Randall Grahm, Bonny Doon Vineyard’s lanky winemaker and innovator-in-chief, delights in going against the grain. He celebrated pink wine when everyone else was shunning it, topped his bottles with screw caps and gave his wines cheeky names like “Bouteille Call” and “Critique of Pure Riesling.” Lately, Grahm is obsessed with terroir, the French term for the sense of place expressed through a wine. “A great wine tells you where it’s from,” he says. Grahm’s quest for a wine that communicates something unique has led him, like a growing number of other American vintners, to start growing his grapes biodynamically.
Biodynamic agriculture — a beyond-organic farming method developed by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who also founded Waldorf education — has been big among European winemakers since the late 1980s, when the lordly French estates Domaine Leroy, Domaine Leflaive, and Maison Chapoutier went biodynamic in a last-ditch bid to rescue flagging quality. But in the last three or four years it has begun to attract intense interest among California vintners. To become certified biodynamic practitioners, growers must eschew synthetic fertilizers and pesticides; many biodynamic farms and vineyards are also certified organic.
Biodynamic agriculture goes well beyond prohibitions, however. It’s a holistic philosophy that views everything in nature as interconnected at subtle “energetic” levels and emphasizes the unique energies at play in each farm or vineyard — which explains why many vintners view it as a recipe for terroir. Most winemakers are eager to distinguish their brands by developing terroir, and some biodynamic practitioners believe that even bigtime grape growers will get on board for this reason. But biodynamic agriculture also encompasses rituals that some may view as oddly New Agey, if not downright bizarre.
Take, for example, the fertilization methods. Biodynamic growers pour minute quantities of herbal preparations — chamomile, yarrow, nettle, oak bark, dandelion, valerian — into mountains of compost; the herbs are thought to focus the faint influence of the planets, which supposedly help regulate crop cycles and balance soil. On the autumnal equinox they bury cow horns filled with manure, leave them underground to absorb the hidden rhythms of the earth, then dig them up at the spring equinox. They pour a few ounces of the cow-horn manure into gallons of water and stir for an hour, reversing direction every few minutes to create “chaos,” which is thought to “dynamize” the manure. Then they spritz their fields with the diluted solution to stimulate root growth.
All this raises eyebrows among conventional grape growers. But studies by University of Washington soil scientist John Reganold have shown that biodynamically farmed soil has better structure, more organc matter, and higher beneficial microbial activity than conventionally farmed soil.
Scientifically proven or not, biodynamic winemaking is attracting attention. Last spring, the New York Times’ top ten California sauvignon blancs included vintages by Patianna and Ceago, both biodynamic vineyards. And in the summer of 2004, Fortune magazine, intent on debunking biodynamics, set up a rigorous blind tasting with seven sommeliers and wine writers comparing equivalently priced biodynamic and conentionally grown wines. In eight out of ten instances, the biodynamic wines won — and the ninth was a tie.
Supporters of biodynamics don’t claim it necessarily makes better wine. “No; it makes a more authentic wine,” is a typical statement. In conventional winemaking, the vintner is likely to add tartaric acid to boost the wine’s body, or use a cultured yeast, perhaps one from France, to bring out certain features (like, say, fruitiness). Biodynamic vintners, in contrast, use indigenous yeasts — those naturally occurring in the grape — and instead of adding or subtracting acid to individual wines, they might blend them to achieve balance.
“Authenticity of place and vintage: I think people can gravitate toward that,” says Mike Benziger, who has farmed his Sonoma vineyard biodynamically since 1997. “What we’re looking to do is connect with a certain base of people who are looking for the authentic experience and are willing to buy products produced responsibly. And the payoff is that they get products that are real.”
Story by Traci Hukill. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2006. The story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.