'Science and spirituality': How a SLO County winery makes better wine with biodynamics
Cow horns filled with manure, sheep, bees, the phases of the moon — what could these things possibly have to do with wine? They’re all elements of biodynamic farming, a holistic approach to agriculture that’s been gaining acolytes among winegrowers.
The principles of biodynamics were created in 1924 by a man who had never farmed a day in his life. That fact plus some of its seemingly odd practices have caused many people to consider the approach mystical voodoo, but adherents say Rudolf Steiner — an Austrian philosopher and social activist — was just codifying some of the oldest and simplest methods of farming.
At the time, commercial pesticides were coming into widespread use, and some farmers began noting deterioration in soil conditions, crop quality and livestock health.
One of Steiner’s central tenets is forgoing the use of pesticides, chemicals and other unnatural substances, similar to organic farming. But the practice goes far beyond that, holding that all of creation — air, water, soil, sun, moon, the entire cosmos — is interconnected and plays a role in what farmers do to the land.
It’s not hard to see why some ridicule the concept as hippie mumbo jumbo, especially since proponents themselves can’t really explain why it works. Voodoo? Cosmic juju? Science we just don’t yet understand? Take a peek into some of biodynamics’ mysterious practices and judge for yourself.
Full of Sh*t
Every fall around the equinox, Sinor-LaVallee Wines’ Mike Sinor fills a cow horn with manure — he usually uses the more colloquial term — and buries it in a corner of his vineyard in Avila Valley. The following spring, at the vernal equinox, he digs it up, stirs the aromatic filling in water precisely for an hour and sprays it on the vineyard.
“There are microbes in there you won’t find anywhere else in the world,” says Sinor, who admits he first began digging into biodynamics because it sounded crazy. The soil is simply more alive, he explains, and somehow, “It makes the wine taste better.”
The dung-filled horn is one of nine prescribed preparations — manures, minerals and herbs such as chamomile, dandelion, horsetail and stinging nettle stuffed in animal intestines, bladders and skulls that are applied to compost, buried or sprayed in the vineyard in minute doses to rejuvenate and enliven the soil.
While Sinor is a convert, having noted improvements at his ranch over neighboring properties, he rarely talks about how he uses biodynamics in his farming.
“People don’t care about stuff,” he says. “They just want wine that tastes good.”
Owls and bees and sheep, oh my!
Tablas Creek Vineyards has been amassing a menagerie at its Paso Robles estate.
Over the last couple of years, the vineyard team installed 38 owl boxes and brought in bees. Last year, they hired a full-time shepherd to oversee a growing flock of sheep as well as alpacas, two donkeys and a llama. They’ve planted fruit trees of all sorts among the vines.
It’s all part of the notion that a farm or vineyard should be self-sustaining — a diverse, resilient ecosystem providing everything the plants need to grow and thrive without outside additives.
The fruit trees attract beneficial insects while the owls provide pest control and the bees pollinate the cover crop. The livestock roam the vineyard, grazing weeds and spreading nutrient-rich manure, saving the soil from being compacted by tractors as well as fuel to run those tractors.
“Go into any sort of thriving natural setting, you don't see monoculture,” Tablas Creek Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg writes on the winery’s blog chronicling their experience with biodynamics. “You see a plethora of insects, plants and animals.”
AmByth Estate, the first in Paso to produce wines certified biodynamic by the Demeter Association, also adds cows to the mix. In addition to grazing and weed control, the cows supply both horns for burying and whey (liquid remaining after milk has been curdled and strained) that’s sprayed on the vineyard to combat powdery mildew.
Consulting the stars
Mercury in retrograde? Scorpio ascending? Sounds more like a horoscope than agriculture, but some winegrowers swear by following the lunar cycle. The idea may not be as loony as it seems — even the Farmers’ Almanac promotes gardening by the moon, designating barren and fruitful days.
Following the moon through the constellations “gives us the precise hours and days that we sow, prune, harvest, spray and work with the bees,” says Gelert Hart, who works with his parents Phillip and Mary at AmByth. Sagittarius, a fire sign, and Aquarius, an air sign, are dry and barren — no planting. Earth and water signs like Capricorn and Pisces are productive and good for planting.
Hart points to the tides as an easy way to see the influence of forces beyond our own planet. “If the moon can pull and push on the earth enough to raise and lower the ocean, surely it has an effect on plants — humans and animals, too,” he says.
The moon plays into other decisions as well. Tantara Winery in Santa Ynez, for example, won’t bottle when the moon is full, as they say it stirs up the wine too much.
Sally Buffalo writes about wine, beer and spirits. Reach her at email@example.com or on Twitter or Instagram @sallybuffalo.
Taste for Yourself
Visit these wineries to sample what biodynamics does for wines.
In the midst of converting to biodynamic farming
5620 Vineyard Drive, Paso Robles, (805) 226-4200
Began farming 20 acres biodynamically in 2009, working toward certification
9339 Adelaida Road, Paso Robles, (805) 237-1231
Organically farmed wines with biodynamic inputs
550 1st St., Avila Beach, (805) 459-9595
Farmed from organic-certified vineyards, including one that is Demeter-certified as biodynamic.
134-A W. Branch St., Arroyo Grande, 805.686.4200
Certified biodynamic and organic vineyards
5995 Peachy Canyon Road, Paso Robles, (805) 238-7145
Make appointments or seek out bottles from these wineries that use biodynamic farming: