When winemaker Jim Fetzer was in town last month'his wines were featured during the Sundance Film Festival at events like Chefdance'I became a believer. I believe that biodynamic wines, once considered the “terroir” of a small cult of organic wine enthusiasts, are the real deal and here to stay. Fetzer’s biodynamic wines from Ceago Vinegarden and Jeriko Vineyards, Robert Sinsky’s Four Vineyards Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc, Napa wines from Araujo Estate Eisele Vineyards, Benziger wines from Sonoma and Willamette Valley’s Brick House wines are impressive'and perhaps even good for the soul.
Biodynamic winemaking differs'and this is where the “cult” part comes in'from plain old organic winemaking insofar as it’s as much about philosophy as method. We all remember the Austrian scientist-philosopher Rudolf Steiner, right? Then you’ll recall that he created the “spiritual science of anthroposophy” in the 1920s, which serves today as the philosophical foundation of the Waldorf school system.
What’s that got to do with wine? Well, late in life, Steiner turned his attention to agriculture and delivered a series of important lectures called Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture. And although I’m sure there are winemakers who wouldn’t know Rudolph Steiner from Tucker Carlson, they’d still have to give Rudy some props for essentially inventing the notion of biodynamic farming.
Some biodynamic winemakers should take the wise advice liberally proffered by Dianne Wiest’s character in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway and “Don’t speak!” To wit, Nicolas Joly of Loire Valley’s Clos de la Coulee de Serrant says, “With biodynamics we are working not just with forms of matter you can see, but also with the forces behind the matter.” Do metaphysics and winemaking mix? Well, on somewhat firmer ground, Joly also suggests that “When you drink the wine, you taste the place'not something a chemistry lab isolated from someplace else.” Which more or less is the notion of terroir in a nutshell. By the way, for anyone who’s interested, there’s a vigorous and detailed defense of alleged racist and anti-Semitic tendencies in Rudolph Steiner’s work at the Clos de la Coulee de Serrant Website'take it or leave it.
In essence, practitioners of biodynamic agriculture see farms and vineyards as closed, self-sustaining living systems. It’s a holistic notion wherein even the soil is seen not just as a foundation for growing plants but as an organism in its own right. Thus, biodynamic farmers and viticulturists wouldn’t dream of using pesticides or fertilizers in their soil, which is part of a larger organic system.
How do they treat the soil? Well, here’s where things get a little nutty. It’s hard to separate out some of Steiner’s voodoo agriculture with what really works, but Steineresque biodynamic techniques include stuff like burying cow manure which was fermented in a cow horn into the soil, applying yarrow flower heads fermented in a stag’s bladder to compost (along with stinging nettle tea and oak bark fermented in the skull of a domestic animal), and using tea prepared from horsetail plants as an anti-fungal plant spray.
The extent to which biodynamic winemakers follow any or all of these traditional techniques and methods varies greatly. What doesn’t vary so much, in my experience, is the high quality of the biodynamic wines I’ve tasted. I’ve been especially impressed by how balanced they tend to be. For now, these wines are distributed throughout our wine stores, making them a bit tricky to track down. Maybe eventually there will be a separate biodynamic wine section. Give these wines a try. If nothing else, it’ll be good for your karmic bank account.