Tablas Creek on "A Long Pour: Fifty-Two Weeks with California Wine"
Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Picpoul Blanc

A skeptic's move toward biodynamics

by Robert Haas

Tablas Creek Vineyard, following the practices of our partners at Château de Beaucastel, had always intended to farm our Paso Robles property organically. That is to say, farming our vineyard without the use of systemic chemicals and relying on compost, cover crops and mineral amendments to improve the health of our chalky clay soils and grow healthy vines. We have farmed organically since our founding, and got our national organic certification in 2003.

For a number of years we have been stalking going one step further by starting to practice Biodynamic agriculture, defined by Wikipedia as

a method of organic farming with homeopathic composts that treats farms as unified and individual organisms, emphasizing balancing the holistic development and interrelationship of the soil, plants, animals as a self-nourishing system without external inputs insofar as this is possible.

Biodynamic agriculture is regarded by many as the most sustainable modern ecological farming system. It has much in common with other organic approaches, such as emphasizing the use of manures and composts and excluding of the use of artificial chemicals, but differs from most organic techniques – which typically seek to replace chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers with non-chemical alternatives – in focusing more on biodiversity and the holistic health of the farmed ecosystem.

Last week Neil Collins and Ryan Hebert – our winemakers/vineyard managers – joined me for a drive up to view the Napa Valley vineyards of Grgich Hills winery. Grgich’s vineyards have been farmed biodynamically for the last seven years. While there we toured with Ivo Jeramez, Mike Grgich’s nephew, who is in charge of their vineyard operations. Ivo and his vineyard manager graciously spent the whole day with us, took us around to their vineyards in American Canyon and Rutherford, new and old, and described exactly the processes that they employed and what they found to be the benefits. They are totally convinced that reasoned biodynamic farming has improved their soils and the health of the vines as compared to the traditionally farmed, chemically-treated vineyards of their neighbors.

When I first studied Biodynamic farming six or seven years ago I admired it as a sort of existential philosophy but found it hard to believe that the homeopathic preparations and the use of the astrologic calendar prescribed could create a great deal better vineyard environment than our organic farming was already producing. My problem with the concept has been that many of the methods unique to the biodynamic approach are so esoteric. It is hard to believe that miniscule amounts of herbal and mineral preparations introduced into vineyard sprays and compost additives can affect anything.

Now, I am not so sure of my earlier conclusions. The list of wine properties who follow biodynamic practices is highly distinguished, including Domaines de la Romanée-Conti, Leflaive, Dujac, Gouges, Huet, Domaine Weinbach, Zindt-Humbrecht, Leclerc Briant, Araujo, Frog’s Leap, Joseph Phelps, Beckmen, Bonny Doon and over 500 others. And Ivo, for one, is convinced that his conversion from “chemical” farming to biodynamic farming has greatly improved the health of his vineyard.

There are two main homeopathic field preparations on which biodynamics is based. The first is horn manure: a humus mixture prepared by filling the horn of a cow with cow manure, burying it in the ground in the autumn to decompose and recovering it in the spring to use in a ground spray to increase microbiologic activity. The second is crushed powdered quartz, buried in a cow horn in the spring and recovered in the autumn, used in a mixture of water and sprayed on the vines as a fungicide.

In addition, biodynamics prescribes treatments to compost using various natural herbs and extractions, including yarrow blossoms, chamomile blossoms, stinging nettle, oak bark, dandelion flowers, valerian flowers, and horsetail. These natural herbs each have their own properties, but all have been used in traditional medicine (as well as farming) for millennia. The chemicals that the plants produce naturally mimic, in many cases, those contained in chemical herbicides, fungicides, pesticides and fertilizers. And there is good reason to suspect that they work; plants have had to battle with insects, fungus and other encroaching plant species for millions and millions of years, and have developed ingenious ways of protecting themselves and their environment.

Lunar guides to planting and harvesting are another aspect of Biodynamic farming, and one which often comes in for skepticism. The phase, or synodic lunar cycle, is said to favor above-ground processes while the moon is waxing and below-ground processes as the moon is waning. The synodic cycle also controls tidal effects, which are well documented. These involve not only large bodies of water, but also the surface tension of liquids, which would explain why a vine pruned in a waxing cycle “bleeds” more than one pruned in a waning cycle. It is worth noting, however, that these are guides to be followed as much as is practical, not iron clad directives, and biodynamics respects this.

Since Tablas Creek is farmed organically and estate bottled from our one contiguous vineyard we are already most of the way to farming biodynamically. All that we have to do is prepare and use the prescribed homeopathic manures and composts in the vineyard and farm in harmony, as much as possible, with the astronomical calendar. So, this year we are going to start biodynamic farming on 20 acres and begin to weigh its affect on the health of the vineyard. If it is as successful as we hope we can expect to see stronger more disease and insect resistant long-lived vines.

How will all this affect the taste of our wines? We will see. Healthier and older vines are the aim. The environment in Paso Robles, with its enormous swings in temperature between day and night, its dry summers and cycles of drought, and its thin, rocky soils, is a high-stress one for grapevines. We are suspicious that these annual stresses will compromise the lifespan of our vineyards, and hope that by farming biodynamically, we will keep the vineyards healthy as they age. If we can do so, the impacts on wine quality should be dramatic; older vines produce grapes with more intensity and more character of place. And, young or old, we expect that healthy vines will produce physiologically ripe grapes with the good balance of sugars and acids that make great and long lived wines.