Harvest 2010 Recap and Assessment: Low Sugars, Good Yields and Great Flavors
Putting the Vineyard to Bed for Winter

Biodynamics and dry-farming: repairing the failings of "modern" viticulture

Week before last, I had the privilege of representing Tablas Creek at the Yosemite Vintners' Holidays.  This event (which I wrote about a few months back in my post 5 great events for food&wine lovers) was as usual a treat, with unexpectedly warm weather, about 175 attendees at our session and a wonderful culminating gala dinner that was probably the best meal I've seen the Ahwahnee dining room turn out.  Each attending winery is expected to present a seminar, with the topic of their choosing, and I spoke about the great 2007 vintage in the Rhone and in Paso Robles, and showed our 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel and 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, as well as the Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape red and white from 2007.

One of the pleasures of this great event is the opportunity to hear the presentations of the other speakers.  At most wine festivals, talks and tastings happen simultaneously, but the leisurely pace of the Vintners' Holidays allows the attendees to sit in on the other speakers' talks.  I was followed by John Williams, the winemaker and proprietor of Frog's Leap, who chose the intriguing topic "The Worst Wine Tasting Ever: A Retrospective Tasting & Discussion of Napa Valley’s Five Worst Years in the Last Twenty-Five Years".  He showed Frog's Leap Cabernet from vintages widely panned by the critics: 1988, 1989, 1998, 2000, and 2003 [ed. note: the original version of this article mistakenly listed 1990 rather than 1988].  The older wines were very pretty, and John made the point that what often makes a Cabernet appealing when young (lush fruit, soft tannins, low acidity) don't necessarily carry through in an appealing way as that wine ages, while some of the characteristics of "lesser" vintages (particularly higher tannin levels and higher acidity) can actually allow a wine to age gracefully.  Of course, a wine needs a certain level of concentration to age whatever its other characteristics, and it seems to me that this flaw is one that never gets better with time.

But apart from John's point about the ageability of "lesser" vintages -- a point on which he convinced me -- what I took away from his presentation was his inspiringly full-throated defense of traditional viticulture.  Frog's Leap has been farming organically for more than two decades, and biodynamically for roughly a decade.  What's more, they dry farm every acre they control, use exclusively native yeasts in their winemaking, and value balance over power.  Why?  His argument went more or less like this:

Grapevines, like most other plants and animals, are principally concerned with reproduction.  It is in their interest to get their fruit ripe, because then the fruit tastes good enough that birds will choose to eat their berries and spread their seeds more widely than those of the plants they're competing with.  How does it know what the season is, and what it has to do to get its fruit ripe?  It measures the angle of the sun, the amount of water in the soil, the actions of the other plants and the pheromones of the insects in its ecosystem.  But what might be termed "modern" viticulture (the use of irrigation, chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, even aggressive crop-thinning and canopy management) has divorced a grapevine from its environment and therefore confused its natural processes, leading to grapes that are over-sugared and under-flavored at ripeness.

John used the analogy of a tomato.  A modern grocery store tomato is grown hydroponically, with fertilizer and water given at regular intervals.  When you get it home, it has very little flavor, so you let it get riper and riper on your windowsill.  It does continue to accumulate sugar, but while it may get as sweet or sweeter, it won't ever have the intensity of flavor and the balance of sweetness and acidity of a tomato grown to ripeness in real dirt in your back yard.  And too many grapevines in California are grown in conditions that are effectively hydroponic thanks to regular irrigation.  Of course, there are parts of the state where unirrigated viticulture would be impossible.  But even in places like Napa Valley, whose mountain appellations receive something like 40 inches of water per year, irrigation is the norm.  And giving a grapevine regular water begins a self-perpetuating cycle.  The vine will grow more roots where there is water, and those where there is no water will wither.  Since irrigation is typically done on a schedule, sometimes as often as every week, nearly all this root growth is concentrated at the surface.  These roots can't get the minerals they need from the small cone of moisture under an irrigation line, so growers have to add fertilizer to the irrigation.  These roots are also sensors for plant and animal activity that vary with the seasons, but the topsoil of a modern vineyard is nearly devoid of life thanks to the actions of herbicides (for weed control) and pesticides (for insect control).  So grapevines continue to accumulate sugar but don't receive the signals that they rely on to move their grapes to ripeness.  To help accelerate ripening, it's normal for vineyard managers to begin to remove leaves in August, which further reduces a vine's sensory inputs.  The net result is grapes that have to be left on the vine longer for a grapevine to get the appropriate signals that they should ripen the seeds and produce the flavors winemakers want.

I hadn't heard this explanation before correlating irrigation and over-alcoholic wines.  But it makes good sense to me.  We've long been advocates of dry-farming and organic viticulture for their ability to stimulate grapevines to pull character of place out of the vineyard and give it to the grapes they produce.  And more and more I'm hearing people comment how remarkable it is that the alcohols in Tablas Creek's wines are a point or more lower than our neighbors, yet the wines have plenty of intensity and great balance.  Is the fact that we dry-farm a significant factor in this difference?  It seems likely to me.

Ladybug So how does a vineyard hope to restore balance?  Enter biodynamics.  Biodynamic farming gets a lot of press for being a little on the touchy-feely side, with homeopathic applications of micronutrients that are supposed to be implemented based on the lunar calendar.  But when John was asked about burying manure-filled cow horns (one of the most often noted biodynamic applications) he dismissed it as little more than a distraction.  The vast majority of biodynamics, he said, is the effort to restore a plant's natural abilities to sense and respond to a vibrant environment.  This includes restoring its enviroment first by eliminating chemical applications that destroy plant and animal life and then by building life back into the soil through composting, cover cropping and insect habitat creation.  These healthier soils are also better at retaining moisture.

Often, moments like this help me reaffirm the choices we've already made.  Occasionally, they suggest new directions.  We've been farming organically since we founded Tablas Creek in 1989.  We've dry-farmed most vintages, and set up our irrigation to mimic natural rainfall patterns in the years when we couldn't.  We plant a vibrant cover crop each winter, and Neil, Ryan, David and the rest of the vineyard team have been increasingly focused on creating habitats in unused parcels.  But it was just last year that we started farming 20 acres biodynamically.  I have always focused more on the homeopathic elements of biodynamics, and have been interested -- in a skeptical way -- to see what we found were the differences.  But after hearing John Williams speak, and after tasting several Frog's Leap wines that I found noteworthy for their balance and character over the three-day event, I think my position may be changing.  And I am more convinced than ever that dry-farming is perhaps the most important key to making wines of character, balance, and, yes, sustainability.