The Extreme “Looniness” of Biodynamics

\"colinlarge.jpg\"Colin Alevras is the chef, sommelier and proprietor (with his wife, Renee) of the Tasting Room: a tiny, much-admired restaurant in New York City’s East Village. Their menu changes daily, featuring seasonal and mostly organic dishes, paired with an ever-growing cellar of more than 300 wines from North America.

Your restaurant has a great selection of organic wines. Was there a particular winemaker who sparked your interest?

Nicolas Joly at Coulée de Serrant, in the Loire Valley in France. He inherited an estate that’s had a vineyard since 1300 or so. His wines are unique and really good and different. He’s been at the forefront of biodynamics, which was invented by Rudolph Steiner.

Steiner’s interesting.

He is, and Joly was going to this biodynamic extreme. Once I tasted the wine, I was like, ‘Wow, fantastic. What is this guy doing?’

How is it different from other wines?

People banter about terroir, and letting the place and time express themselves in wine, and Joly was really trying to get that, and more. He let the wine express itself atypically; off-dry or kinda sweet. Unlike most people who have a certain stylistic ideal they’re working toward.

‘A Pinot Noir has to taste this way.’

Yeah. ‘Is this typical of that place?’ And therefore, ‘Is this the terroir expressing itself?’ But it’s also people manipulating the wine to get those results.

Including using flavored yeasts.

Especially in Burgundy, where they can add sugar, acid, tannins and reverse osmosis and a blend of all this other stuff in there. They’re working for this mythological ideal, which doesn’t really express what the true terroir is; mainly because it may not be that interesting. Growing organically or biodynamically, you have to be ready to chalk it up to ‘Well, this year wasn’t so great.’ You have to suck that up. It’s not always going to be ‘The Greatest Vintage of the Century.’

And that’s the risk.

It’s always a risk. Winemaking is one of the riskiest businesses I think there is, next to underwater welding or cleaning out nuclear reactors. When they talk about terroir and the soil expressing itself, you’re also talking about a place that’s had a single monoculture crop for 1400 years. Which changes the soil and the subsoil. It changes the environment. So when the Burgundians say, ‘This is the only place to grow Pinot Noir,’ well, they also helped create it by only planting that. And so after a thousand years, yeah, the soil is different. And now maybe Pinot Noir expresses itself best there or not, but you know, it just expresses itself the way it is.

There’s a difference when you take rootstock from Europe and plant it here.

Now, people are much more willing to accept that ‘this is Burgundian but it tastes like Sonoma Coast.’ And that’s okay. Within that one grape variety, there’s probably twenty or thirty recognized good clones that people propagate. You’re limited. People go for diversity by planting five or six different clones, and grapes are weird because they mutate naturally very rapidly.

And nobody, as far as I know, except for Joly, actually propagates new wines on their own roots and sows grapes in the vineyard. Most people will pick a rootstock and they’ll take a cutting from a vine, and they’ll connect that to a rootstock, and then you can even change from red to white. You can have a different root trunk, and usually you buy those from a nursery or someplace else. You don’t make them. Which is totally insane as far as commercial agriculture goes, and looking for consistency. But he’s okay with the mutation. He also happens to have a vineyard with a 700-year history that he can bank on, and he’s got a name which can kind of finance himself. So, it’s a brand of a guy who’s not a subsistence farmer. You know? I just don’t want to make it too romantic. He’s still getting top dollar for his wines.

Is Joly’s vineyard organic?

No. Post World War II, they started dumping a lot of phosphates and other chemicals and fertilizers and nitrates into the ground, trying to increase yields and trying to be ‘modern.’ It screwed up a lot of wineries and a lot of great vineyards.

It takes a long time to work that out of the soil. Which is what biodynamics is about.

I’m attracted to the extreme looniness of biodynamics. ‘We’re goin’ on moon cycles and tides.’ It’s like homeopathic medicine for agriculture.

So there are all different levels of organic agriculture?

Yes, and grape-growing is an unusual kind of agriculture, because it’s a monocrop, but it’s in perpetuity. It’s not like you’re planting an annual. Grapevines have, in theory, hundreds of years of life depending on how old you want them to get, but you’re not planting every year. It’s unusual in that regard, where yield doesn’t equal greatest quality/value. You’re not looking for the maximum, or the prettiest. There’s a complexity in there that has to be achieved in a very specific environment. And there are a lot of efforts to promote biological diversity within that vineyard, but you’re still pretty much planting the same thing. It’s still vitis vinifera.

Your cooking relies, predominantly, upon organic ingredients. Has this influenced your approach to wine?

Definitely. I think that organics in all forms ultimately yield better tasting, more interesting things than stripped-down, industrial agriculture, which gives you a very uniform product at the expense of flavor and individuality. Therefore in wine, it follows suit that an organic one would be much more interesting.

Even as a small restaurant, we have 15,000 unique customers a year, so even if they’re only buying one thing, we have that collective buying power. We could just buy anything we want, because it’s the right shape and color, and not worry about where it came from, but there’s a responsibility for me to spend that money in a conscientious way.

We support several families and farms who are doing this. We spend close to a quarter of a million dollars a year at the farmer’s market. Some people might think that’s overpaying, but it’s trying to find things that are as good as they can be. Whether it’s worth it or not is up to the people who come back for dinner.

And they do.

Yeah, and they keep coming back. Even if people don’t understand what happened at the farm, or what happened with that winemaker, why they did that, they taste it. We feel the evidence is there.

It’s not just the idea of a dish.

Right, it’s the thing itself. And, in turn, I get to support the people who work here, and all of the farmers we buy from, and the wineries. I’m not interested in giving my money to a big corporate giant. They don’t need my money. They’ve got enough.

Has the experience of buying at the greenmarket and your relationships with the farmers changed your approach to buying wine?

It’s the same as with farmers, except they have one crop that comes out once a year. You have the horse you back in the race, and the ones you don’t. You have to make a decision somehow. It’s not as if there isn’t a lot of really yummy wine out there, it’s just you have to say no to somebody. We say no based on geographical location, and then practices. We’re all-American, so we’ve set this somewhat arbitrary limit on ourselves that we only sell domestic products.

We put our money back into farms that create a good product and who do it in a responsible way. This is a long-term thing. We hope it continues, and what’s the best way to make it continue? If you choose something based solely on price, then you have to disregard practices.

That’s the ‘fast food’ way.

Exactly. ‘I want the cheapest potatoes.’ No, I think I can buy the best-tasting potatoes we can get, and hopefully convince people that they’re worth what we need to charge, because they’re better. Even if they don’t really understand, they go, ‘Wow! That was really good!’ And we go, ‘Well it was good because these guys are doing the right thing.’ But they don’t have to understand.

Do you promote the organic wines differently from the other wines on your list?

Primarily, no. We don’t promote them any differently. We note it on the wine list if the winemakers make a note of it themselves. I think that ‘organic’ has kind of gotten a bad name, like ‘health food.’

It’s a negative word?

Yeah, it is. I think if you told most people ‘You should buy this because it’s organic,’ that’s not what they’re interested in. They want it because it’s the best thing they can afford, or the tastiest thing, or the thing that’s going to make them happy.

But it’s interesting because a lot of wines which are organic and biodynamic don’t have it listed on a label anywhere. You wouldn’t know it unless you did research and found out about it. And especially here in the States, now that the government has finally issued national organic guidelines, it’s made it extra worthless. You know, it’s certified by the government, but is it good?

I think you could sell wine if you said, ‘This has so many pesticides on it, it’s gonna kill you, but it tastes awesome.’ People will go, ‘All right, pour me a glass, I don’t care.’ You know? ‘I had a hot dog yesterday, what do I got to lose?’

Do you see an increase in organic and biodynamic farming affecting the restaurant industry?

None of us were sold into culinary slavery. None of us were sent to trade schools as kids to go work in this business. We chose to do this, and a lot of the people who are farming and growing food and making wine didn’t grow up in this environment, they chose to do it. And they’re looking at ways to do it so that their kids can do it, whether or not they want to is up to them. But it’s at least viable, and they don’t want to poison their kids to make a buck. Like, ‘I’m not going to spray this stuff or even have these chemicals around if it’s poison.’ You start to say, ‘Why are we spraying?’ Well, because somebody said it works, but what are we actually trying to do? And I think organics, in the long run, are economically more viable. It makes sense to spend more money building up your soil than tearing it down and reducing it to nothing.

And then falsely building it up again with chemicals.

And hopefully in the long run, produce a better product. Which people have proven to be true. If you grow it well, it does taste better. That’s all there is to it.

What are some organic food and wine pairings that you particularly enjoy?

I don’t know that any of my food and wine pairings would be invalidated because they weren’t organic. That’s sort of like me telling people certain wines go best with bearskin rugs and fireplaces. You know, I don’t know if that counts as an organic food and wine pairing. Get me some Switchback Petit Syrah and a fireplace and you’ve got the perfect match. I don’t know if that’s organic. The bear was organic. Fur, fireplace, big monster red wine that’ll stain your teeth purple. Works for me. I think that’s my best organic pairing right there.

Do you tend to choose organic wines for your own drinking?

I would say I do. There’s a certain list of people whose wines I’m a fan of, and most of them are organic and/or biodynamic, so in a broad sense, yeah. But I wouldn’t rule everybody else out just because they weren’t. I definitely have a modern/ironic sense of organic and health food in that part of me that feels I should eat junk food to maintain my resistance to chemicals. I think that most of the people I’ve ever met who are exclusively anything, regardless of what it is, are inherently unhealthy. They’re so hypersensitive to anything, it’s like ‘Shut up, man, eat it. Or not. But stop telling me it gives you a sinus headache. I’m not really that interested.’

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