What’s old has become new again in the farming world, and Pacific Northwest wine-grape farmers are getting on board by going biodynamic. Biodynamic farms seek to close the loop by creating self-sustaining growing environments where plant and animal diversity yield nutrient-rich soils and verdant crops.
Only a handful of Washington wineries have embraced biodynamic practices, whereas at least 15 Oregon wineries are Demeter Certified Biodynamic including the nation’s largest biodynamically farmed vineyard, King Estate.
Biodynamic principles are based on the research and writings of Dr. Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian philosopher and architect at the turn of the 20th century who also founded the Waldorf School system. For wine to receive a Demeter certification, both the vineyard and the winery must follow certain standards.
Biodynamic farms require various soil preparations—nine recipes that do everything from enhancing the nutritional profile of the soil to preventing weeds and pests. They include ingredients like fermented cow manure, powdered quartz and horsetail. A minimum of 10 percent of the total acreage must be set aside as a wildlife preserve (wetland, forest, etc.) and a variety of annual and perennial plants need to be interspersed throughout the planted areas. Livestock need to be integrated into the farm for fertilization purposes. And then there are a couple of “woowoo” elements, like planting and harvesting according to celestial calendars or burying a cow horn stuffed with fermented manure in the field (the latter is not a requirement for certification under the Demeter Biodynamic Farm Standard). On the wine production side, biodynamic wines can only use wild, natively-occurring yeasts, with no or very low sulfur added, and no filtration.
We talked with five PNW wineries about their decision to go beyond organic.
Hedges Family Estate: Christophe Hedges
HFE farms its oldest vineyard according to biodynamic practices – the Hedges Family Estate Vineyard, source of its top-tier wine La Haute Cuvée.
Reflections magazine: Why did you choose to go biodynamic?
Christophe Hedges: Biodynamic improves the environment of the vineyard. It does this by understanding the holistic nature of farming. The environment, once it’s healthy, is self-regulating. Biodynamic, unlike organic, is not just simply a set of nos in farming, it’s a principled approach that uses logic, under the context of nature, to help the vineyard succeed. The trade is what really pushed us into biodynamics starting in 2007. By 2008 we were full into the conversion, and by 2011 we were certified by Demeter. We released our first fully biodynamic La Haute Cuvée in 2012.
RM: What is a practical example of the difference between organic and biodynamic practices?
CH: Organic soap and oil sprays are the norm in organic farming for ridding a vineyard of cutworms. The biodynamic approach is to find a natural predator of the cutworm. Chickens are a great predator. So, at Hedges, we raise chickens and rent meat chickens to parade around our vineyard and eat these little pests. It’s extremely effective. The chickens then fertilize the soil and the process is deemed holistic. At the end of the season, we will slaughter the chickens and freeze the meat, which we will then use for dinners and for giving to all of our workers.
RM: Does biodynamic farming make the wines better?
CH: The wines are neither better nor worse, but simply, more authentic. This understanding is very difficult in wine, because modern Hollywood marketing to the masses states that bigger wines are better. This is not the case with biodynamic wine, which is all about the influence of the geography, the year, and the yeasts in the vineyard. This is a very inconsistent approach, which is good, as it tells the story of the year with greater magnification. It’s a fine way of removing the cosmetic surgery of wine. Too many wineries “fix” things, hence the heavy reliance of the winemaker as a celebrity crafter. This is not the way of true wine. To be clear, the grapes we grow don’t and should not meet some sort of standard in the industry. They should solely be a reflection of the time, the place and the naturalness of farming.
RM: Does Hedges subscribe to all of the biodynamic practices?
CH: We take a more pragmatic approach to biodynamics, meaning we like to see tangible results. Some things in biodynamic farming are more ethereal, like fermenting manure in cow horns, which are buried in your vineyard. We don’t participate in this approach, which is fine, this act is not needed in certification. I like to think of our version of biodynamics, which is certifiable by Demeter, as the more modern approach, the logical approach.
RM: What has been the public’s response to wines labeled as biodynamic?
CH: The public response is good, but not massive. A select few consumers understand it, but it’s very limited. However, the trade (e.g., wine buyers, sommeliers) is knowledgeable and desires these kinds of wines. They love the more authentic approach to wine versus the Hollywood/scores approach.
King Estate: Ed King
The nation’s largest biodynamic vineyard lies at the southern tip of Oregon’s Willamette Valley with 465 of its 1,033 acres under vine (that’s vineyard-speak for planted with wine grape vines). Certified organic since 2002, Ed King says, “The advance from Oregon Tilth organic certification to Demeter Biodynamic is like climbing the last ridge to the top of a mountain,” – a natural evolution in their commitment to sustainability.
King points out the Demeter certification is global in reach and represents an intentional step away from a monoculture approach (growing one crop in vast quantities). Biodynamic wines place the vineyard within a whole farm, creating a self-sustaining polyculture.
Cayuse: Christophe Baron
Cayuse wines are some of the most sought after wines from the Walla Walla Valley. The tasting room in downtown Walla Walla tempts passersby with its golden-yellow façade, but it is rarely open. There’s really no need considering the wines are sold as “futures” – a French concept where wine club members purchase the wine even before production. All 4,500 cases are spoken for before a drop goes into the bottles, with 15,000 people on the waiting list, according to vigneron Christophe Baron.
A descendant of the Baron Albert Champagne house (founded in 1677), Baron brought centuries of French winemaking methodology with him when he came to the United States to work under his mentor Philippe Armenier. Baron intended to grow pinot noir in the Willamette Valley, but on a tour of Walla Walla Valley, he saw something he liked becoming the first to recognize the potential of stony sites that now make up the much-lauded Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA (though he was vehemently against the name on the basis that they are not rocks, but river stones from an alluvial fan).
RM: When were you introduced to the concept of biodynamic wines?
CB: I was studying in Burgundy in 1989 and read an article in the French equivalent of Wine Spectator about La Coulée de Serrant, the first biodynamic vineyard from the Loire Valley. Intrigued, I began doing blind tastings throughout Burgundy of sustainable, organic and biodynamic wines. There was so much difference, and the wines I liked always turned out to be the biodynamic wines. I became convinced it was a necessary step. They had a sense of place with tension and salinity. I knew I wanted to farm grapes with biodynamic principles.
RM: What is the difference between organic and biodynamic farming?
CB: Organic farming is linear – a horizontal way of farming with addiction to compost. Biodynamic is a vertical way of farming and includes the moon cycles. You can see the difference between a biodynamic farm that has used the 501 preparation and those that have not – the leaves face the sky.
RM: Did you begin Cayuse using biodynamic farming principles?
CB: We have farmed organically since day one. In 2002, we fully implemented biodynamic farming. I pursued certification to please my mentor, but chose not to maintain our Demeter certification after realizing that the inspector only came once a year. Anyone could cheat that system and it costs between $10,000 and $15,000 for certification. So, we became independent.
RM: Tell us about your farm.
CB: There are five vineyards (60 acres total). The stony soil means highly stressed vines. We have vineyards, chickens, pigs, sheep, horses, cows, apple and cherry trees, tomatoes, cucumber vines, corn. It is not a monoculture, but a polyculture. It is not just about wine – we have orchards, vegetables, animals and employees.
RM: How does farming biodynamically affect the quality of the wines?
CB: Conventional farming (using chemicals) kills terroir. Our approach is stewardship, respect for the land. It’s literally the forces of life versus forces of death (pesticides, herbicides). Biodynamic is the tool in my toolbox to open the true key to terroir. For Cayuse, biodynamic is not a marketing gimmick. It’s a way of living for me. The wines have a lot of character and personality. They are alive. They create pleasure. I’m a dealer – I sell pleasure. In vino veritas – in wine, the truth. The true judge is the customer.
RM: Have you inspired others in the Walla Walla Valley to farm biodynamically?
CB: Everybody should farm at least organically. The Walla Walla Valley has the most amazing climate to grow wine organically. But, we are still the only biodynamic vineyard in the Walla Walla Valley. No one consults with me to learn about biodynamic farming. Maybe they are scared of me. They probably think it is too expensive, too risky. For us, this is the only way to succeed and make better wine. We don’t even think about recouping costs. It’s a way of life.
Pacific Rim: Nicolas Quille
In 2001, Pacific Rim and Company planted 120 acres of biodynamically farmed vines. For 12 years, they maintained a Demeter certification, but chose to discontinue the practice. “We loved the idea of making a biodynamic Riesling, thinking we would make a wine with a greater sense of place and a unique flavor profile,” says Quille. “But, we got hit very hard financially in 2011 with lots of rot and could not afford to continue.”
They decided to try it on a smaller scale with a 15-acres vineyard, but again found the challenges too great. The lots are still farmed organically, however, and Quille says they retain many of the biodynamic practices at the winery including using native yeasts, very low sulfite additions, and no added acid.
“Selling our wines was really hard and no one was ever willing to pay extra for the cost of farming. Perhaps it is an issue with Riesling where people refuse to pay more than $20 for a bottle of wine. To us, the biodynamic market has been really hard despite all our effort. I don’t think the consumer is there unless it is for expensive red wine in small quantities.”
Quille concludes, saying, “It was definitely worth trying and we would love to do it again on a smaller scale as we have learned so much over the years.”
Syncline Winery: James and Poppie Mantone
Located on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge between Hood River and The Dalles, the Syncline philosophy of farming stems from a desire to feed the spirit as well as the body.
RM: Why did you choose to farm biodynamically?
JM: Probably the most important underlying theme in biodynamic practices is returning energy/spirituality/deliberateness to farming. It has only been in the last 150 years that we have lost the spiritual meaning to food. Biodynamic is one way to try and raise farm products that not only feed the body, but feed the spirit of both the consumer and the farmer.
RM: In your opinion, how does biodynamic farming affect the quality of the wine?
JM: There’s no way to measure the impacts on the wines. What I can tell you is that the vineyard is a more enjoyable and satisfying place to work. I can’t help but believe that this translates to better worker sentiment and attention to detail.
RM: Where did you learn biodynamic farming skills?
JM: We were exposed to biodynamic when my wife worked at Wintergreen Farm in Noti, Oregon, in the mid-1990’s. From her work experience and observation of the farm, we decided in 2000 to farm our estate vineyards biodynamically.
RM: Do you adhere to all of the principles (e.g., animals, other crops, soil prep), or are there a select few that you feel are most important?
JM: It is hard to follow all of Steiner’s recommendations. When he presented the principles, he conveyed that this was just the starting point and it was going to take work to figure the system out. We utilize our own animal waste and farm waste for compost production. We use the preps and the calendar as best we can and leave open space on the farm. The compost is the absolute most important aspect. Without proper compost production, the preps are ineffective.