Not long ago, I visited Grgich Hills Estate, a Biodynamic® vineyard nestled in the middle of California’s beautiful Napa Valley. The sun was bright, the air was crisp, and the mustard flowers were in bloom, covering the hills in bright yellow. I listened as our guide, Natalie, told us how Biodynamic® wines are thought to have a strong sense of terroir, meaning they are reflective of the conditions and characteristics of the land where the grapes are grown. As I sampled a glass of Chardonnay, I could almost imagine that I tasted the minerals in the soil, the wind that blew through the valley and the rainwater that helped grow the grapes. For me, knowing where our ingredients come from is beautiful — and powerful. And I think this is as true for the ingredients in our skin care as it is for those in the food we eat and the wine we drink.
Weleda’s connection to Biodynamics®, a holistic practice that treats the farm as a living organism, is deep-rooted and goes back 90 years — to the company’s founding. Weleda co-founder, Austrian scientist-philosopher Dr. Rudolf Steiner, developed the principles of Biodynamics® after a lifetime of research. Today, Weleda operates the largest Biodynamic® plant garden in Europe and uses the method to grow many of the ingredients used in its natural skin- and body-care products. Like organic farming, Biodynamics® shuns the use of pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers, but it goes one step beyond organic to work with the rhythms of the earth and the cosmos to create a healthy, balanced ecosystem.
Here, Ken Morris, communications manager at Grgich Hills, shares more information on how the vineyard uses Biodynamics® to grow their award-winning wines.
» Why did Grgich Hills decide to utilize Biodynamics® in its vineyards?
In 2000 we began farming all of our vineyards organically. In 2002, Ivo Jeramaz, our vice president of vineyards and production, attended a lecture by Nicolas Joly — the most influential Biodynamic® winegrower and the owner of the renowned Loire Valley winery Coulée de Serrant — and he was immediately attracted to Biodynamics®. Coincidentally, in 2003 we had reached a crisis: the Cabernet Sauvignon vines in our Yountville Vineyard, which had been planted in 1959, were suffering from red leaf virus and experts told us to pull them out. Looking to save these old vines, we tried Biodynamic® farming and they immediately responded; the vines’ new health allowed the grapes to reach full physiological ripeness, resulting in richer fruit flavors in the wine. Based on that experience, we began switching all of our vineyards to Biodynamic®, and by 2006, all 366 acres had been converted and certified.
» How do you nourish and build the soil?
While organic farming also uses compost for fertilization, Biodynamics® uses small quantities of natural preparations to enliven the soil. Each of these preparations is diluted and then activated by a special stirring process known as “dynamization.” These minute amounts of natural preparations introduce microbial life and nutrients into the soil and that life reproduces throughout the vineyard.
» Balance is an important principle in Biodynamics®. How do you achieve balance in the vineyard?
In a Biodynamic® environment, there is a healthy balance of animals, plants and minerals. As a way of adding biodiversity and attracting beneficial insects, we raise bees and chickens and plant gardens and a variety of shrubs, such as rosemary, lavender and sage, as well as trees like apple, pear, cherry, hazelnut, elm and alder. We plant a variety of cover crops like legumes and grasses that prevent erosion and break up compacted soil, and when we chop and plow these plants into the ground, they release nitrogen and add organic matter to the soil. We keep the rodent population under control by placing owl boxes and hawk perches in the vineyards to attract birds of prey.
» How do you control pests and diseases?
Pests and diseases are a natural part of the agricultural cycle. We can never hope to eradicate them entirely, nor is that best for the long-term health of the earth. Rather, we try to minimize their effect on the vine by having a healthy vineyard. Much like homeopathic medicine, we work to have the vine heal itself rather than treat the symptoms. Our biodynamically-farmed vines are like a healthy person with a strong immune system. That person will occasionally get a cold but will be able to easily withstand it and quickly recover, while a person whose defenses are weak could have a difficult time recovering.
Also, nature has a way of attacking that which is not natural — if an artificial element is introduced into an ecosystem and throws it out of balance, natural defenses will swarm to attack it. With the vine and soil in balance, and with beneficial microbial life in the soil to counteract any malicious bacteria, the vineyard’s ecosystem can thrive in harmony.
By attuning ourselves to the natural rhythms of the vine, we’re able to anticipate and prevent problems as well. For example, we’ve noticed that mildew and mold have a tendency to appear shortly after a full moon — the lunar effect pulls moisture into the atmosphere. We now spray our horsetail tea preparation, along with sulfur (which is permitted in Biodynamics®), just before the full moon. As a result, we have seen a dramatic reduction in mold and mildew.
» What affect do you think Biodynamics® has had on the taste of the wines?
Our grapes are authentic and distinctive, and they display a better balance between sugar, acid, flavors and tannins. With Biodynamic® farming, we can maintain healthy vineyards that will be productive until they reach 80 to 100 years old. These healthy vines produce full-bodied, elegant wines with pure flavors, intense concentration and a pronounced sense of place. -Carrie Ruehlman