Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Natalie Winkler: Next Gen Up and Comer Guiding Westwood on the Biodynamic Path

Natalie Winkler with buried Biodynamic preps at Westwood Wine's estate 
Westwood Wine's assistant winemaker and vineyard manager Natalie Winkler is a high energy force of nature and a Biodynamic up and comer who's turning one of Sonoma's top Pinot Noir wineries toward a more natural way of farming. She's harnessing her enthusiasm and skills in Biodynamic farming to help this Westwood up its game to even greater heights. A go getter, she's dedicated to leveraging the power of herbal and mineral preps, biodiversity and other farming practices to help the grapes at the winery's Annadel Gap site fully express their flavors.

She's not alone in using this type of farming in the pursuit of creating superb Pinot Noir.

If you want to make great Pinot Noir, look to the vineyards using Biodynamic practices for examples of some of the finest Pinots on the planet. While it started in Burgundy, those in the U.S who are in pursuit of great Pinot Noir make up the largest chunk of Demeter certified Biodynamic wineries, and their efforts typically bear fruit. (Yes, pun intended.) Because growing Pinot Noir is no picnic. Which is part of its allure. And there seems to be a magical je ne sais qua aspect of both growing this grape and the Biodynamic way of farming. Of course, Biodynamics is not a panacea on its own, but it does seem to offer an edge.

It may come as a surprise, but the fact is that all the Pinot Noir producers in the U.S. with Biodynamic vines have gotten scores of 90+ points from major wine critics (i.e. no Wine Enthusiast scores, just Wine Spectator, Galloni/Vinous, Parker, et al). Yes, that is true - not an alternative fact - of all of the Biodynamically grown Pinots - even the ones that sell for $20. (Montinore Estate and Three Degrees are in that category).

Last month I had a chance to tour Westwood's vineyard and taste the 2015 and 2016 estate wines with Natalie to learn more about how this Pinot Noir star winery, already known for excellence, is working to improve its already impressive wines.

I say impressive based on its recent track record in competitions which is really rather remarkable. The winery's 2014 Clone 37 Pinot Noir won three top awards in the 2016 Press Democrat North Coast Wine Challenge [Best Red, Best of Sonoma County and Best of the Best awards] and its Pommard Clone Pinot took Best of Class at the 2016 Chronicle Wine Competition.)

The estate is a one of kind site, located beyond the cluster of wineries in Kenwood, at the northern end of the Valley of the Moon, where the maritime influence from the west begins to have an impact.

The 22 acre valley floor site sits on a 37 acre parcel, with the easternmost part of the property remaining wild and uncultivated, meeting the Biodynamic requirements for at least ten percent of the estate being reserved for biodiversity. The soils are gravelly loam. Thirteen acres are planted to Pinot Noir, and include nine clones (777, 667, 115, 943, Calera, Haynes/Martini, Chambertin, and 37/Mt. Eden). The rest is planted to Rhones.

"We have 16 SKUs," Winkler said. "We like to make a lot of different Pinots." (And Rhones.)

Philippe Coderey, Biodynamic vineyard consultant
Before coming to Westwood, Winkler apprenticed herself to French Biodynamic vineyard consultant Philippe Coderey, a native of Provence, who was recruited to come to the U.S. in 2005 by Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon to establish the first Biodynamic program for Randall Grahm's Bonny Doon. Grahm was one of the early and very vocal evangelists for Biodynamics in the U.S. A 25th generation vine grower, Coderey had been working for M. Chapoutier, one of the great Rhone producers, who is Biodynamic.

After working in conventional vineyards previously, Winkler said she was bothered by what she learned about Roundup and glyphosate both in terms of the impacts on workers and on the soil. She decided to change course in 2014 and made it her mission to work with Coderey to learn Biodynamics.

After that she convinced Westwood to hire her and began their conversion, in January of 2015, to Biodynamic farming practices. This year the winery decided to apply for Demeter certification, which is expected in 2018. (It takes three years of farming Biodynamically to become certified.)

"It does cost 20-30% more in farming costs," Winkler said (mostly due to manual weed removal), "but we know that it's the right thing to do, because it is revitalizing the land. And with Biodynamic farming, the fruit retains more acid in the berry, which means better balance in the finished wine that we harvested at a lower brix level."

"We've seen a rebounding of vitality since we started farming this way," she said, as a flock of migrating birds flew overhead. "It's definitely made a difference."

Winkler says the site is perfect for Pinot. "The sun burns off at 11, and the wind picks up in the afternoon. The wind lowers the mildew pressure, keeping the vines aerated and lowering the humidity," she said.

Westwood Wine's winemaker Ben Cane, known for his Pinot expertise, makes all of Westwood's wines with native yeast, so getting the fruit just right is important. The first vintages from Biodynamic vines include the 2015 Estate Pinot, which we tasted back at the winery's 8th Street location. As you can see from the label below, the Estate includes all eight clones, making it one of the more unusually complex Pinots.

The winery's tasting room is located in Sonoma, just off the square, where you can taste through the Pinots side by side and also sample the winery's Rhone wines. The estate wines from the 2015 and 2016 vintages are from organic and Biodynamically farmed vines.

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