Thursday, July 08, 2010

Taking A Closer Look At Biodynamic Agriculture and Wine

  In the world of vine growing and wine making there has been a rising interest in an agricultural school of thought called biodynamic.
Based on the writings and lectures of Rudolf Steiner, this form of agriculture intends to produce fruit, vegetables and grains (in fact, all products of a farm including animals) by using the natural rhythms of the land and treating the farm like one living organism.  It's all explained here.
I think the interest in BioD is a natural progression of an agricultural community that is trying to be more of a land steward than a land 'user'.  Words like 'green' and 'sustainable' pepper the media these days when talking about any innovative agricultural movement.  Marketers are well aware that a few key words will engage a public becoming more convinced that their trip to the supermarket can be their contribution to saving the world.

Does Biodynamic farming produce better grapes?  I didn't know.  And I still don't.

To find out a little more I helped organize a field trip to Washington State to meet with renowned biodynamic vineyard consultant Philippe Armenier . Mr. Armenier generously donated some of his time in between consultations with his Washington and Oregon clients.  Our group consisted of about 15 winemakers, growers, resellers, winery owners and some enthused members of the wine drinking public.  We travelled first to the Tri-Cities area and then to the Walla Walla valley to view the vineyards, walk the land and taste the wines.
On Monday, June 28th, we travelled first to the Red Mountain AVA (American Viticultural Area) where we visited Hedges Cellars.  About 40 acres there is dedicated to biodynamic practices.  Vineyard manager John Gomez introduced us to the property and gave his impressions on what the effects of biodynamic practices were.  As a winemaker, I was interested to hear that the Hedges wine making team had nothing bad to say about the biodynamic fruit in comparison to what they grew by conventional methods.  Gomez passed that tidbit on as well as his assertion that he "thinks a small portion of biodynamic vineyard out of the total acreage is a good thing".  He admitted to being skeptical at first,  but now in year three, he was ready to accept that it was a good way to grow grapes.  Hedges was already pretty 'green': no herbicides had ever been used in the vineyard.  He seemed to enjoy the fact that he was presiding over an on-going experiment.  He did lament that he couldn't devote more time to it.
Out in the vineyards, we learned from Mr. Armenier how biodynamic practices encouraged a link between the plant and the soil and supernatural forces that are in all living things.  It's about bringing balance to the vineyard through the use of preparations and treatments that perform certain tasks to enhance the agriculture.  Emphasis was placed on allowing three years to pass before the BioDy effects begin to show.
We tasted the tendrils of growing vines, first from the BioDy and then from the neighbour's conventionally grown vines.  I've never tasted tendrils before.  They were sharply acidic, tangy and sour.  Some of our group professed a fondness for the BioDy tendrils.  I felt they were equally unpleasant.  The BioDy tendrils seemed more like unripe apples.  The conventional tendrils seemed earthier or more tannic.  I hope I never chew either again.  Frankly, I find it quite doubtful that the taste of a tendril in June has anything to do with a grape in October. It's about as accurate as gnawing on the hoof of a cow and then surmising what the rib eye will taste like.  More about cow later.
In many vineyards there is an attempt to mulch or compost vine and waste grape material back into the vineyard.  There are recognized obstacles to this, not the least of which is making sure the pH of the waste material is compatible with good soil conditions.  For that reason, it's important to compost and balance any soil augmentation materials heading into the vineyard.  Mr. Armenier's thoughts on this practice are clear.  Under his BioDy protocols, no grape waste is returned to the vineyard.  In the Hedges' compost we saw only earth, manure and straw.  Suffice to say, the post fermentation grape waste created more problems than it was worth.  In addition, it was suggested the living vines may somehow sense the return of the now 'dead' grapes and certain 'feelings' of remorse may be experienced by the vines at the arrival of their offspring's wasted remains.
We concluded our visit to Hedges with a marvelous light lunch served to us on the front patio of the chateau with a couple of the Hedges family in attendance.  I had the opportunity to demonstrate my cherry pit spitting prowess.
During the afternoon our group split into several smaller expeditions.  Our pack traveled to Pacific Rim in West Richland.  If you're not familiar with this Randall Grahm project, they do a lot of riesling.  And virtually no red.  Which is odd considering they're in sight of the Red Mountain AVA, famous for great reds.  This state of the art facility is jaw-droppingly awesome in so many ways.  Sophisticated yet basic, tech-driven but true to wine making art.  From a winemaker's perspective, it's a great facility and the wines are remarkable at every level.
We overnighted in Walla Walla and included a group dinner at Whitehouse Crawford.  Much of what we saw and heard that day help fuel some lively conversation.  From my observation it was clear that people were beginning to fall into two camps:  those who were increasingly skeptical about biodynamic practices and those who were becoming more enamored of this new agricultural method.  I use the word 'new' because that aspect was stressed on several occasions.  Having only been developed since 1924, the biodynamic method is relatively new when compared to other forms of agricultural practice.
Next day it was time to visit Cayuse Vineyards. Just across the Oregon state line but still in the Walla Walla Valley, Christophe Baron (the gentleman at left) has created stunning results from land most would have viewed as wasteland.  And he's done it biodynamically.  The wines he creates are formidable and exclusive.  They're pretty much 'cult' status; available through a futures program by way of a (full) mailing list.
At Cayuse we were able to see a greater portion of the biodynamic farm functioning.  Draft horses, used to tend the vines, grazed in a nearby field.  Pigs, cows, rabbits, fowl and enormous compost heaps all had their place. It began to look less like the monoculture vineyards we're accustomed to seeing and more like a farm from the old days.  Everything had a distinct yet co-dependent role in the biodiversity of the property.
We were also treated to a viewing of the horn pit.  Cow horns are stuffed with manure and left buried on the property for a period of time.  The composted material that results is then used in one of the biodynamic preparations.  There are many preparations or treatments.  Their use is strictly dictated by the biodynamic code and the timing of certain astrological incidents that allow full use of the cosmic powers around us.
Preparing these treatments is a structured activity.  In fact, at Cayuse, a specialized device consisting of two copper cylinders is used.  Like two old open washer machines, the contents are agitated and stirred with unique paddles as instructed by a programmable logic control (PLC).  With the PLC, the contents are stirred first one way for a set time and then reversed.  Mr. Baron and Mr.Armenier set up the device and filled the tubs with water to demonstrate it for us.  Although no actual preparation was involved, Mr. Armenier asked many of the group to touch the water that was being stirred, noting that "it was no longer just water, it changes into something else".
We concluded our visit with another beautifully catered lunch, presented in the Cayuse cellar, joined by standout Cayuse wines and consumed on the sunny crush pad.
In the cellar, hovering above the centre of the room 5 meters above our heads was a giant paper mache pig.  Strapped to the pig was a cartoonish rocket.  Little wings also adorned the pig, which was painted in many colours and designs.  The pig seemed to be a symbol for something.  That against all odds and popular wisdom, it would appear that a pig could fly (with a little help).  The same pig in a slightly modified form adorns one of the Cayuse labels.
As our time with Mr. Armenier drew to a close over lunch, I found myself suddenly aware of who might find biodynamic agriculture an attractive route.  Is biodynamic right for you? The answer, in part, is perhaps. 
If you're comfortable with the spiritual, if you're open-minded about the world around you and the possibility of the supernatural, you're going to love biodynamic agriculture.  Acceptance, or surrender, to the rules of biodynamics means you don't have to rely on science anymore. You can follow the biodynamic way and know truths about how the universe and the world functions in the cyclical pattern of seasons.  Life forces, unexplainable and defying examination, inhabit the ground, the air and living things.  BioDy will allow you to make all of this work in harmony.
In this way, biodynmics differs little from various religions and other dogmatic, faith-based movements.  A certain degree of acceptance is required.  It's all about linking the soil, the place, the animals and the cosmos and using their life forces to create what we need.  It's about trust and taking the leap.

Like to know more?
There's a forum thread here at Wine Beserkers that makes for some stimulating reading as forces on both side of the issue duke it out.  Included are many interesting links supplied by Brigitte Armenier, Philippe's wife.

Here's how Valeria Tait, one of our participants on the Washington road trip, summarized her experience.