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Biodynamic grape farming includes bovine horns.

America (Country Appellation)

Do Biodynamically Grown Grapes
Make Better Wine?

A group of biodynamic farmers and winemakers tried to make a case for their wines at a recent gathering in San Francisco. Alan Goldfarb came to the conference with the belief that just maybe, this is our last and best shot at turning out wines of place. Read his report to see how he felt at the meeting’s end.

by Alan Goldfarb
November 14, 2007



DropCap F orget about the gosh-darned cow horns for a second. The folks who produce biodynamic wine – some would call them zealots – would like you to put on the back of the stove all that stuff about the stuffed bovine vessels that are integral to their story. It only gets in the way, they say, of the broader picture.

The big picture here is, of course, what is biodynamic farming as it pertains to wine grape growing, how far has it come, and where is it going? So, let’s give them that. Let’s not fixate on those hollow horns cow-horns mirror-125.jpgof a cow (that incidentally, has had at least one calf) and gets buried in the vineyard stuffed with a natural preparation of minerals and dung, and get to the real question:

What the heck does all this have to do with what’s in my glass? What does sprinkling those ingredients from the aforementioned horn, during the precise cycle of the moon, have to do with how a wine tastes? Can I taste the earth or smell the natural elements from that special mixture that was introduced into the soil? (And why would I want to?) But most important, will my wine taste better if the grapes that were grown for that wine were made biodynamically?

A group of biodynamic farmers and biodynamic winemakers, who gathered in the old converted Officer’s Club at the San Francisco Presidio recently, may or may not have answered those questions to the satisfaction of some. But they did show how impassioned they are, and how intelligent they are when speaking about a subject that has engendered growing interest; and good-natured derision.

Did they dispel the skepticism that circulates around the subject? Perhaps. Did they better explain their mission? Probably. Did they make me want to go out and buy a biodynamically made wine, for which I’ll most likely pay a dear price? Maybe.

I still don’t know if biodynamic wines incontrovertibly taste better. A growing cadre of producers (of which there exists only about 30 throughout the U.S., who
At worst, if others begin to make wines this way despite the perceived mumbo-jumbo about how they do it, maybe, just maybe, this is our last and best shot at turning out wines of place.
are certified by Demeter, whose Web site boasts of 3,500 BD producers in 40 countries) have only been making biodynamic wine for about 10 years; a timeframe that is still too early to assess reliably.

But I have to report, that after listening to their reasons for producing such wines, I came away not necessarily convinced, but open to the idea that biodynamics makes sense. At worst, if others begin to make wines this way despite the perceived mumbo-jumbo about how they do it, maybe, just maybe, this is our last and best shot at turning out wines of place. Wines that are anathema to the ever-increasing bottom-line wines and soul-obliterating wines brought to us by corporate capitalism.

Mike Benziger of Benziger Family Winery in Sonoma County was one of the first progenitors of biodynamic wines. He has been practicing it for about a decade, after his family made millions with the sale to corporate entities of their cash cow, Glen Ellen-brand wines. When I pressed the panel to tell me how biodynamics translates to the bottle, Benziger began to respond with a cliché, but quickly rallied.

Biodynamics he said “Lets the wine do the talking. It would be a tragedy to let anything happen to that. It’s not that biodynamic wine is better, it’s different.

“The consumer does connect with the idea that we’re trying to be best farmers we can be … and have a sense of place.”

 Mike-Benziger-200.jpg
Mike Benziger is a pioneer of biodynamic wines.
Paul Dolan, who helped the Fetzer family biodynamically farm two of the most pristine vineyards in California, the Bonterra Vineyard and McNab Ranch in Mendocino County, admitted that the movement made mistakes, errors that might have turned off a certain segment of the populace.

“We’ve started something that didn’t exist before and we started in the wrong place and we’re trying to get to the right place,” he said.

The “wrong place” Dolan explained to APPELLATION AMERICA, is “reductionism.”

“We were trying to break everything down but a farm is a system. We want to create a balance. We’re nurturing the property so it starts to take care of itself. What we really want to be is in a holistic place.”

Randall Grahm, the affable and articulate eccentric of Bonny Doon Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains, put it another way, as is his wont.

“Biodynamics and terroir fit together, but there are distractions,” he surmised. “Biodynamics is a methodology or a practice, but terroir is an ideal, or a value. Biodynamics could be the royal road to terroir … Biodynamics can be thought of as viticultural homeopathy to solve terroir.”

When asked if he started to practice biodynamic farming to get to terroir Grahm, who has often described himself as a “terroirist”, admitted that he sold off some of his brands in order to free himself up to get beyond organic viticulture.

 Paul-Dolan-220.jpg
Paul Dolan helped the Fetzer family biodynamically farm some of its Mendocino vineyards.
Terroir and biodynamics is “a beautiful idea. It’s almost a transcendental value,” he said. “It brings uniqueness into the world. New-world wines are so easy to like but not easy to love. A great old-world wine that is expressive of terroir will haunt you.”

With that, Alan York, a biodynamic guru, who heads up Benziger’s grower relations department, chimed in rhapsodically, “This is where biodynamics can contribute to great wine -- that haunting quality of individuality that beckons you.”

To which Grahm responded, “I say those words all the time, but what does it mean to express the site? This is something that anguishes me. The old-world is privileged to have discovered its terroir.

“In the new-world, we’re just guessing, we’re just guessing. We’re kind of lost, just wandering around. Our value is getting the high-point scores and selling our wines. It’s a vast, vast leap to get to wines that express terroir.”

Interjected York “It’s not just words, but it takes a lot of courage to follow through and it takes a great commitment to do that.”

Continued Grahm, “What is brilliant and beautiful about biodynamics is that you become more (aware) of what you’re doing and expand your imagination and to
 Alan-York-190.jpg
Alan York heads up Benziger’s grower relations department.
think outside the container the box comes in. It’s one thing to make a powerful, mon

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Reader Comments... [4]

[1]
Larry Brooks , consultant
L M Brooks Consulting, Napa, CA
In 1995 I attended an international Chardonnay symposium in Burgundy. The winemaker from Domaine Leflaive had some interesting observations about biodynamic farming which they had been practicing for some time. He said that when they switched from conventional to sustainable/organic farming there were measurable changes in the soil, the vine and the wine. He further stated that when they switched to biodynamic on top of the sustainable/organic they could measure no changes in soil, vine or wine. When he was asked why he was continuing it with no measurable improvements he replied, "Because the owner wants us to continue." I would posit that one of the main motivations behind biodynamic is the simple desire to have something new to say to the media. Winegrowing is a very old craft. What does Ecclesiastes say? "There's nothing new under the sun".


[2]
Brett Isenhower , Winemaker/Owner
Isenhower Cellars, Walla Walla, WA
I would suggest that a method of farming that does not use petroleum based sprays and fertilizers and uses composts and homeopathic preparations is a more sustainable and eco-friendly way of farming than conventional agriculture.

Many of the biodynamic producers that I have met farm that way because they believe it is best for their land and best for the products they produce and consume. Any marketing benefit is ancillary to their belief that biodynamics is the healthiest way to farm.


[3]
Carmine Indindoli , Owner/Viticulturist
Indindoli Family Vineyards, Sonoma County, CA
Okay, so how can anyone say anything bad about Organic or Bio-dynamic farming, especially a long time farmer? "It's not how tasteful you are it's how tasty you are" or something like that from Charley Tuna ads. I absolutely despise anyone whom I classify as a "Dancing Dandy". I farm winegrapes for wine using every possible bit of knowledge I can gather from around the world. I travel around the world to view the sites - "terroirs" - where people in the know acclaim the wines. As an example I look and see and taste Burgundies in Burgundy. I "smell" the place with my eyes and my nose and my hands. I talk to the growers, the winemakers, the vineyard workers, the winery workers, the restaurant people, the local butcher the baker and the candlestick maker and lastly, but not least, the vines. They know "terroir", their "terroir". I am but a speck on the page of their history. If they speak Bio-dynamique I listen and ask what it does for them. If they say Organic I listen and ask them what it does for them. But..., the big but, I look at their vines and their fruit and their wines.


[4]
John Hilliard , Owner
Hilliard Bruce Vineyards, Santa Rita Hills AVA, CA
Rudolf Steiner was not an agricultural expert. He was poorly informed about agriculture, and invented his silly potions based on no tests or experiments, but rather dreams, which he believed required no proof. A review of his writings on farming by the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics concluded that where Steiner says something that can be subjected to tests, he is shown to be wrong, and that Biodynamic Farming should not be a part of sustainable farming practices. I think that representing to the public that astrology and homeopathy improves the quality of wine is unethical. Biodynamic farmers like to conspicuously be seen as doing good while they take money from the consumer. PS: I would like to be involved in setting up any testing that might be used to prove that astrology and homeopathy improve a vineyard or wine.

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