Shortcourse in Biodynamic Winegrowing


Demeter USA drew almost 200 people to a seminar on December 2, entitled “Shortcourse in Biodynamic Winegrowing.” The day was hosted in partnership with University of California Cooperative Extension. Growers, winemakers, educators, wine sellers and media gathered at the historic Rutherford Grange for an all-day program that consisted of both first-person accounts of farming Biodynamically as well as a winemaker panel discussion on the hows and whys of going Biodynamic.

Ivo Jeramaz of Grgich Hills Estate may have summarized the feeling of the day by saying, “I would never claim Biodynamics makes better wines, but perhaps more interesting wines with personality.”

Demeter has over 70 certified or in-transition wineries and vineyards with an expectation that that number could grow by more than 20 percent a year. Across the world, it counts 4,200 Biodynamic farms in 43 countries.

“I believe that history will show that one of the great gifts of the wine industry to the U.S. marketplace will have been the introduction of Biodynamic concepts and products,” noted Elizabeth Candelario, Demeter’s marketing director and the event’s organizer.

“We are seeing the results of that influence already with increasing interest in certification amongst many other types of farms across the country and certainly more interest in certified products amongst consumers.”

That increasing level of interest was apparent in the sheer number of people who packed the room, including vintners Marimar Torres, David Hirsch and Beaulieu Vineyard’s Jeffrey Stambor, eager to engage for a full-day on the subject.

Master of ceremonies Thom Elkjer, co-author with Paul Dolan of the book “True to Our Roots: Fermenting a Business Revolution,” placed the beginnings of Biodynamics in context – 1920s Germany – saying that founder Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy foresaw both that it would “put people in charge of their farms in a way they hadn’t been before,” and that “people (would) misunderstand this later.”

Indeed Biodynamics has its detractors. In the Rutherford Grange audience for the entirety of the shortcourse was Stu Smith, vineyard manager and winemaker at Napa Valley’s Smith-Madrone, as well as keeper of the blog, “Biodynamics is a Hoax.”

Smith took particular issue with UC Cooperative Extension’s involvement in the event, stating on his blog before the event that the university’s ethics policy prohibits sponsorship of commercial products and characterizing the shortcourse as “a blatant sales and marketing event for Demeter USA, a private company.”

To which, Pam Kan-Rice, assistant director of news and information outreach for UC’s Agricultural and Natural Resources, responded that, “the intent of UC Cooperative Extension cohosting the meeting on December 2 is to encourage the exchange of science-based information and ideas, not to endorse a farming system.”

The day itself did not exhibit much controversy, veering closer to what Elkjer had hoped it would be, “a conversation that goes down the generations across regions and disciplines.”

That conversation began with specifics on how two farmers went about organizing their own Biodynamic wine farms, starting with Biodynamic consultant Jeff Dawson, who has been practicing Biodynamic farming for 10 years in the Napa Valley, helping to transition the vineyards at Araujo Estate, among others.

“It’s somewhat of a moral quest,” he said. “How can we heal the earth?”

He then went through what he felt were the important components of any farming: nurturing a farm’s respiratory system (air), circulatory system (water), pulse (change of seasons) and sensory system. He then went on to talk about the importance of soil, cover crops, Biodynamic compost and Biodynamic preparations, as well as habitat biodiversity and how animals such as cows, sheep, chickens, birds, bees and butterflies increase that diversity.

As for the human component he said it was about both ego (to want, a creation of desire) and will (I will, a manifestation of that desire).

To embody his points on ego and will, next up was Barbara Steele, owner of Cowhorn Vineyard and Garden in Oregon’s Applegate Valley, a commercial farm and winery; they produce about 1,800 cases of Rhone-varietal wines/year.

Steele detailed to the audience how she had originally developed a master plan for her land in 2002, emphasizing several times how important it has been to stick to that plan and to her values as she’s evolved into Biodynamic farming practices.

“I believe Biodynamic farming is good for farming, the planet and the community,” she said. “But my goal is to create a profitable model of land ownership.”

Glenn McGourty and Monica Cooper of UC Cooperative Extension then took the stage as part of a panel on Biodynamic Winegrowing Systems, wherein they gave a specific listing of Demeter’s goals: to protect soil from erosion, regulate vine growth, improve soil fertility, improve soil structure, enhance biological diversity, generate fertility from the farm and increase organic matter.

Also on their panel was Dave Koball of Bonterra Vineyards, who spoke to the skepticism that accompanies Biodynamics, saying “every farm is different, every farmer is different, so the emphasis will be different. Start out as a good farmer, then depending on your site Biodynamics might work. It’s about broadening your focus, not narrowing your focus.”

After a farm-to-table lunch, Ginny Lambrix from Truett-Hurst presided over a slew of slides demonstrating “Scientific Evidence for Alternative Farming Practices,” citing, among other studies, a six-year study in Hopland, California trying to compare organic versus Biodynamic farming, which showed Biodynamically farmed grapes to have higher sugar, phenols and anthocyanins, as well as a longer-term study in Switzerland that looked at conventional versus organic versus Biodynamic.

That presentation segued into another look at one winery’s specific attempts to change the farming practices of its growers: Benziger Winery’s Farming for Flavors program, which has had much success in getting growers to transition into sustainable and organic farming, as well as in more limited cases, Biodynamic.

Demeter USA head Jim Fullmer then described the rules for certifying a wine made from Biodynamically grown grapes (limited sugar and acid adjustments) versus a Biodynamic wine, a much more limited endeavor. For a wine to be certified Biodynamic there can be no added yeast, no acid adjustment, no sugar adjustment, no enzyme addition and no physical interventions, such as reverse osmosis or the use of spinning cones.

Demeter does however allow a limited amount of sulfites.

Paul Dolan of Paul Dolan Wines, who has been involved in sustainable and organic farming since his days as the head of Fetzer Vineyards, then took the stage to talk about “The Biodynamic Bottom Line,” inspiring the audience to look at the big picture.

“We need to continue to maintain authenticity and transparency,” he said. “If we can create, we can contribute. We have an opportunity as farmers to contribute to humanity.”


2 responses to “Shortcourse in Biodynamic Winegrowing”

  1. Excellent Post Virginie

    I’ve been interested in natural wine making and blogging on it, from a taste perspective, for awhile.

    This clarified a lot for me. Much appreciated.

    BTW…I’m on a search for a database of biodynamic and organic vineyards if you have any direction to point me to.


  2. Jim Bowen Avatar
    Jim Bowen


    Thanks for this post. I am so glad that biodynamics is being presented in a clear and coherent manner. I am also glad to hear that the scientific data is being gathered to support the efficacy of this method of agriculture!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *