Your Guide to Organic, Biodynamic and Natural Wine



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Organic and biodynamic wine growers don’t feed plants, they feed the soil through the use of compost, cover crops, compost teas, and in biodynamics with biodyanimic preparations (the term biodynamic preparation is intimidating, but they are simply chamomile blossoms, oak bark, dandelion flowers, valerian flowers, yarrow blossoms, stinging nettle and silica.)

Compost is made up of organic matter such as animal manure, grape pomace, and other organic materials. A wine grower spends an entire year preparing a compost pile. They each have a particular method for preparing their compost, employing unique recipes using special ingredients that provide the right nutrients for their vineyard. Compost is filled with microorganisms that stimulate plant growth, making the vineyard healthy and disease resistant. Microorganisms eat organic materials and digest minerals that pass through their system. Mike Benziger, of Benziger Winery in Sonoma Valley, describes the process as “a huge food factory that provides a gourmet feast for plants.”

compostteaBob Cannard, who has been providing Chez Pannise with vegetables for the past 25 years and who is the vineyard manager for Cline Cellars in Sonoma, brews huge vats of compost tea. Instead of making a rich and delicious stock for human consumption, he makes a nutritious vegetable stock for his farm and vineyards. He also spreads finely ground minerals, such as silica and limestone, throughout his vineyards depending on the needs of each particular site.

In organic vineyards, leguminous cover crops are grown in rows between the vines. These cover crops not only attract beneficial insects, which attack bad insects, but they provide nutrients to the grapevines.

Non-organic vineyards are barren and devoid of life. Organic and biodynamic vineyards are buzzing with activity, ranging from the visible to the microscopic. At a glance one sees insects, bees, birds, chickens, sheep, cows, and the variety of plants needed to attract and sustain them. In the microscopic world of the soil, microorganisms help decompose organic matter, releasing nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, which are then taken up by the plant as nutrients.

I hope this explains a little bit about organic and biodynamic viticulture. I have the greatest respect for winegrowers and workers that tend organic and biodynamic vineyards, all of whom are sensitive to the life forces in the vineyard – the best of which can capture it in a bottle.


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In 2004 a watershed event occurred in organic viticulture that may prove to be similar in its effect on organic viticulture as was the effect of the now-legendary 1976 Paris tasting on California wines, in which California wines roundly trounced the favored French. The 2004 event(1) was a tasting carried out by wine professionals to compare wines from non-organic “conventionally” produced grapes to wines from vineyards managed via a type of organic management known as Biodynamic. There were ten pairs of wines, all pairs consisted of one Biodynamic-sourced and one conventional vineyard-sourced wine. All pairs were of comparable region, price, and variety and were rated by the judges as to “best of pair” status. The outcome of the blind tasting stunned many in the premium wine world – the Biodynamic-sourced wines were rated superior in eight of the ten pairs, one pair tied, and only one of the conventionally-sourced wines was rated superior.

Wines made from grapes produced in organic and Biodynamically managed vineyards (as distinct from “organic wine” or “Biodynamic wine”*) have come on strong in the wine world in just the last few years. Dozens of premium label vineyards, led by the French, have converted to Biodynamic and organic management. A 2005 tasting event in San Francisco of 75 wines from Biodynamic and organic vineyards was a showcase for some of these wines from around the world.

If wines from organically or Biodynamically produced grapes† are indeed superior to wines from conventionally managed vineyards (all other factors being equal), what might the physiological and biochemical basis for such a difference be? This article introduces some of the physiology and biochemistry relevant to wine and food quality as it relates to the crop management and ecology.

Plant defense makes for quality components of wines and foods

In the 1970s this author was part of a small but spirited group of students of agricultural science at University of California Davis who were determined to learn as much about organic farming as we could. Although we were swimming upstream, UCD agriculture faculty at the time being more interested in the “better living through chemistry” approach, we regularly invited farmers from the then tiny organic farming community to come and speak on campus.

In their talks to us every one of those organic farmers related how their crops had a “vitality” that conventionally sprayed and chemically fertilized crops didn’t have, and that organic crops were naturally resistant to most pests and diseases. The majority of the UC agricultural science faculty at that time at best dismissed these claims, just as they generally dismissed all things to do with organic farming, which at least one professor called “voodoo agriculture”, and often ridiculed the farmers’ views as a regression to “primitivism”.

Now however, it’s a different story, one that vindicates those pioneering organic farmers. The ability of plants, particularly organically managed plants, to induce a type of situation-responsive immunity to attack by diseases and pests, is known as systemic acquired resistance (SAR), in which defense compounds, mostly phenolics, are produced. SAR has become one of plant science’s hottest research topics.

SAR is induced by low to moderate levels of insect and pathogen attack, a typical scenario in organic crop systems, and it turns out that this response is enhanced when composts and compost teas are applied, another typical organic scenario. SAR can be shut down when pesticides are applied.

It also turns out that many of the phenolic defense compounds that are produced via SAR are beneficial to human health. The term “nutraceutical” has been applied to this class of compounds. Resveratrol, the heart-healthy antioxidant compound produced in red grapes, is an example of a plant defense compound.

Additionally, phenolic and flavonoid compounds, many produced in the plant’s SAR defense system, turn out to be principal components in the “symphony” of compounds that define high quality wines. Below I discuss these issues with respect to Biodynamic and organic farming, and how various practices affect SAR and therefore wine quality.

Organic and Biodynamic viticulture and wine

It is to the credit of the premium wine community (along with chefs and restaurateurs) that it is leading, by a couple of lengths, the North American food industry in recognizing the connection between ecological integrity of production and quality of product, and that a significant percentage of that community has recognized that organic production is a key to this quality. The author’s dissertation research benefited from the openness and far-sightedness of the California North Coast wine grape community, when two dozen vineyard owners/managers allowed me to collect data on how organically managed vineyards resist damage by the root-colonizing insect, phylloxera, significantly better than conventionally managed vineyards(2) (The damage is caused by soil-borne pathogenic fungi that invade the phylloxera feeding sites and rot the root. Organically managed vineyard soils have more of the protective beneficial microbes, plus systemic resistance probably played a part.)

Both Biodynamic and organic farming systems have clear guidelines and certification protocols – organic certification since 2001 overseen by the USDA National Organic Program regulations (3), and Biodynamics by the Demeter Association (4). This has made it much easier to compare wines and foods produced using the different systems, since the clear guidelines make for relatively easy categorization and analysis.

Biodynamics is considered by most to be a sub- or super-group of organics, sometimes described as organics plus a spiritual/cosmic element. All certified Biodynamic farms can be certified organic, and many have both certifications. In the US the total number of Biodynamic farms (all types) make up only about a percent or two of the total number of organic farms.

Founded on a series of lectures in Germany in 1924 by Austrian Renaissance man, Rudolf Steiner, who also created the Waldorf schooling system, Biodynamics predates organized organics by at least twenty years. Consisting primarily of a commitment to a spiritual-ecological connection to the farm and the organisms (including people) connected to it, Biodynamics has a number of very specific compost-making and crop husbandry practices, as well as practices for channeling cosmic or metaphysical forces for the well being of the farm and its organisms. The best known of these practices is a roster of eight compost preparations known as the 500-507 series, as well as the herbal infusions (teas) used on crops.

An element of humor, if not hilarity, has been injected into the California viticulture scene with the reaction of traditional on-the-ground vineyard managers to orders from on-high to convert vineyards to Biodynamic management and its “quirky” practices. Many, if not most, agricultural scientists and farm managers see Biodynamics and its doctrinaire practices as just that – quirky. However, blind tastings and consumer preferences are powerful forces for conversion.

Differences between organic and Biodynamic grapes and vine characteristics have been examined(5) by John Reganold, professor at Washington State University. Reganold’s work on northern California winegrapes, at a Bonterra vineyard, involved a 9-year replicated trial that compared organic vs. Biodynamic treatments. There were no significant differences between the two management regimes in nearly all field parameters, i.e. yield, soil nutrients, cluster characteristics, etc. The yield to pruning weight ratio, an important parameter for indicating vine balance and wine quality, was more optimal in the Biodynamic, and the Biodynamically treated winegrapes had significantly higher Brix as well as slightly higher total phenols and anthocyanins in the last year. The authors state that the soil at the experiment site had high fertility, and that differences between Biodynamic and other management regimes would be more likely to show up if the soils are of lower fertility.

These kinds of studies are needed to compare organic and conventional management, as well as integrations of the two systems, which, in my view, is the way of the future in agriculture. Europeans have done much more research that examines the integration of organic and conventional practices in agricultural research, a category known as “integrated”, which often comes out being the superior treatment when all parameters are examined – yield, product quality, environmental impact, and net returns. Winegrapes for high quality wines however, may be much more sensitive than other agricultural products to seemingly innocuous practices like the occasional spray, as we will see below.

One of the most important contributions of the organic farming movement, I believe, has been that horticultural practices that probably never would have been tried by the researchers and practitioners of non-organic agriculture are being adopted after they have proven to be cost-effective and efficacious by organic practitioners. Often this crossover comes from a conventional grower who has put 10% of his ground into organic production, just to hedge his bets and try it, who then learns that some of those organic practices work pretty well.

Vine systemic acquired resistance and wine phenolics

Phenolic compounds are considered to be the most important component of the winegrape for giving uniqueness and character to wines of the same variety and quality of production. Indeed, the expression of terroir in red wine is considered to be a function of its phenolic composition (6,7). Terroir is that gustatory and olfactory aspect of wines that reflects the land – especially the soil.

There are scores of different phenolics produced in grapes, many induced in the SAR process – flavonols such as quercetin, anthocyanins such as pelargonidin and delphinidin, benzoics like vanillin and gallin, cinnamics such as coumarin and caffein, flavan-3-ols such as catechin and gallocatechin to name just a few. Terpene aromatics such as citronellol, linalool, and geraniol, which can be important olfactory elements in wines, are also important phenolics. It is the composition and ratios of these compounds that give variation and uniqueness to premium wines.

Resveratrol, the compound in grape skins that has a number of beneficial health effects in humans, is not an incidental product in the plant – it is a phytoalexin defense compound and anti-oxidant, produced when induced by SAR as well as by ultra-violet light and perhaps other factors.

The biochemistry of plant SAR is enormously complex (the following summary based on 8,9,10,11) and is still being worked out in laboratories around the world. The SAR process starts with what is known as the hypersensitive response which is set off when a pathogen initially infects plant tissue. This consists of an “oxidative burst”, i.e. the production of reactive oxygen compounds, leading to localized cell death and isolation of the pathogen to prevent it from spreading. Hydrogen peroxide is an important compound in the hypersensitive response. Insect attack causes a similar reaction in the plant.

Immediately following the hypersensitive response, signals are sent through the plant (signal transduction in both plants and animals has been one of science’s hottest research topics) which cause changes in gene expression all over the plant. The result is the production of situation-specific defense compounds, mostly phenolics. The terms “systemic” and “induced” or “acquired” are therefore used, since the compounds are produced as part of a system that senses attack in one part of the plant and then induces defense compounds in as yet uninfected parts.

Some phenolics are only produced via SAR induction, others only via constitutive (hardwired, turned-on all the time, not situation-specific) channels, and some may be produced via both channels. SAR tends to have a high energy cost in the plant and can reduce growth and yield in situations where there is no attacker for the energy-expensive defense compounds to defend against. Thus, in plant evolution the selection pressure would be strong for situation-specific induction of defense-compound production – in other words, all other things being equal, plants that have situation-specific defenses would have higher fitness over plants that have defenses turned on all the time.

Two main metabolic pathways are involved in SAR, the salicylic acid pathway, generally induced by pathogens, and the jasmonic acid pathway, often induced by insect attack. Considerable “cross-talk” occurs between these two pathways – sometimes they are additive and synergistic, and other times salicylate activity suppresses the jasmonic acid pathway. It appears that different branches of these two pathways combine in different situations, making for a complex interplay. Complicating this is the induction of jasmonic-SAR, or really a priming or strengthening of SAR, by rhizosphere (surface of the root-dwelling) bacteria, composts, and certain bacterial isolates ‡ – relevant to our organic connection. Additionally, some insects induce SAR channels that are normally only induced by microbes.

Common to both the salicylic acid and jasmonic acid pathways, upstream of them, is the shikimic acid pathway, an offshoot of pre-Krebs cycle phospoenolpyruvate, and source of the majority of phenolics in the plant. One of the three aromatic (ring-structured) amino acids, phenylalanine, is an important intermediate here. In SAR, phenylalanine is diverted from protein synthesis by an enzyme, phenylalanine ammonialyase (PAL), which de-ammoniates the molecule and converts it to phenol precursor cinnamic acid. This becomes important below in the discussion of herbicide use.

A number of familiar intermediary compounds are involved in SAR, such as hydrogen peroxide, cinnamic and coumeric acids, and ethylene, not to mention salicylic acid.

Current scientific knowledge of the salicylic and jasmonic SAR pathways, their inducers, and their end products is more in the realm of “the more we find out, the more we realize we don’t know”. One inducer will elicit one pathway in one species and the other pathway in another species, while a different dose or different timing can change those outcomes. In some situations the application of an inducing compound will weaken a plant’s defenses against a given attacker because the applied elicitor induces the wrong pathway, which inhibits the desired one.

Viticulture effects on SAR

Despite the physiological complexity of SAR, a few facts and anecdotal tidbits can be filtered out of the scientific and other literature relevant to the hypothesis that organic or Biodynamic methods enhance SAR and subsequent defense compound production and eventually wine and food quality.

Organically produced fruits have been shown to be higher in phenolic compounds than comparable conventionally grown fruits12 13. The salicylic acid content of soups prepared from organically grown vegetables was shown in research from the UK to be nearly six times higher than comparable soups from conventionally grown vegetables14, an indication of the relative levels of SAR activity. Critics, in a typically narrowed reductionist view, advised taking a half an aspirin a day to make up for this. They were apparently unaware that salicylic acid is an upstream precursor of dozens of phenolic and other compounds that may be beneficial to human health, and that higher salicylic acid levels would be an indication that there are other defense compounds, unmeasured, in the soup.

The effects of agri-chemicals on the rhizosphere and phylloshpere (leaf surface) microbe community (including endophytic microbes that colonize intercellular space in the leaf) is not well known, and even less is known about how such chemicals affect the SAR-inducing and SAR-enhancing relationship between those microbes and the plant.

Agrichemicals can have a substantial effect on SAR. One of the most important findings, in my opinion in this arena comes from a research report that showed that grape berry resveratrol production in vines treated with fungicides was reduced by up to 70%15. This makes sense – if the attacking microbes are eliminated, the plant no longer needs to produce the defense compound. This is a good example of the plant’s ability to conserve resources by turning off SAR when not needed. This research only looked at resveratrol, and that other phenolic compounds may be affected as well.

It is interesting to note that the mode of action of glyphosate, the most widely used herbicide in agriculture, is to shut down the shikimic acid pathway, the main precursor to phenolics in the plant. It has been shown that crop lines that have been genetically modified for glyphosate-resistance are more susceptible to fungal pathogens due to the re-engineering of this important plant defense pathway 16,17. It is unknown, however, whether sub-symptomatic exposure of normal, non-engineered plants to glyphosate, such as grapevines in a vineyard situation, has any effect on the shikimic acid pathway and the production of phenolics.

The soil fertility regime can have effects on plant compounds relative to wine and food quality. Applications of soluble synthetic nitrogen fertilizer cause a different response in the plant than the daily small N release pattern typical of the thriving soil microbial communities in mature organic crop systems, and this can bring about significant changes in resistance to insect feeding as well as disease (reviewed in 18). High doses of soluble N have been shown to inhibit resveratrol production (op. cit. Fregoni). At least one Napa Valley premium winemaker maintains that conversion to organic fertility methods has eliminated the problem of stuck fermentations.

Composts and compost teas have been shown to induce SAR in studies at compost research pioneer Harry Hoitink’s Ohio State University lab19. Plants treated with compost-only showed SAR activity, as did plants subject to pathogen attack-only. However, the highest SAR activity was seen in plants that received compost and were additionally subject to pathogen attack, indicating a priming or synergizing effect of composts. Bacteria in the composts were shown to be the inducers, and the SAR effect disappeared upon compost sterilization. The authors state that a number of bacterial taxa commonly found in composts have been shown to induce SAR.

Many reports have shown that silica applications induce SAR and other defense mechanisms in plants20, protecting them, including grape21, from certain diseases. One of the Biodynamic compost preparations, 501 horn-silica, involves mixing tiny amounts of silica powder with manure, making an infusion of it, and applying it as a foliar spray. Whether such small amounts of silica could induce SAR is unknown. Another silica input in Biodynamics, though not as central a practice as the 500-series preparations, is the application of horsetail (Equisetum) tea for disease management. Horsetail is high in a biologically available form of silica. At least one vinifera winegrape grower in the viticulturally challenging humid eastern US uses horsetail tea for disease management (22). Many organic farmers swear by the application of rock dusts, which are mostly silica, to their crops, saying, among other things, that better color and taste are the result.

Hydrogen peroxide, a central compound in SAR, has a persistent “underground” following as a crop disease management tool in fertigation (irrigation water amended with fertilizers or other agri-compounds) water. This practice is not well documented, as it is non-proprietary§. Hydrogen peroxide, which is allowed in organic crop production, was used by at least one grower in my vineyard research roster as a tool to manage phylloxera damage caused by soil-borne pathogens. However, hydrogen peroxide use is risky because a little too much can damage the plant, due to its oxidative power, the very mechanism that it induces in the plant to kill pathogens.

A number of proprietary products are on the market that induce or modify SAR, often isolates of Bacillus, Pseudomanas, and other bacteria. One class of proteins known as harpins, produced by several species of plant pathogenic bacteria, induces jasmonic SAR. There are anecdotal accounts of better berry anthocyanin content and color as a result of the application of proprietary versions of harpin (Messenger(r)) to winegrapes (23). Benzothiadiazole (BTH), a synthetic functional analogue of salicylic acid in the plant, has been shown to increase production of resveratrol and anthocyanins in winegrapes, while at the same time increasing resistance to Botrytis cinerea (24).

Conclusion

The observation that Biodynamic viticulture enhances the expression of terroir in wine has been a comment made by a number of wine professionals (op. cit. Reilly). Quality and the expression of terroir in premium wine is essentially a function of the complex interplay of phenolics and other compounds – a symphony so to speak, influenced via SAR and its biotic and abiotic stimuli. The composition of those stimuli is unique to each environment: benign and pathogenic foliar microbes, insects, rhizosphere and other soil-borne microbes, soil type, solar radiation etc. Perhaps what vineyard managers need to do is become more like the orchestra conductor, coaching and conducting all of these different elements. This is precisely what Biodynamics is all about. As one Biodynamaic vineyard manager put it when talking about the founder of Biodynamic farming: “Rudolf Steiner saw the farmer as kind of like the conductor of an orchestra.”

Don Lotter has a Ph.D. in Agroecology from the University of California Davis, currently writes and teaches part-time based in Davis, and is looking at options for a career in sustainable agriculture. His email is don@donlotter.net, website: www.donlotter.net.

* The term “organic wine” is not used in this article because wine labeled as “organic” must be made in accordance with the USDA organic regulation, which, among other things, prohibits added sulfites. A similar situation applies to “Biodynamic wine” and its certification. However, most premium winemakers, many of whom use organically-grown grapes, insist on adding some sulfites. Wine made this way from certified organically grown grapes can be labeled “made with organically grown grapes” but not “organic wine”. It is wines in this latter category, both Biodynamic and organic, that I am focusing on in this article. Note however, that in common parlance these wines are often called “organic wines.”

† Note: In this article, I may use the term “organic” to include Biodynamic, apologies to Biodynamic purists.

‡ This type of systemic resistance, which lacks a hypersensitive response, is known in most SAR-science circles as induced systemic resistance (ISR), as distinct from SAR. However, to keep things comprehensible to readers, I am using the term SAR for the entire plant systemic resistance milieu, including ISR.

§ Non-proprietary technologies and solutions are not being adequately researched. With the steady loss of public-sourced funding for research, a higher and higher proportion of agricultural research funding comes from the private sector and only targets proprietary (patentable) outcomes. Increasingly, university SAR researchers are looking to isolate genes and compounds for proprietary use, while research on non-proprietary techniques is increasingly being left to farmers, maverick researchers, and anecdotal reports. Non-proprietary techniques may be as or more efficacious than proprietary ones, and often the input costs are a fraction of that of proprietary inputs.

Footnotes

1 Reilly, J.K. 2004. Moonshine, Part 2. Fortune. 150(4): p.34.
2 Lotter, D.W. et al. 1999. Differences in grape phylloxera-related grapevine root damage in organically and conventionally managed vineyards in California. Hortscience, 34 (3):472-473.
3 www.ams.usda.gov/nop
4 www.demeter-usa.org
5 Reeve, J.R., L. Carpenter-Boggs, J.P. Reganold, A.L. York, G. McGourty, and L.P. McCloskey. 2005. Soil and Winegrape Quality in Biodynamically and Organically Managed Vineyards Am. J. Enol. Vitic. 56(4).
6 Cheynier, V. et al. 1999. Phenolic composition as related to red wine flavor. In: Chemistry of Wine Flavor. A.L. Waterhouse and S.E. Ebeler (Eds.). American Chemical Society. Washington, DC.
7 Boulton, R.B. et al. Principles and Practices of Winemaking. Chapman & Hall, NY.
8 Bostock, R. 2005. Signal crosstalk and induced resistance: straddling the line between cost anad benefit. Annu. Rev. Phytopathol. 43: 14.1-14.36.
9 Durrant, W.E. anad X. Dong. 2004. Systemic acquired resistance. Annu. Rev. Phytopathol. 42: 185-209
10 Sticher, L. et al. 1997. Systemic acquired resistance. Annu. Rev. Phytopathol. 35: 235-70.
11 van Loon, L.C. et al. 1998. Systemic resistance induced by rhizoshere bacteria. Annu. Rev. Phytopathol. 36: 453-83.
12 Asami, D.K. et al. 2003. Comparison of the Total Phenolic and Ascorbic Acid Content of Freeze-Dried and Air-Dried Marionberry, Strawberry, and Corn Grown Using Conventional, Organic, and Sustainable Agricultural Practices. J. Agric. Food Chem. 51, 1237-1241
13 Alyson E. Mitchell, Alyson, Yun-Jeong Hong, Eunmi Koh, Diane M. Barrett, D. E. Bryant, R. Ford Denison,# and Stephen Kaffka 2007. Ten-Year Comparison of the Influence of Organic and Conventional Crop Management Practices on the Content of Flavonoids in Tomatoes. J. Agric. Food Chem., 55 (15), 6154 -6159, 2007.
14 Baxter, G.J. et al. 2001. Salicylic acid in soups prepared from organically and non-organically grown vegetables. Eur. J. Nutr. 40: 289-292
15 Smith, B.J. and J.B. Magee. 2002. Resveratrol content of muscadine berries is affected by disease control spray program. HortScience, 37(2):358-361.
16 Altman, J. and A.D. Rovira. 1989. Herbicide-pathogen interactions in soil-borne root diseases. Canadian J. Pl. Path. 11:166-172.
17 Liu, L. A.K. Punja and J.E. Rahe. 1997. Altered root exudation and suppression of induced lignification as mechanisms of predisposition by glyphosate of bean roots (Phaseolus vulgaris L.) to colonization by Pythium spp. Physiological and Molecular Plant Pathology. 51:111-127.
18 Lotter, D. W. 2003. Organic Agriculture. Journal of Sustainable Agriculture. 21(4): 59-128
19 Zhang, W.D. et al. 1998. Compost and compost water extract-induced systemic acquired resistance in cucumber and Arabidopsis. Phytopathology, 88 (5):450-455.
20 Epstein, E.E. 1999. Silicon. Annu. Rev. Plant Physiol. 50: 641-664
21 Bowen P.A. 1992. Soluble silicon sprays inhibit powdery mildew development on grape leaves. J. Am. Soc. Hortic. Sci. 17: 906-912
22 Figiel, R. Personal communication from Richard Figiel, Silver Thread Vinyards, Lodi, NY.
23 Matthiason, S. 2005. Personal communication.
24 Iriti M. et al. 2004. Benzothiadiazole enhances resveratrol and anthocyanin biosynthesis in grapevine, meanwhile improving resistance to Botrytis cinerea. J Agric Food Chem. Jul 14;52(14):4406-13.


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After the first roundtable discussion concerning terroir and biodynamics in the vineyards, Return To Terroir’s Los Angeles Tasting featured a second distinguished group of winemakers to talk about terroir and biodynamics in the cellar. Moderator Anthony Dias Blue introduced the audience to “party guy of all time” Ales Kristancic of Slovenia’s Movia Winery, Julian Castagna of Australia’s Castagna Vineyard, “our mentor” Nicolas Joly of France’s Clos De La Coulée de Serrant and Tony Coturri of Sonoma’s Coturri Winery.

Once you’ve done biodynamics in the vineyard, what’s the difference in biodynamic winemaking?

Tony Coturri: Terroir is a new idea in California. A lot of people would like to like it; a lot of people, when they taste it, don’t like it. It’s the next stage of winemaking in California. We’ve gone through the varietals, we’ve gone through the blends, we’re going through the mixed vineyards. Now we’re getting to the essence of what it’s all about. Terroir is one of the strongest things that speak in your wine, and one of the easiest things to lose in the winemaking process.

I’ve never added anything to my wine; no yeast, no nutrients. When you taste wines from Coturri you have crushed grapes that are fermented, pressed, put in a barrel, then bottled. I think that’s the essence of what biodynamics is all about. All the work is done in the vineyard. I consider myself a custodian. There’s no magic in the winery; there’s magic in the vineyard. If grapes are properly grown, then the balance is there, the acidity is there, and the alcohol is there. All you have to do is take care of it.

Americans like to tweak things. They want to get the screwdriver out and try something different. When it comes down to it, the wine makes itself.

Julian Castagna: I mostly agree, but I think sometimes a little tweaking doesn’t hurt. If you spend time getting the vineyard right, you don’t need to add yeast. I happen not to agree about sulfites. I’ve seen so many bad wines without them added; not because they were made badly but because they were kept badly. And keeping badly is a fact of life. So I choose to add sulfur. It’s minimal. But for me, I consider the addition of sulfur a proper part of winemaking.

I also reserve the right to add acid. I live in Australia. We’re going to have our harvest six weeks early this year. So these are things I think require a small amount of innovation. I try not to add acid, but I’m not going to make a bad wine. I think wine is about balance. I want the honesty of the fruit, and use what little skills I have to try and keep to that honesty. Not to change it, but to keep to it.

TC: Do you put it on the label when you acidify?

JC: I don’t even put what grape variety it is. It’s none of their business.

Ales Kristancic: We find wine in nature. You can’t find beer or Coca-Cola. But we can find wine and it can be stopped by nature before it becomes vinegar. All the wine producers in this world must understand why the wine can happen without us.

It’s not only a question of taste. The wine world is going in a direction which is the same as other beverages; where they believe that you create the beverage by mixing things together to create a taste. Wine is an expression of the terroir; of what happens in nature. Some wines we don’t like or understand, but if the wine is original we can never say it is bad.

I think it’s better if we don’t add sulfur, but there are different ways of thinking. However, we must not interfere with the process of how the juice becomes wine. In that case it’s very bad to use sulfur. It stops the process. Just a drop kills yeasts and bacteria and you start to have a cemetery in the wine. There’s a bad smell. You have to leave.

Nicolas Joly: I don’t want to interfere in my cellar, but we have to admit the craziness of the weather may force us, on some occasions, to retune the wine. So I think we should have some sort of flexibility. I don’t think sulfur is a “first fight.” If you sell your wine from November to February, and not too far away, you don’t need sulfur, but in some cases you do need it. I think the real fight is farming. If you trust your vines, trusting is also a force. I think you can come up with interesting wines. The more you have differences from one vintage to another the more the winegrower has properly done his job.

Are there things you would do differently if you were not farming biodynamically?

NJ: If you are not farming biodynamically, you have to be in your winery every hour. You have been breaking the music. The melody is not there.

JC: We’ve never been anything else but biodynamic. I have no understanding of anything else. I pick fruit. I let it ferment. I press the juice, put it in barrels, then put it in bottles. I’m not a scientist. I detest the term winemaker. I’m not a winemaker. I grow fruit that I allow, that I help, become wine.

Yes, I have an opinion, and that opinion is based on lots of years of tasting things I like. I chose land and I chose varietals to express those likes and dislikes. It’s not something that I create. It’s something that happens because the vineyard speaks. I can wreck it very easily, numb its voice very easily. Allow it to speak and what you get is true wine.

One of the things that astounded me when I first saw a lot of biodynamic wines together, even though there were ones I didn’t like, they all had life, they all had energy, they all had a spirit.

In Australia, everything tastes the same. It’s starting to happen in the great French chateaus as well. That’s really scary for me.

In Australia there’s a lot less emphasis on appellation.

JC: Because they teach us we’re winemakers. We’re gods. They teach us it’s impossible to make wines using indigenous yeast. What they want is control. But you still have your palate. You still have your nose. Which is why I reserve the right to fiddle.

TC: That’s the way the game works. If they all taste the same then they’re all right, and we’re wrong. That’s what I’ve been up against my whole career.

Is there any predictability to how biodynamic wines will age?

TC: It depends on the vintage and the varietals. There are certain varietals you don’t expect to age, and then some can go for 50 years.

AK: I think that biodynamic grapes have a much longer life. You expect something which is alive and changing. If we speak about real wines, then I believe that there is only one way; we have to capture something in the bottle that is still a little alive.

We must accept that if you want the wine to be clear in the glass, it doesn’t have to be clear in the bottle. If we can accept that there is sediment in the bottle – that’s the way. Then we really can reduce sulfites and make everything the best.


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Demeter Demystified

Jim Fullner of Demeter details what goes into biodynamic certification.

What is Demeter? Where and when was it founded?

Demeter dates back to 1928 in Europe. An experimental circle of farmers and scientists formed to implement Rudolf Steiner’s agricultural teachings into actual practice.

Today, Demeter is an international assembly of member nations. We are Demeter USA. There is also a Demeter Egypt, Demeter Brazil, Demeter Austria, Demeter France and so on. The organizations vary by country, but in general they act as certifiers and educators on the topic of biodynamic agriculture.

What is Demeter USA’s mission?

To foster and encourage holistic practices of food production, especially biodynamic methods. To spur understanding of the whole farm as a living organism. Demeter aids the healing of an ailing earth and the production and availability of the highest-quality healthful food. We provide education about biodynamics and a certification process.

Who does Demeter certify?

We certify farms, which include vineyards; processors, which include wineries; and traders, who are primarily importers who bring products into the US from other countries.

How many certified farms and wineries are there in the US?

A quick count shows 105 entities that are either Demeter-certified biodynamic or well into their transition. That number has doubled over the past two and a half years.

More often than not, our new applicants are already certified organic. For them to then become Demeter-certified can take an additional two years. Our farm production standard is not easy. It’s pretty strict and forces a farmer to get to know the life of the land base being farmed. The growth in the number of Demeter-certified farms is buffered by the amount of time it takes to make the transition. The nature of Demeter certification and biodynamic farming is not something that allows for exponential growth figures. In an odd way it is the antithesis of that.

There are nine wineries that have certification, and 26 vineyards. Some certifications are for individuals who have numerous vineyards under their name, so the actual number of unique vineyards is closer to 40 or 50.

We have new applications coming in, and lots more people telling us they intend on applying this spring, so there is every indication that Demeter will continue to grow at a steady pace into 2007 and beyond.

What is the certification process?

The process is similar to organic certification; application, review of application, assigning application to a site evaluator, evaluator submitting a report on visit, report going to review people who assess compliance with the Demeter standard. More often than not there are items an applicant has to adjust. There is a process of back-and-forth that eventually leads to a certification or an applicant deciding they cannot be certified.

The nature of Demeter certification is different from organic certification in that it is more of a crop and process improvement concept than a cold regulatory concept. You cannot take something like biodynamic agriculture and slap it in front of someone and expect them to grasp it. Biodynamics is a living breathing reality and its core is the idea that each farm is a unique living individuality.

We are there to help educate farmers. It’s not uncommon for someone to ask “How can I achieve getting 10% of my land base into biodiversity reserve area?” or “How can I generate my fertility internally?” Our certification is above and beyond the base requirements for organic certification.

What does it mean to a wine consumer when they buy a Demeter-certified wine?

It comes from an agricultural system that is truly regenerative; that creates natural resources rather than utilizes them. One cannot count on “organic” to do that anymore.

The wine will be more authentic and have a “sense of place.” A biodynamic winemaker approaches a vineyard the way a good naturopath would approach you or me as a living dynamic whole with wide connections. Biodynamic preparations are like good medicine. When an organism is healthy its true identity expresses itself. This will ring through when the grapes are made into wine.

Demeter has social ties rooted deep in history. It is not another new eco-label. It is one of the first eco-labels and it is still here and more relevant than ever.

Are Demeter standards the same in each country?

There’s an international assembly of member countries, Demeter International. Through a democratic process, this body sets the minimum standards for farming and processing worldwide. Everyone is allowed to exceed the minimum and, in some areas, the US standard does exceed it; we currently stand on our own with wine and winemakers.

We require real commitment, from the vineyard to the bottle. You don’t always find this with Demeter-certified wines from other countries because the international standards don’t have a good base for winemaking. There are many international winemakers who meet the US standards, but it’s not yet quantifiable which ones do and which ones don’t.

What is your background and how did you come to Demeter?

I have a BS in horticulture from Oregon State University. I’ve been a biodynamic farmer for 25-plus years. I’ve always found myself working with the US organic agriculture movement in some form or other. My off-farm work life has been as a consultant and as an independent organic inspector. As a farm inspector I have worked both domestically and internationally; in China, Costa Rica, Mexico, Indonesia, China and Russia. I took on the directorship of Demeter in the US two and a half years ago. That, and being a farmer, has kept me pretty busy.


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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.


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