Monday, July 11, 2011

Howling at the Moon... A Biodynamic Primer from Oregon's Cooper Mountain Vineyards

If you, as a consumer and perhaps a burgeoning wine geek, have started to explore wine beyond the basics, the term biodynamic ('biodynamique' for our Francophiles) may have popped up on your radar. However, for as frequently as the term may pop up, an exact definition of biodynamics is slightly nebulous. The whispers are numerous: pagan worship, naked dancing by moonlight, bovine sacrifice. It's been called voodoo, hocus pocus and geomancy. A recent seminar at Esquin gave me the chance to go see what the fuss was about when the folks from Cooper Mountain Vineyards, one of Oregon's oldest vineyards and biodynamic pioneers, came to Seattle.

As it turns out, there's no nudity, not at Cooper Mountain anyway. Instead, biodynamics is about care and cultivation beyond just the vine. The Gross family of Cooper Mountain has practiced biodynamics since 1995; a practice that has since been furthered by their French-born winemaker Gilles De Domingo, who came on board in 2004.

Biodynamics grew out of a movement and philosophy founded by a German, Rudolph Steiner, (who looks vaguely like Jeremy Irons) in the 1920s. That larger movement, Anthroposophy, is a movement that posits (from Wikipedia) "the existence of an objective, intellectually comprehensible, spiritual world accessible to direct experience through inner development. More specifically, it aims to develop faculties of perceptive imagination, inspiration and intuition through cultivating a form of thinking independent of sensory experience." Sounds like something right up Tom Cruise's alley if you ask me.

What Steiner did that led to the development of biodynamics (a term he never used, incidentally) was to center man in the ecosystem. He advocated developing a deeper connection between land and the people that led to a development of practices that soon became biodynamics, a philosophy about farming generally and not viticulture specifically. A philosophy that aims to, as Gilles put it, "heal the people by healing the soil."

The baseline of biodynamics is to look at things organically. Non-organic practices cause greater long-term problems than they solve in the short term, according to Gilles. By using various pesticides we've ended up with newer, resistant strains of fungus and mildews. To combat this one-step-forward-two-step-back thinking, organic practices are really "common sense." But organic is not a cure-all, and frankly it's not enough for those who believe in biodynamics. One example Gilles cited was that you could be an "organic' farm or vineyard and still spray copper, which is toxic.

Organic viticulturalists are likely still focused on their vines, where biodynamic viticulturalists look lower, much lower: to the ground. The soil is seen as essential to the health of the vines, and so by looking there you get a sense of how your vineyard is doing. Looking for variety and biodiversity in the kinds of grasses and ground cover gives you a sense of the health of the grasses that grow within the vineyard, which speaks further to the health of the soil. Observing the levels of micro-organisms and nitrogen in the soil enables you to understand the overall vineyard health. "The soil is essential to biodynamics" said Gilles. The focus (I would imagine this to be the most challenging part) is to remain concerned with the soil as soil, without an end goal in mind. So in an almost Buddhist way you have to remove your desires to improve your vines and fruit growth, quality or vigor and simply look at how the soil is doing.

The biodynamic approach to disease is fascinating to me. "We don't try to fight or prevent disease, we simply enhance the good to balance the bad" said Gilles. "Balance is better, if the vine gets diseased the damage will be lessened in a balanced system."

Compost plays another huge role in biodynamics, and in order to be a certified biodynamic farm, your compost must come from within a 60 mile radius. Cooper Mountain gets theirs from a local horse farm. Gilles inspects the poop and the veterinary records of the horses and asks that horses who are ill or on antibiotics be taken out of the poop management system until they are recovered. As a further control, Cooper Mountain holds onto their compost for five months before applying it to the soil.

And my reference to the moon? There is a moon component of biodynamics. The thinking is that the phases of the moon dictate certainly earthly elements like tides, so there may very well be a moon phase that results in better response by the earth to planting, harvesting etc. All this lunar-acy is certainly a component of biodynamics, and it's not one I fully understand.

I have to say there wasn't anything that the folks from Cooper Mountain Vineyards said about biodynamics that struck me as kooky. Doing some very basic internet research, (i.e., wikipedia) there were some crazy things that I read. What constitues crazy? One of the things I'm referring to was using the ashes from the skin of dead field mice to keep mice away, the crazy part being that according to strict biodynamics you need to do this when "Venus is in the Scorpius constellation."

For more information on Biodynamic certification via Demeter, go here. I also recommend checking out the book Voodoo Vintners by Katherine Cole, a very recently released book (which I have yet to read) that highlights the biodynamic wine making taking place here in the Northwest in Oregon's Willamette Valley.


Voodoo Vintners is pure drivel. Wolf Storl's Culture and Horticulture is an academic study of biodynamic methods and philosophy and better suited as an introduction to the practice.

Post a Comment