images by Christopher Sawyer
Okay, let’s recap this series so far. In the first two articles we explored organic farming and how it’s applied in making wine and food products. Now let’s go big and explore the extreme style of vineyard farming known as biodynamics.
Biodynamics comes from the French term ‘biodynamie,’ meaning a combination of science and natural phenomena. The principles were developed by Austrian scientist/philosopher Rudolf Steiner, founder of Waldorf education and author of a series of essays in 1924 on advantages of using eco-friendly farming techniques and how natural rhythms of the sun, moon and planets help farmers strengthen their crops. Recently these principles have become en vogue and are now being applied to vineyards worldwide.
The basic idea of biodynamics in vineyard farming is that by limiting outside influences, grapes will be healthier and express more unique flavors. Thus, the role of a BD farmer is to analyze the land to determine what’s out of whack (or balance) and then fix it.
For starters, this means replacing the use of synthetic chemicals, like artificial fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides, with natural substitutes such as organic matter and green manures; rotating cover crops in vineyard rows; and designing gardens or insectaries that attract “good” bugs that ward off bad ones.
More adventurous techniques are used as well. For example, potent liquid concoctions - ”teas” - are prepared using natural herbs such as chamomile, stinging nettle, oak bark, dandelion, valerian, yarrow and horsetails. These materials are mixed with water, then either sprayed on vineyard compost or applied through a drip irrigation system to further enhance the soil and control mildew.
Another intriguing technique is the use of cow horns filled with fresh cow manure or silica (ground quartz) mixed with rainwater. The horns are buried for six months (to intensify the contents), then dug up and applied to the vineyard. In spring, the manure-based tea is sprayed on the ground to stimulate microbial activity in the soil; in autumn, the silica is dusted on vine leaves for more efficient photosynthesis.
Unlike subscribing to the more conventional approach to farming, which follows the regular patterns of the sun and the 12-month calendar, members of the biodynamic or “BD” community follow the individual cycles of the sun, moon and planets daily. Timing is critical: planting and pruning vines is determined by planet position and gravity; harvest is based on proximity of the moon; and handling the wine in the cellar is affected by all these factors. Think of this process as the Garden of Eden and a great sci-fi flick rolled into one!
In essence, practicing biodynamics means looking at the entire estate as one big pulsing, self-contained, self-sustaining system. Granted, until recently BD activities were considered a bit risque. In fact, terms like “voodoo,” “hocus-pocus,” “lunatic fringe” or “wacky” were often used to describe people practicing these techniques. (These same terms were also applied to those who used alternative closures for wine bottles. But we won’t go there.) However, over the past decade, the attitude toward biodynamics has changed considerably thanks to a growing number of ultra-premium wineries that apply the principles in order to intensify the taste and quality of their grapes.
A main proponent of the movement is French winemaker Nicolas Joly, who began applying the BD concept to his Coulee de Serrant estate vineyard in the Loire Valley in the mid 1980s. Demeter, the international certification agency for traditional biodynamic farming practices, officially certified the vineyard biodynamique in 1984. Since then, Joly has become a fervent believer that wines should represent the appellation (terroir) in which they’re grown and despises mass-produced wines influenced by synthetic chemicals. He’s continued to promote banning use of genetically engineered vine plants, modified yeasts and all aromatic additives. In his opinion, flavoring wine for the masses goes against the rules of nature.
Other French producers have embraced biodynamics as well. In Burgundy, winemaker/proprietor Jean-Louis Trapet, of Domaine Trapet Pere & Fils, says the health risks of using synthetic chemicals played a major role in his decision to convert to BD in the ‘90s. Since then, Trapet has noticed a significant improvement in the flavors and complexity of his wines. As a result, he sees no reason to go back to using the old methods.
In Spain’s Ribera del Duero region, Peter Sisseck, owner of Dominio de Pingus, has also seen improvement in his wines since converting his vineyard to biodynamics. For Sisseck, BD isn’t just a new method of spraying (specialty teas), it’s a totally new approach to everything in and around the vineyard. With biodynamics, Sisseck strives for flavors that are their own beings. And all that’s required to achieve this is a different state of mind.
Interest in biodynamic farming has spread to the New World as well. Currently, a growing number of producers in Australia, New Zealand, Chile and the United States have committed to applying BD principles to their vineyards.
In Northern California, the greatest concentration is in Mendocino County, where more than 1,000 acres of vines are biodynamically farmed. Bonterra (meaning “good earth”) is the leading grower, with nearly 250 acres planted. Many smaller vineyards are practicing biodynamics as well. In each case, the applications require long-term commitments and no wishy-washy wimps.
According to Steve Ryan, winemaker for Patianna Vineyards, you can’t be biodynamic with neglect. Instead, it’s a process that requires the farmer to be proactive at all times. Patianna Vineyards, owned by Patti Fetzer Burke, features a 126-acre biodynamically farmed vineyard along the pristine Russian River near Hopland. Their goal through biodynamics is to create great wine with a distinct and unique character that sets it apart from all the rest.
In Sonoma County, a leading proponent of the BD movement is Benziger Family Winery. In 1996, with the help of vineyard consultant and horticulturist Alan York, the Benzigers began applying Steiner’s biodynamic approach to their Sonoma Mountain Estate in Glen Ellen. The hilly, bowl-shaped property features a mix of volcanic soils and microclimates, all enclosed in forest. To make it work, retooling was in order. Mike Benziger, whose family’s estate was certified by Demeter in 2000, likens biodynamics to “removing a kink in a hose so as to realize the highest potential of the property.”
Another local Sonoma County convert is Quivira Vineyards, in Dry Creek Valley. Grady Wann, bio-organic chemist turned winemaker, admits he was initially skeptical of the BD principles. However, his view quickly changed after watching the entire estate property become the healthiest it’s been in decades. Since the conversion to BD began in 2002, Quivira has established an on-site creek restoration plan, planted new gardens and orchards, set up a comprehensive compost program, adopted a resident cow that produces fresh dung and employed a goat to eat weeds between vineyard rows.
“Going biodynamic meant we had to look beyond the grapes and learn more about all the natural forces that can influence the entire farm on a daily basis,” Wann says. “We no longer try to dominate nature, we simply work with it.”