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Going new aged

These vintners fortify the land with stinging nettles and harness the sun's energy with quartz. Biodynamics might seem strange, but its followers include Benziger and Domaine de la Romanee-Conti.

October 01, 2003|Corie Brown | Times Staff Writer

Glen Ellen, Calif. — Last week, during the autumnal equinox, a handful of winemakers in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino -- along with more than 100 of their brother and sister winemakers in France, Germany, Spain and Italy -- trooped out to their vineyards to perform what looked like a pagan ritual. They packed cow horns with fresh cow dung and buried them, one per acre, among their grape vines. At the same time, they unearthed cow horns packed with ground quartz that they'd buried six months earlier, on the spring equinox, and poured the powdery white quartz into glass jars.

Because, of course, the quartz needs to sit on window sills to collect the sun's energy throughout the winter.

It's just another day in the vineyard for the followers of biodynamic farming, a kind of organic fundamentalism that is gaining credibility and attention in premier wine regions around the world. It may look, at first, like the lunatic fringe, but the most respected names in Burgundy are among the biodynamic faithful: Domaine Leroy and Domaine Leflaive have used biodynamics since the late 1980s. Even Domaine de la Romanee-Conti reluctantly admits to the practice. The more recent California converts include such prestigious wineries as Benziger, Bonterra, Joseph Phelps, Araujo and Robert Sinsky.

The theory is that a piece of land is a living organism, and that in wine regions throughout the world, vineyard soil has had the life sucked out of it by the overuse of chemical pesticides and herbicides. Unless those life forces can be brought back, the theory goes, the grapes will not yield wines that truly reflect the terroir, that difficult to define sense of the place where the grapes are grown. Without biodynamics, proponents say, even world-class wines are muted by agricultural technology.

To that end, biodynamic vintners strive for as much biodiversity as possible: planting vineyards with swaths of flowering plants and fruit trees to attract swarms of insects and birds that will keep the environment in balance and unwanted pests at bay. They also adhere to a cookbook full of vineyard rituals, potions and other metaphysical practices that have more in common with religion than viticulture. They fortify their compost with oak bark, chamomile, stinging nettle and dandelions. And they farm in accordance with the Earth's natural rhythms, adding some nutrients at dawn (as the earth is "outfolding") or at dusk (when it's "infolding").

Such terms were unheard of in California vineyards 10 years ago. But now there are 13 certified biodynamic vineyards here, with several more vintners dabbling in the demanding practice. Part of the heightened interest is market-driven: It's no longer enough just to make good wine. In a crowded market going through a down cycle, a wine must stand out as unique.

"As wines lose their individual character, biodynamic enters to stress individuality," says Mike Benziger of Benziger Family Winery, a certified organic grower who practices biodynamic farming. "The wine industry feels obligated to look at it now that some of the highest-quality producers in the world are moving to it."

Reducing chemicals

The techniques are at the far edge of an industry-wide trend toward a more "gentle," less chemically dependent approach to agriculture, says UC Davis viticulturalist Andy Walker.

As many as a third of California's wine-grape growers this year started moving toward "sustainability" -- the less demanding version of a strict organic diet. In the first year of an industry-sponsored program to improve the state's vineyards by reducing the use of chemicals, 600 growers put 160,000 acres on the road toward becoming "sustainably farmed."

Certified organic acreage has doubled during the last five years to 7,000 acres out of the 407,000 California acres dedicated to wine grapes. Of those, 500 are certified biodynamic by Demeter Assn., the international society with control of the use of the term.

"Biodynamics could turn out to be the leading edge for change," says Karen Ross, president of the California Assn. of Winegrape Growers. "We've done a good job of reducing the use of highly toxic chemicals. A lot of people are organic except for Round-Up," the most popular vineyard weed killer.

The small number of official converts understates the trend. Like Benziger, several growers incorporate biodynamic principles into their organic vineyards without jumping through the official certification hoops.

Perhaps counterintuitively, there's little reason for them to boast about their vineyard practices. Unlike in the food world, in the wine game "organic" has a nasty reputation.

"No one wants to be associated with the organic wine that has been on the market," says Peter Granoff, who recently opened the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant, a San Francisco wine store oriented toward teaching consumers the difference between the various wine grape growing techniques.

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