Steve Beckmen drives through a 125-acre expanse of rolling hillside carpeted with neat rows of grapevines as far as the eye can see. The winter vines are bare and scraggly, but it is a warm, sunny day in Santa Barbara County, and the grass is green and lush from the recent rains. He stops at a 16-acre section known as Block 6, and reaches into the ground surrounding the thick base of a Syrah vine. The soil he pulls out is soft and loose, studded with tiny worms and the threadlike roots of barley grass, vetch and sweet pea, nitrogen fixers that grow between and among the rows. The fragrance is fresh and organic, without any funk or mustiness—cleaner smelling even than potting soil.
“All the soil around here is normally very clay-ey,” he explains. “After building up the soil with compost, we’ve transformed it into something healthy. Healthy soils, healthy vines.” And by “healthy,” Beckmen means a loose soil where vine roots can easily access the water, oxygen and nutrients they need to thrive, and where a biologically diverse combination of microbes, animals and plants can flourish.
Beckmen Vineyards is one among some 100 American winemakers who have become certified as biodynamic grape growers, and healthy soils are at the heart of the method. This accomplishment is not for the inexperienced: to achieve the soil revitalization and elimination of outside inputs that biodynamics demands, vineyard managers have to work harder, smarter and at greater time and expense to produce the crops they need for wine.
The process is based on the farming methods developed in the 1920s by Dr. Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian philosopher and scientist and the founder of the Waldorf School. Seeking an alternative to the manufacturing approach to agriculture—using synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, and raising animals inside factories—that was sweeping Europe after the Industrial Revolution, Steiner aimed to return farming to a traditional agrarian model. Demeter International is the organization that came out of Steiner’s work and advocacy, and is today the largest and most widely recognized certification organization for biodynamic agriculture. Many farmers describe it as “beyond organic.”
The difference between the terms “organic” and “biodynamic” requires clarification. The USDA created the National Organic Program in 1990 to regulate organic food. Organic standards were established in 2002, and prohibit the use of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation and sewage sludge, as well as most synthetic substances such as fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Biodynamics, on the other hand, is a carefully described and regulated agricultural approach that views organic farming as just the first step.
“Organic tells you what you can’t do. The only real requirement is to not use synthetics,” explains Levi Glenn, viticulturist for Tablas Creek, a winery in Paso Robles, California that began converting some of its organic vineyards to biodynamic in 2010. “Biodynamics tells you what you should do. There’s a focus on seeing your vineyards as a single farm unit. You should reduce what you bring into your farm from the outside.”
According to the Demeter USA website, biodynamics considers farms “living organisms, not factories: self-contained and self-sustaining, responsible for creating and maintaining their own individual health and vitality.” Ideally, this means generating your own pest control, compost, seed and water. The degree to which viticulturists do this certainly varies, but many have started introducing other crops as well as livestock into the vineyard. Frey Vineyards of Mendocino County grows wheat and rye between vineyard rows, while biologically diverse cover crops are an integral part of the landscape at Beckmen. Tablas Creek, Frey, Cayuse Vineyards in Washington and Joseph Phelps of Napa Valley are just a few of the biodynamic winemakers who have some combination of sheep, chickens, cows and other farm animals on their property. The livestock graze down weeds and cover crops, and help fertilize the soil.
Manure is also used in the creation of biodynamic preparations, a compost “tea,” formed from minerals, herbs and animal waste. They are used to inoculate compost or applied to crops in a spray, and a little goes a long way. For example, one might use a mere 25 grams (less than one ounce) in 13 liters of water to treat one acre of land. These homeopathic doses are believed to stimulate root growth, enhance the development of microbes and humus, and, when sprayed on the plant itself, improve photosynthesis. Demeter recognizes nine preparations, some combination of which must be applied for certification. Demeter also lays out very particular rules for crop rotation, planting schemes, pest and weed control and water conservation.
Many of these practices would make sense to any agricultural professional. It’s biodynamics’ more arcane aspects that raise eyebrows. Farmers are expected to follow a lunar calendar, as the phases of the moon and the constellations with which it aligns are thought to affect root and microbial activity, sap flow, moisture in the soil and plant growth. Pruning, planting, harvesting and other farming practices should be done during a moon phase conducive to that activity. The creation of certain preparations sounds more like witchcraft than science. For example, Preparation 500: stuff a cow horn with manure, bury the horn (open-end down) in the ground for months, and then mix a small amount of the resulting concoction into several gallons of water, stirring first clockwise and then counterclockwise for one hour to create a “life-giving vortex” and “pulsing” effect. Steiner’s method are an interesting mix of the practical and metaphysical.
“Biodynamics isn’t for every type of person,” Beckmen admits. “You have to be open to the more mystical aspects, and to applying things in homeopathic doses. It’s a bit of a leap of faith, as there’s not a lot of science proving it.”
“Not everyone is drinking the Kool-Aid,” concurs Glenn. “Biodynamics is new enough and controversial enough that some people don’t want to align themselves with it.”
Paul Frey, president and winemaker of Frey Vineyards, has a strong physics background and encyclopedic knowledge of both agricultural and wine history. He takes a carefully considered view of biodynamics. “Steiner was borrowing from 5,000 years of peasant knowledge,” he says. “There are a certain percentage of ancient beliefs that are goofy. But maybe half might have some scientific basis to them. If you ferment cow manure underground and then spread it out,, that’s similar to how birds and bees reintroduce yeast and other microbes [living in their gut] into a vineyard in the spring and summer.”
The investment of time and resources to obtain biodynamic certification isn’t negligible. Glenn, who has more than a decade of experience farming both organically and biodynamically, estimates that production costs increase by about $500 per acre when you convert from conventional to organic viticulture. Converting from organic to biodynamic (the usual progression, as certification takes around a year for an organic farm, while conventional farms may take three years or longer to become Demeter certified), that cost goes up by another $500 per acre. Then there’s the cost of certification itself, as biodynamics is a registered trademark and cannot be used without permission from Demeter.
Does the consumer interest in organic food translate to a greater demand for biodynamic wine? The answer is a little murky. Beckmen’s tasting room manager has found that customers are initially drawn to the high-quality wine and its celebrated Grenache, but do become “very interested in the biodynamics” after they learn about the vineyard’s growing practices.
“Going biodynamic wasn’t really coming from the consumer end,” admits Glenn when asked about Tablas Creek’s recent conversion. At Preston in Healdsburg, California, a tasting room employee did attest to the fact that “There are some people who come here because they read about us in a magazine about organic or biodynamic wine,” but also thought many were simply arriving at the winery by chance as they explored Sonoma County’s “Wine Road.” (Preston follows many biodynamic principles, but is not certified by Demeter.)
Bob Calamia, a wine buyer from liquor retailer Binny’s Beverage Depot, says he’s seen growth in the number of organic and biodynamic wines offered, but not a substantial one. “[These labels] are used more often as a selling point by sales reps. … I don't necessarily list the wines I buy as organic/biodynamic…I don't want them shelved in the organic set. By shelving a biodynamic Tempranillo, for example, in the organic set instead of the Spanish set, you have just drastically reduced your audience—far more people buy Spanish than organic.”
Clearly, even within the wine industry, it’s hard to separate “biodynamic” from “organic,” and wine drinkers aren’t necessarily attuned (or interested) in the differences. “My guess is that…most of the people on the organic kick are not frequent wine drinkers,” says Calamia. “Or if they are, they may find the selection of truly organic wines limited and may be content enough with organically or sustainably grown grapes.”
“If you asked our winery members why they decided to pursue certification, you would hear many different reasons,” says Elizabeth Candelario, Demeter USA’s marketing director. “But the one reason we never hear is that people pursue biodynamic agriculture for marketing reasons.”
So what does drive grape growers to biodynamics? For some, it’s a natural progression from an already holistic approach to agriculture. Frey Vineyards, a family-run enterprise, has been organic since its inception in 1980 and certified biodynamic since 1996, making it the oldest organic and biodynamic winery in the nation. In addition to their bio-intensive farming, Frey employs solar power, electric tractors, recycled label paper and other green practices. Of 1000 acres owned by the family, 90 percent are left as wild, protected forestland. It is their belief that upholding biodynamic agricultural standards protects natural habitats and supports and maintains wildlife corridors for numerous species.
At Tablas Creek, the decision to convert came from founder Robert Haas and his son, Jason. Tablas Creek has been dry-farming since it began in 1989, and organically since 1997 (It wasn’t certified organic until 2003.). Jason Haas was skeptical of biodynamic viticulture until a conversation with John Williams, proprietor of the biodynamic Napa Valley winery Frog’s Leap. Impressed by the emphasis on soil restoration and the “balance and character” of Frog’s Leap wines, Haas decided to explore biodynamics on 20 acres of Tablas Creek’s 120 acre estate.
Beckmen finds Haas’ experience common. “The people I know [growing biodynamically] have had some sort of personal experience.” His own came through an old college friend and French expat named Philippe Armenier.
“He was gardening biodynamically, and explained what he was doing, and we’d taste what he was growing,” Beckmen recalls. “At the time, it seemed very regimented—I didn’t know how you could translate the process over a broad amount of acreage.”
Nevertheless, in 2002, Beckmen chose to run a controlled experiment on 16 acres of his Purisima Mountain vineyard—the famed Block 6. Biodynamic and organic vines were grown under otherwise identical conditions, picked at the same time, placed in same sized tanks, etc. The first isolated bottling of biodynamically grown Syrah was in 2003.
“Wine’s a funny thing. When things are really great, you can tell from the get-go,” he explains. “There was a different quality to the fruit, to the way the flavor expressed itself. I could see it as well in the practice of growing, how the fruit set, how it ripened.”
Beckmen noticed a change in the wine made from this fruit as well. “Tasting biodynamic wines was eye-opening,” he says. “There was a different quality to the wines, as far as the ripeness and the phenolics and the tannin profile. Our wines had been more rustic before; biodynamics brought some polish and elegance to them.”
Beckmen’s winemaker, Mikael Sigouin, also picked up on the differences immediately. “I remember vividly feeling the tannins going from chunky and coarse to elongated and elegant. They were so big and yet so fine.”
At Tablas Creek, Glenn describes watching vines treating with biodynamic preparations making a surprisingly fast turnaround. “I’ve seen vines that were weak, unhealthy and brown go to healthy and green after just a few seasons of the prep applications.” He also saw soil improvements. “Biodynamics speeds up the process of building the microbial system in your soil. Soil is full of millions of microbes. Biodynamic preparations encourage the biodiversity of these microbes, along with composting and other practices.”
LaRocca Vineyards in Chico, California, is not a certified biodynamic grower, but Phil LaRocca has been growing organically for decades and served as president of the California Certified Organic Farmers and on the board of the USDA’s National Organic Program. He has tremendous respect for the method. “It’s just another excellent way of growing organically. The heart and soul of biodynamics is building the soil, which is the heart and soul of any organic program.”
Statistics on how much biodynamic wine is being made and consumed in the United States are not easy to come by. Still, some of the most acclaimed wineries in Sonoma, Napa and other major wine-growing regions have converted some or all of their acreage to biodynamic production. Grgich Hills (366 acres), Joseph Phelps (450 acres) and Opus One (169 acres) are just a few of the top names that have become Demeter-certified. Numerous smaller scale boutique wine producers have done the same. The scientific validity of certain aspects of biodynamics may be questionable, but the sustainable nature of the method is not. Biodiversity, water conservation, microbially rich soils, growers intimately connected to their farms—all are simply aspects of good stewardship of the land. For a wine industry that has been criticized for soil erosion, toxic runoff, a large carbon footprint and other adverse environmental impacts, biodynamics may be an important component in greening the grapevine.
Nancy Lackey Shaffer is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.
Photo on main page: Wendy Harman (Flickr, Creative Commons).