The World in a Wineglass
Biodynamics helps vintners find the spirit of their land.
Thursday, June 9, 2005
At 4:30am on May 6, Bonny Doon Vineyard Manager Nadine Lew crawled out of bed, got in her Nissan pickup and drove to the winery’s Ca’ del Solo vineyard northeast of Soledad. Working by headlights in the cool pre-dawn air, she ran water into two 60-gallon copper kettles attached to a big twin mixer, and fetched a Mason jar of ground quartz from its place on the east side of the work shed. Dumping 120 grams of the white powder into each kettle, she hit the mixer’s “on” switch.
The blades spun clockwise until the liquid formed a vortex with a figure eight at the bottom, prompting sensors on the machine to kick in and reverse the blade’s direction. The water churned until it caught up with itself, then picked up momentum and after about a minute formed another vortex, only to be slowed and reversed again. And again. And again.
When Lew shut the mixer off an hour later, the sun had risen over the Gavilans and the vineyard was stirring to life. Javier Chavez was ready with an ATV and a 60-gallon tank attached to a sprayer. Jose Argueta had an identical rig mounted on a tractor. They filled their tanks with the dilute solution and at 6:45am rumbled off to start misting the vineyard’s 140 acres of Italian, French and Spanish varietals, at a rate of three gallons per acre, while Lew mixed another batch.
<>That’s one version of what happened. Here’s another: on a leaf day (also called a water day because the moon was passing before a water sign), Lew, Chavez and Argueta helped bring the forces of sunlight into the vineyard. The ground silica, which had been buried in a cow’s horn last year at the spring equinox and dug up at the fall equinox, had been soaking up sun in its Mason jar ever since its liberation from the underground. In order to bring its message of light to the vines, however, the horn silica needed water—live water. So Lew oxygenated the water by spinning it in the mixer and reversing direction at regular intervals, thereby inducing the state known as chaos. In the words of Philippe Coderey, Bonny Doon’s director of viticulture, this process activated the water’s memory. Once the >water was thus enlivened, very little horn silica was needed to create an impression on it.
“Then you take the water, which is full of memories, special kind of memories, and you bring it to the plant,” is how Coderey explains it. With horn silica, that is best done in early morning; otherwise it intensifies the sun’s rays too much and burns the leaves.
This is biodynamic farming, a challenge to the modern scientific mind. Conceived in 1924 by Austrian scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner (who is also the father of Waldorf education), biodynamics is the agricultural component of a system of thought that links all life on earth to the cosmos. Like organics, biodynamics forbids the use of synthetic chemicals, but it goes well beyond that. The idea is that certain plants or substances, even in minute quantities, attract forces—cosmic forces—that heal the earth and plants in very specific ways.
A few ounces of specially prepared yarrow, introduced to a mountain of compost, will help plants attract trace elements for good nutrition. A smidgen of prepared chamomile will stabilize nitrogen and enhance microbial life. A solution of fermented cow manure will stimulate root growth, and so on.
Sounds pretty kooky. But the farmers who practice biodynamics, and the growing number of California viticulturists who are joining their ranks, don’t care what it sounds like because they say it produces healthier, stronger plants better able to withstand drought and other stressors. They claim the soil is more fertile, the crops grown from it more nutritious and flavorful.
Lew is among them, in spite of her good training at the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology. Short, stocky and freckled, she exudes an affable pragmatism and seems a little embarrassed by some of the esoteric tenets of biodynamics. She says ruefully that her friends now call her the “witch doctor,” and she confesses that she prefers what she calls “the biological aspect of farming.”
“But this is one of those things that seems to work, and we don’t know why it works,” she says with a shrug, “and it doesn’t take much effort, so we’re gonna keep doing it.”
The Law of the Land
“I’m in pursuit of terroir,” says Randall Grahm, “and I think biodynamics is the most efficient road for the attainment of terroir, the realization of terroir, the uncovering of terroir.”
Having made his way to satisfactory intellectual ground on this point, Grahm corrects his initial assertion. “I don’t think you attain it. I think you discover it. You discover terroir.”
Bonny Doon’s famously irreverent winemaker is suffering from a cold and is spaced out, owing both to the cold and its latest consequence, a visit this morning to a locally famous energy healer. We are seated in Grahm’s faux-painted orange office with its purple ceiling and barely visible patina of green on one wall. During the course of our conversation Grahm keeps closing his eyes in concentration, as if feeling his way toward a thought’s conclusion while thinking out loud.
“Great wines have—when you taste a great wine, it tells you where it comes from,” he explains. “To me, that’s an amazing quality. It’s a transcendental quality.”
Terroir is the unique quality of a place as expressed in a wine, a tale of soil and climate told by a grapevine. French appellations (wine-growing microregions) are famed for their terroir. Many expert palates think California wines are so big and fruity, so drenched in the particulars of the grapes they’re made from, that they leave too little room for the minerality that denotes place.
A handful of California winemakers are making a return to terroir through biodynamics. The children of the pioneering Fetzer wine family are growing grapes certified by Demeter, the international biodynamic association, at Ceago in Lake County and at Masut and Patianna in Mendocino. Also in Mendocino, Frey and former Fetzer property Bonterra are certified, as is Sonoma’s Benziger. Napa wineries Robert Sinskey and Araujo Estates practice biodynamic wines but aren’t certified; neither is Grgich Hills, which put California wine on the map in 1976 when French judges awarded its chardonnay first place at the famous blind “Paris Tasting.”
All are after the same thing. They’ve signed up because the goal of biodynamics—to help the field or vineyard become the healthiest, best possible version of itself—is deeply compatible with the notion of terroir. Like a person, a place must fully become itself before it can fully express its individuality. And then not everyone is going to like it.
Ivo Jeramaz, vineyard manager at Grgich Hills, makes a key disclaimer. “I will not say biodynamic wine is any better than conventional wine; no, I am saying it has more character,” he says. “We are hoping the wines will be the pure expression of the soil they come from.”
This is a radical proposition. To put a premium on individuality in the face of a narrow, market-oriented value system is risky. The American wine establishment is supported by a point system (50-100) popularized by enological kingmaker Robert Parker of The Wine Advocate. A bad score dealt by Parker (or the competing Wine Spectator) can be devastating to a winery. Grahm says this has created a teach-to-the-test mentality that stifles innovation.
“It’s like, ‘Okay, is Parker gonna like it? Okay, what do we need to do to make Parker like it? What do we need to add to it? What do we need to change in our vineyard, in our practice, to make Parker like it?’” he says.
The result, in Grahm’s view, is a lot of “innocuous, superficially charming fruit bombs” on the market—many of them from Australia—with none of what Grahm has come to care about most in a wine.
“Wines with minerality often seem austere and hard and ungiving,” he says. “People think: why would I want a wine like that? But I think as you sort of get into it, they really are the most satisfying. It’s sort of like being nourished on a very simple, shallow level or being nourished at a very deep level. Certain wines are very charming, pleasant—but they don’t really speak to your soul, and the reality is after a half hour it’s like, ‘Okay, next?’
“A wine with minerality reveals itself over time. It’s often better the second day, even the third day, whereas with a New World wine you drink it, cork it up and next day—dead. Dead.”
Biodynamicists believe their practice nurtures each site’s individual capacity by bringing it back to life—reestablishing subtle planetary connections from which the earth has been cut off by electromagnetic activity. When those connections are revitalized, life returns to the earth and its crops.
It’s no coincidence that Grahm happens to run the only biodynamic vineyard in Monterey County, home to 38,000 acres of wine grapes. Grahm was the first to give his wines playful names (Cardinal Zin, Il Fiasco, Clos de Gilroy), the first to defend pink wine in the post-white zinfandel world, and the first to champion screw caps. Now Checker Cab and Goats do Roam are all the rage, rosés are fashionable again and screw caps are acceptable in polite society. So will Kendall-Jackson soon be burying cow horns packed with manure at the fall equinox? Is this the next big thing?
Grahm looks deflated. “No. I think it’s gonna be a small thing,” he says. “I think it’s going be a battle for the life of the planet. It’s a cosmic drama, and I don’t know who’s going to win. The bad guys are fiendishly efficient.
“And when I say bad guys, they’re not…” he searches for the right word and then laughs. “They’re Australians! I mean, how bad can they be?”
Planet in a Glass
Philippe Coderey came to biodynamics the hard way. “I used to be a conventional vine grower,” he says. “That’s when I poisoned myself.”
As a teenager working on his father’s sunny vineyard in southern France, Coderey would spray chemicals from the tractor, wearing only a pair of shorts. “At the end of the day I would be all red or all orange,” he says. “No one told us these chemicals were dangerous for us.”
A few years later he went to the doctor complaining of pain in his side and splotches on his skin. His liver was swollen. In the absence of a drinking habit, the doctor informed him the chemicals were the prime suspects.
“So I had a choice: to quit or find another way of farming,” Coderey says. He’d always wanted to come to America, and he soon found himself on a Pennsylvania farm learning biodynamics. Eight years later, in 1997, he took his skills back to France and eventually wound up at Maison Chapoutier, the renowned biodynamic Rhone winery. Grahm lured him to Bonny Doon earlier this year, capitalizing on Coderey’s longtime fascination with California.
Coderey is tall, lean and tanned, with a quiet and somber manner. He also has a problem: how to convince Bonny Doon’s growers—the winery buys 95 percent of its grapes from contractors—that biodynamics works.
To him it’s self-evident. “I’ve been working biodynamics for 18 years, and what I can see are the results in the plants,” he says. “The structure of the soil becomes totally different. There’s more life in them, more insects, more warmth, more bacteria, more fungus. The plants are becoming more and more resistant against disease. After a few years of spraying vines with biodynamic sprays you realize you can quit sulfur, you can quit anything.
“The consequences are healthy vines, stronger plants of better quality. When I’m saying ‘quality’ I mean more flavor, and what we call the life forces that make the difference between a dead apple and a living apple.”
Coderey is frustrated by the widespread impression that biodynamics is some newfangled hippie trip. In fact it’s old, he says. The biodynamic calendar, for example, is based on the Farmer’s Almanac. And the biodynamic imperative to have animals on the property, in order to complete the cycle of fertility and nutrition, makes for farms that look a lot like old-fashioned small family operations.
“Eighty percent of the biodynamie has to do with traditional agriculture,” Coderey says. “We just forget about this way of farming. Using nettle is not biodynamic, it’s traditional. Using cow horn is not biodynamic, it’s traditional.”
Growers don’t really care what it is. They want evidence.
There is some proof to be had. Washington State University soil scientist John Reganold has done a number of studies on biodynamics. In a landmark study in the April 1993 issue of Science, he compared biodynamically farmed soil with conventionally farmed soil on farms in New Zealand and found the biodynamic soils had higher microbial activity, better structure and superior health overall.
“There was no contest,” he says. “The biodynamic beat the conventional hands down.”
The study also compared economics and found biodynamics to be “just as financially viable” as conventional farming.
Organic and biodynamic soil, on the other hand, have been proved to be virtually indistinguishable; a six-year experiment carried out at McNab Ranch in Mendocino County essentially revealed no difference in soil health and crop yields.
Nevertheless, there is also evidence that biodynamics work. Even if its scientific underpinnings are mysterious.
Some biodynamicists look to a process called “sensitive crystallization,” whereby the extract of a given plant is treated with copper chloride and allowed to evaporate, leaving residue in delicate patterns. The more complex the pattern, the more life force the plant is thought to have had. Biodynamically grown plants fare well in these experiments.
Alan York, a biodynamic consultant who has worked with a lot of California winemakers, says trying to convince skeptics is pointless. “People are inclined to believe it or not believe it,” he says. “And the people that are inclined to believe it find the evidence adequate. People not inclined to believe it find fault in the science.”
The trappings of biodynamics are so off-putting to some people that they just can’t get past their initial suspicion. Culture has a lot to do with it. In Mendocino County, the cradle of organics, biodynamics has gained a foothold. But in Monterey, where the influence of San Joaquin-style agribusiness is strong and cost-per-acre calculations are paramount, it has not.
Steve McIntyre’s Monterey Pacific, Inc. grows 7,000 acres of wine grapes in Monterey County. For Bonny Doon, McIntyre agreed to farm 37 acres of grenache, grenache noir and roussanne using biodynamic techniques, mostly because he was curious. So far it reminds him of the superstitious rituals indulged in by baseball players. He says it’s too early to tell whether the practice has affected the wine quality, but he knows one thing: It’s expensive.
“It adds about $400 an acre to your farming budget,” he says, “mostly because of labor. Weed control is higher because you’re doing it mechanically, not chemically.”
Dan Karlsen, the winemaker and general manager of Chalone, is an implacable critic who isn’t buying any of it.
“I think it’s nonsense, driven more by people trying to find a niche for themselves separate from the rest of us,” he says. “The doses that these guys are adding—I mean, they’re spreading a teaspoon over an acre. I love voodoo, and I’m an old hippie, but I have to come to work every day and prove success. And you prove success by winning the empty bottle contest.
“Hopefully these biodynamic guys will document what they’re doing,” he says, relenting a little. “I don’t want to be some curmudgeon saying ‘this is crap,’ but rather, give me a wine that knocks my socks off here. We need to focus on what our art really is: to create a hedonistic rush for consumers. If you have to know all about it before you drink it, you’ve lost the point.”
One thing the skeptics and the biodynamicists do agree on is that biodynamic techniques compel growers to get out in their vineyards more, which is a good thing. “Too often we don’t look at the big picture, and we miss some cues,” McIntyre says.
Hedonistic rushes are not out of the question, either. Last month, Wine Spectator’s Michael Kramer observed that organic and biodynamic techniques create “superior wines with earth-imposed expressions.” The New York Times recently placed two biodynamically grown vintages, from Patianna and Ceago, in its top 10 picks of California sauvignon blancs. And last August, Fortune magazine sponsored a blind taste test of biodynamic and conventional wines by a panel of seven sommeliers and wine writers. Out of 10 pairs matched by appellation and price point, the biodynamic wines won eight times.
A Life Style
Bonny Doon is actually the second winemaker to grow biodynamic grapes in Monterey County. Rick Boyer farmed 179 of Jekel’s 300 acres biodynamically until the company relocated to Santa Barbara County in February 2004. He’s now building a winery for a Bay Area developer six miles south of Salinas on River Road. The site is too steep for animals, he says, so it can’t be biodynamic, but it will be organic.
“I think maybe biodynamics is not the future for everybody, but I think organics are,” he says. “I think 20, 25 years from now most, if not all, vineyards will be organic.”
If so, then Monterey County had better step it up. Out of almost 40,000 acres under wine grape cultivation, a scant 206 are certified organic. When Ca’ del Solo receives its certification next year, it will almost double that figure.
There is not an environmentalist alive who would not applaud more grapes being grown organically, unless that person happened to be in the biodynamic camp, where organic farming is seen as good, but not enough—good for the conscience, good for publicity, but ineffective at the root of the problem.
“Organics has migrated into Organic, Inc.,” says winemaker Robert Sinskey. “The regulations are only concerned with inputs. There’s no addressing the health of the soil. Organics can literally become a mining process where you pull everything out of the soil.”
Organic farmers would take strong exception to this. But what the biodynamicists are driving at is that a series of “no”s aren’t enough to repair decades of chemical damage. There must also be some radical “yes”es to reestablish the vitality that has been lost.
Nicolas Joly is the godfather of the California biodynamic wine movement and an unabashed proponent of the metaphysics. He is also the winemaker at the 875-year-old Loire Valley winery La Coulee de Serrant. Last month Joly, a professorial-looking man in jacket and tie with deep-set hazel eyes and a crease between them that deepened the more excited he got, joined the California-based Alan York as guest speaker at a biodynamic wine tasting in San Francisco. When asked why organics isn’t enough, Joly launched into an esoteric answer.
“We are not powerful enough,” he said emphatically. “See, organic at a physical level is the same difference as homeopathy and herb tea that you take. When you are doing biodynamie, you move away from the physical level and you reach the energetical level, which is much more powerful because life doesn’t belong to the earth. Life is dying into earth. When you have an old person dying, it’s that person has become too earthly, too hard, you see?”
In this belief system, life is made of energy. The biodynamic preparations are said to work in such tiny quantities because when they are diluted—that is, freed from the heavy matter of earth—they are “moving back to the essence,” as Joly says, and become energy, which in turn attract other kinds of energy. All that equals more life force for the vines.
Joly says milk can fight powdery mildew, and seaweed can “limit the aggression of the sun.” But the chemical industry prefers to keep farmers hooked on synthetics, which interfere with the attraction of these life forces.
“The more you treat [with chemicals], the more you are isolating your vines from the system which brings health!” he says.
There are serious implications for all food crops, and for human health, which Joly says is in “complete trauma.” “We never had so much food at the physical level; we have never starved so much at the energetical level.”
In grapes, this starvation manifests as a weakness the winemaker must overcome by manipulating the process to manufacture taste. It’s a sure sign that something is wrong.
“If you trust your place, if that place has the capacity for making good wine, you don’t need cosmetics!” Joly exclaims. “This natural wedding of climate with the soil through a specific cepage is more than enough to reach originality that no one else in the world can copy.”
If you trust your place. Much of biodynamics seems to come down to that: trust. Wine Spectator’s Kramer says biodynamics, along with organics and dry-farming, is rooted in an “acceptance of vulnerability.” What a wise and graceful phrase, and what a challenge; we are all so well-trained to insulate ourselves, as protection.
To “trust your place” takes faith, not faith in the power
of horn silica to stimulate photosynthesis, but faith in the
rightness of the universe. The kind of faith that says if you
strip the artifice off your vineyard or vegetable field or
writing or painting or relationships or whatever to see what
the thing is really capable of, then the answer will be okay,
that it will leave you changed but intact, someplace new
between the hungry earth and a limitless sky.