Recently I’ve noticed more wineries touting their product as “biodynamic” — Oregon’s Cowhorn and Santa Barbera’s Ampelos Cellars are among a growing list of West Coasters that have joined the ranks of French vintners who make that claim.
“Biodynamic” is a sexy sounding term. But what the heck does it mean? I always assumed it was some sort of “super-organic” designation.
Turns out the term is a little more complex and controversial than that.
Grape-growers and all other farmers have to follow the rules of Demeter International in order for them to label their products as biodynamic. (Pat yourself on the back if you dug deep into your classical names memory bank to recall that Demeter was the Greek goddess of grain and fertility.)
Demeter International, established in 1928, is a certification organization that uses rules of production and processing to determine if a wine, sheep, corn stalk or loaf of sourdough bread gets the “biodyanmic” label. It’s hard to get Demeter’s stamp, and it must be renewed every year.
Underlying the biodynamic movement is a controversial European named Rudolf Steiner, who in the 1920s created a philosophy calledAnthroposophy. Without getting into too much detail, Steiner’s theories were a strange mix of spiritualism, philosophy, unproven maxims, folk practices and other strange ingredients.
Demeter has brought more respect and logic to the biodynamic farming movement. According to its website, it aims for farming that’s regenerative, not degenerative: “The waste of one part of the farm becomes the energy for another, that results in an increase in the farm’s capacity for self-renewal and ultimately makes the farm sustainable.”
Still, there are some strange practices that involve burying cow horns full of manure, stinging nettles and other things in fields for an entire season then later spreading them over your acreage.
I visited Windrose Farm near Paso Robles last month for a firsthand look at the process. OwnerBill Spencer (right) is in the process of going biodynamic.
“It’s really just common sense. Nature tells you what to do if you listen,” Spencer told me as we walked around his green fields.
Spencer uses free-roaming chickens to combat bug pests. More than half of his 50-acre property is either in fallow or uncultivated; the rest is in vegetable rotations, fruit orchards and sheep pasture. Nearby ranches and farms are organic. “You have to be part of a working ecosystem in order to be biodynamic,” he said.
So does biodynamic wine-making improve the taste of wine? Wine guru Robert Parker is a fan, as are many other influential voices in the industry. Others are more skeptical.
“I called it ‘voodoo organic,’ said Rick Webster of Rolf’s in Newport Beach. “Sustainable farming is good. But when they start talking about he lunar cycles and the steer horn buried in the ground, I have my doubts. It’s a very strong thing in Italy and other parts of Europe, and I know Grgich and Harlan and others are really getting into it here in California.”
Biodynamic vintners take the process seriously, Webster said. “They get very defensive when you make jokes about it — you know, asking them if they’re dancing around in circles and swinging a chicken around their head. But the guy who sells the manure in the horn is probably making a fortune out of all this.”
Some biodynamic vintners raise their prices because of the costs of the process, according to several sources, but Webster says that shouldn’t be so.
“Cost shouldn’t be a factor. Chemicals cost a boatload, but steer manure and ladybugs don’t.”
Despite his skepticism, Webster concedes to Parker on the issue of taste.
“I haven’t done a blind taste test of biodynamic wine to other wine. I assume he has. Ultimately I trust what Parker has to say. He’s a smart guy, and unlike many wine writers he’s not in anybody’s pocket. If he claims there’s a difference in taste, there’s probably something to it.”