The Biodynamic Bacchus

Jeffrey Schwarz - September 2005

Though rife with eccentric rituals, the agricultural method devised by the early 20th century Austrian thinker Rudolf Steiner is changing the face of viniculture.

Consider for a moment the plight of three vineyards all infested with disease, pests, and fungus. The first landowner, a savvy efficient farmer, utilizes man-made chemical herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides to cleanse the vineyard of these nuisances. The second farmer, a true believer in all things natural, employs organic remedies to nurture the sick plot of earth back to a healthy state. The third grower thinks that no outside help is necessary because his farm is a closed eco-system that follows the lunar schedule, has its own spirituality and life force, and is centered around finding the right balance with nature. This farmer, who, not surprisingly, is thought of as an eccentric by some, also isn't afraid to concoct some homeopathic remedies with code names such as "preparation 501" (but more on that later).

Vineyard One is a modern farm, Vineyard Two is an organic farm, and Vineyard Three is a biodynamic farm. Biodynamic farming, which can be used to grow any plant, fruit, or vegetable, follows the teachings of the controversial Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner (1861–1925). His methods require more labor, yield less product, and rely upon unconventional means such as the aforementioned "preparation 501," which is a cow horn stuffed with finely ground quartz that's buried in the ground during the summer months. The horn is retrieved in late fall, its contents diluted with rainwater, and then stirred by hand to "dynamize" it. The preparation is then spread on the soil just as a chef might season Dover sole, restrained and judiciously. The solution is believed to have captured the sunlight of the summer.

None of this would be of too much consequence if not for the fact that these eccentric practices are producing some of the best wines in the world. Domaine Leflaive, Domaine Leroy, and Zind-Humbrecht are but a few of the French estates that have embraced biodynamics. In the United States, Robert Sinskey and Benziger in California, and Brick House Vineyards in Oregon have already become practitioners, and many wineries, such as DeLoach Vineyards in California, are in the process of switching over. So what gives? Why are some of the most esteemed winemakers in the world following the teachings of Steiner, whose eight lectures on agriculture from 1924, that don't even mention wine or viticulture, have taken on near mythic value?

The tale begins with Steiner, who nowadays might be considered more a spiritual guru than an academic, more L. Ron Hubbard than Noam Chomsky. The founder of the Anthroposophical Society and the Waldorf schools, which still operate today, he's often described as being controversial because his theories require a leap of faith and have also been viewed by many as being racist and anti-Semitic. However one might perceive Steiner's legacy, his knowledge of agriculture was vast. And though many of his agricultural practices have never been scientifically proven, his methods have garnered a fervent following because they emphasize terroir, the French word describing food that expresses the true characteristics of the land it comes from. "Biodynamic wine is not an absolute science but more of an esoteric process," says Hugh Crickmore, sommelier of Mas in New York City. "It's about experiencing a particular place in time."

The man credited for ushering in Steiner's agricultural methods to today's enophiles is Nicolas Joly of Coulée de Serrant in Savennières (French Loire Valley), who wrote the book Wine from Sky to Earth: Growing and Appreciating Biodynamic Wines, which, in addition to discussing biodynamic viticulture, also explains biodynamic winemaking (different from conventional winemaking as well, because it uses little machinery, no artificial yeasts, and strictly follows the lunar schedule). A dedicated practitioner since 1980, Joly believes that man's interventions and technology in the vineyard have significant costs. "The more you treat one disease with chemicals the more diseases you cause because the vine becomes dependent on man's intervention," he says. "In the modern process, you lose the connection between earth and vine, which is what determines the individuality of a wine."

Robert Sinskey, whose winery sits on the Silverado Trail in California's Napa Valley, began making biodynamic wine in 1990. "Organic viticulture only addresses the synthetic inputs," he says. "Biodynamics is based on the philosophy that once man intrudes on nature we do damage to nature's process. Biodynamics is a healing process, which is not easy to prove scientifically."

Richard de los Reyes of Row Eleven Wine Company, who is making a biodynamic Syrah under the RDLR wine label, and who has been in the wine business for 30 years as a consultant, broker, and winemaker, likes the idea that biodynamics reminds him that there is a spiritual side to viticulture. But he also likes the end product. "Biodynamically grown grapes are more luscious, more intense in flavor," he says. "There is more payback from the grapes."

Michel Couvreux, wine director for Le Bernardin in New York City, who was a panelist in the now infamous wine competition set up by Fortune magazine, where nine of the 10 wines that won were biodynamic, sees terroir as a fulcrum point for biodynamic wine but also echoes the sentiment that biodynamic wines are intense. "It's amazing the difference in concentration between biodynamic wines and many non-biodynamic wines," he says. He is also quick to point out that non-biodynamic wines can be just as good and that biodynamic wines can easily cost 20 percent more per bottle.

The catch-22 for many sommeliers is, while they admire biodynamic wine, there are few biodynamic vineyards, which means their wine lists are 97 percent non-biodynamic. Also, selling biodynamic wine to the unknowing public can be tricky. "If I start the conversation about Steiner, it's going to be the glazed eye look from my customers 99 percent of the time," says Robert Bohr, the sommelier at Cru in New York City. "It's better to discuss the natural approach to winemaking and let the quality speak for itself."

The movement toward biodynamic wines has picked up considerable momentum in the past few years. Jim Fullmer, U.S. director of Demeter, the international organization that certifies all biodynamic farms (certification isn't required by law), has had 12 applications from vineyards asking for certification in the past year. "It doesn't happen overnight," he says. "More like two years. If the application is for land that has been previously maintained with conventional techniques, it will take a minimum of five years because the land has to go three years without any chemical pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides."

For DeLoach Vineyards in Sonoma County's Russian River Valley, 2011 marks the first year when wine from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes biodynamically grown on their estate will be bottled for sale. In the meantime, Virginia Lambrix, DeLoach's director of wine growing, will add to her 200-ton compost pile using Steiner's practices such as "preparation 502," which is composed of the bladder from a male elk, moose, or deer stuffed with yarrow flowers. It's believed to have a purifying effect. "If you step back and only see the cow horns and the lunar calendar, biodynamics is going to seem a bit crazy," she says. "But when you look at the nitty-gritty aspects of biodynamics, 90 percent of it is just good farming. And if you can't explain the other 10 percent, well, maybe that's not so bad."