Since 1969, restaurant, hotel, travel & other witty reviews by a handpicked, worldwide team of discerning professionals—and your views, too.

Biodynamic Wines

An Expression of Terroir?

Recycling ponds at Benziger Family Winery
Recycling ponds at Benziger Family Winery

What goes around comes around. For thousands of years farmers have been working the land in accordance with the seasons, the moon cycles and the natural order of nature. But in our modern world we have become so far removed from the foods we eat and the wines we drink that the concept of burying cow horns during fall equinox or applying homeopathic elixirs to vines sounds esoteric at best. However, such ancient methods of farming are currently undergoing somewhat of a revolution, and while opponents of biodynamic farming like to dwell on these more unusual methods, vintners around the country have wholly embraced it in an effort to create self-sustained farms, to produce the highest quality grapes and to express the terroir of their wines in the most successful manner.

The concept of biodynamic farming dates back to the 1920s and Austrian philosopher, scientist and anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner, of Waldorf school fame. In a sense, biodynamics is an extreme form of organic farming, which avoids inorganic substances and chemical fertilizers and relies only on “natural” techniques. Biodynamic farming is associated with practices such as over-wintering manure in cow horns, fermenting flowers in stags’ bladders, or timing procedures with the phases of the moon. But while these techniques sound eclectic and obscure, they’re in fact “a way of life, a philosophy of farming that’s thousands of years old,” according to Bruno Allaire, president of Dynamic Imports, an importer and distributor of wines made exclusively from biodynamic or organically-grown grapes.

Sheep roam freely on a vineyard at Ceago Vinegarden
Sheep roam freely on a vineyard at Ceago Vinegarden

But biodynamic farming isn’t just an agricultural method. To Steiner and his adherents, it’s a holistic philosophy of life forces that treats all of cosmos as a living system and emphasizes factors like energy, lunar cycles and planetary forces. Basically the idea is that everything in the cosmos — people, plants, animals and stars — are interconnected, influencing each other. While this sounds ecologically responsible but somewhat lofty, the reasons for more and more vintners going biodynamic have to do with the fact that the biodynamic method really brings out the terroir of a wine. After World War II, overeager vintners almost destroyed vines with chemical fertilizers. Slowly people are beginning to realize not only the hazards to the environment but the fact that organic farming simply yields a “better quality grape,” according to Allaire.

Unlike with certified organic products, there are no USDA regulations regarding biodynamics. Currently, for a wine to be labeled “biodynamic” it has to meet the stringent standards laid down by an internationally recognized certifying body, Demeter Association. Let’s have a look at what’s going on at the biodynamic front and who’s leading the (r)evolutionary torch in the United States.

Frey Vineyards

Zinfandel grows on one of Frey's biodynamic vineyards
Zinfandel grows on one of Frey's biodynamic vineyards

Among the pioneers in the United States, Frey Vineyards in Mendocino, Calif., was the first winery to officially produce biodynamic wines. One of the oldest organic wineries (since 1980) in the country, it grows all of its grapes in accordance with California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). The Frey family was exposed to the concept in the 1970s, when Jonathan Frey and his wife Katrina studied organic agriculture with California green-thumb guru Allen Chadwik. Jonathan decided to go completely organic, not adding any sulfites to Frey’s wines (organic wines have no sulfites added). The Frey family stands whole-heartedly behind the practices. When asked what particular aspects appeal most to him about growing grapes biodynamically, Paul Frey said, “It’s organic plus a little extra on top. You want the farm to be a self-contained organism.” He added that he’s happy that more and more people are getting into the business. In terms of new developments, he said, The Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association has debated whether to allow the addition of sulfites. The sulfite question is a sticky one. For a wine to be labeled organic, it cannot contain added sulfites. “Wine for the last 8,000 years has been made without sulfites,” Frey said.

Robert Sinskey Vineyards

Robert Sinskey Vineyards
Robert Sinskey Vineyards

Then there’s Robert Sinskey Vineyards (RSV), one of the largest and most progressive certified organic farms in Napa Valley, Calif. Sinskey’s mission is to “promote the individual character of the vineyard to create unique wines with a sense of place.” Its philosophy to sustainable agriculture illustrates the fact that these techniques aren’t esoteric at all but solid common sense principles. RSV, which has been engaged in sustainable farming since 1991, is both organic- and Demeter Biodynamic-certified. The vineyard wants to maintain an ecologically sound, balanced and self-supporting farm environment. In other words: manipulate the vineyard minimally, avoid chemicals that could harm the soil and its little organisms, work in accordance with nature’s rhythms, and truly emphasize terroir.

Benziger Family Winery

The Insectory at Benziger Family Winery
The Insectory at Benziger Family Winery

Benziger Family Winery in Sonoma, Calif., is another one of the few Demeter-certified vineyards in the United States. According to the Benzigers, a healthy growing environment inevitably leads to a “more exciting and vibrant wine.” “Our vision of sustainability is winegrowing that is environmentally sound, economically feasible and socially equitable. Ultimately, sustainability means quality wines with vineyard character,” said Director of Grower Relations Mark Burningham. Just as with the Sinskeys, the important underlying principle is that “wines should have a sense of place,” according to winemaker Terry Nolan. This is achieved, for instance, through the planting of cover crops such as oats, mustard or Austrian winter peas among others, as well as natural disease protection. The ranch features three wildlife sanctuaries, gardens and wetlands. Among the more “esoteric” practices, the Benzigers on their 85-acre ranch use ground horn silica to improve photosynthesis. Winemaker Mike Benziger has even designed a biodynamic pyramid that beautifully illustrates the approach, from having a concrete relationship to one’s land at the base to connecting with the spirit of a place at the top.

Ceago

Ceago uses horn manure to improve vineyard terroir
Ceago uses horn manure to improve vineyard terroir

As far as the general wine drinking public is concerned, Jim Fetzer is perhaps the biggest name in the world of biodynamic farming. At Ceago, the former president of Fetzer Vineyards grows quality grapes using biodynamic and organic methods by balancing old-world farming practices with the latest technology to yield a fine crop, environmental health and biodiversity. Among the Ceago Estates, "Kathleen's Vineyard" in the Redwood Valley has been certified biodynamic by Demeter since 1996. But don’t let this date fool you. The Fetzers have been pioneers in the organic viticulture movement for decades.

A Growing Trend

Other wineries pushing the envelope beyond organic are DeLoach, Kathryn Kennedy and Araujo Estate. For DeLoach this meant replanting their 18-acre estate vineyard and transitioning it to biodynamics in 2006. It uses horn manure and barrel compost and keeps cover crops like safflower. For Kathryn Kennedy Winery, the past ten years have seen a significant shift to sustainability. The winery, which received California Certified Organic certification in August 2007, is deeply committed to producing the purest grape quality via avoiding pesticides and weed killers, composting and energy conservation. Araujo Estate began using organic methods in 1998 and has since seen healthier, stronger vines. In an effort to further emphasize the unique terroir of their wines, they began employing biodynamic practices, achieving California Certified Organic certification in 2004 and Demeter Biodynamic certification in 2005.

The addition of chemicals and fertilizers to a vineyard alters the terroir, and if you add sulfites to wine you basically alter its chemical composition. Any certified organic or biodynamic vintner will tell you that the difference is in the vines and the wines. You can taste the place; you can taste a healthy, biologically sound vineyard. We suggest that you try the offerings of the abovementioned pioneers to decide for yourself.

by Sylvie Greil

GLOSSARY OF TERMS

Cabernet Sauvignon at Kathryn Kennedy
Cabernet Sauvignon at Kathryn Kennedy

BIODYNAMIC
This agricultural method was designed by Austrian scientist and philosopher Rudolph Steiner, who gave his famous “Agriculture Course” in 1924. Its basic premise is the interconnected or “dynamic” relationship between all things in our universe. The goal of biodynamic viticulture is to create a self-sustaining vineyard, a self-sufficient ecosystem that yields the highest possible quality grapes. This is achieved through certain unique methods and applications that take into account ecological, spiritual and energetic principles.

ANTHROPOSOPHY
The idea of anthroposophy lies at the core of Rudolph Steiner’s biodynamic approach and “spiritual science.” While a definition is difficult to form, Steiner himself said it’s "a path of knowledge, to guide the Spiritual in the human being to the Spiritual in the universe. Anthroposophists frequently practice homeopathy, and in biodynamic farming, homeopathic remedies are often applied to the crop and vines.

CERTIFIED ORGANIC
“Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations (USDA). Certified organic food in the United States is grown according to standards set by the National Organic Program. According to those standards, organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation. Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Before a product can be labeled "organic," a USDA accredited certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards.” Definition from California Certified Organic Farmers.

TERROIR
The foundation of the word terre is of Latin origin, but since the term is French, terre literally means soil and terroir everything that comes with the soil and how it was constituted over time, including climate, geological foundation and all the good natural things that are found in the dirt.


Additional Resources:
The Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association
California Certified Organic Farmers
Demeter USA





 
UBH041414

Craft breweries are a trend on the rise, with thousands opening worldwide. To help, we've compiled a list of our ten favorite brews you need to try.

Whether straight up or mixed into an Admiral Schley Punch, share a cheers to the American spirit by trying one of our top ten bourbons.