What's Good for the Soil Is Good for Business at Biodynamic Wineries
When Rudy Marchesi took over Montinore Estate in 2001, he had a project on his hands. “The vineyards were in need of restoration,” says the winegrower. “They had been farmed for 18 years in the conventional way, and it was reflecting in the quality of the wine.”
Marchesi transitioned the Forest Grove, Oregon, vineyard to organic farming. He says it helped, “but it wasn't fast enough and it wasn't addressing the quality issue.” So he did what anyone would do. He filled a cow's horn with dandelion flowers and buried it in the winter. In the spring, he dug it up and added the now strangely colored substance to his compost.
This is just one of nine “preparations” used in biodynamic farming, a practice that, with organic farming as a baseline, seeks to boost the health of the soil and plants by creating as natural an environment as possible. But how is burying animal parts filled with herbs natural? Dennis Klocek, a biodynamic author, lecturer and consultant in the Sacramento area, argues that farming is itself unnatural, and biodynamics is the best way of compensating. “Most of the chemical substances people sell are to ward off stress,” he says, “When you're working with large mono-crop acreages, you create stress."
Biodynamic farmers also keep wilderness around the fields to encourage populations of natural predators. They even plant and harvest by the cycles of the moon. If all this seems crazy, consider that after taking his full 230 acres biodynamic in 2006, Marchesi's business completely turned around. Now the wines get great reviews and the 30-40,000 cases Montinore produces sell out every year.
The real kicker? “Our costs are lower than conventional farming,” says Marchesi. While biodynamics is more labor-intensive and includes some up-front costs—Marchesi had specialized machinery built for distributing the preparations—he says he saves lots of money on herbicides and fungus sprays he doesn't have to buy, since biodynamics prevents problems, rather than fixing them.
Klocek says Montinore's business success isn't an isolated case, but that biodynamics doesn't always lower costs. “It depends on what you're growing,” he says, pointing to a Kentucky farmer who uses biodynamic techniques to avoid expensive inoculations for his 10,000 hogs. But in this case, it would not be cost-effective to go fully biodynamic and get certification from Demeter USA, the organization that regulates biodynamics, and, in fact, owns the trademark on the term.
In his first year of biodynamic farming, Marchesi didn't seek the certification either, because it meant he would have to stop using cultured yeast. “That, to me, was really jumping off a bridge,” he said. But interest from his customers pushed him to take the leap. It turned out that using ambient yeast made the fermentation process smoother, and the tiny, one centimeter-tall Demeter seal in the corner of the label drove sales. “I didn't expect it to be as powerful as it is,” he says. “The market really responded.”
Bonterra Vineyards, a large Mendocino County, California, organic winemaker that produces over 100,000 cases a year, also does small runs of 800-1,000 cases of two biodynamic wines. “We really believe in the quality our biodynamic farms are producing,” says Meredith Giles, brand manager for the company's organic labels. She says that although their biodynamic wines end up costing more to produce, the people who appreciate them are willing to pay a little more—roughly $40 a bottle as compared with the organic reds, which start at $17. (Montinore's wines are all biodynamic and retail from $12 - $40.)
“Some people really get it and think it's cool,” says Giles, “and some think it's kind of voodoo.” Marchesi says he doesn't really care if you buy into his farming practices or not—he just wants your palate to take notice. “Why do I do this?” he asks. “Because I can taste it in the glass.”
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