Biodynamics, an ultra-green growing style, is taking root in U.S. vineyards.
"You sure have a lot of weeds." That's how Doug Tunnell describes the reaction of visitors to Brick House Vineyards, his small estate in Newberg, Ore. He points to plants you don't expect to see among the rows of grapevines: a tangle of blackberries overtaking a bed of yellow yarrow. "Only we don't view them as weeds," he says. "They're plants that offer habitats to organisms that somehow affect our grapes' DNA."
Not every farmer gives up precious soil space to plants that aren't his crop. Still fewer bury cow horns beneath flower beds or treat vines with teas made from fermented Holstein manure. But Tunnell, 58, is not your average vintner. In early 2008 he will become one of the first in the U.S. to sell a wine that's certified as made in an entirely biodynamic vineyard. His 2006 vintage - 4,200 cases of three biodynamic varietals, chardonnay, gamay, and pinot noir - will go for $25 to $50 a bottle.
Biodynamics is a set of farming principles laid down by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in 1924. Like organic farming, it requires growers to adhere to a strict list of criteria to be certified, in this case by the Demeter Association.
But biodynamics goes far beyond simply nixing chemical fertilizers. It's an attempt to pack a lot of local flora and fauna into your crop, and it's becoming increasingly popular. "As the fine-wine business grows more globally competitive, this offers independent winemakers an opportunity to differentiate themselves," says Alan York, a biodynamic consultant for Benziger Family Winery.
First applied to winemaking in France in the 1990s, biodynamics has started to gain American approval. About 42 estate wineries in the U.S. worked their land this way in 2007, Demeter says, up from about 15 in 2004. Only a handful, such as Tunnell, have literally bet the farm.
Biodynamics was far from Tunnell's mind when he bought an old 40-acre filbert and walnut farm near Portland in 1990. A former CBS correspondent, he covered the civil war in Lebanon for ten years. Stints in France and Germany left him bewitched by small wineries, and he longed to be outside on a tractor, working the earth. An Oregon native, he decided to go organic simply because of the unpleasant memory of growing up downstream from two Willamette Valley paper mills.
Then, in 2002, Tunnell started studying biodynamics. Switching to it didn't require a huge capital investment; York estimates that biodynamic grape growers spend 10% to 15% more than conventional or organic vintners do. Every element of the fertilizers was local, including seeds, stems, and manure from the dairy cows down the road. After about four years Tunnell noticed a subtle change in his grapes and vines. "Each year I see small improvements," he says.
As do some of Europe's best-known estate wineries that have gone biodynamic, including Domaine Leroy in Burgundy and Clos L'Ermita in Spain. Wine experts say it's more a badge of quality production than anything else. "Can you tell from its taste that a wine is bidoynamic? No," admits Jay Miller, a writer for Wine Advocate. "But people who farm this way - they pay more attention to what goes into their wine and tend to make better wines than their peers."
Biodynamics remains a controversial trend, and scientists have been unable to quantify its claims. In 2005, after six years of comparing biodynamic grapes against ones organically grown in Ukiah, Calif., agricultural experts at Washington State University found few differences in berry weight, clusters per vine, leaf nutrients, soil quality, or the chemistry of the grape itself.
Yet even the chief author of the study is not dismissive. "Do they make a difference on a farm? Probably," says John Reganold, Regents professor of soil science at Washington State. "The grower is more in tune with his crops and probably producing better grapes." If wine buyers agree, a lot more vintners may soon be showing off their weeds.
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