“Biodynamics is a religious fervor that has nothing to do with growing grapes,” said one Napa winery owner. A November 2006 poll by Decanter Magazine showed that 52 percent of respondents thought that biodynamics was, “a load of horse manure.” Biodynamics sounds alternative and hip, but is it? Two wineries in Santa Barbara, Melville and Presidio, employ biodynamic practices and help shed some light on this complex idea of farming.
First off, biodynamic is not synonymous with organic. “It’s about being in touch with your vineyard,” said Chad Melville, vineyard manager for Melville Winery in the Santa Rita Hills. “Biodynamaics connects you more strongly to your environment.” Where organic doesn’t use pesticides and reduces the chemical makeup of wine, biodynamics goes beyond that. It requires you to be intimately involved with your land and to respect the natural cycles inherent in farming, and in life.
The idea was first widely promoted by Rudolph Steiner in 1924 and states that the farm (vineyard or otherwise) is managed as a living organism, in its entirety. This means that a farm should be re-generative rather than de-generative and that any farm, including its unique weather, microclimate, water source and sun exposure is treated as a self-sustaining entity. Simply put, it’s a closed end system. For biodynamic wineries, that means a variety of things, including a respect for natural cycles. For example, fertilizer for your crops, in the form of manure, would come from the cows on your property, and the grain those cows eat would be fertilized by that very same manure from those very same cows.
Demeter, one of only two organizations in the U.S. that certify biodynamic farms, states: "The biodynamic method of farming attempts to align all of the factors that stream through a living farm system in a harmonious manner. The food that results is very true to its essence and in this manner provides deeply penetrating nutrition that is medicinal to an increasingly unstable human existence."
“Biodynamic” and “organic” are buzzwords that make it sound like, if you employ these techniques, you are environmental responsible. “That’s not our goal,” says Doug Braun, winemaker at Presidio Winery near Lompoc in Santa Barbara. Like other winemakers, Braun wants to make the best wine he can, irrespective of the farming methods. “It’s good to be socially responsible. But if we could make great wine with chemicals, we’d be doing it,” he said. Many winemakers are realizing that greater attention to a consummate approach to managing their lands produces better wines. Biodynamics also includes things like harvesting during evening hours and gravitational pulls when the fruit is most ripe, and the use of composts. “If there’s balance in the vineyard, there will be balance in the wine,” says Braun, whose own hundred acre plot is certified by Demeter.
The idea of treating the farm as a holistic entity dates back hundreds of years, to the rural farmers of Europe. Since there were no modern chemicals, beneficial insects ate the intrusive ones, owls hunted small rodents who would eat your crop, and you knew intrinsically when the best time to harvest was because you could read the language of nature. A farmer would grow “cover crops”– crops grown in between rows of vines – to reduce soil erosion and protect water evaporation, and because they needed the space to grow vegetables to feed their families. All farms benefited, because all farms considered the greater good. And ultimately, this is the sincerest expression of biodynamics. Be good to your land, your neighbor and yourself. As Chad Melville said, “the best fertilizer is your own footprint on the land.”