As the understanding and appreciation of biodynamics continues to grow, we are seeing more and more vintners converting to what has become an innovative practice. The agricultural principles established by Rudolf Steiner in the 1920's, for a time disregarded because they were rooted in mysticism, are being embraced by some of the most successful and high profile winemakers in the New World.
Sometimes described as Uber-Organic, the biodynamic method, aside from eschewing the use of any pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or genetically modified organisms, also treats the farm or vineyard as a closed and self-sustaining system. In following Steiner's principles, using special plant, animal, and mineral preparations in accordance with the rhythmic influences of the sun and moon, planets and stars, winemakers are realizing that biodynamics is a viable way to improve the health and future of their vineyards, and also make wine that has a stronger expression of terroir.
One particular biodynamically operated winery, relatively young when compared to the rest, is Quintessa. Located in the Rutherford Appellation in the heart of the Napa Valley,the Quintessa property spans 280 acres that are home to 5 hills, 7 types of soil, 2 bodies of water, and four microclimates. Previous to the estate’s purchase in 1990 by Augustin and Valeria Huneeus, the 280-acre property had no vineyards on it at all. Before they acquired it, the land had belonged to George Mardikian, a renowned San Francisco restauranteur, who intended to convert the land into a wine estate but died before he could make it a reality.
The Huneeus couple, originally from Chile, had many years of practical experience behind them by the time they bought the Mardikian property. Augustin has managed numerous wine estates, including Franciscan, which he transformed from a struggling company in 1985 into the successful group of wine estates it is today. Valeria worked internationally as a viticulturist and earned her Ph.D in biochemistry from Columbia University. Dedicated believers in the sustainable approach to agriculture, Valeria and Augustin’s approach toward their Quintessa project from the very beginning was one in which working in harmony with the soil, vegetation and animal life of the region was a top priority.
“From it's very inception,” says Valeria, “the vineyard has been maintained with a strict criteria of care for the soil and the environment.” One-hundred and seventy acres of the 280 were planted to Bordeaux varietals in 26 vineyard blocks. Fourteen European and American phyloxera-resistant clones (some of the first planted after the devastation of the phyloxera plague in the valley during this time) and seven rootstocks were chosen and planted according which was best suited for the soil and climate of each block. They knew that the benefits of diversity in vine and root stock selection included disease resistance and drought tolerance, and also planted native plants and grasses throughout the property to encourage the population of beneficial insects.
From its very beginnings, Quintessa was intended to function as a closed biosphere, a self-sustaining property, of which its wine would express its “quintessential” nature. Watering the vineyards with water from one of the two estate lakes is part of the biodynamic equation that yields Quintessa’s concentrated, complex wines. Planting mustard in the winter and allowing it to die in the summer naturally enriches the soil with nitrogen, just as the owl houses erected around the property have encouraged owls to inhabit them and become a natural but fearsome management for vineyard pests such as gophers, field mice, and snakes.
There are even two cows who live on the estate, and it is their horns that they shed each year which are used in the process of the biodynamic compost preparation sprayed on the vines every spring. The only items in the making of Quintessa wines that don’t come from the property are the oak barrels for aging the wine, the bottles, and the corks.
But the unique vision of Augustin and Valeria Huneeus becomes really apparent when you visit the estate yourself. Upon driving through the entrance, you encounter the most graceful and inconspicuous of sandy-stone facades, built specifically to interfere as little as possible with the natural landscape. In and of itself, it speaks volumes about the incredible respect they have toward the land that preceded their occupation of it, and offers promise for the future of winemaking, as so many others in the industry are making a concerted effort to follow suit.