Into The Deep End Of Biodynamics

\"\"After traveling and working the great wine regions of France and Germany, James and Annie Milton returned home to New Zealand and started their own winery in Gisborne in 1984. The Organic Wine Journal had the chance to meet with James Milton in Los Angeles recently, where he shared his thoughts on biodynamics and why he is a winegrower, not a winemaker.

You started your vineyard on your father-in-law’s land.

Yes. I heard there was a man with a daughter who had a big farm and vineyard, and I thought I’d better zero in on this. Annie’s father had a farm, Opou, which means “the stake”: the place where you put your stake in the ground. It’s the oldest land in New Zealand continuously farmed by one family, so it’s got a lot of history behind it.

After traveling around Europe in the 1980s we came back, and I was supposed to go to university. Her father said, “Come on, we’ve got to start making some wine.” When you’re 23 and very idealistic you can’t refuse an offer like that.

Were his methods organic?

Absolutely not. During the First World War, poisons were invented that were tasteless and odorless. Normally a poison smells, or it’s red, or tastes bitter. In the Second World War they had nitrogen that they used for making bombs. After the war they converted these factories into making fertilizers. So he started intensively farming with fertilizer. Then herbicides came out, and that was considered to be miraculous.

When we started doing it organically, he couldn’t understand why we wanted to go back to the ways that were so hard in the first place. So there was a bit of a conflict.

How did you learn about organic farming?

Annie is a florist and had a glass house where she grew tropical plants, herbs and flowers. We had this book called “Companion Planting,” and I thought that was pretty wicked, that you could grow one plant beside another plant and it would benefit both of them. So she grew a whole lot of herbs for us, and that started our interest.

Then after a horse race meeting I got all the stable manure. They thought it was amazing that someone wanted to take all this stuff away. And I put it around these vines and expanded from there.

It’s the same as learning to swim. You’re kicking by the side of the pool, the tutor tells you to push off, and you finally get the courage to swim. That’s where I’m situated now; I’m the person pushing people off the edge of the pool. Trying to give them the confidence.

What started your interest in wine?

When I was 7, I wanted to grow things. When I was 14, I wanted to ferment them. It wasn’t the alcohol. I just liked looking at the process; the glass jars, seeing how it got all cloudy and gave off bubbles. And it smelled beautiful.

What are your biggest challenges as a business?

We have this phrase, “You can’t be green if you’re always in the red.” Do you get paid more for being biodynamic? Is it easier to make wine conventionally? Stop and think about it. If you look down on our farm and see all the goodness and energy that is there, you want to shout out because there is so much yummy stuff going on. And if you want to put a crude dollar value on it, no money in the world could buy it. But prices are based on other perceptions.

Do you consider yourself a spokesperson for biodynamics? Are new winemakers coming to you?

When you start something from the beginning, and you’re successful, everything you have, all the opinions you have, you’ve actually paid for them. It’s not as if you had a consultant come in who tells you how to tell the time on your watch. The methods we’ve adopted are sound and effective because I’ve had to pay for them.

Because of that I have a lot of people coming to me. That interrupts the daily life. We sell in a global market, but we’re an individualized farm. You want to stay on your farm all the time, so these people are considered to be interruptions. If I have one conflict with my wife, it’s why should I spend so much time receiving these people, because it interrupts our work. Like the freeway, it’s a two-way street. They come wanting information, but they have ideas as well. So am I the spokesman? I don’t want to be in that position, but someone has to take that role. And so I do that.

How much of your time is spent as a salesman for the wine?

In theory, I’m supposed to be in charge from the grape to the bottle, and Annie is supposed to be in charge from the bottle to the consumer. She does sales and marketing. But we have a young family, so someone has to look after them. I spend about 15 percent of my time traveling. Having said that, I talk to people coming from France and they say they spend 60 percent of their time on the road. It’s one thing to grow the grapes, another thing to make the wine, and another to sell it effectively. To get the right price for it you have to work the market all the time.

What percentage of your wine is sold overseas?

At the moment, 25 percent.

Do you have a preference about where your wine is sold?

I’d be happy if I could sell 100 percent from my front gate.

How many cases do you produce a year?

15,000 in a good year. This year we’re going to have a good season.

Do you see yourself expanding?

I’m comfortable where it is. Costs are increasing all the time, so then you feel the need to increase your production to match those costs. We’re trying to figure out the plan on how to get smaller. Make less wine but make it far better.

Being a part of the Return To Terroir group, we’re now benchmarking ourselves against these European wines. We’ve got to lift our game up. Our wines are already pretty good but they could be a lot better.

How are you perceived within the wine industry in New Zealand?

National Business Review just judged us the most exciting and innovative wine company in New Zealand. I’m striving for excellence. I think we are quite well perceived. We are honest and sincere. In the last few years there’s been such a quantum leap in the interest in biodynamics that the conventional industry is coming to us a lot.

How is the certification process in New Zealand?

There is organic certification from the government, which has looser controls than the nonprofit organization, Bio-Gro, which is more stringent. The Bio-Gro certification process is a very thorough and wholesome way of doing a business and I support that.

We could be Demeter certified, but the problem is that in New Zealand, certification is for the primary producer, the processor and the exporter. If biodynamics is about individuality, then I can’t see a better example of that than a wine estate. We propagate our own plants. We grow our own grapes, we make our own wine and bottle it and package it and sell it. And export it.

We’re trying to create a Demeter wine standard, taking the American, French and German standard and translating that to our farming system. We should have them ready by this year.

What role does biodynamics and organics play in your marketing?

In the United States we don’t make any mention of it at all, because of the sulfite issue. And we don’t want to make “organic wine.” We want to make wine like a Grand Cru burgundy or a First Growth Bordeaux. If someone wants to ask us about it, we’re more than happy to sit down for a couple of days and talk about it.

How is winemaking taught in New Zealand? Do the universities shut out organics and biodynamics?

Yes, they are shut out. They don’t want the students to be illuminated with the process. They teach students how to make wine. We grow wine. There’s a winery with that slogan, “grown, not made,” and I think that’s really good.

We have young people coming to us who’ve been trained at university and we have to deprogram them. Get them to stop thinking about what they’ve been taught and start teaching them to use their senses.

We don’t do this often, but sometimes we ask them to do some painting and dancing. Get the creative spirit going. The first thing I ask when someone wants to work with us is whether they can cook and what sort of music they like. I’m not interested in whether they have a degree from some fancy university. And they have to be nice people.

What music is acceptable?

Something with a rhythm more than a beat. Cause we want the music to flow, we don’t want it to be interrupting things.

As a winegrower, do you consider your job done once the grapes are harvested? Is it acceptable to tinker in the winery?

Nature is not perfect. We want to have wine that is able to age and be in very fine condition. There’s no point in having a red wine that turns brown because the pH is off and you should have added acid. There’s no point in having a white wine that is orange because it got shipped across the equator without the protection of SO2.

Outside of acid and SO2, there are the questions of whether you’re going to use indigenous yeasts, or whether you use enzymes or nutrients. These subjects are far more important than a little fondling.

Visit Milton Vineyards and Winery online at


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