By Amy Paturel
In a ceremony on Sonoma Mountain in spring, the Benziger family buries a cow horn packed with a homeopathic paste of silica (a pale pink compound found in sand and quartz), vineyard soil and water. They unearth the cow horn in the fall, mix the silica from the horn with water, then mist the air at sunrise to enhance photosynthesis.
This is just one ritual in the exacting art of biodynamic agriculture. Based on a series of lectures in 1924 by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, founder of the Waldorf schools, the practice of biodynamics views the vineyard (or farm) as a whole, with the soil, vines, plants, animals—and even the cosmos—all interconnected. Like organic farmers, biodynamic growers avoid artificial fertilizers and pesticides. But biodynamic agriculture goes further, requiring farmers to plant, prune and harvest according to celestial activity, taking advantage of the natural rhythms of the Earth and cosmos, with a final goal of healing their land.
While anyone can practice this style of farming, winemakers cannot label their wines “biodynamic” unless they are certified by Demeter, the main association for biodynamic growers. “Biodynamic agriculture had significant recognition as early as 1928 in Europe, when the Demeter certification first appeared,” says Jim Fullmer, director of Demeter. The number of U.S. farms practicing biodynamics has tripled during the past 10 years, and now there are 34 vineyards in the U.S. that are Demeter-certified. “Wine has really been an ambassador for biodynamic agriculture,” he says. “It’s a wonderful fit because wine is a quality-oriented product and biodynamic is a quality-oriented approach to agriculture.”
Biodynamic certification requires that farms be free of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers for at least three years and generate at least 80 percent of their fertilizer from the farm itself. So instead of bringing in organic fertilizers and other materials, vineyard waste, such as grape seeds and skins and landscape cuttings, is recycled back into the land through composting, which helps farmers maintain nutrient-rich soil. “This practice involves creating an ecosystem and it requires serious commitment on the part of the producer,” says Fullmer. “It isn’t something that can happen overnight.”
“Prior to using this method of farming, we put down chemical fertilizers and fed grapes from the top—without consideration for the vineyard as a whole,” says Chris Benziger, one of the founders of Benziger Family Winery, which was nominated in 2005 for American Winery of the Year by Wine Enthusiast for its pioneering efforts in biodynamic farming.
Indeed, before Benziger embraced biodynamics, it was aiming more toward production, not quality—and its wines reflected that. Mike Benziger, another founder and winemaker, began studying biodynamic agriculture in 1994, hoping it might offer a better way of operating the vineyard. “We were putting scars in the land that we weren’t healing, and our wines were far from interesting. With biodynamics, we feed grapes from the soil, so the roots are forced to grow down deep. The deeper the roots go, the more minerals they pick up, giving the wine a certain authenticity and sense of place.”
Today 10,000 of the 150,000 cases of wine that Benziger produces annually are certified biodynamic, and they are working toward certification of other vineyards as well. They also provide ongoing natural farming seminars to all growers in their community. And “green” practices, such as water and energy conservation, also protect community resources. Though Benziger has been making wines on the Sonoma Mountain property for 27 years, Chris Benziger says, “It’s only in the last 7 or 8 years that we’ve been able to make wines with the taste of Sonoma Mountain—and it’s all because of biodynamics.”
—Amy Paturel, M.S., M.P.H., is a freelance writer in Seal Beach, California.