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160 acres to biodynamic practices to sell
grapes to the Fetzer winery (now owned
by a conglomerate), Benziger and others
called them the most beautiful grapes they'd
The wines Benziger makes from grapes
grown in its own biodynamic vineyards are
highly regarded---particularly the Benziger
Estate Sonoma Mountain V.2006 Tribute, a
cabernet blend the winery introduced five
years ago as a "tribute" to biodynamic farm-
ing. It has a surprisingly shy nose for a wine
that, as is the California custom, is a high
14.5 percent alcohol. It is delicate on the pal-
ate, too, because it includes cabernet franc,
merlot, and petit verdot, and far cleaner and
less oaky than the California norm. Trib-
ute is deceptively luscious; it's so clean in
the nose and light on the tongue that only
after a while does the deep fruit creep up on
you and make you want more, much more---
very unlike the usual brassy, heavy, overripe
California cab. It's not cheap (about $80 in
retail stores), but the French style will appeal
even to timid merlot drinkers. Is Tribute so
good because of the sympathetic family's
beautiful property and admirable farming
methods? Maybe. It's certainly because they
know how to make wine.
Many grape growers in both valleys are
sold. David Bos, a young farmer with mid-
western roots and the evangelical air of the
religion major he once was, extols the advan-
tages of biodynamics; all five of the vineyards
owned by Grgich Hills, the Napa winery he
works for, are Demeter-certified. "People ask
if it makes economic sense," he said when
he took me to one, near Yountville in Napa.
(Several farmers said their initial changeover
to biodynamics cost them a few thousand
dollars an acre over several years.) "But we've
seen biodynamics heal our vineyards." Using
biodynamic methods, he rescued a blighted
vineyard other growers would have torn up.
Now, grapes from that vineyard are part of
his esteemed Yountville cab. "We've been
making 300 to 400 cases a year," he says. "We
sell it only through our tasting room, and it
sells out at $135 a bottle."
Vintage '70s farmers move quickly from
the realm of the practical to the spiritual.
Michael Sipiora, for instance, farms at
Quintessa, a spectacular property on the
Silverado Trail. He knows wine; he farmed
the vineyards at Stag's Leap before joining
the conservation-minded couple who own
Quintessa, Valeria and Agustin Huneeus. The
di erence between organic and biodynamic,
he told me, lies in "energy." He went on to talk
about Steiner's levels of consciousness: the
"etheric" level of plant life, the "astral" level of
the animal kingdom, the cosmic and telluric
levels of energy we share with animals, the
"eagle" level attained by humans.
Sipiora buries crystals and "puts intent"
on them. Water---"the great messenger"---is
his main theme. His pride is the "flow form,"
a cascading fountain with double bowls on
each level that spins water in opposite "vor-
texes," charging it with energy; he pipes that
water around the property. He makes many
of Steiner's preparations himself---valerian,
stinging nettle, and chamomile are basic
components---and what he can't grow on
the property, he buys from the Josephine
Porter Institute in Virginia: stag's bladder,
oak bark for burying in skulls.
This kind of cultishness drives Aaron Pott
crazy. Pott is a winemaker and consultant
(formerly for Quintessa) who is planting
his own vineyard. He studied at both UC
Davis and the University of Burgundy and
worked at two chateaux in Bordeaux, so he
is familiar with New World and Old. He
first encountered biodynamic farming in
France and learned more when Quintessa
expanded its biodynamic program. He calls
many biodynamic preparations "ludicrous"
The problem, he says, is that Steiner
wrote little on grapes (just half a page in
his agricultural lectures), and his knowledge
of farming was based on his experiences in
chilly Central Europe---entirely removed
from the climate of Napa and Sonoma.
Many of the preparations aim to encour-
age ripening of grapes, whereas in Califor-
nia, overripening is the concern.
Pott doesn't dismiss biodynamics alto-
gether. "The tenets I like," he says, "are
those things that say---the way Steiner
actually said---'Look at everything that's
around you. Use preparations that work.
These are things that work for me in the
middle of Germany.' You see what's natu-
rally occurring on your farm and use those
techniques." Pott crushed leaves of the agave
plant, whose interior stays moist in the des-
ert, and sprayed them on vines to prevent
sunburn---and "lo and behold, it worked."
Why don't others adapt Steiner's philosophy
to such pragmatic e ect, and discard what
is clearly unsuitable to their own climate?
He shrugs. "Why don't Christians follow
the teachings of Christ?"
In the end, it comes down to faith. Scien-
tific studies comparing organic and conven-
tional farms have shown that organic farms
have better soil quality, according to John
Reganold, a soil scientist at Washington
State University. But studies comparing
the soil on biodynamic and organic farms
show "mixed results," he says. He has com-
pared soil from adjacent biodynamic and
organic vineyards and seen no di erence;
and although a chemical analysis of grapes
revealed some di erences, in a blind tasting
of merlot wines from those vineyards, wine
tasters were stumped. Still, Reganold is an
advocate: "Biodynamic farmers observe
and are in contact with the crop more often
than conventional growers." And, of course,
he likes that biodynamic farmers care so
much about the soil.
If biodynamic means only that the soil
the grapes were grown in will be better for
generations to come, that's all right. "There's
no money in winemaking, let me tell you,"
says Jim Fetzer, whose family stayed in prop-
erty development and grape growing after
selling its winery. The money is in the land.
Given the undisputed benefits biodynamic
farming has for the life of soil, maybe it's a
good investment after all.
CORBY KUMMER IS A SENIOR EDITOR AT THE ATLAN
TIC AND THE AUTHOR OF THE JOY OF COFFEE AND
THE PLEASURES OF SLOW FOOD.
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