Praise him sun and moon; praise him all you stars above.
– Psalm 148
We have grown accustomed to the tension between science and spirituality on many fronts — the halls of Congress, public school classrooms, county courtrooms and every other hatch mark on the radio dial. But are we prepared to assess their conflict or convergence in a glass of wine?
Even as we grow accustomed to steadily more sophisticated wine-making technology, we are seeing something groovier than the latest cell phone innovation for Japanese teenagers. I’m talking about the observance of biodynamie in oenology.
To be sure, biodynamie, a holistic, natural approach to wine-making, is related to other recognized wine trends: Increasingly, ecology and social conscience are as important as a nose of fruit and a long finish. Organic farming now extends beyond the produce stand to the wine rack, and sustainable viticulture aims to avoid all forms of environmental degradation to the land. To see that wine-making is going green, one need look no further than “low-input sustainable agriculture,” or LISA, the government-approved acronym for the growing practices that have the USDA seal of approval.
All of these methods are sensitive to reducing synthetic inputs such as pesticides and fertilizers and considering the entire ecosystem the grape vine inhabits. Biodynamie, like these other methods, stresses the organic fertility of the soil, down to its microscopic microbial ferment, but adds to that terrestrial focus a cosmic dimension from the astronomical sphere.
Taste of the stars
Most industrial pesticides and fertilizers are prohibited in viticulture. But small amounts of certain inputs, such as quartz dust, may be used to intensify the sun’s rays on the grape leaves, along with vegetable compounds such as yarrow, chamomile and valerian for other purposes.
In addition to this earthbound regimen, in the most far out extension of biodynamic principles, vineyard operations are guided by the positions of the planets and the phases of the moon. And certain constellations, as the moon passes through them, are thought to favor the growth of either roots, flower, leaves or fruit, depending on their astrological association with the Aristotelean elements of earth, air, water or fire.
This may seem a counter-intuitive development, if not a regression to mysticism, in the same age that computers are being programmed to identify and replicate the precise molecular structure of wines in the belief that the noblest St Estephe can be recreated in a test tube. At the same time, however, those who place their faith in an intuitive art to winemaking believe that it is just such materialistic chemistry experiments that are the true insult to the integrity of the vine.
Is this Rome with its roads and aqueducts versus the alchemy of the Druids all over again? And will pure biodynamie, through ridicule and the exigencies of commerce, be stamped out like the Gnostic Gospels of viniculture? Or just as ancient Chinese herbal medicine is receiving renewed appreciation alongside interferon, can the two be reconciled and co-exist? Just when all of America’s nouveau wine connoisseurs were getting comfortable with the concepts of nose, palate, back-end and bouquet, along comes the entire Stephen Hawking universe to complicate matters.
In its most esoteric embodiments, biodynamie evokes energies found in the wine, such as its magnetic resonance, that are not considered in the usual Wine Spectator review. Thus it opens up new dimensions for perceiving wine and approaching winemaking, though it remains to be seen how useful these will be in addition to the usual factors of temperature, humidity and mineral composition of the soil.
Practice makes progress
Many American winemakers are incorporating some aspects of biodynamie into their winery operations. There are biodynamic certification programs, the best-known run by an international association called Demeter, but many growers who endorse the basic philosophy still avoid the lack of flexibility inherent in certification programs, whether for organic or biodynamic farming.
Stephen Janes of Melville Winery in Santa Rita Hills, Calif., concedes that there is definitely something to the concept of “lunar pressure,” raising the levels of sugars and minerals from the soil that rise into the grapes when the moon is full, just as the tides rise in our oceans and much of our bodily ebb and flow is governed by an undeniable lunar monthly cycle.
But Janes also concedes that Melville will ignore the dictates of those lunar cycles if they conflict with Melville’s commercial production schedule or other indicators that the time is nigh to prune or pick grapes. The end result of all these trends in raising grapes, whether LISA, organics, sustainable viticulture, or biodynamie, are growers that are more “attentive and sensitive.” The result is healthier vineyards and the goal is better wines.
To Bayard Fox, who produces California grenache and syrah from the biodynamically-farmed Unti vineyard under the Renard label, many of the forces operating on the vines, whether chemical or cosmological, are inexplicable. He agrees with Janes that the single greatest benefit from biodynamie is closer attention by the grower to what is happening on each individual plot of land.
These trends in the vineyard mirror broader trends in farming in general. Jason Mann, who manages Full Moon Cooperative and grows produce for Farm 255 Restaurant in Athens, Ga., follows a similar approach. Though Mann adheres to philosophies taken from organics, sustainability and biodynamie, and borrows practices from each, he avoids the strictures of any of them in favor of creativity and experimentation.
“We don’t have the hubris to think we can control nature,” Mann says. “We try to let nature do its work as gracefully as possible. Through diversity, we create equilibrium.”
Melville also boasts that since operations began in 1999, the total number of insect species trapped in its California vineyards has increased from seven to 19. That is a far cry from the DDT death-dreams of American agriculture a few decades ago. But, according to Janes, the insect inhabitants are a sign of “something good going on in the vineyard.”
Janes extends the stewardship concept beyond the vineyard, noting that every truckload of chemicals that does not have to be delivered by an internal combustion engine and every ton of fertilizer that does not have to be manufactured reduces Melville’s costs and removes pollution from the global ecosystem.
Though biodynamie sounds like just the kind of idea that would flourish in the lotus-land of California, it is actually more firmly rooted in France, as the name suggests. Domaines converted to biodynamic viticulture in the early 1990s included Domaine Leflaive of Puligny-Montrachet, Domaine Leroy of Vosne-Romanée, Coulée de Serrant of Savennières, and Domaine Huet of Vouvray. At the extreme end of the zodiac, Chateau Romanin carries out all-important work on the vine when the moon is in the best position to reflect down to earth the influences of fire-related constellations.
It may seem surprising for something so New Age to come from the most traditional wine culture, but biodynamie is also as ancient as it is trendy. For better or worse, it is rooted in the same primordial science that dates from the music of the spheres. It incorporates the same perceptive tracking of the stars and seasons once done from Mayan pyramids and Stonehenge. Although imbued with spirituality by these progenitors, it was also the beginning of the scientific method of observable effects and the deliberate measure of time, applied in part to agriculture. There is nothing to stop the winemaker, like the Psalmist, from observing a spiritual panegyric in the ticking clock of the natural world.
But when all is said and done, after the soil is nourished, the insects are sated and abated, and Jupiter aligns with Mars, Janes and Fox agree that the ultimate question is whether biodynamie really produces better grapes. For that, the proof is in the wine and the mind — the ineffable imprint a vintage leaves on the taste buds and how that lingers in memory.
Those are measures of success that lend themselves poorly to the scientific method. Personally, when I get off the blogosphere long enough to stare into a bowl of Cabernet instead, I’m grateful for anything deepens the mystery of the wine — the flavorful unfolding of its harmonic structures, and the definite though sometimes subtle alterations of my mood and maybe even my star-crossed soul. In that case, vive la biodynamie.
A longtime contributor to Birmingham Weekly, Stephen Humphreys represents a selection of 30 of the top wines from Argentina, including four on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list, under the name AmerAsia. Write to email@example.com.