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.
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.
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
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
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.
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