After Miljenko "Mike" Grgich introduced organic farming to his Rutherford, Calif., winery in 2000, the vintner didn't get the results he had hoped for. So Grgich Hills Estate turned to biodynamics.
"When someone switches from conventional to organics, their mindset as a farmer — when they've been using chemicals for years — is, 'The (market) climate and the wineries want organic, I'll do organic,'" says Grgich vineyard manager David Bos. "Biodynamics says, 'How can I heal the soil, and how can I make these vines healthier?'"
The evolution of a vintner's product from conventional to organic to biodynamic makes sound environmental sense, but that doesn't mean the resulting bottle of wine is an easy sell. The biodynamic approach is still new to many wine drinkers and isn't necessarily viewed as an asset, though vintners expect they will taste the improvement.
"A lot of people who don't do biodynamics will say people just do it for the marketing aspect — I can't tell you what a nightmare it's been for our marketing department," Bos says. "What I think biodynamics does for us, and I've seen it in our wines, it makes it more unique. It comes into the winery as a healthier fruit, which then turns into healthier wine."
Organic and biodynamic wines share some traits — both must be made with organic grapes, have a limited amount of sulfur and follow stringent USDA guidelines for certification, which is noted on the label. But biodynamic vintners adhere not just to a regimen, but to a wine philosophy, which calls for a holistic relationship that treats the farm as a living organism.
Bos describes biodynamics as having "four legs of the same table," with the table as the vineyard. Those "legs" include biodiversity; vigilant observation of the farm and cosmos; soil and composting; and the biodynamic "preparations." To the average wine drinker, the preparations may sound a little strange.
"It only looks crazy if you haven't seen them work," Bos says.
Preparations include sprays and composts (made from organic material, including plant life and the internal organs of farm animals) that promote plant growth and prevent disease and fungus. One calls for cow manure packed in a cow's horn, buried through winter and removed as a black, super-saturated compost to be sprayed on the soil.
In 2007, Demeter Biodynamic Trade Organization, the official third-party certifier for biodynamics, certified Grgich Hills Estate. "We've seen quality in our five vineyards go way up from a winemaking and growing standard that makes us see no reason to ever walk away from this," Bos says.
"(Farming) organically or biodynamically does not guarantee quality," says Alex Sokol Blosser, co-president of Oregon organic label Sokol Blosser. "Someone buying that bottle of wine isn't going to spend $40 because it's organic. It's serious money, so it better be good. If it means something to them, our fields are certified organic. When I'm out in the marketplace, I don't pound being green and good to the earth — it doesn't matter if it's not in the bottle."
Alex and wife Allison took over the winery as co-presidents in 2008 following six years of organic farming. "I believe in farming organically. Biodynamics is just a different animal," he says.
In 2002, a biodynamic consultant introduced the vintners to the philosophy. "I realized there's a leap of faith you need to make," he says. "You need to feel it with your heart and your soul. Farming organically forces us to do a lot of the things biodynamic farmers do. It's made us more aware how crucial soil health is, and that's something we didn't have much of an appreciation of when we were farming conventionally for so many years."
"If you told a farmer 100 years ago putting manure in a cow horn and burying it, digging it up and spraying it on your vineyard will bring health and vitality and help the soil, they'd say, 'I'll try it. I've got cow horns,'" Bos says.
Biodynamics also encourages diverse plant life. "You've got to be aggressive with your cover crop plantings — you got to plant trees, different species of living organisms," Bos says. Cover crops, a "green manure," are broken down by microbial life in the compost. "Fungi, bacteria — that's like adding the first stages of life to your soil," Bos says. "The soil is a renewable resource. The grapes are just a byproduct."