Selling Sustainability

Adding pomace from the press to organic manure to build our compost piles at Troon Vineyard in Oregon’s Applegate Valley. Compost is the foundation of biodynamic, regenerative agriculture.

Farmers often are not very good with marketing and marketers not very knowledgeable about farming. To farmers, sustainability is an agricultural process. To corporate marketers, sustainability is a brand — just another selling tool. 

Recently the Sonoma County Winegrowers Association has been blowing the PR horn claiming that 99% of their members are now certified sustainable. In the movie A League of Their Own Tom Hanks playing the manager Jimmy Dugan says, "It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard ... is what makes it great."

The standards applied for sustainability in Sonoma are not hard because everyone seems able to attain them easily. You have to question any standard that anyone and everyone can achieve. Great, this accomplishment is not. Better than nothing for sure, but that’s about it.

This is a marketing deception not up to the hard-earned reputation of an elite winemaking region like Sonoma. It is a shame that Sonoma has taken this path as actually sustainability of farming in Sonoma has always outdistanced its neighbor Napa. Sonoma was the sensitive one compared to commercial Napa. While I would not have been a bit surprised if this path was taken by marketing-driven Napa, it is a disappointment that it was Sonoma that chose to decimate whatever meaning the term sustainability had left. 

Wine writer Ester Mobley picks up on some essential points in her recent San Francisco Chronicle article “Nearly all Sonoma County vineyards are certified sustainable” 

“But as sustainability certifications have proliferated, they’ve also drawn significant criticism — that the programs’ standards are too lax on the use of synthetic chemicals, that they are marketing ploys constituting “greenwashing,” 

“The tipping point was really when the wineries wanted to use the (Sonoma sustainable logo) label,” says Kruse.” (Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma Winegrowers) 

”In the public consciousness, “sustainable” and “organic” may sound synonymous. But as defined by these certifying organizations, they’re hugely different. (Kruse estimates that 3% of Sonoma County’s vineyards are certified organic or biodynamic; some of them are also certified sustainable.) Organic farming, overseen here by California Certified Organic Farmers, strictly forbids the use of synthetic chemicals. Sustainable farming, on the other hand, is designed to be flexible.”

 “The flexibility to continue using synthetic pesticides may make sustainability more palatable to a larger number of farmers, but critics argue that it dilutes the concept. “To me sustainability is a made-up word,” says organic viticulturist Phil Coturri, owner of Enterprise Vineyard Management. “How could you be sustainable and allow glyphosates to be used in the vineyard?”

Organic and Biodynamic writer Pam Strayer notes on her Organic Wines Uncorked Blog that Sonoma County has used an average of 81,319 pounds of glyphosate (Roundup) on their vineyards each year over the last four years. It’s no wonder that that sustainable certifications are accused of greenwashing. Strayer also quotes a comment I heard Monty Walden, the author of the excellent book Biodynamic Wine, make at the Biodynamic Wine Conference in San Francisco last year, “Sustainable means you used to smoke a pack a day and now you only smoke 10 a day. But you still smoke." 

Every small producer I’ve met who has pursued a sustainable certification has done so out of a sincere desire to become better stewards of the environment. Programs like Oregon’s L.I.V.E. have offered farmers a framework and developed comprehensive education and research programs to help them reduce their chemical inputs. These are good programs run by good people who are genuinely trying to make things better. And, indeed they are making things better and they deserve our respect in spite of their shortcomings. 

Where sustainability falls apart is when it transforms from an agricultural method into a marketing strategy. What the Sonoma Winegrowers Association is doing is a marketing strategy, not an agricultural one. Certifications matter and they should be difficult to achieve requiring genuine commitment from those that seek to achieve them. The hard is what makes them meaningful.

I do not believe the Sonoma Winegrowers and Karissa Kruse are not authentically committed to the environment or are intentionally trying to mislead us. It would be disingenuous to say they are not well-meaning. However, I do not believe they truly understand how important it is to go beyond merely sustainable. As Gabe Brown writes in his book Dirt to Soil, “Why would we want to sustain a degraded system when regeneration is what is important?”

Sustainability cannot be the goal. We must dig deep and practice regenerative agriculture that puts back more than it takes from the soil. You cannot nurture soils full of life when you use glyphosate or worse. Sustainability is too little, too late.

For winemakers who want to produce exceptional, terroir driven wines sustainability is not enough. To create wines that clearly express themselves and the soil where they were grown requires a healthy soil microbiome as that is the only way a vine can extract that essence. Current research is starting to suggest that the microbiome of the soil is more responsible for what we call terroir than the mineral and physical composition of the soil itself. You can’t kill the life in your soil and make wines of place.

Indeed it is the smallest of things that make a wine sing

Biodynamic (and Natural Wine) Fake News #3

Troon winemakers Cary Willeford and Nate Wall apply BD 508 (horsetail) to new vines about to be planted at Troon Vineyard in Oregon’s Applegate Valley .

There’s been a spate of articles lately focusing on the “natural wine” trend pulsing through wine world today. In almost every article there is a reference to biodynamic vineyards as a source for these uncertified “natural wines”. This is almost invariably not true, so it’s essential to understand the differences, but real bond, between “natural wines” and certified Biodynamic® Wines.

First of all, biodynamics is not simply a winemaking method; it is an agricultural discipline that is then extended throughout the cellar work. The focus of biodynamics is on soil and plant health. Healthy soils make healthy plants, which produce healthy fruit, which is what you need to create distinctive wine. If you want to practice minimalist winemaking, you can only do so with impeccable fruit. None of the biodynamic preparations (500, 501, etc.) are used in the cellar. All are applied to either the soil, the plants, or the compost that will be applied to the soil. The structure and rules to be certified Biodynamic® are all designed to be sure that nothing in the winemaking process detracts from the pure expression of vineyard, vintage, and variety that you have achieved through biodynamic farming. As the Demeter Biodynamic® Wine processing standard states, “The Biodynamic® Wine category denotes a wine that is made with 100% Biodynamic grapes and is intended to be an undisguised, vintage-based expression of a given estate vineyard.”

Uncertified “natural wine” is a winemaking philosophy that is often entirely separated from the growing of the grapes themselves. Today’s so-called “natural wines” imply they are superior to “conventional wines” as they are not manipulated in the cellar. This is not true, they are manipulated, but in different ways. A common symbol of “natural wines” are the amphorae made famous by outstanding producers like Gravner in Italy. However, the choice between using amphorae or new French Oak barrels are both equally dramatic winemaking manipulations that change the style of the wine produced. Many other icons of “natural winemaking” like whole-cluster fermentation are also conscious manipulations of style made by the winemaker. The fact is that all winemaking decisions are manipulations that decide the final style of the wine. So both “natural wines” and conventional wines are manipulated in many ways. 

Where Biodynamic® Wine producers and “natural winemakers” firmly agree and differ from conventional wines is to be found in what they don’t do in the cellar. Conventional winemakers use a full array of additives that are forbidden in biodynamic winemaking including commercial yeast strains, enzymes, Diammonium Phosphate (DAP), tannins, acids, wood chips, Velcorin (Dimethyl Dicarbonate), Mega Purple and-on-and-on as their goal is to produce a standardized and consistent beverage alcohol product. Both Biodynamic and “natural” winemakers want to achieve just the opposite as their goal is to produce distinctive wines that change with vintage and vineyard and share a belief that doing less is more when it comes to cellar interventions in the natural process of fermentation. Although both start with grapes, the concepts, and methods used in producing a beverage alcohol product from grapes and making wine are diametrically opposed. 

To be a certified Biodynamic® Wine only native yeasts can be used for fermentation, malo-lactic must also be natural, DAP is prohibited, acid and sugar additions are not allowed (except for sparkling wine), no processing additives except for bentonite or biodynamic/organic egg whites or milk (fining) are permitted. Sulfur additions are a big hot button when it comes to “natural wines,” but that too is limited to less than 100 p.p.m. (that’s very low as conventional wines on grocery store shelves can be three or more times that and our wines at Troon are far below that 100 p.p.m. requirement) by Demeter. By definition, Biodynamic® Wine is natural wine.

Where Biodynamic® certified wines diverge from many wines that call themselves “natural” is in the grapes used to make the wines in the first place. What is the point of minimalist winemaking if the grapes used were farmed conventionally or “sustainably” using chemicals? What makes a wine natural is not only your choice in cellar manipulations, but if the fruit itself was farmed naturally and then also minimally processed in the cellar.

All too many wines that promote themselves as “natural wines” are produced from conventionally or “sustainably” (what I call cleaner conventional) farmed vineyards. The creative winemakers that aspire to natural winemaking often do not have the wherewithal to buy vineyards and build wineries. Frequently, they work in communal winemaking facilities and have to buy grapes from commercial or “sustainable” vineyards. While I admire their inspired and passionate winemaking, I think presenting wines from chemically farmed vineyards (which includes “sustainable” vineyards) as “natural” is disingenuous. Using native yeasts and little sulfur does not alone make a wine natural. 

I will admit to being an unabashed fan of the “natural wine” movement and the impact it is having on wine production and the wine market around the world. The explosion of natural wine bars and fine wine shops are a godsend to consumers seeking distinctive, exciting wines. As a biodynamic winegrower, I cannot help but applaud the energy, creativity, and intensity to be found in the winemakers pursuing these ideals. I go out of my way to seek their wines out and drink them with great pleasure and interest. 

However, I do take exception to articles that equate Biodynamic® certified wine with wines that simply declare themselves as “natural”. In a recent article posted on the NBC News Website, What is Natural Wine? And is it Better for You? Lauren Salkeld writes:

“Natural wine, on the other hand, is made with organic grapes” “Natural wine begins with organic grapes”, “While natural wine is made with organic grapes”

Not true, there are many, many “natural wines” on the market not made from organic or Biodynamically certified grapes, and there is no requirement that they do so. As there is no such thing as a “natural wine” certification, the term means anything the producers want it to mean, and they can use whatever fruit they can find.

“Biodynamic wine is more complicated, but the term refers to farming, not winemaking”

Not true. There are both winemaking and farming Biodynamic® certifications, and they are distinct from each other with precise standards. To make a wine labeled Biodynamic® Wine with the Demeter logo, the wine must be made from a Demeter certified vineyard and must be made in a Demeter certified winemaking facility. For example, if you make wine from Biodynamic® certified grapes in a non-certified facility, it cannot be labeled as Biodynamic® Wine. Even on our farm, from our estate fruit, both the vineyard and the winery each must be certified for us to use the term Biodynamic® Wine on our labels. 

“It’s important to note that some biodynamic wine is essentially conventional wine made with biodynamic grapes

Well, this is a bunch of hooey. First, she takes the term “natural wine” like it actually defines something and then infers wines made under strict certification standards are “essentially conventional”. There are two certifications under the Demeter Biodynamic® standards. Biodynamic® Wine (see above) and “Made from Biodynamic® Grapes” from grapes that are certified, but are made in an uncertified facility, but still under standards set by Demeter. First of all, good luck buying Biodynamic® certified grapes on the open market as most are made into wine by the people that grow them. Second, even the standards for winemaking under the “Made with Biodynamic® Grapes” designation are far more restrictive than “natural wines”, which have no official standards at all. Also, I assure you, just as dedicated “natural” winemakers are committed to minimalist winemaking, anyone going through the effort of obtaining Biodynamic® certified grapes is equally committed to those concepts. I think it’s safe to say that those going to the trouble of working with certified fruit are worthy of the same if not more respect than someone simply claiming their wines are “natural”. 

“You can also argue that natural, organic or biodynamic wines are better if you want to avoid pesticides. While natural wine is made with organic grapes, there’s no certification, so if you prefer to see a label, go for organic or biodynamic, just know that either of those may contain additives.”

Additional hooey, you don’t know a thing about an uncertified wine simply called “natural,” and there are no requirements or guarantees that the grapes were farmed organically. As mentioned above, Biodynamic® Wine is certified to not have additives in the wine or the vineyard. 

Certifications matter if you want to be sure what’s actually in the bottle. Biodynamic certification has structure and that framework gives each generation a foundation to build on and the ability to pass on what they have learned to the next generation. Because of this, biodynamics is a living and growing discipline that gains depth with each passing generation of farmers. 

The “natural wine” movement is an idea, a philosophy, not a discipline, and there is a broad range of ways winemakers achieve those goals. Part of its energy as a movement is that lack of structure. If you go to an exhibition of Expressionist art, you can feel the connection of the artists to a similar philosophy, but the paintings are as diverse as the artists themselves. So it goes with “natural wine”. Unfortunately, much of the attention aimed at the “natural wine” movement is on the most extreme, and often faulted, examples while ignoring the vast majority of wines produced within this philosophy, which are beautiful, inspiring wines. 

Biodynamics may be a discipline and “natural wine” a philosophy, but they are tightly intertwined. Biodynamic wine was where natural winemaking was reborn. All Biodynamic® Wine is natural wine.

Previous related articles:

More Biodynamic Fake News….

Biodynamic Fake News

The 500 Milestone

Finished Biodynamic preparation 500

The 500 Milestone

Troon winemaker Nate Wall filling cow horns with fresh organic manure

You start with dung and end with humus. Newton was right, alchemy exists. What was worthless becomes gold. A concentrated collection of fungi and bacteria to inoculate our soils. This is not magic, just good bugs. 

We mark significant progress towards goals by celebrating milestones, events that measure our progress. Milestones should be recognized and remembered as you strive towards your goal. Some milestones are hard to measure, but in this case the achievement was very clear. Six months ago at Troon Vineyard we placed raw manure into some cow horns and last week we dug them up and out came soil - humus. The production of your first BD 500 is always a milestone for a Biodynamic farmer.

Why do you have to bury the manure in cow horns? The honest answer is that we don’t know, but we do know that no other container has successfully transformed manure into this important soil inoculate. Maria Thun, in her seeming endless research on all things Biodynamic tried to use other containers, but none produced the same results. For whatever reason, the cow horns are the only known container that transforms raw manure to the rich humus that is BD 500. Rudolf Steiner thought the cow horns channeled the power of the Universe into the manure. Personally, I believe that fermenting manure does not require quite that much energy. The fungi and bacteria are already here just waiting to do their jobs if given the proper opportunity. Right now, the cow horns do the best job of creating just the right environment for them to do their work. Perhaps in the future other containers will be discovered. 

The process of making BD 500 is actually quite simple. Last fall we gathered some very, very fresh cow manure from the pastures of Noble Dairy, our organic next-door neighbor (a great project for our harvest interns) and simply filled the cow horns with the fresh manure. The cow horns themselves came from the Josephine Porter Institute, perhaps the premier supplier for the Biodynamic farmer. Then we buried them last fall and dug them up early this summer. The transformation may seem magical, but it’s not as this is what the microbes in our soil do and all we did was provide them an opportunity to do their work in particularly pleasant conditions. 

So often we use mystical excuses to explain things we do not understand and there is still a lot we do not understand. Science and agriculture have had a difficult relationship. All too often, most scientific research focused on simply making more as bigger harvests promise more profit. The situation worsened as Big Ag took over the world. Quantity not quality generated the funding for most research with predictable results. In his book The Third Plate, chef Dan Barber relates the tale of university researchers being offered commissions by Monsanto to create wheat that was resistant to Roundup so that more of their product could be applied to grain on the way to a bakery near you.

Fortunately, things are changing and the microbiome of soil is the hot “new” topic being pursued by researchers. Many think what winegrowers have been calling terroir for centuries is actually more defined by the soil’s microbiome than the type of soil the vine is growing in. One thing for sure is that vines cannot take their nutrition from the soil without their mycorrhizal partners. The goal of Biodynamic farming is to build this natural balance in our soils. Healthy vines can handle many of the things Mother Nature throws their way without our help. In fact, often “our help” makes things worse for them. For some reason, we humans assume we know more about ripening grapes than grapevines do. 

After harvest this fall, our own BD 500 will be applied to our soils. There are those in Biodynamics that believe elemental beings are at work among their plants. I believe in them too. However, not the gnomes and such that some followers of Steiner believe in. The real elemental beings are the fungi and bacteria that work the real magic in the vineyard and are elemental to life itself. When we apply BD 500 to our soils we are just bringing more of those elemental beings to the party. 

Milestones are worthy of celebration and rituals. As a group, we gathered to fill and bury our horns and then again when we dug up the finished BD 500. We will all gather and celebrate again when we apply our own BD 500 to our vineyard this fall. We all come together to celebrate our milestones as we bring Troon Vineyard back to life.

In Biodynamics, the people are elemental beings too.

The 500 Milestone

Freshly filled cow horns being prepared to be buried

Planting New Vineyards at Troon – Hands

 Planting mourvèdre at Troon Vineyard as dawn breaks over the Siskiyou Mountains

It was before 6 a.m., but there were already a lot of holes. Dawn had not broken, but a dim light was just starting to flow over the mountains. Hundreds of holes had already been dug. Around thirty people moved their spades rhythmically, almost silently, as they dug twelve-inch holes, one after another. This is how you plant, or should I say, how they plant a vineyard.

Last week at Troon Vineyard in Oregon’s Applegate Valley, we planted about a third of the vines we need to plant this month. That was over four thousand holes, dug by hand in less than two day’s work. But digging the hole was only the beginning. Once the holes are dug, they must each receive, by hand, a shovel full of Biodynamic compost mixed with Azomite and Calphos and then a vine needs to be dropped in each hole. On each vine, the biodegradable root cover had to be removed by hand due to the requirements of our organic certification. Then, on their knees, with their hands, each hole is filled and the vine is in its new home.

One day these vines will give birth to wines served in some of the best restaurants in the world. But it is these people in the pre-dawn hours with their spades and on their hands and knees that brought these vines to live in this vineyard.

Winery tours and articles like to feature barrels, tanks, and machines, but it is the hands of the people that craft them that make wines of place come to life. From the moment the vines are planted, to when they are tended in the vineyards, to the cellar work that turns grapes into wine, the best wines are handmade wines.

Hands, not things make memorable wines. Hands hold the spades that dug the holes to plant them, hands shovel the compost to help them grow, hands prune and position the shoots as they grow, hands pick the grapes, hands sort the fruit that arrives at the winery and hands hold the glasses when it’s time to savor the hand labor that put the wine in those glasses. Making and enjoying wine is a hands-on experience.

The thousands of holes dug by dozens of hands will start to produce wine in three years. Many hands will touch each of these vines as they grow over the next years. Your delight and pleasure in the wine they will one day produce will be the result of the work those hands. Hand to hand to hand and, finally, to the glass in your hand.

Wines of place, with terroir, touch you because of the many touches that have brought the wine to you.

Planting New Vineyards at Troon - Hands

Planting grenache noir at Troon Vineyard  

Planting New Vineyards at Troon - Hands

Placing new vines one-by-one in the freshly dug holes. Each of the wrappers on the roots also had to be removed.

Planting New Vineyards at Troon – Getting to Know You

Troon assistant winemaker Cary Willeford applies Biodynamic Preparation 508 to newly arrived vines  

Standing there looking at the now real Troon Vineyard block 9, newly planted with mourvèdre, was an emotional experience. So much planning, work and investment transformed from an idea into a vineyard. There in front of me, I could finally feel the wine that would come from these vines. Putting a plant in the ground that hopefully will be producing wines long after I’m gone is a very different experience than planting a crop that will be replaced after one season. But it was the day before that we got to know each of these vines.

The process of preparing these vines for their new home begins the day before planting. Troon winemaker Nate Wall and assistant winemaker Cary Willeford and I spent the day preparing and applying a series of Biodynamic Preparations to the new plants. First was Biodynamic Barrel Compost, which we dynamized for twenty minutes by hand before applying to the roots of each plant to give their microbiome a head start. Meanwhile, we had been preparing a tea of Biodynamic Preparation 508 (equisetum or horsetail).  Which was also dynamized by hand then sprayed on the leaves and graft junctions. This preparation helps the plant ward off fungal diseases like powdery mildew. The time, care and intention that went into this process I believe are integral to what makes Biodynamics such a powerful agricultural system. The culture we built by providing care and attention to each plant changes our relationship to them and to each other.

Biodynamics achieves many goals. Your soils are healthier, your plants are healthier, your fruit tastes better, your wine is better and, obviously, its better for the environment. It is a lot of work, but it is also a lot of fun. You feel good about what you’re doing everyone feels pride in a shared worthwhile endeavor.

Yesterday afternoon all of our existing vineyards were also treated with Biodynamic Barrel Compost, we did not want them to feel left out. After all, plants do talk to each other you know.

Planting New Vineyards at Troon - Getting to Know You

Troon assistant winemaker Cary Willeford and winemaker Nate Wall apply Biodynamic Barrel Compost to the roots of the new vines. 

Planting New Vineyards at Troon – It Only Looks Like the Beginning

Planting New Vineyards at Troon - It Only Looks Like the Beginning
Planting New Vineyards at Troon - It Only Looks Like the Beginning

New vines arrived at Troon Vineyard yesterday from Inland Desert Nursery in Washington - mourvèdre, grenache noir and marsanne all neatly packed into shipping boxes. Next week more classic southern French varieties will arrive and within the next ten days, we’ll have planted over 14,000 vines to create ten new acres of vineyard.

Stacked in their shipping boxes they look like the beginning of a project, but it only looks that way. This project started a year and a half ago and the arrival of the vines themselves is closer to the end than the beginning of the project of planting a vineyard. The first step was extensive soil studies as Vineyard Soil Technologies dug more than seventy five-feet deep soil pits to create detailed soil profiles. Based on that data we selected ten acres as ideal for vineyard development. Combining the soil data and climate data with our experience we selected the varieties we felt would be best matched to each vineyard block to be developed. We then begin working with Inland Desert Nursery to obtain the clones of the varieties we chose to focus on. The varieties we were looking for are not the most popular so ordering from the nursery long in advance is required.

Planting does not begin with plants. First, there was the soil work and that filled most of the last year and a half. Once the blocks to be planted were identified the ground had to be prepared. That meant heavy equipment as a D8 ripped the ground to a depth of thirty-six inches. Prior to the ripping, we applied five tons per acre of organic compost along with other soil amendments that we discovered were required by our soil studies. This was followed by discing then yet another finishing discing. When the soil was prepared we seeded a specifically designed cover crop to add nutrition to the soil. As Biodynamic farmers, we also did our first application of Biodynamic Preparation 500.

Over the winter and spring, the cover crop prospered. This was then mowed, then disced into the soil as green manure. Then the vineyard begin to take form as we put in end posts, stakes for each vine (head-trained vines) and irrigation tubes for the soon to arrive young, and very thirsty vines. In addition, another application of Biodynamic preparation 500 was applied to both the blocks to be planted along with all existing vineyard blocks.

Only after all of this investment and work did we arrive at last Friday, when the first vines arrived. Their arrival was the culmination of all of this work, not the beginning. However, these vines mark the beginning of new wines that will come from the grapes they will yield. In that sense, they are truly a new beginning for Troon Vineyard.

As you see, the plan for planting these new acres at Troon was built upon scientific research, extensive viticultural experience, the principles of Biodynamic agriculture and on a vision to make wines with a unique character defined by our soils and the climate on the Kubli Bench in Oregon's Applegate Valley.

Over the next weeks, I will be documenting the process of planting these new vines at Troon Vineyard in words and images. I invite you to share that process with us as we build a foundation for a new generation of wines at Troon.

Taking the Parking Lot Back to Paradise

Brassica and sweet peas bloom as part of the cover crop regenerating soils at Troon Vineyard 

 Hey farmer farmer

Put away that D.D.T. now

Give me spots on my apples

But leave me the birds and the bees


Don't it always seem to go

That you don't know what you've got

'Till it's gone

They paved paradise

And put up a parking lot

  • Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi

I felt like I was walking on blacktop. Hard, hot and lifeless it looked like a place where a parking attendant would work, not a farmer. But this was a vineyard. Each vine looked like it was a weed growing out of cracks in the blacktop on some worn parking lot.

Living soil gives life. In this vineyard the soil was dead and the vines were dying. Yet, it was a beautiful site and the vines were giving some good wines even as they struggled to survive. They deserved better.

There seemed only one route back to health that could provide the opportunity to make the wines I believed had the potential to produce. That path was biodynamics, which is the best existing framework for regenerative agriculture. To craft the wines we aspired to make, our soils, indeed our entire farm needed regeneration. It is never just the soil that needs regeneration, but also the spirit. At Troon, not only were our soils abused.

How was a vineyard transformed into a parking lot? Only through the abuses of industrial, thoughtless farming can soil be so decimated. Sick soils make sick plants and these poor vines were overcome with viruses and fungal diseases that stronger plants could have resisted. It became our mission to bring them back to health so they could live out their remaining years doing what Mother Nature intended them to do with their lives - ripen grapes.

Then there is intention, perhaps the key to regenerative agriculture. Previously their intent was to extract all they could from the land and extract they did. Today our mission is to give back more than we take. To be a good farmer you must work for the farmers who will farm the land in the future with the same fervor you work for yourself.

The path from parking lot to vineyard started with science. We did extensive soil studies with Vineyard Soil Technologies and worked with Biomemakers to establish a complete cross-section of our vineyard microbiome through genetic sequencing. To know where you need to go, you first have to know where you are.

Then came the proactive part - biodynamics. The essence of biodynamics is building healthy soils. The main tool in the biodynamic toolbox is compost. Over the last years we have been applying tons of biodynamic compost to our vineyards. In addition to the compost, now that chemicals were eradicated and weed control was returned to manual methods our soils began to change, the microbiome bloomed. Today you can walk into our vineyard and easily dig your hands into healthy arable soil.

That parking lot has been replaced by paradise - a vineyard.

Wine as a Spectator Sport

Yes, I was turned down by theWine Spectator, they just don’t have the time or, apparently the funds, to taste one of our wines this year.

Hello Craig,

  • Thank you for your email and interest in submitting. Given tasting budgets, the small case production and editorial constraints, we will not be able to include this wine in our tastings this year. You're welcome to contact us again next year, with your new vintage, and we can consider the wine again at that time.

After five years of abstinence, I thought I would give the Wine Spectator another go. It was against my better judgement. After all, this is a publication that is focused on green-washed industrial wines. Larger producers with slick PR departments and large advertising budgets are are good to go. A wine with small production is simply an irritation for them. What you have to remember about the Wine Spectator is they’re not in the wine business, they’re in the magazine business. I have to agree with them, a three hundred case production of a viognier, marsanne, roussanne blend from a biodynamic vineyard in Oregon’s Applegate Valley is not going to sell many magazines for them. The publisher sees wine, spirits, cigars and now cannabis as simply as resources to be mined. Certainly they employ talented writers who are serious about their craft. It reminds of that old saw about Playboy Magazine, “I just read it for the articles.” Yes there are many good articles, but points are the real centerfolds and what sells the magazine.

This is why I have always been such an avid supporter of wine bloggers. First they taste wines like they were meant to be tasted. They take time with them, experience how they evolve in the glass and taste them with food. Wine bloggers are not wine spectators as they are fully immersed in the joys that wine can bring to life and communicate that energy to their readers.

Yes I know the Wine Spectator will claim they cover small producers and statistically I’m sure that’s true, but it’s also true they only do so when they feel it can be of benefit to them. Wine bloggers share their joy of wine, the Wine Spectator extracts joy and turns it into profit.

Thanks to the Wine Spectator for at least turning my samples down with an actual reply. Don’t worry, I won’t bother you again.

More Biodynamic Fake News…

Harvest 2018 at Troon Vineyard in Oregon’s Applegate Valley.

Tired old canards. When will the media get on board with modern biodynamics? While the article Weighing Up the Value of Biodynamic Wine by Vicki Denig addresses valid concerns, once again the sources for the article are either misinformed or have an ax to grind. Here is a link to the original article:

“Couple that with calendar-specific workdays and strict following of the lunar cycle, and even the smallest of vineyards would face significant time restraints and financial challenges. So when a sizeable estate decides to go biodynamic, is it actually achievable?”

“However, not all winemakers are convinced. In Crete, Giannis Stilianou, winemaker and owner of Stilianou Wines, explains that with larger properties, cultivating with biodynamic principles is nearly impossible, mainly because farmers are only permitted to execute vineyard work on a small amount of very specific days”

The Demeter standard for wines states, “Observation of the Biodynamic calendar is encouraged.” It does not demand only “calendar-specific work days or that “farmers are only permitted to execute vineyard work...on very specific days.” The statements above are false and following the biodynamic calendar is not required for Demeter Certification.

The work of all the biodynamic farmers I know is focused on regenerative agriculture. Their goal is to build the health of their soils and plants. In trying to follow the biodynamic calendar we are reaching for the very peak of quality. That extra edge that pushes our wines beyond just being delicious to becoming truly alive in the glass. If you can’t prune or pick on the ideal day due to weather and practical considerations you know that all of the other work you’ve done will still make exceptional wine. What we reach for by trying to do our work on certain days, by paying attention to the natural cycle of the Moon, is to go beyond simply delicious and make a wine that sings of the vineyard itself. A wine that is transparent and living.

“And for others, size isn't even the biggest issue. Stu Smith, partner and enologist at St. Helena-based Smith-Madrone Vineyards dug deep into the world of biodynamics – and still wasn't convinced. "I discovered that Rudolf Steiner had never been a farmer," he says, noting that Steiner went from student to agricultural theorist, without any experience in the field. Smith explains that when he'd challenge biodynamic farmers on their lack of trials and published results, their response was always that it's a belief system.”

Mr. Smith “discovered” that Rudolf Steiner had never been a farmer. Digging deep? An amazing discovery? I think not. Rudolf Steiner is famous for being a philosopher and founding the Waldorf schools, not for being a farmer, as a quick look at Wikipedia will show you. What we today call biodynamics was only outlined by Steiner in a series of lectures in 1924. He did not go from “student to agricultural theorist”, but gave the lectures at the end of his life at the request of a group of farmers. The modern practice of biodynamics has been built after his death on the experience and experiments of several generations of biodynamic farmers. None of the biodynamic wine growers I personally know consider biodynamic farming a “belief system”, but see it as a framework to build on with a goal of taking their farming to a new level. Contrary to what Mr. Smith may believe, Nicolas Joly is not your typical biodynamic winegrower.

“Smith also takes issue with what he deems to be close-mindedness amongst biodynamic farmers, from both large and small estates. "They are the only group out there that says 'our way is the only way, and everyone else is doing it wrong'. Organic and sustainable farmers don't do that, but biodynamic farmers do."

This, simply, is total bullshit.

“And when it comes down to it, Smith sees it all as a fast-track to making money. "There are so many wineries that need to find their place in the sun," he says, calling out the appeal of biodynamics to Millennial consumers. "In my opinion, it's a marketing ploy – do you see biodynamic carrots? Lettuce? Peaches? No. They're doing it in wine in America as a marketing concept so they sell their product easier and get a higher price for it."

Yes, Mr. Smith, you do see biodynamic carrots, lettuce, and peaches, just not enough of them. The reason you see few of these biodynamically certified fruits vegetables and wines is that practicing biodynamics is hard work and unlikely to reward with you with enough additional profit to justify the effort. You choose biodynamics because of a commitment to reach for something special. Demeter USA currently has certification protocols for Fruit and Vegetables; Nuts, Seeds and Kernels; Bread, Cakes and Pastries; Grain, Cereal, Tofu and Pasta; Herbs and Spices; Meat; Dairy; Oils and Fats; Sweetening Agents, Confectionary, Ice Cream, Chocolate; Cosmetics and Body Care; Textiles; Wine; Beer; Spirits; Cider and Fruit Wines; Infant Formula. It seems he is shopping in the wrong markets, perhaps he should give Google a try?

Then there is his “marketing ploy” statement, which any accountant for a biodynamic winery would get a big laugh over.

“Others think that many biodynamic practices are, frankly, bullshit.”

I'll tell you the real bullshit. It’s farming with chemicals that destroy the environment and cause cancer. It’s making boring industrial wine. If a little voodoo will save the planet, count me in. Voodoo is just what people call something they don’t understand.

Looking at Steiner in the Rearview Mirror

Rudolf Steiner gave his agricultural lectures, the beginning of biodynamics, in 1924. There were eight lectures over thirteen days given to a group of over one hundred farmers. He died in 1925. During the last of the agricultural lectures he said, “I am in entire agreement with the strict resolve which has been made by our farmer friends here present, namely, that what has been given here to all those partaking in the Course shall remain for the present within the farmers' circle. They will enhance it and develop it by actual experiments and tests. The farmers' society — the “Experimental Circle” that has been formed — will fix the point of time when in its judgment the tests and experiments are far enough advanced to allow these things to be published."

Here are some discoveries that happened from 1924, when Steiner gave the agricultural lectures and the five years after his death in 1925:

1924 – Wolfgang Pauli: quantum Pauli exclusion principle

1924 – Edwin Hubble: the discovery that the Milky Way is just one of many galaxies

1925 – Erwin Schrödinger: Schrödinger equation (Quantum mechanics)

1925 – Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: Discovery of the composition of the Sun and that Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the Universe

1927 – Werner Heisenberg: Uncertainty principle (Quantum mechanics)

1927 – Georges Lemaître: Theory of the Big Bang

1928 – Paul Dirac: Dirac equation (Quantum mechanics)

1929 – Edwin Hubble: Hubble's law of the expanding universe

1929 – Alexander Fleming: Penicillin, the first beta-lactam antibiotic

1929 – Lars Onsager's reciprocal relations, a potential fourth law of thermodynamics

1930 – Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar discovers his eponymous limit of the maximum mass of a white dwarf star

There was a lot Steiner and his compatriots did not know in 1924. What they did know was that the new chemical farming strategies that were taking over the world were destroying the land and our food. They may not have known why, but they knew something was wrong. At least they had the courage to seek a solution.

To take a frightening hypothetical, suppose you were diagnosed with cancer tomorrow. Would you want to be treated by a doctor with the knowledge that existed in 1920 or one armed with all the knowledge acquired in the last one hundred years? I think farmers should make the same argument when it comes to Steiner and biodynamics . We need to build on the wisdom of the past and it is our job to push that knowledge forward. We need not be held back by their ignorance nor condemn them for it - they knew what they knew and no more, just like us. Future generations will find us as ignorant as we find those that came before us.

Steiner clearly identified the problem and outlined an answer, but he was locked in a world that was not only in chaos after World War I, but in an era where modern science and new knowledge was exploding. His answer was to reach back and there was true wisdom in that when it came to farming. However, we must take Steiner’s world into consideration when evaluating his solutions. It is always wise to question the wisdom of your gurus. Much of what we call biodynamics today has little to do with Steiner. Names like Maria Thun, Herbert Koepf, Ehrenfried Pfeiffer and Manfred Klett established the liturgy of biodynamics. They took Steiner’s outline, then left it behind. We should do the same to them.

Steiner may not have known there were other galaxies or that the universe was expanding, but he did understand there were problems down on the farm. His ideas created a framework to build upon. He expected us to build on it, not leave his lectures frozen in time. Our job as biodynamic farmers is to continue the experiments as he requested until we find why biodynamics works, which it does. The problem right now is that we do not know the parts of biodynamics that work and those that don’t. Does every preparation work as he described? Of course not. Yet, there is something clearly working here and in the face of climate change we better figure out what works. There are no gnomes out there in the vineyard, but there are fungi and bacteria and in them we will find the real magic that makes biodynamics work. Are there Elemental Beings? Of course there are, they are just microscopic. 

The ultimate expression of biodynamics is when you go beyond it and craft the right solutions for your farm. Striving for Demeter certification is like a jazz musician practicing scales over and over again. It is only after they master their instrument that they can improvise and truly create something new. 

The next iteration of biodynamics is already in motion. People like Kevin Chambers at Koosah Farm and Ted Lemon at Littorai Wines are already moving beyond biodynamics to find new expressions of the preparations born of their direct experience on their farms. Practical biodynamics is being being taught to farmers (like us at Troon) by consultant Andrew Beedy, who was mentored by the famed Alan York. The practice of biodynamics has been and always will be evolving. 

What Steiner said in the agricultural lectures was meaningful, insightful and important in the maelstrom that was Europe in 1924. In the almost one hundred years since the lectures, we have learned a lot. It is our role as farmers to meld the insights of the past with the knowledge of today and to build a foundation for the future. That is the essence of biodynamics. Seeking truth and building a relationship with our planet and our place in the Universe is both a spiritual quest and a commercial one. Steiner is of the past, but biodynamics is of the future. What biodynamics will become is yet to be discovered. 

Steiner would have loved quantum physics. The uncertainty principle Is very biodynamic.