Thursday, December 24, 2015

Winter Reading: Organic and Biodynamic Wine Books, Part 1 - Wine, Moon and Stars

I don't know why, but the last two years have seen a number of wine memoirs by organic or Biodynamic vintners in France and the U.S. They represent a disproportionately high number of vineyards, given the low percentage of vineyards that farm this way. But I digress.

It's the holidays, and I intend to spend some of it reading wine books by the fire to catch up on the collection I've been accumulating over the year.

Here's book number one in this series.

Wine, Moon and Stars by Gerard Bertrand
Biodynamic in the South of France

Languedoc native son Gerard Bertrand's autobiography is filled to the brim with his values and philosophies. He was a star rugby player until he was 30. Since then, he's become the Robert Mondavi of the Languedoc, raising the quality of winemaking and wines regionally as well as in his own estates.

Judging from his web sites, about half of his acreage is Demeter certified Biodynamic - 523 acres. That is larger than any U.S. winery. The biggest in America is Bonterra with 290 acres. If you combined the two biggest biodynamic wineries in Oregon - Montinore and Maysara - you'd get up to 500 acres combined. So his commitment is on a significant scale.

Still, it appears that at least half of his holdings are farmed "sustainably" - i.e. not certified organic or Biodynamic, a fact which he does not mention in his book.

Every week I go to a coffeehouse in Temescal in Oakland to meet a group of friends who celebrate the cafe's legendary croissants - made only two days a week. Today we met and one of them, a French artist from Languedoc, showed me photos of the region. It is every bit as beautiful as Provence but with affordable stone cottages and few tourists. Plenty of garrigue, limestone, rivers to swim in, caves and lakes.

The Languedoc, together with the neighboring region Rousillon, has become ground zero for the organic wine movement in France and has carved out a niche for itself on the basis of that identity.

Bertrand's book shows his love of this landscape. He clearly has a very spiritual connection to his work and his land. He is also a great wine marketer - as handsome as a rock star, and 6 foot 5. The locals call him "Le Grand."

The book consists mainly of his life story, which sounds like a lot to fun - no dark edges are revealed - but it also sounds at times suspiciously like a clever marketing ploy written by his marketing department. Nothing bad, save for his father's death when Gerard was 22.

All of the book aligns with the marketing on his web site.

Cleverly Languedoc has been rebranded "the South of France," since no one knew or cared about Languedoc as Languedoc, which most considered purely a plonk producer.  (The region made more wine than in all of the U.S. in 2001)

The plonk heritage was the only one until Bertrand and other champions of this generation went on the attack. They have raised the bar - and some of the prices. While most of the wines are very affordable, the high end has expanded. There are now "Languedoc Grand Crus" and one of them made the Wine Spectator Top 100 Wine list in 2014.

If all of this reminds you of Robert Mondavi, you would be forgiven. For there are many similarities here, leaving the family split of the American aside.

In Mondavi's day Napa was a plonk producer, supplying Gallo with grapes and Napa was nowheresville in wine world.

Like Mondavi, Bertrand is very handsome and has a lot of charisma. Like Mondavi, Bertrand started a jazz festival at his winery, Chateau l'Hospitalet. Like Mondavi, Bertrand recognizes the power of wine tourism and has a showpiece winery. He's gone one step further - with a hotel and a first class restaurant. But, like Mondavi, he is working hard on behalf of the winemakers of the region.

Bertrand is also a formidable salesman. For instance, in 2014, he bought out the cover of Wine Enthusiast magazine and several full pages inside devoted to editorial about his wineries. (See a video where the magazine awarded him European Winery of the Year in 2012 here.)

While he may be quite sincere, he doesn't give a lot away in this book. (Like why are not all of his estates organic or Biodynamic? And how much wine does he make? Which ones are the great ones? And which the not so great?)

On the other hand, it was a pleasure to sit by the fire reading the book and "travel" in my mind to the Languedoc.

Unlike Mondavi, Bertrand professes a deep seated spirituality. He has a mediation room for visitors at his showpiece winery. He translates quantum physics into the concept of quantum wine, which would make a New Age audience in California feel in harmony with him.

His abook highlights the Roman heritage and historic importance of the Languedoc region over time. I had no idea that Narbonne was a bigger port than Marseille in Roman times, nor that the Goths made it their capital or who the Cathars were. (I was inspired to read up on Wikipedia. where I found out that the Greeks made wine here in the 5th century BC.)

He praises Rudolf Steiner, but doesn't really tell us how he adopted Biodynamic practices nor what the transition was like (aside from that the grapes and wine taste better).

Wine, Moon and Stars is still a book worth reading - light reading - but enjoyable nonetheless.

For a video introduction to the estates of Gerard Bertrand (in French) click here.


  1. Thank you for this. The book has been on my reading list for awhile. Much appreciated.

  2. Thanks for sharing some good reading ideas Pam. I'm glad you can approach these pieces with a critical but open mind. Le Grand - he sure does know how to strike a pose huh? Cheers!