Experts and practitioners exchange views and experiences about farming method
Rutherford, Calif. — A short course on Biodynamic winegrowing Dec. 2 drew a capacity crowd of 190 to Napa Valley’s Rutherford Grange Hall. Hosted by Demeter USA, the non-profit certification organization for Biodynamic farming based in Philomath, Ore., and the University of California Cooperative Extension, attendees included current and potential practitioners of Biodynamic viticulture and winemaking, viticulture and wine industry consultants, marketers, sommeliers, retailers and wine business students, primarily from Northern California, but also from Oregon, British Columbia and Minnesota.
Demeter marketing director Elizabeth Candelario said the one-day session was not designed as a comprehensive course in Biodynamic management, but more to build awareness. “Our intention is that you have a more informed view of what Biodynamic farming is, and why some people think it helps them,” she said. Candelario previously worked at Quivira Vineyards in Sonoma County, which converted its vineyards to Biodynamic management and became Demeter-certified in 2007.
Candelario said that worldwide there are now 360 certified vineyards and/or wineries, with a total 20,000 certified vineyard acres. Of the major wine producing countries, France leads the list with 138 certified operations that include Burgundy’s acclaimed Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. The United States is second with 70 certified operations. As an indication of increasing interest in Biodynamic farming, Demeter USA’s winery and vineyard members increased from 5 to 60 between 2005 and 2009, and as many as 20 new growers and wineries were expected to be added during 2010.
Noting that wine is one of the higher-profile Biodynamic products in the marketplace, Candelario said, “I think history will show that one of the wine industry’s gifts to society will be the introduction of Biodynamic products to the consumer market.” She said there are now 4,200 certified Biodynamic products on the market worldwide in 43 countries. In addition to wine, these include distilled spirits, nuts, fruits, produce, ice cream, baby foods, meats, breads, medicinal herbs, coffee and tea.
The Biodynamic farming concept dates to 1924, when Dr. Rudolph Steiner presented a series of lectures to European farmers who had noticed a decline in seed fertility, crop vitality and animal health. Biodynamic farming questioned the long-term health and benefits of the movement toward industrial farming that was occurring at the time, utilizing chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers brought in from outside the farm.
In 1928, Demeter (named for the Greek goddess of agriculture) was formed in Europe to promote sustainable agriculture; Demeter established a certification system with farming standards. Demeter International is the only internationally recognized Biodynamic certifier.
Demeter USA was formed in 1985 to promote Biodynamic agriculture and to certify farm operations. To be certified, an entire farm or vineyard must adhere to the Demeter Farm Standard for a minimum of three years if conventionally farmed, or one year if organically farmed; annual inspections are required. Commercial farms and products must be Demeter-certified legally to use the term “Biodynamic” on product labels.
Although the general concepts and some practices of Biodynamics are similar to commonly practiced sustainable and organic methods, some people question certain aspects, such as the use of nine specific preparations used for composting and field sprays; burying of cowhorns filled with material for six months prior to use in the vineyard, and timing of vineyard and winery operations based on astronomical calendars.
Why they do it
Winegrowers who spoke during the day said they had entered into Biodynamic farming for different reasons, and came from different perspectives. Some saw it as a way to improve vineyard health and wine quality, or produce a product that more closely reflects terroir and site. Others believe it more closely reflects their personal values.
Some speakers cited the value of the Biodynamic concept and processes in making them more observant and more closely involved farm managers. They believe Biodynamic methods make them more fully consider all factors influencing grapevine growth and production, and the effects of their practices on the total farm, and beyond its boundaries.
Dave Bos of 70,000-case Grgich Hills Estate in Napa Valley, said the winery’s estate vineyards had been in declining health after years of conventional farming, and some vines suffered from leafroll virus. Conversion to Biodynamic practices began in 2002 with the use of composting and preparations, and Bos said some improvement in grape quality was seen after a single year.
Bos said, “We’ve seen our soils get healthier and our vines get healthier. We believe Biodynamics offers a framework for producing consistent, quality grapes.” He noted that an older Cabernet Sauvignon block on St. George rootstock previously produced poor quality fruit that was sold for bulk wine. With improved vineyard health, the grapes now are used in Grgich’s estate bottled Cabernet.
Barbara Steele discussed how she used a business approach and a values approach to develop Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden in Oregon’s Applegate Valley, which from the outset she had intended to farm Biodynamically. Steele came from a 20-year career in financial planning, but was comfortable with the holistic concept. She said, “I believe Biodynamic farming is good for farming, the planet and the community. But my goal is also to create a profitable model of land ownership.”
Steele discussed the importance of site selection and writing a business plan. Cowhorn has 11 acres of vineyards planted to Rhône varieties, produces 1,800 cases/year of wine, and farms another 4 acres of produce.
Cowhorn’s vineyard and winery are the farm’s main economic drivers, but it also produces asparagus, orchard fruits, hazelnuts and artichokes to keep labor employed year-round and help cover variable costs. Crop selection is based on weather data, such as chill hours and soil characteristics, with the emphasis on perennials. Vineyard equipment must also be adaptable for other crops and farm operations. Steele summarized, “What drives the decision is what’s right for the land. Making resource decisions that are respectful of the earth requires advanced planning.”
Cowhorn planted an additional five acres of vines in 2010. Citing proper site and plant selection and good soil health attributable in part to Biodynamic practices, Steele said, “We expect 30% of our 2010 vineyard planting to produce useable crop in 2011.”
Comparing farming systems
Ginny Lambrix of Truett-Hurst Winery in Healdsburg, Calif., discussed scientific studies and research comparing conventional, organic and Biodynamic farming practices. Organic and Biodynamic systems usually had plants with longer root systems; and soils with more biomass, organic matter and earthworms than conventional systems. Although the studies she cited generally did not show significant differences between Biodynamic and organic methods, Lambrix said, “Microorganisms isolated from Biodynamic preparations used in composting show suppressive activity on fungal plant pathogens. There is some evidence that these Biodynamic preps are helping enhance the compost and favor beneficial organisms.”
Lambrix did observe that “the Achille’s heel” of Biodynamic and organic systems is the inability to use available—but potentially toxic—pesticides to prevent damage from non-native invasive pests that could destroy a crop or damage vines. She concluded, “Science struggles to assess a holistic system like Biodynamic farming. However, research strongly suggests differences in soil life, fruit quality and resource allocation in organic and Biodynamic systems when compared with conventional systems.”
Jim Fullmer, executive director of Demeter USA, discussed the differences between “organic” farming and certification, and Biodynamic. Both are basically similar in the requirements for the types of materials and inputs allowed for farming. Biodynamic goes a step further, requiring specific management practices, and requiring that the farm be managed as a self-contained system: as a “living organism.” It is a regenerative farming system that focuses on soil health, the integration of plants and animals, and biodiversity. Farms are required to maintain at least 10% of total acreage as a biodiversity set-aside.
Winemaking with fewer inputs
The Demeter Wine Processing Standard offers two labeling options: “Biodynamic Wine” is the most rigorous and allows the least manipulation; the second is “Made with Biodynamic grapes.” A panel of Biodynamic winemakers addressed the issues of not being able to use inoculations of outside yeasts and ML bacteria, and prohibitions on sugar and acid adjustments and use of additives such as enzymes and tannins. The Wine Processing Standard also prohibits some process technologies, such as alcohol adjustment with reverse osmosis or spinning cone.
Mark Beaman, winemaker with 150,000-case Mendocino Wine Co., Ukiah, (which includes Parducci and Paul Dolan brands, among others) observed, “Natural fermentation is really crucial for reflecting the place the wines come from.” Noting that many of the yeast strains available from commercial suppliers for inoculation come from France, Beaman said, “They make great wines over there, but we can make great wines here as well.” At his winery, he said the yeasts appear to be indigenous to the vineyard sites and seem to be consistent from year to year.
Tahmiene Momtazi, winemaker for 13,000-case Maysara Winery, McMinnville, Ore., said that as a precaution she ferments a test sample of grapes in a carboy and examines the yeast strains to ensure that a good strain of Saccharomyces is present. Winemakers also said it’s possible to use less nutrient inputs than generally considered necessary to have and maintain good fermentations. Doug Tunnell of 3,800-caseBrick House Vineyards, Newberg, Ore., suggested, “If you need more nitrogen in the must, you can aerate and pump-over more, and stay away from using DAP.”
Rodrigo Soto of 150,000-case Benziger Family Winery in Sonoma County believes Biodynamic practices enhance the vitality of the vineyards and the quality of the wines. He noted, “We use Biodynamics not because we believe it will make the best wine, but to make wine that reflects the sense of place.” He said certification and labeling provide differentiation of the wine product and are important for transparency to consumers looking for more naturally produced wines.
But he cautioned, “Certification does not mean you will sell more wine. The quality still has to be there.” A tasting at the end of the day allowed attendees to sample Biodynamic-certified wines from a dozen producers from Northern California and Oregon.
The event sparked some controversy regarding UC Cooperative Extension’s participation in hosting the course, specifically from Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone Vineyards, who writes the blog “Biodynamics is a Hoax.”
For his part, UC Extension viticulture advisor for Mendocino and Lake counties (and Wines & Vines columnist) Glenn McGourty discussed the potential benefits of Biodynamic and organic farming on vineyard soils. McGourty told Wines & Vines, “It’s good to be skeptical; we’re fine with that. That’s part of the scientific process. In my experience, I’ve been looking at Biodynamic farming in Mendocino County for 23 years. People using it have healthy vineyards; they’re making good wines and running profitable businesses, so it’s hard to say there’s something wrong with that.”
– Jon Tourney