Down the Rabbit hole of Biodynamic and Regenerative Viticulture
This is where the entire episode is the Rabbit hole.
We find that the wines we like the most, the vineyards that produce wines with complexity and energy, generally come from biodynamic vineyards.
There are several reasons for this. These winemakers have a passion for the ecosystem, where healthy plants co-exist. This type of farming is more work. You must be passionate. Most of these people have done their research and maybe experimented to see if this really worked.
The second is that you can see the results in the soil. As the plants mature, animals and the good insects start appearing. Biodynamics generally takes 5 to 8 years, but you can see the results all around when it takes off.
We will start with a refresher, the biodynamic basics. Then we will share thoughts on biodynamics from the people who are doing this, the winemakers and wineries.
Then we leap down another rabbit hole to regenerative agriculture.
We will discuss how this all ties into regenerating our soils around the globe, allowing us to eat healthier, and mending the planet. These wineries lead by example and can lead us to a better future.
An overview on Biodynamics
Commercially farmed vineyards add chemicals to the soil to maintain the health of the vines. In a biodynamic vineyard, this is maintained through the natural microbiome in the soil. Normal, natural soil in a natural ecosystem is filled with microbes that move the soil and allow nutrients into the vines. These microbes are depleted through a lack of biodiversity, tilling, and chemicals that kill them off.
Biodynamics promotes biodiversity. While vineyards are a monoculture, adding cover crops, riparian areas, gardens, trees, and livestock can build up the biodiversity on the farm, creating an entire ecosystem, which is much healthier.
This type of agriculture also uses preparations. Rather than pesticides to kill unwanted pests, these preparations, made from natural ingredients from the property, help to spread the microbiome in the vineyard and add natural teas to healthy compost to nourish the soil.
You will often see Owl boxes and raptor perches in these vineyards as a natural way to keep down pests like gophers and birds who eat the grapes.
Compost for biodynamic farming is different. Often when you see compost being made, the farmers have temperature gauges to be sure the pile is warm enough to kill off the microbes. In biodynamics, the farmers are looking to keep those microbes, so the compost pile temperature is kept lower, turning it more often to keep it cool.
Ideally, all the preparations come from the farm. Gardens with Valerian, Chamomile, Horsetail herb, Yarrow, & Dandelion are grown, and the manure would come from animals on the farm. These preparations maintain the ecosystem in a way that is closer to nature.
This type of farming also works by the phases of the moon, and there is a calendar divided into fruit, flower, leaf, and root days. These are meant to guide farmers on when to plant, harvest, and prune.
Biodynamics in the Vineyard
So let’s hear from some of the biodynamic properties we’ve visited. We will begin with Tablas Creek, the first biodynamic vineyard we ever visited.
Tablas Creek, Adelaida District AVA, Paso Robles, California
Tablas Creek in Paso Robles is a project with the Haas Family of Vineyard Brands and the Perrin Family of Chateau de Beaucastel in the Rhone Valley of France.
The Perrins know the importance of keeping your property healthy through generations and are used to thinking long-term with their winery in Chateauneuf-de-Pape.
The property is on Paso Robles’ West side, in an area now known as the Adelaida District AVA. Purchased in 1989, the planting with the Chateauneuf-de-Pape Rhone vines began in 1994.
Tablas received its organic certification in 2003, began using biodynamics in 2010, and received its biodynamic certification in 2017.
We visited Jason Haas, the General Manager of Tablas Creek, in 2016, and he told us about how they were incorporating biodynamics at that time.
* You can find more of our interview with Jason from 2016 and more here.
Montinore Tualatin Hills AVA, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Rudy Marchesi is passionate about biodynamics. He discovered biodynamics through gardening and, in 2003, started applying these techniques at Montinore Estate. He watched as the vineyard’s health improved and, more than that, the quality of the grapes and the wines.
Montinore Estate is in Oregon’s Tualatin Hills AVA, located in the Northern part of the Willamette Valley.
They are one of the country’s largest producers of estate certified biodynamic grapes.
We visited Rudy in 2018, and he explained how he came to biodynamics.
*Find more on Montinore and our visit with Rudy here.
Hedges Red Mountain AVA, Yakima Valley, Washington
Washington’s Yakima Valley sits in an agriculture belt. While the high desert climate would seem to limit pest and disease pressure, monoculture agriculture is attractive to pests. Those pests then make growing organically or biodynamically more difficult. Still, some vineyards like Hedges in Red Mountain and Wilridge in Naches Heights are doing the extra work to make this method work.
In Washington’s Red Mountain AVA, Sarah Hedges Goedhart is continuing a family legacy.
Sarah’s parents purchased this property in 1989. In 2006 Sarah joined them as their assistant winemaker. She became their head winemaker in 2015.
They converted to biodynamics in 2008, and it suits the property.
Sarah exudes energy, and working in this beautiful place with these biodynamic vineyards is her happy place. This interview is from 2019. Since then, they have continued growing in biodynamics and regenerative farming.
Krinklewood Broke Fordwich, New South Wales, Australia
Biodynamics is done all over the world. We visited New South Wales, Australia, a few years ago and spoke to 2 winemakers in two regions with different difficulties and pressures.
Rod Windrim, the founder and former owner of Krinklewood, first started coming to the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, Australia, in 1978. In 1981 he and his family planted a vineyard in Pokolbin in the Hunter Valley. Things got too suburban for them in Polkobin, and they looked further into the country and moved to the tiny town of Broke.
In 1996 they decided to plant a vineyard in Broke. They spent two years doing the research with soil pits and testing and planted in 1998. Rod found a book by Nicolas Joly on biodynamics and was fascinated. The synergy of this agricultural method attracted him. After starting biodynamic practices in 2002, they became certified in 2007.
We visited with Rod in 2019.
Rod sold the vineyard in 2021. The new owners were inspired by Rod’s biodynamic methods and are continuing this farming method. They will be adding a performance venue on the property and a biodynamic and organic education center, a project that Rod began.
* You can see more on our visit with Rod here.
Lowe In Mudgee, New South Wales, Australia
David Lowe knew he wanted to be a winemaker when he was 15. Early in his career in the industry, he worked for a wine company. Here he was exposed to wines from around the world. With his boss, he tasted the 20 top-rated wines in the world at the time. Nine of these wines were biodynamic or organic, so he knew there was something to this.
He has spent over 20 years constantly improving their biodynamic/organic property in Mudgee. The property has orchards, gardens, livestock, composting, and vineyards.
The vineyards in Mudgee have been dealing with long-term drought. David believes that his vineyard has become more drought resistant over the past 20 years. They have limited pests by removing damaging pesticides and letting diverse native grasses grow. By dry-farming, they forced the vine roots to dig deep to find their own water.
Youngberg Hill, McMinnville AVA, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Wayne Bailey at Youngberg Hill saw what commercial farming was doing to the central part of our country. He knew he wanted a better way of growing when he started his vineyard in the McMinnville AVA of Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
Wayne has been farming organically and biodynamically and has incorporated “No Till” methods into his farming.
Founded in 1989, Youngberg Hill believes in being attentive to your farm.
Wayne grew up in Iowa, and his background is in agriculture.
His career led him to the food and beverage industry, which landed him in Burgundy for a contract. After his consulting gig finished, he stayed on getting hands-on experience with vignerons, who considered themselves to be farmers. He knew then that this was what he wanted to do.
He and his wife purchased Youngberg Hill in 2003. She maintains the Inn, which gives them another revenue stream, and he grows grapes. They focus not just on the wine or the grapes but the entire property, especially the soil, which Wayne sees as the foundation. He is passionate about caring for the land and they maintain a biodiverse property with Scottish Highland cows, goats, chickens, riparian areas, gardens, and bees.
Cowhorn Applegate Valley AVA, Southern Oregon
Cowhorn Vineyard in the Applegate Valley was a blank slate when Bill and his wife Barb (the founders and former owners) came to the Applegate Valley. The property had laid fallow for 15 years. He and Barb had been living a homeopathic lifestyle while working in the financial sector and wanted a lifestyle change. They were not afraid of hard work and getting their hands dirty.
As they started planning their farm, Barb met some biodynamic farmers in Sonoma. More than just farming techniques, this was a group of like-minded people who were open and willing to share. They had found their tribe.
As they planned and planted with the help of the legendary biodynamic consultant Alan York, they also had support from other vineyards and wineries. Brickhouse in the Willamette Valley and Benzinger in Sonoma mentored them as they started. They paid it forward, mentoring Troon as they made their change to biodynamics.
Here they are biodynamic in both the vineyard and the winery with native yeast fermentation and the only additive being distilled water and a bit of pure SO2.
We met with Bill in 2019. He and Barb have since sold the property, but the new owners continue to farm biodynamically. In fact, they are searching out and purchasing biodynamic vineyards. This company is sure that biodynamic farming is the way of the future. I think that bodes well for all of us.
I should also mention the tasting room here. The tasting room has earned the “Living Building” Certification. This is the most rigourous standard for green building. This is the 1st tasting room in the world to be built to these standards. The tasting room is beautiful as well as energy efficient and is made from sustainable products.
*More on Cowhorn: Cowhorn…Well of course it’s biodynamic
Troon Applegate Valley AVA, Southern Oregon
You may have seen our previous episode on Troon in Oregon’s Applegate Valley.
We visited with them in August of 2021.
Troon is newer to biodynamics, and Bill & Barb at Cowhorn helped to mentor them through the process.
Here you find gardens planted with the plants they use for their biodynamic preparations. They have worm bins for natural soil amendments and can add teas to the soils through their drip irrigation system, which means fewer tractor passes in the vineyard.
They have a dairy farm across the road where they get their manure. They also have sheep that they allow in the vineyards in the winter. The sheep help to naturally aerate the soil with their hooves without packing the soil like a tracker would or ripping too deep and disrupting the microbes.
The sheep eat the cover crop and leave behind manure!
They are growing apple trees and have a bee rewilding project with hives where they don’t harvest the honey. Craig Camp tells us that bee rewilding is helpful in re-establishing the bees’ natural immune systems.
They work to make the property a single ecosystem. That includes the people.
*More on Troon with our Discovering Wine Country Series
So what’s the next step?
Regenerative Organic Certified is a new certification by the Regenerative Organic Alliance.
Founded in 2017, the Organization promotes a system of farming that is better for the planet by focusing on soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness.
This is encouraged by discontinuing the use of poisonous chemicals, creating biodiversity on farms, cutting back on tillage, treating the livestock and animals on the property with respect, and caring for the people who work the land.
Their motto is “Farm like the world depends on it.”
If you have seen the movie “Kiss the Ground,” you have a bit of idea behind the soil health pillar of Regenerative Organic Certified.
We spoke with Wayne Bailey at Youngberg hill about “No-till,” which alone could make a huge difference in climate change. Tilling releases carbon into the air. Sequestering carbon in the soil cuts our carbon footprint dramatically.
*Earlier this year I wrote a piece on Regenerative Viticulture for Jancis Robinson’s WWC22, you can read about that and find the link here.
Elizabeth Whitlow, Executive Director of the Regenerative Organic Alliance
Elizabeth Whitlow is the Executive Director of the Regenerative Organic Alliance.
She worked for CCOF, California Certified Organic Farmers, for many years covering the Sonoma Region, so wine country is something she knows well. She saw Organic Agriculture take hold and watched firsthand as the quality of properties and produce improved.
She started with the Alliance in 2018 and worked with the 19 pilot farms in 8 different countries to kick off the certification. With Patagonia and Dr. Bronner’s as founding members, they have a sphere of influence over the farms they source from and are working to make all of their supply chain Regenerative Organic Certified.
Elizabeth can see the difference regenerative farming is having on the land and the people. She watches as farmers see their neighbors’ properties improving and get onboard with these regenerative practices
“…what I can dream of is that the ROA has these flagship farms all over the world that people can go to and see this firsthand and farmers included.
…if you have a place like that in any community…every farmer is always looking over their neighbor’s fence. What is she doing over there? What is he doing? What is this new rotational grazing thing like? I remember everybody in the dairy world in Sonoma County used to make fun of this one farmer…
They laughed … just making fun of him for setting up the strip grazing infrastructure to move his cows so that he maximized his forage intake. … he also maximized the regrowth of his pasture by doing rotational grazing. They all thought he was nuts.
Every one of them now does it because they also saw that the feed truck coming over there because the cows were eating off the pasture. So of spreading around and inefficiently utilizing it, he was getting an extra two months of grazing. And guess what? The vet didn’t have to go over there anymore because the cows were walking out in the pasture like they are supposed to do, and they’re eating grass.
So his vet bills went down. The milk tank kept coming and picking up milk. He got a new tractor, he got a new car, and all the other farmers are like, ‘oh, shoot, what are we doing?’ And so they started. So that’s how farmers make change. They’re smart business people, but they do need to see it in action. They can’t take chances.”
Jason Haas of Tablas Creek
Tablas Creek Vineyard was in that Pilot program of 19 farms that I spoke of earlier. Already Organic and Biodynamic Certified, they had a leg-up on this certification. They already had animal welfare guidelines for their livestock and a full-time vineyard team. They stopped all use of pesticides when they became organic and worked hard on soil health with their Biodynamic Certification.
Jason Haas said that while they felt they had always treated their staff fairly, the new certification allowed them access to new methods of team building that have made a difference in productivity and general well-being within a year.
Jason told us why they chose to be part of the pilot program. This opportunity to be part of something that could push the needle and not just have an impact on the wine industry but the world was something they just couldn’t pass up.
* I spoke with Jason just after they received their certification and wrote about our conversation in Regenerative Agriculture at Tablas Creek – a meaningful way to farm
Craig Camp of Troon
Troon was the 2nd vineyard in the country to be Regenerative Organic Certified.
They too, were certified Organic & Biodynamic, but as a smaller vineyard with a smaller staff, the certification was a bit different.
When I spoke with Craig, the General Manager for Troon, he told me why he was attracted to this certification. He feels that organics told him what not to do, biodynamics gave him proactive actions to make the soil better, and Regenerative, well, they actually do the science and measurements to be sure the soil is improving, increasing the organic matter in the soil and sequestering carbon.
Regenerative goes beyond Sustainable
Regenerative Agriculture is the new buzzword. It has taken over where “Sustainability” left off, and well, the words really say that, don’t they?
Rather than sustaining farms at the current level, we need to move to regenerate them, as we have lost so much in biodiversity and soil health.
Elizabeth tells me
“One repeating refrain of feedback I got after the pilot, is just my favorite thing is that from India to Kansas, people talked about how songbirds have returned to the farm that they remembered from when their grandparents farmed. So we wipe out the songbirds …we create all these pesticides and chemicals that kill all life.
… It’s something Paul Dolan actually says that we love …inspired by Hunter Lovins in her one of her recent books. But it’s “Farming in the Service of Life.” I think that really captures it beautifully because it’s in the service of all life, whether you’re talking about the soil microbiome, the humans, the birds, the plants, everything.”
But what about the wines?
Talking about these farming techniques is important, but so is the final product. If all of this creates an inferior product, many will say it is not worth it. The truth is that, in most cases, the product is better. Soil health and the attentiveness of the farmer makes for better grapes. David Lowe mentioned that 9 of the top 20 wines he tasted were Organic or biodynamic, and that was 20 years ago. In tasting wines, I am drawn to biodynamic wines. I often find them more dynamic and energized with deeper nuances than other wines.
Of course, the stories help. Passionate people make passionate wines, and their stories influence how you interpret what you taste in the glass.
Time to explore!
There are so many vineyards that are working this way. We have visited biodynamic vineyards that we have yet to mention, like Beckmen in Santa Barbara, Johan in the Willamette Valley’s Van Duzer Corridor, Syncline in the Columbia Gorge, Benzinger, and Preston in Sonoma.
Then there is Hiyu in the Columbia Gorge area, sitting in the shadow of Mt. Hood. While they are not certified, they use these techniques, cultivating a wild farm with multiple species of plants, grapes, and animals in a wild and natural environment.
There are also vineyards and wineries that we want to visit, Holus Bolus, Folded Hills, Grimms Bluff and Solminer in Santa Barbara, Winderlea and Brooks in the Willamette Valley. Then there are so many in the US, Europe, and beyond. (I’m sure I’m missing many! If there are others you wish to share, drop them in the comments for everyone!)
It might take a lifetime, but I look forward to exploring as many of these places as possible, where people care so deeply for the land and the planet. I suppose it helps that they also make tasty wine.
More on Crushed Grape Chronicles about Biodynamic and Regenerative Viticulture as well as people and places using these techniques to restore the health of the soil and the planet.
- The Scenic Route Part 8 – Johan and Quady North
- Syncline Winery Stunning Wines in the Tortured Topography of the Columbia Gorge AVA
- The Scenic Route Part 7 – Du Brul to Hiyu
- Beckmen Vineyards
- Preston of Dry Creek
- Digging into Biodynamics and a Tasting
Links to the Wineries we discussed!
Are you fascinated and ready to learn even more about these vineyards and maybe visit them?
Here are links to these fabulous places.
Robin Renken is a wine writer and Certified Specialist of Wine and WSET 3 Certified. She and her husband Michael travel to wine regions interviewing vineyard owners and winemakers and learning the stories behind the glass.
When not traveling they indulge in cooking and pairing wines with food at home in Las Vegas.