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Winemakers consult the stars to improve quality

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Mike Benziger stands in his vineyard. Benziger uses biodynamic farming practices -- like planting according to the position of the moon -- which, he says, helps maintain the soil and produces a better wine. (Courtesy of Benziger Family Winery)

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Sheep graze in the vineyards of Robert Sinskey. Some biodynamic winegrowers say that having animals in the vineyards helps maintain the life of the land. (Courtesy of Robert Sinskey)

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A shot shows biodynamically grown grapes on the Robert Sinskey vineyard. Sinskey uses biodynamic farming practices -- like planting according to the position of the moon -- which, he says, helps maintain the soil and produces a better wine. (Courtesy of Robert Sinskey)

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A shot shows he landscape of the Benziger Family vineyard which uses biodynamic farming practices -- like planting according to the position of the moon -- which, he says, helps maintain the soil and produces a better wine. (Courtesy of Benziger Family Winery)

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A shot shows he landscape of the Robert Sinskey vineyard. Sinskey uses biodynamic farming practices -- like planting according to the position of the moon -- which, he says, helps maintain the soil and produces a better wine. (Courtesy of Robert Sinskey)

About 10 years ago, Robert Sinskey’s Napa Valley vineyard had had enough. The hard cake of soil wouldn’t take any more water, and the vines lacked the luster of the once proud providers of fine wine.

So Sinskey went off to France to see how the makers of some of his favorite wines kept their vineyards going. There he found some arcane rituals: planting according to the position of the moon, burying manure-filled cow horns and spraying powdered quartz on leaves. The practices were called biodynamics.

“I thought it was nuts,” he said. “These were some of the greatest wines and to find what they were doing, it seemed wacky.”

Nonetheless, Sinskey went back to California to convince his physician-trained father that there was something to it.

“He was skeptical when he heard about it,” Sinskey said. “But within three years we had this dramatic turnaround at a vineyard that many people thought was on its last legs. Now our wines have never been better.”

To many wine producers, biodynamic farming practices seem flaky. But a rapidly growing number of American winegrowers are embracing the approach because, they say, it simply works. Desperate to keep the soil healthy, they are watching the alignments of the planets and burying yarrow flower-stuffed urinary tracts of red deer to make compost.

The biodynamic movement was launched in Europe in the 1920s by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who preached a return to the ways of ancient civilizations, including the Mayans, Romans and Sumerians. Steiner argued that these farming methods were superior to modern agriculture, which he said was killing the land.

Many farms in Europe have continued to use the old methods, and in the last few years, many winegrowers in California and Oregon have followed suit.

Some critics call the practices “voodoo doodoo.” The “voodoo” is mostly a reference to the planting and harvesting based on the position of the moon and planets. For example, the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association Web site tells farmers that on April 25, the moon occults Saturn at 6:14 a.m., after which is a good time to plant fruits such as wine grapes. But farmers should be sure to “avoid two hours before and after" the moon's lower nodal point at 11 a.m. on April 27.

The “doodoo” is an allusion to the practice of filling cow horns with a “tea” concocted of cow manure and burying it for six months to make a “super fertilizer.”

“Here you are stuffing cow crap into horns; it gets people attention,” said Rudy Marchesi, owner of the Montinore Estate winery in Forest Grove, Ore. But “the bacterial count is significantly higher than traditional cow manure compost. We don’t know why it works, but it does,” he said.

Marchesi also noted that it's common knowledge that the moon affects the tides. Why not plants as well?

According to the Wine Institute, an advocacy group that represents 95 percent of winegrowers in California, there are only 25 biodynamic vineyards in California out of a total of 4,600. But that is twice as many as just a few years ago and, according to Paul Dolan, chairman of the institute’s board of directors, another 20 are looking at making the transition.

The wines made using these techniques range from $16 pinot grigios to bottles of cabernet sauvignon for $75 and more. Some top critics are extolling the biodynamic wines.

“There’s a huge difference,” said James Rodewald, the drinks editor of Gourmet magazine. “Biodynamic wines tend to have more character than the equivalent wines from conventionally farmed grapes.”

Growers say this is because biodynamic farms don’t apply harsh chemicals, and no finings are used in the production of the wine. The wines, they add, reflect the location, an attribute called terroir, from the French.

“The farmer builds up a strong trust in the land and in the grape, so they act in a more stewardship role,” said Mike Benziger, owner of the Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen, Calif. “They have a tendency to be patient, be noninterventional and tend to trust that the wine will be on a trajectory that is positive.”

His routine involves adding rainwater to finely ground silica, or quartz crystal. Like the cow manure, the quartz is buried in a cow horn and then is unearthed in the spring. The fine prisms are then sprayed into the air and onto the vines.

Benzinger explained that the cow manure is for the roots and the silica is for the leaves.

“It’s like drinking chamomile tea for your body,” he said. “These are homeopathic medicines for the earth.”

Not all wineries are jumping on board. George Rose, vice president of public relations at Kendall-Jackson, said the industry has embraced organics, but he called biodynamics “a little too mystical.”

“They’re doing it to be different and to have a story to tell, but at the end of the day, burying silica and cow horns--it’s a little too much,” Rose said. “The public really finds it all fascinating, but they aren’t going out and buying wines that have this on the label.”

Dolan, from the Wine Institute, said he expected the number of biodynamic winegrowers to continue to grow, but he didn't envision a day when it would be commonplace.

“It will always be somewhat leading edge, because of its spiritual-science background,” Dolan said. “Our society has been founded on natural science, and it’s just too far out for too many people.”

E-mail: cmr2152@columbia.edu