Going to high school in Manhattan, I always thought of Rudolf Steiner as the elite private school on the Upper East Side for wealthy kids too stoned to get into St. David’s. Little did I know that the school’s eponymous founder was not only the originator of Waldorf Schools (an educational philosophy that emphasizes the role of imagination in learning), but also the inventor of biodynamic agriculture, a farming trend experiencing a resurgence thanks to the wider organic-food revolution.
In food, it’s very tough to differentiate between organic, sustainably-produced cuisine and that which is not. Although I believe organic meat and produce many times can be fresher-tasting and ultimately more enjoyable, it is hard to validate by taste alone. With wine, however, the proof is on the palate, which is why I decided to test the supposed benefits of biodynamic agriculture with wine. But, what is biodynamic agriculture, anyway? According to Wikipedia, biodynamic agriculture is “a method of organic farming that treats farms as unified and individual organisms, emphasizing balancing the holistic development and interrelationship of the soil, plants, animals as a closed, self-nourishing system.”
In other words, biodynamic farming treats the farm like a person (well, a progressive, well-pampered person with a holistic lifestyle). The biodynamic philosophy maintains that everything that happens on a farm’s ecosystem affect everything else- and nature (including the movements of the stars and planets) also affects what’s happening in a plant. Artificial chemicals are banned in favor of herbal soil treatments, and the relationship between a farm’s livestock and its crops is closely matched (especially as it relates to fertilization and composting). Astrological charts are consulted to determine planting and harvesting times. The biodynamic approach to farming is truly a labor of love—costly and time consuming.
Although it sounds bit over the top, the biodynamic approach to farming is taken quite seriously, and the term “biodynamic” is actually trademark protected. In the United States, the Demeter Association has been using its strict criteria to certify farms since 1982, and only farms that can prove they have been true to Steiner’s founding principles can be “certified biodynamic.” But, does this type of farming actually work? According to many studies, biodynamic farming has been shown to be as effective as traditional farming, and some studies have shown the soil of the biodynamic farm to be richer in nutrients and organic matter than that of conventional farms (not surprising, considering all the TLC they receive). In terms of wine, however, a long-term study in a California vineyard was somewhat inconclusive. In other words, as mentioned the proof would be on the palate.
I was determined to test the efficacy of biodynamic viticulture the hard way: by drinking a couple of BD wines. My first choice was an Oregon Pinot Noir from Cooper Mountain Vineyards, started by former Massapequa resident Robert Gross. Pinot is known to be a very difficult grape to produce (even conventionally), so this would be a true test of BD wines. Located on the 45th parallel, as is the Burgundy region of France, and resting on the slopes of an ancient volcano, Cooper Mountain’s vineyards have a lot going for them to begin with. Yet, by opting to adopt very strict organic-farming methodology in 1990—and eventually becoming both organically and biodynamically certified, in 1999 and 2002 respectively—Cooper Mountain is leading the way in West Coast organic viticulture. I found their $45 2005 “Mt. Terroir” Pinot to be amazingly complex and flavorful, with the delicate balance of fruit and earth that marks a classic pinot. This is a bottle that is eminently ready to drink, but will benefit from a few years maturity.
Another leader in the biodynamic space is the Benziger Family Winery in Sonoma. Perhaps better known for their downmarket but flavorful Glen Ellen chardonnay, the Benzigers take biodynamic farming seriously, and are known to spread their philosophy among the growers they purchase their grapes from. I sampled a bottle of their 2004 “Tribute,” a Bordeaux blend made primarily from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, and found it well worth the $80 price tag. This particular bottling is certified to be 100% biodynamically produced, which is a trend I think you will be seeing more of in the future.
Three friends (with more advanced wine palates than mine) and I blind-tasted both wines against similar, conventionally produced wines in their price range, and found that in both cases the biodynamic wines were highly competitive in the tasting, and in some cases won outright. Was there a dramatic difference in flavor between the biodynamically produced wine and the conventional bottlings? No, just the subtle differences you would find between any bottle of wine and another. However, both wines were exceptional, which isn’t hard to believe. At the end of the day, organic farming is very difficult—and biodynamic farming is extremely challenging. That the wines that represent the end result of a grower’s dedication and commitment to his land are high quality is to be expected. Whether biodynamically produced wines will become the new gold standard for oenologists will depend more on market demand than taste, however.
Q & A with Barbara Gross
Marketing Director of Cooper Mountain Vineyardscanvas: Do you feel the “biodynamic” thing is a big differentiator for wines, or is it a lot of hype? In other words, wouldn’t the wine be the same if it were just produced organically?
Gross: We do think that biodynamic farming is significantly different from growing organically. Think of organic farming as being prohibitive (for example, spray programs must not include any synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides). With biodynamic farming you are to think “outside the box” in order to achieve self-sustaining ecosystems within each farm. At Cooper Mountain we believe that the BD system is homeopathy for the vineyard, and use the BD preparations for long-term vineyard health.
canvas: How does your Pinot Noir stack up to similar wines produced conventionally in the same region?
Gross:Arguably our wines are truly reflecting the terroir of our vineyard sites because of the BD agriculture.
For better or for worse—hate it or love it—the wines are unique to our vineyard sites.
canvas: Do people buy your wine specifically for the BD angle, or are they even aware that it is produced
in a special way?
Gross: I see a growing interest in BD agriculture from our consumers, but we have a ways to go before there is a consumer understanding like we have finally reached with organics in the winemaking process.
Christopher O’Hara’s most recent book, Great American Beer, won a “Man at His Best” award from Esquire Magazine. Reach him at email@example.com