Biodynamics, Up Close and Personal

Valeria Huneeus talks science and biodynamics during my visits to Quintessa and Flowers

Sep 7, 2012

When it comes to biodynamics, I've never been a skeptic. But I haven't embraced it fully either. Much of the farming method's doctrine makes sense, but little has been proven. It's originator, Rudolf Steiner, often spoke in analogies which sound reasonable on the surface but have little proof. It's been left up to those who read his work to interpret and form what has today become biodynamic farming.

So it was with great interest that I got to spend the day with Valeria Huneeus and her team at Quintessa. Huneeus has been the driving force behind California's Quintessa since its founding in 1990. A believer in biodynamics, Huneeus also has a Ph.D. in biochemistry and nutrition, a seemingly perfect balance of science and common sense to help me understand biodynamics a bit more. Along with biodynamic consultant Alan York, winemaker Charles Thomas, viticulturist Michael Sipora and vineyard manager Martin Galvan, we walked the the vineyard of Quintessa yesterday.

Quintessa / Flowers

"I truly believe in it," said Huneeus, soft-spoken but clearly determined. "But even when you believe there is still so much in between in the ways you can farm biodynamically. It is a long process."

Huneeus' husband, Agustin Huneeus, Sr., sold his Franciscan Estates in 1989 and began to look for his next project. When Valeria saw the unplanted property situated in Rutherford, she fell in love with it. It took some wrangling, but in 1990, the Huneeus family bought the 280-acre estate that sits in the heart of Rutherford, along the valley floor, but with a unique terrain of rolling hillocks and steep hillsides unlike the generally flatter vineyards around it. Today the property has 165 acres planted to vines and produces around 10,000 cases annually of its flagship Cabernet Sauvignon-based blend.

"It was a special find," said Huneeus. "We were looking for a new project but at that time phylloxera was spreading through Napa, and so we knew that just about any vineyard we looked at would need to be replanted. Yet everyone was asking a price for the vineyard without factoring that in. When I saw this property, and its virgin soils, I knew we could do something right from the start."

The eastern edge of the property features some weathered and some alluvial white volcanic ash, which delivers a black fruit profile to the wine. The central spine of hills is mostly alluvial gravel and clay, producing grapes with red fruit notes, while the western edge is a classic river bench from the Napa river, with gravel and loam soils that give a tannic spine.

York, who consults around the world, has known Huneeus for many years. I wondered if he felt the team at Quintessa was worried about going biodynamic in a region where conventional farming is still the norm.

"Quite rightly so," he said. "I'd be worried if they weren't worried. But my job is to work with people, not convince them. As long as they're working biologically, they need to find their comfort zone for how they're working, and then I can help them," added York, 60, who has a subtle cultivated hippie look with his graying hair pulled back in a pony tail and professorial glasses around his neck. "Biodynamics is the opposite of a cult, which is often how people see it. We don't go out and try to convert people to it. It's a personal path. It's a more monastic approach."

"It's natural for the vineyard manager and viticulturist to want to protect their vineyard, so deciding to take an unconventional route isn't easy," said Charles Thomas, 59. Thomas had some experience with biodynamic trials working at Rudd and Kendall-Jackson before coming to Quintessa in 2007, and he seems very comfortable working within the framework. "This vineyard requires more complex farming to begin with because of the variety of terrain, and you have to learn to live with that and respect it."

"Conventional farmers are concerned with just that year," said Huneeus. "Biodynamics is about looking toward the future always. But even with virgin soils it was a difficult course to take. It's a commitment and there are no half-measures."

"With biodynamics, you can't go back in time. If you see a problem developing you have to get on it right away. A conventional farming program, with chemical sprays, you can wait, and do large portions all at once. But it's important to remember that biodynamics is a culture, it's not some savage thing with no rules or a laissez faire approach. You are a co-creator with it," said York.

"At first we farmed by block," said Huneeus. "But with biodynamics, you have to be observant and watch closely all the time. So now we have blocks within the blocks that we farm differently from each other. And as we slowly replant we implement these changes, such as density or row angle. It teaches us about the vineyard as we grow with it."

So how does Huneeus reconcile her scientific background with the more loosely interpreted methods of biodynamics?

"We are connected to the energy of the universe. In the computer age we maybe don't realize this as much as we should. But the plant proves it. Photosynthesis is using the energy of the sun, which we know scientifically of course. That's the energy of the universe and we have to respect that," she said with stiffening conviction.

"Steiner was not a farmer. He interpreted what farmers were telling him. Ultimately science can't explain everything and we have to press on to find our own resolution," added Huneeus.

But has anyone done research that proves hard facts about biodynamics? For example, why does a certain type of cow horn need to be used for one of the organic preparations?

"Well, there's a cow, which is a female who has calved. There's a heifer, who hasn't calved. There is a steer, which is a castrated male. And then there's a bull, an intact male," said York. "Don't you think those are four different animals, with four different hormonal compositions? Cow doesn't mean any cow. And that's one of the problems with biodynamics is the generalizations made about it. But you're right to note that there isn't the hard research being done to quantify these things. If we had one-tenth the research spent on biodynamics that has been spent on researching chemicals, genetically modified organisms and other aspects of conventional farming, imagine where we'd be with it now."

"The question that isn't being asked is why aren't vineyards lasting past 20 years before needing to be replanted," said York. "That's the average age in California. In Chile, it's 12 years. Which means there they get nine crops before having to do it over again. Modern conventional farming is killing vineyards. How does the constant replanting of young vineyards expand our knowledge of fine wine? It can't. Longevity and authenticity are the two most important things to fine wine and farming a vineyard so that it thrives for decades is the way to get there."

The drive from Quintessa to the Huneeus' other property, Flowers, is over two hours. Luckily by helicopter it's just 25 minutes. And the view as you fly over the valley and approach the jagged coastal range of mountains is spectacular. As we prepared to land at Flowers, the fog suddenly started pouring in over the top of the property and the temperature dropped drastically—at 1:30 in the afternoon.

Here, the property has just been converted to biodynamics, as opposed to being farmed that way from the start. Purchased in 2009, Flowers had already built an impressive track record for its cool-climate Chardonnay and Pinot bottlings. But while the property had been farmed relatively organically beforehand, it was with synthetic fertilizers typically sprayed on the leaves rather than through the soil, which is where biodynamics focuses.

The property consists of two hilltop sites, the 327-acre Camp Meeting Ridge (with 29 acres under vine) and the 47-acre Seaview Ridge vineyard (set amidst a similarly sized property of 327 acres as well). Jason Jardine, 35, was brought in as winemaker, along with Matt Osgood, 27, as vineyard manager. Both had some experience with biodynamics working at Rhys.

"Here you have 20-year-old vines that had been farmed one way all along and now suddenly we changed it. That is a big switch," said Jardine, still youthful in appearance but seemingly wiser beyond his years. "The older Pinot clones in this vineyard have a lot of virus, but since the switch, that virus is showing up later and in a more reduced capacity. So while it is a major shift in how we farm the vineyard, the vineyard has reacted favorably." Check out the accompanying video for Jardine's take on the results of biodynamic farming in the Camp Meeting Ridge vineyard.

Despite the drastically cooler nature of the Flowers site, ripening isn't a problem.

"It's cooler, but there's smaller diurnal range [the difference between day and night temperatures] than at Quintessa for example, so that keeps things moving along. We often wind up picking earlier yet with ripe fruit. We could let the fruit hang longer but we really like capturing that freshness you get from harvesting earlier," said Jardine.

Flowers currently produces an average of 6,000 cases of estate wines, plus 20,000 cases of a Sonoma Coast bottling sourced from purchased fruit. The 2010 vintage is the first vintage for Flowers where the fruit was farmed biodynamically from the start, and Jardine has embraced all aspects of biodynamics, including a reliance on lunar cycles and their effect on the plant and the wine.

"You can't say the moon affects tides but then doesn't effect how the sap flows up and down in the plant," said Jardine. "And I've seen it effect the turbidity in barrel too. A full moon and we draw a sample as clear and vibrant as anything, but with a new moon, the wine from the same barrel is stirred up and cloudy—and there was no bâtonnage or anything done to it."

The Flowers Chardonnay Sonoma Coast Moon Select 2010 offers a crunchy plantain, yellow apple peel and chamomile profile, with a bracing citrusy edge but still flattering overall. "Here Chardonnay wants to be briny, minerally, because of that constant sea breeze and fog. We don't want to resist that or mask that," said Jardine.

The Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Moon Select 2010 is a blend of top lots from the two sites, fermented with 40 percent whole clusters and named for the lunar cycle-influenced picking date which coincides with when Jardine feels the sap in the plant has receded enough so that he can use stems without adding any green harshness. The wine is almost crunchy in profile, with cherry, blood orange and spice notes and a lovely mineral edge that courses through the finish. There's a hint of shiso leaf as well, but it's not vegetal at all—it's bright and mouthwatering. The 2010 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Camp Meeting Ridge 2010 is silky and very refined, with bitter cherry, singed spice, incense and iron notes. It's well-layered but stays transparent and pure, with a very long finish. A new bottling, the Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Seaview Ridge Block 20 2010, is sourced from a single block at the highest point of the vineyard. The wine is tight, but with lots of tension, as cherry peel, plum eau de vie and a racy iron edge sit in reserve. There are just 135 cases of the wine, which was kept separate because of the changes Jardine has seen since switching to biodynamics. As at Quintessa, the move to biodynamics has resulted in the team at Flowers seeing more minute differences between and within the vineyard blocks.

"Because the blocks are showing differently, I can't just blend them all together," said Jardine. "That's what that sense of place in the wine is all about."

Environment Vineyard Management Biodynamic

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