By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Biodynamic wine is not difficult to understand, once you get past the notion that it’s “hocus-pocus”, as some early articles on the topic suggested.

These stories seized on certain quirky aspects of biodynamic farming, such as the directive by Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian philosopher and social reformer considered the founder of this type of agriculture, to ferment compost via a cow horn planted before winter. Or his insistence on tying specific activities to moon phases. It all sounds decidedly mystical, at first blush, and explains why some modern-day observers cast a skeptical eye.

But the larger truth is that biodynamics is a down-to-earth approach to growing and producing wine – and many other foods — that hews to organic methods and replicates nature’s biodiversity by using cover crops, buffer zones, farm animals and farm-generated composts. In wine grape growing, it reaches back in time to recapture land-preserving viticulture practices that pre-date chemical agriculture. Cow-horn compost is really just concentrated natural fertilizer that can be used to make a compost “tea” that’s essentially a vitamin treatment for the grape vines.

WINE GRAPHIC, smaller version, by Brett Kessler

The vanguard of growers championing this movement say it works. They pay assiduous attention to the seasons, the rhythms of nature, the microorganisms in the soil, and yes, the alignment of the planets.

Jim Fetzer, a leader of biodynamic wine growing in California, explains how one of Steiner’s out-there ideas makes sense.

“Bio means life, and dynamics are the forces,” says Fetzer in a video for his biodynamic winery and estate, Ceago VineGarden. “So we work with the forces of nature. When we siphon wine from one barrel to the other, we like to do that on the dark of the moon because on the dark of the moon we have total gravity going downward so it pulls the sediment to the bottom.”

OK, that sounds like it needs a companion incantation.

Still, the real magical thinking, when you think about it, emanates from conventional agriculture, including wine growing, where extensive applications of sulfur, herbicides like RoundUp and synthetic pesticides are used to push yields up. The magical part? Pretending that the soil can survive this assault – because there are many indications that it cannot. Farmers everywhere are reaching for increasingly toxic compounds to bully nature to produce and compensate for having zapped the soil.

Collateral casualties are piling up: Polluted streams, runoff, erosion, devastated bee populations and damaged human health.

And rather than snickering about the spiritual aspects of biodynamic farming, wine enthusiasts are taking note. Biodynamics are still difficult to find, but are turning up in specialty shops and natural food markets. Producers are growing and consumers are, well, still mostly in the dark, but gaining awareness.

While it’s debatable whether there’s enough carcinogenic residue in your conventional table red to worry about, the entire process of creating wine the chemical way rests on unproven assumptions that it’s not causing insurmountable harm.

Biodynamic vintners can, at the very least, promise that their wine is free of all the suspicious additives used by their counterparts, such as the 12 “bad actor” pesticides used by California conventional wine growers.

And, they say, it tastes better.

Good wine takes . . . sheep poo (call in the sheep)

Wine-making is leading the biodynamic movement in the US, with 69 vineyards and wineries certified as biodynamic in California, Oregon and Washington. A handful of biodynamic tea, fruit and wheat growers also are moving their methods in this direction, according to the biodynamic certifier, Demeter USA.

Baby sheep and mother at Frey vineyards.

Baby sheep and mother at Frey vineyards.

Wine had a head start in developing a biodynamic model, says Eliza Frey, whose family’s Frey Vineyards went organic decades ago and produced the first domestic biodynamic wine back in 1996. Winemakers are, by nature, picky about flavors and processes. They’ve long been aware that grapes grown in rich soil make great wines. So it was a natural fit for wine grape growers to move in this direction, she said.

Some growers also had witnessed the damage done by conventional wine production, and saw how difficult it was to revive exhausted soil. (Jim Fetzer told researchers that back in the 1980s he saw the wildlife vanish and go silent in chemically treated vineyards.) Using biodynamic techniques, though, the fields bounced back.

“People saw amazing results” when they started experimenting with biodynamic techniques, Frey says, explaining that the movement took hold in Europe first in the storied wine-growing regions of France, Italy and Spain, then moved to California’s vineyards as vintners sought the best quality.

Biondynamics, like organics, banishes chemicals during growing. But for biodynamic wine estates that’s just the first step. The growers go beyond being chemical-free to proactively nurturing the natural biodiversity of the farm, using a variety of natural preparations and homeopathic treatments that harmonize with Mother Nature. (Cow horns may or may not be involved.)

“Biodynamics views the farm as a living organism and what that means is it’s self-contained, self-sustaining and following the cycles of nature,” says Elizabeth Candelario, co-director of Demeter USA, certifier of domestic biodynamic wines and other foods.

“So, for example, a biodynamic farmer will look to the farm to create its own health and vitality out of the farm system itself, instead of trying to import something from the outside.”

Biodynamic Field Red 3

Field Blend red is a biodynamic wine produced by Frey Vineyards.

This Emersonian approach pushes winegrowers and makers to become rigorous stewards of the land. To get the best compost on site, for example, farmers will bring in sheep to graze the vineyards. (Organic grape growers do this too.) The animals chew down carefully selected cover crops of yarrow, chamomile, dandelion or clover while contributing a boost of natural nitrogen. (Do we need to spell it out?) Sometimes Baby Doll sheep are used because they’re shorter and cannot reach up to eat the grape leaves.

Bees and buffer zones and crop rotation also are employed to assist and enrich the growing process. And there are nine approved “preparations” that biodynamic farmers create from the soil and living things on their land to treat their vines and craft the wine.

By all accounts, biodynamic wine grape farmers who’ve been at it for several years begin to see their yields grow and their pest burden decline.

The good pests take care of the bad pests (this is the idea behind Integrated Pest Management, a term often flung around to describe organic methods) and the sheep, well, add vitality.

“It’s really the highest form of sustainable farming,” says Candelario, noting that other types of farmers are now making biodynamic products too, such as jam and pasta.

According to one study, all this stewardship pays off not just in flavor but in the antioxidant properties of the wine. The study, which looked at the French Paradox (basically how the French stuff themselves with rich foods but fail to pay a cardiac penalty like Americans do), found that organic wines (a subset encompassing biodynamics) had 50 percent more antioxidants than conventionally made wine. That might not matter to a sommelier concerned with whether the “finish” is cloying or crisp. But to Americans looking for their resveratrol triple-bypass inoculation, it’s a huge selling point.

Get the cheese tray ready

But back to flavor, the driving force behind biodynamic wine.

Biodynamics stresses purity during the wine-making process, as well as during the grape-growing season, says Frey. “It’s a very pure form of winemaking” that allows no manipulation from added yeasts, acids or other fruits, all common in conventional winemaking. And as with organics, there are no added sulfites in biodynamic wines.

Biodynamic wine cover shot“You can allow the wine to be an expression of the fruit,” explains Frey, at the end of a workday on the family’s biodynamic farm in Mendocino County in Northern California, where she’s also an assistant winemaker learning the family trade.

Biodynamic wine that clearly reflects the grapes produces a nuanced and interesting terroir, as the French and wine connoisseurs like to say. “That’s really exciting to serious wine lovers and drinkers,” Frey says.

Just as beer and coffee craft makers and consumers have discovered that flavor and sustainability can go hand in hand, so too are wine enthusiasts cheering the biodynamic wine industry.

“Ultimately, product quality is absolutely an outcome. How can it not be? Not only does it (biodynamics) not harm the environment, it’s restorative to the environment,” says Candelario.

US certified biodynamic growers still constitute a niche in the market. (We called several local wine shops and got a couple, “huhs?” and a few, “Yeah, we’ve got a bottle or two somewhere” type responses. One fellow got irritable, saying his shop didn’t carry biodynamic or organic wine and we should take our liberal longings far away from him. )

But their number has doubled within the last decade, making wine the leader in US biodynamics overall.

Hailing from a tradition that prizes the terroir of the product and the durability of the land, wine makers were already inclined to build in sustainability. Steiner’s directives mainly affirmed what they already knew, they needed to cherish the soil and work with nature.

Here in the US, and in other countries, commercial enterprises veered away from that, growing big and using chemicals to sustain mass production. But the swerve back to the old ways fits nicely, as Frey notes, with the foodie and enthusiast movements. Millennials, in particular, are fixated on where their food and drink comes from and will likely support the biodynamic trend, she says.

Boomers may have something to say about it also. They’re wine-touring age, and also concerned about the health of foods. One Boomer-vintage couple we met dithering over organic vino at Whole Foods Market, seemed ready to throw their money at whatever didn’t have GMOs or pesticides, and that would be organic, but even more so, biodynamic wine, though they said they weren’t familiar with it.

Candelario predicts that increasing awareness will drive sales incrementally in the direction of biodynamics, just as organics slowly claimed a solid corner of certain organic commodities, like fruits and milk.

At first, biodynamic wines, which can cost a little more on average than supermarket conventional, may be the province of “the uppercrust,” acknowledges Frey. But then it will go mainstream, she predicts.

The US, like Europe, will continue to see more biodynamic farms added to the 4,600 biodynamic producers worldwide, says Candelario, as growers seek long term stability and richer flavors, and consumers understand that environmentally sensitive agriculture creates healthier food.

She points to Germany, where 10 percent of the land is in biodynamic agriculture (not just grapes) as evidence of this trend.

Frey also bubbles with hope about the future of US biodynamics.

“I believe that access to clean and healthy food should be a human right,” she said, “and I believe people here in general here in the US are more interested in their food quality than they have been in generations.”