Photograph by Rory McNamara
In the Game: Mike Benziger of Benziger Family Winery has farmed his land biodynamically since 1996.
Biodynamic wines, where flaws are welcomed and individuality is coveted
By Sara Bir
Most people don't know anything about biodynamics, and if they do know something, it's often a vague notion of fixations on composting and astrology. That's probably because biodynamic farming is so unlike most modern agriculture that its methods seem shrouded in mysticism. But slowly, winemakers are looking to biodynamics as a way to preserve the integrity of land and to produce wines steeped in character derived from the land and heightened to its greatest capacity.
"The overall objective of biodynamics is to produce products that are authentic to the property by which they were produced," says Alan York, a biodynamic consultant who works with wineries such as Fetzer and Sonoma-Cutrer. "Many biodynamic growers feel that that is their responsibility. There are increasing numbers of people who are looking for wines produced by people who have this basic respect for a piece of property. And they see it more as if they are guardians of that than they are producers."
Biodynamics is hardly anything new. Developed from lectures Austrian philosopher and scientist Rudolf Steiner gave in 1924, biodynamics predates the organic agriculture movement by about 20 years. Emphasizing self-sustaining systems with as little outside input as possible, biodynamics can be applied to any horticultural enterprise, not only viticulture.
The component of biodynamics that typically raises eyebrows is its use of a series of preparations--cow manure stuffed into a cow horn and buried in the soil over the winter, and ground quartz mixed with rainwater and packed into a cow horn, which is buried in the spring and dug up in the fall. The resulting mixtures are then diluted into sprays (preparations) which are applied to crops according to seasonal and lunar cycles to enhance the life of the soil.
The public's cloudy perception of biodynamics is twofold. First, many don't know for sure what "biodynamic" means; second, there are differing schools of thought among its followers. Currently, for a grower to legally promote its products as "biodynamic," the farm must be certified biodynamic by Demeter, a nonprofit international group that's been in operation since 1928 and has certified farms (not just vineyards) since 1982.
"Within the practice of biodynamics, there's been several schools of thought, which has created confusion with the consumer," says Mike Benziger of Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen. Benziger had been an organic operation, and in 1996, under the consultation of York, the winery began an intensive transition to become fully biodynamic. "I think we're seeing the very beginning of people who practice it understanding the potential, and we're just trying to figure out how to introduce this to the public so that they feel comfortable with it."
Meanwhile, there are growers who don't have the Demeter certification who follow different biodynamic techniques, typically involving how and when various preparations are applied. For instance, Michael Topolos of Topolos at Russian River Vineyards in Forestville has been working for 10 years with Greg Willis, a consultant with biodynamics supplier and consulting company Agri-Synthesis, to create a program where growers spray their fields with preparations--including the additional preparation of "horn clay" not promoted by Demeter--more frequently.
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Regardless of affiliations or certifications, what drives a grower or winemaker to pursue biodynamics in the first place? Biodynamic viticulture is tricky in that its methods can make a winery's end product as distinctive as a Janeane Garafalo in a sea of airbrushed J.Lo's, but the system doesn't work best for those who approach it in a wishy-washy manner.
York uses this analogy: "Some people like to sit at home and watch the Super Bowl and drink beer and yell at the football players; other people would actually like to be in the game. Biodynamics is in the game. Being a spectator doesn't work for biodynamics, because of this personal commitment that's required."
"The closer you are to the land," says Benziger, "the more passionate you can be. Biodynamics forces you to have a very intimate relationship with the land and to anticipate what the land and the plants need."
As the name denotes, the Benziger Family Winery is a family business, so it's easier for this winery to implement major changes in its smaller operation. Benziger notes, "If it's something just the owner wants to do, forget about it. Biodynamics is a team sport. Everybody's got to be brought on board. Biodynamics is a farming system, but it also can be expanded into a management system."
Overall, says York, the smaller wineries are better equipped to make the transition to biodynamics. "They are able to embrace biodynamics in its totality. Because they have the ability to make decisions right then and there, whereas with larger organizations, there are more layers to the whole decision-making process. One of the things that's necessary in biodynamic management is the ability to make decisions."
There's potential for growth in the practice of biodynamic viticulture, but it's not going to suddenly become a hot new trend, due simply to the nature of biodynamics. Benziger says he gets at least two to three visitors to the winery every week who come to check out biodynamics.
"There's an interest level there," Benziger says, "but when people see what kind of commitment it takes, they have to think about it twice, because there is a personal commitment to making biodynamics successful. If you look at the trends in conventional agriculture, it's just the opposite. They don't want anybody touching a piece of property."
York says that the common denominator in wineries exploring biodynamics is the focus on quality. "At this point in time, people are feeling obligated to at least look at biodynamics. What I would call 'the big wave' is moving through the whole wine-grape industry. But you have a lot of 'looky-loos,' kind of like window shopping. And then you go in and get sticker shock."
One of the benefits of biodynamics is that it can set a winery's wines apart from the rest of the pack. "Being a small winery, we always have to figure out how to differentiate ourselves from the big guys," says Benziger. "We're running under the feet of the elephants every day. Our goal with biodynamics is not necessarily to make a perfect wine, but to make a wine that's authentic to this piece of property. What we try to do here is to create the most diverse and natural environment that we possibly can and, through the medium of grapes and wine, put that into the bottle."
There are roughly 45 acres of grapes on the Benziger Sonoma Mountain Estate, but nearly all of the property's 90 acres are farmed. There's an insectuary to attract the predatory "good bugs" which feed on other insects that damage grapevines.
"We spend almost as much management time and money farming other acreage as we do the grapes themselves," Benziger says, "because that's the environment that we want to get into the bottle. Think of the grapes as the lens that focuses the environment around them, and then through traditional winemaking practices we are able to translate that authenticity from the grapes into the bottle."
"Now we're starting to see the results in the product," he adds. "The proof is in the pudding. I look at biodynamics as something that produces great and unique wine quality, but also something that will help build long-term relationships with customers that believe in what we are doing." Benziger's 2001 vintage of the Bordeaux blend Tribute, produced from 100 percent estate-grown grapes, will be released in February 2004, and will be the winery's first releases denoted as "biodynamic" on the label.
"These are quantum leaps in quality in what we produced on this property in '97, '98, '99, and 2000," Benziger says. "We're learning more, so we're getting grapes that are packed with a lot more intensity and flavor. When people taste the wine, they are doubly impressed with the activities and concepts that create it."
Not all winemakers are convinced that biodynamics is a necessary plunge to make to produce great wines that are full of character. But for Benziger, the benefits go beyond wine. "The practice of biodynamics has really recommitted me to the property," he says. "I'm seeing that in the past, where I would come at it in a position of control, I come at it from a viewpoint of letting the natural systems take over and steward the systems instead of trying to take over."
While some wineries, like Benziger and Topolos, actively promote their biodynamic status, others operate under the radar, perhaps because biodynamics doesn't really command market interest or because these aren't fully converted. Here's an abbreviated list of some wineries working with biodynamics.
Benziger Family Winery
1883 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen. 707.935.3000. www.benziger.com.
Deerfield Ranch Winery
1310 Warm Springs Road, Glen Ellen. 707.833.5215. www.deerfieldranch.com.
Domaine Saint Gregory
1170 Bel Arbres Road, Redwood Valley. 707.485.WINE. www.domainesaintgregory.com.
Everett Ridge Winery
435 West Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg. 707.433.1637. www.everettridge.com.
13601 Eastside Road, Hopland. 707.744.1250. www.fetzer.com.
14000 Tomki Road, Redwood Valley. 707.485.5177. www.freywine.com.
5700 Gravenstein Hwy. N., Forestville. 707.887.1575, ext. 1. www.russianrivervineyards.com.
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From the July 31-August 6, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.