Return To Terroir’s Los Angeles Tasting featured a roundtable discussion with four distinguished winemakers concerning “Terroir and biodynamics in the vineyards.” Moderator Anthony Dias Blue introduced the audience to “good looking guy” Mike Benziger of Benziger Sonoma Mountain Estate, “even better looking guy” Telmo Rodriguez of Spain’s Compañia de Vinos Telmo Rodriguez, Australia’s Ron Laughton of Jasper Hill Vineyards and New Zealand’s James Millton of Millton Vineyards.
Describe briefly what biodynamics in the vineyard is.
Mike Benziger: Biodynamics is the most advanced form of organic farming. It works with cycles of nature to grow grapes and make wine, and uses plants and animals to take the place of chemicals and fertilizers. We look to nature for answers, not to men. We identify plants, bacteria and animals that live in a vineyard. We won’t necessarily try to change them, but farm in a way to make them synergize with each other and form an environment that is completely unique. This creates farm individuality and distinction on a piece of property and translates that individuality into the wines.
There are certain principles on all biodynamic farms. A personal relationship with the land. Farming beyond monoculture to polyculture practices, self-regulating systems and closed systems, and biodynamic preparations.
How did you get involved in biodynamics?
Telmo Rodriguez: In the nineteenth century, Spain took the wrong way. We departed from an ancestral culture and lost contact with the land itself. Phylloxera took some time to cross the Pyrenees, so our politicians decided to sell wine in bulk to all of Europe. With that policy we lost some of our culture of specificity. Everyone knows Rioja was an appellation that went for a very commercial industry.
In the 1970s, Spain’s wines were very chemical and came from bad agriculture. In the 1980s, a group of young producers, concerned with this generic attitude, wanted a more interesting viticulture. Biodynamics is the most radical way.
Ron Laughton: I’m a 60-year-old chemist, and for over 30 years I’ve been an anti-chemist. I wanted to get back to some purity. I could see my father, who was an intelligent farmer, being hoodwinked by many of the chemical companies who convinced him that to be a modern farmer you had to use herbicides. I wanted to grow grapes and make wines. I wanted to do it, not just simply without chemicals; I think that’s easy. Everything in nature survives without chemicals.
To plant grapes in a dry continent like Australia without irrigation, you think of the vine as a plant that evolved over the millennia without man putting water on it to survive. I had conditions in which I knew I could grow the vine. I just had to find the right soil.
Where does the flavor come from? Flavors are created in the vine. The building blocks are the minerals in the soil. If you keep applying synthetic chemicals, you are upsetting the minerals in the soil. So if you wish to express true terroir, you should be trying to keep the soil healthy. Let the minerals that are already there express themselves in the flavor in the vine.
Herbicides upset the balance of the vineyard simply because dead grasses are an essential part of the vineyard floor. Those dying grasses act as food for another species, and they act as food for another species. You go right down the food chain to the organisms that create the minerals for your plant to suck up and create the building blocks for the flavors. Its not rocket science.
James Millton: This is the interesting thing about agriculture. After the First World War, they invented poison gases that were tasteless and odorless. After the Second World War, they invented nitrogen to make bombs. After these two atrocities, my father and father-in-law were brought up in this regime of chemical farming. When I wanted to do things without chemicals they thought I was weird. Why would you want to go backwards and start doing things normally when there were chemicals that could control weeds and pests?
They spent their whole time combating disease. They used herbicides to combat the weeds and pesticides to combat the insects. They used chemicals to combat the fungus. But they never stopped to think about the word disease and what it means. Dis – ease. The opposite is harmony. Our job is to create harmony in our land and in our animals and our grasses and our flora and fauna and in our grapevines and in our wines.
“Bio” means life and “dynamics” means energy. Our job is to look at this flow of energy, and when we can understand the flow then we understand the flow of what makes life happen. Our biggest job is energizing the people who work for us. The bees are the policemen of the earth and the worms are the policemen of the soil. And we wouldn’t want to do anything to destroy them because they’re working for us.
Do you think biodynamics is the best way to express terroir?
MB: I like to define terroir in relationship to the four elements. You have earth, water, air and fire. Think of earth as the site, water as the plant, air as the climate and fire as the ripening heat. Biodynamics is an incredible system to balance those elements. And when those elements are in perfect ratio, then the fifth element reveals itself, which you could call spirit, or terroir. Biodynamics is the practice of integration. It goes beyond sustainability to regeneration. This separates biodynamics from any other practice.
After the practice of biodynamics for several years, you’ll see that the farmed areas and wild areas around your vineyards start to merge with each other. The distinctions become less and less. A healthy grapevine has the ability to order and organize energies into patterns we call place, or vintage. A true biodynamic wine has four fingerprints: the variety, the vintage, the place and, most importantly, the passion of the people who made it.
Can biodynamics make a great wine from mediocre soil?
TR: I don’t like the question. We are in a tasting where we are vindicating the renaissance of appellation. We have to find a place that can produce a very special taste. We have to learn that in the tenth century, people found a specific vineyard that produced a very specific grape and a very specific wine. We are vindicating going back to appellation. Be clever enough to respect this. We must not destroy the information of this place. Not to plant cabernet sauvignon or merlot in the middle of Rioja, when we have been planting tempranillo for 2000 years. Those things destroy the specificity of the place.
RL: Biodynamics will improve any land. Whether it’s a place that will ultimately make great wine is determined by the terroir. Biodynamics allows the terroir of that place to express itself.
What’s the difference between organic and biodynamic?
RL: Quite simple. Organics is not using synthetic chemicals. Biodynamics is doing that, plus going to the next level; making your own composts, watching the stars and planets to time what you do.
What about sustainable?
RL: In Australia the word has been bastardized. It’s been picked up by the agriculturists and all it means is keep using the same chemicals but less of them. It’s a lovely feel-good fuzzy word.
MB: I’d like to say that biodynamics, organic and sustainable are all good. All a great step up from conventional. If you look at conventional farming as the most exploitative farming there is, once you get into sustainability you’re getting into a situation where you are thinking about getting better.
Tell us about some of the specifics of biodynamics.
JM: A lot of people are confused by biodynamics. They think we spend all our time looking at the moon. You go out in the sunshine and you get burnt. You stand in the rain and you get wet. When the moon comes up it gets lighter, and when it becomes a full moon it gets even lighter. Animals have a different response to what happens in the lunar phase. If you live by the seaside you can see what happens to the water. Seventy percent of the earth is covered by water and 70 percent of our bodies contain fluid so we have a direct connection to what happens to the moon.
RL: Biodynamics is a modern word for ancient techniques. Rudolf Steiner articulated the methods that had been carried on for millennia in Europe.
MB: When Steiner was developing biodynamics he looked into the past. He studied ancient peasant cultures; people who were really connected to their environments. These were folks who if they didn’t plant or if they didn’t pick at the right time they died. So he took their practices and formulated them into a system.
If you look at the biodynamic preparations, what they really are is homeopathic in nature. They are used to heal the earth. They are used in very small quantities. It’s not really the material that matters, it’s the energies in the materials. The less material that’s in the remedy, the more powerful it is. These are plants and herbs that work less on their material substances and more on their energetic natures.
RL: When I speak to viticulturists, as soon as I finish, up shoot the hands. “How do I control this mildew or this pest?” By their very questions you can see they haven’t quite got it yet. The concept of biodynamics is the balance that should be in any place. My answer is you shouldn’t be taking aspirin to cure a headache. We demand the magic bullet; a pill to control some problem. Instead, you should think back to why you had a headache in the first place. The aim of biodynamics is to control the balance so you don’t need the magic bullet.
MB: In biodynamic farming, our strategy is never to feed the plant but to feed the soil. When you feed the soil the plant can go to the snack bar when it wants to, not when we want it to. That way you get a more balanced growth, and the vines are much stronger and have a higher disease resistance. A plant that can root itself in good soil will follow the cycles of nature very closely; break bud at spring equinox, flower at summer solstice, harvest close to the fall equinox, and have dormancy close to winter solstice. All of these activities are manipulated when you use artificial fertilizers.
How predominantly does biodynamics fit into your marketing plans?
MB: When I talk about our wines I always approach it from quality first. If I can make that connection with people, and the wine is good, the whole hope is they’ll ask me how it was made. Once they ask me, I have permission to tell them about biodynamics. That order has the most effect.