were told that they could never grow grapes on their six acres of land about 20 miles north of Kettle Falls, Wash., near the Canadian border.

The couple spent years in Seattle with the Love Israel family (one of the longest running communes in the nation) before moving to Eastern Washington to try their luck at growing organic grapes and food. Part of the counter culture of the 1960s, Bart (whose Love Israel name is 'Loyal') and Victory wanted to grow their own vegetables without the use of chemicals and make wines without adding sulfites.

"Our vineyards, garden, winery and kitchen were created to maximize the natural goodness and health-giving properties of our wine and foods," says Bart Alexander. "We have always believed that natural growing and processing brings out the best flavors. What we produce here is free of chemicals, insecticides, herbicides and fertilizers."

But getting grapes to grow in a region that freezes much of the winter was not an easy task. The Alexanders, now in their 16th year of commercial winemaking, had to experiment with different grape varietals to figure out which ones could take the long, cold winters, with an average temperature of 20 degrees. An experimental block of land was set up with rows of different grape vines. The vines came from around the world as the couple researched cold-climate grapes.

Consultants discouraged the venture, but gradually, as vines died in early winter or failed to flourish in the spring, Bart and Victory nurtured eight varieties that not only survived, but thrived.

Those varietals with the uncommon names include Leon Millot (an Alsatian varietal from along the French/Swiss/German border), Marechal Foch, Aurora White and Lemberger. The winery also trucks grapes from the Yakima Valley to make the standard wines of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

The Alexanders do not add sulfite chemicals to the wines, which is a method normally practiced by most winemakers to allow age-ability, producing cellar-worthy wines. Many consumers have reactions to sulfites in wine -- from headaches to flushed faces to acid indigestion. Sulfites occur naturally in grapes, but winemakers generally add more sulfites in the winemaking process. The "red wine headache" is often triggered by sulfite chemicals.

Low-sulfite wines generally run 300 parts per million. At China Bend Vineyards, the wines run about 10 parts per million.

"I love red wine, but honestly could not drink even a couple of sips without getting a headache," says Susan Johanssen, a Spokane resident who discovered China Bend wines on the recommendation of a friend. "My doctor said it was probably the sulfites -- I can get the same reaction with other foods. I don't get headaches when I have a glass of red wine that has fewer sulfites."

The Northwest produces a handful of organic, low-sulfite wines, and retailers usually have a few in stock for sulfite-sensitive consumers. But the Alexanders wanted to go further with their organic operation by offering a bed-and-breakfast inn so that people could experience chemical-free foods as well.

"I also had to figure out what could grow this far north," says Victory. "With the popularity of organic farming, more seed companies were producing northern climate seeds, so we experimented with those first."

The couple originally met in the Yakima Valley, where Bart ran a small-scale food processing plant and cannery that allowed people to come in and process their own organic foods. It was a match from the start -- they both wanted to live off the land and totally supported the counterculture movement at the time. They then moved to Seattle to join the Love Israel family.

Although the commune stayed on a steady course for many years (about 35 years total), Bart and Victory, who had two children by then, decided to they wanted to move to a smaller, more rural community. They purchased 40 acres north of Kettle Falls and began working the land. Gradually, other members of the commune drifted north and east, creating an organic farming community where bartering, farming and entertainment all come from within the group.

"We are all organic farmers who work well together," says Victory. "We've been totally dedicated to this all our lives. We try to be self-sustaining for all our needs."

Victory makes organic jams, pickled garlic, baby dills and dilly beans. She also makes a great salsa from her estate-grown organic tomatoes. The menus for the bed-and-breakfast all come from within the garden or from local meats fed on natural grains.

To create more interest in organic farming, China Bend Vineyards hosts a garlic festival each year that features homegrown food and wines. The festival, in its ninth year, will be held Aug. 19-20 at the winery and features live music and arts and crafts.

There is a freshness to China Bend wines, along with surprising depth, which should put an end to the rumors that organic, low-sulfite wines do not taste good. These wines really do work well with food -- most have good acidity and low alcohol, perfect for dinner wines.

Although I think the jury is still out on the shelf lives of these wines, Bart Alexander says they will stand up well to age. For those who enjoy a glass of wine but haven't been able get around the sulfite issue, drinking China Bend wines will bring back of joy of a good meal with a good glass of wine.

American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 19
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