Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Biodynamic Wine Panel and Tasting: Next-Gen Winemakers Taking the Helm

Biodynamic wines - what are they and what do they taste like? Do they taste different? How is Biodynamic wine grape growing different from conventional farming? Are there differences in the winemaking, too?

It's rare indeed to find a knowledgeable group that can answer these questions - based on firsthand experience - and rarer still to find a panel of winemakers and a wine tasting that can feature a selection of these wines. So it was a great treat to attend Sunday afternoon's Biodynamic Wine panel and tasting at Healdsburg's SHED, the wonderful, iconic farming, food and wine emporium beloved by locals and tourists alike.

While I curated and moderated this panel for Demeter USA two years ago, it was lovely to relax and enjoy the choices this year's moderator, Daphne Amory, made in the choosing the winemakers and wines.

Based in Napa, Amory, a leading Biodynamic vineyard consultant, is well known for her work with top tier winery clients, including Quintessa in Napa and Sea Smoke Cellars in Santa Barbara County's Santa Rita Hills.

Amory kicked off the panel with the observation that all of these panel winemakers were self taught. (Does that say something about the state of support in winemaking education circles vis a vis Biodynamics?)

To me, it was interesting that all of the participants - save one - were next-gen Biodynamic winemakers.

Santa Barbara superstar winemaker Paul Lato was the sole exception to that description - he's a negociant vintner with his own label - Paul Lato - and is also the winemaker for Grimm's Bluff, a Biodynamic estate winery located in Santa Barbara County.

Biodynamic vineyard consultant Daphne Amory moderated the panel of Biodynamic winemakers
From left to right: Paul Lato [speaking] (Lato Wines, Grimm's Bluff), Evan LaNouette (DaVero), Sebastian Donoso (Bonterra), Dan Ditzler (Preston), and  Jeffrey Landolt (Benziger)

Each of the local (Sonoma and Mendocino) winemakers were not only next-gen in age - mostly in their 30's (if appearances are accurate) - they were also all the second generation of winemakers at their respective Biodynamic estate wineries. There was less talk (really none) of Rudolph Steiner and much more focus on farming, vines and winemaking - a sign that the Biodynamic focus has become more centered on plants and products and less on philosophy.

Perhaps that is because the practices have become more firmly rooted since 2000 when Benziger became the first Sonoma winery to become certified Biodynamic and the mid 2000's when Nicholas Joly lectured there.

Today Sonoma is a hotbed of wineries with Biodynamic vines, with more than 30,000 cases a year produced from Demeter certified vineyards.* The county's biggest producers are Benziger, Quivira and Preston.

The area represents 43% of Biodynamic case production in California and approximately 18% of U.S. production from Biodynamic vines. (Oregon produces the lion's share of wine from Demeter certified vines - 91,000 cases - to California's 70,000 cases.)

Demeter certified vineyards in Sonoma are concentrated in Sonoma Valley, Sonoma Mountain, and Dry Creek Valley. Other sites include small holdings of Pinot Noir vineyards in the Sonoma Coast and the Russian River Valley AVAs.

PANEL WINERIES AND WINEMAKERS

North Coast

• Benziger: Jeffrey Landolt, who was vineyard manager during the Benziger ownership era, is expanding his role to winemaking, following Mike Benziger's long tenure. He's one of five winemakers on staff. About seven percent of Benziger's wines (or about 7,000 cases a year of Demeter certified ) come from its 100 acres of Biodynamic estate vineyards in four different AVAs.

• Bonterra: Chilean born Sebastian Donoso is the newest member of the Bonterra winemaking team, leaving his post at Campovida where he made some of the best small lot, artisanal wines coming out of Mendocino, to join the organic Hopland giant. Bonterra produces about 2,000 cases of Demeter certified Biodynamically grown wines in addition to 500,000 cases of organically farmed wines.

DaVero: Evan LaNouette has been working with DaVero's proprietor Ridgeley Evers at DaVero for a number of years, and was recently promoted to the winemaking position there. The winery has 12 acres of Biodynamic estate vines and makes about 1,400 cases a year from them.

• Preston: Dan Ditzler has taken over from former winemaker Matt Norelli (who retired in 2016 after 20+ years at the winemaking helm there).  The farm/winery makes more than 8,000 cases a year, all of it from Biodynamic estate vineyards; all the wines are Demeter certified.

Central Coast

Paul Lato Wines/Grimm's Bluff Wines: Paul Lato is a winemaker in his own right. Born in Poland, he became a sommelier in the U.S. before quitting the restaurant scene and moving to California where he apprenticed to Jim Clendenen and Bob Lindquist in Santa Barbara County. Today he makes wine for Grimm's Bluff Wines and for his own label, Paul Lato Wines.

THE CONVERSATION

The next-gen winemakers were passionate about eco-friendly practices that Biodynamic farming embodies.

As one put it in the opening round of comments, "The relationships that form wine go beyond the connection between the people and the fruit. They go very deep especially into the soil level and even the microbial layer. They express the potential of the soil."

Natalie Winkler of Westwood Winery with
Biodynamic consultant Philippe Coderey,
who consults at Preston, Westwood
and Grimm's Bluff
Lato, the most senior in terms of reputation, seconded that emotion. "I may not be as hands on as these guys, because I am not rich enough to own my own vineyards, but I have developed relationships with people who own vineyards or work with people like Philippe Coderey (a renowned Biodynamic vineyard consultant who works with a variety of clients, including Tablas Creek and Grimm's Bluff in the Central Coast and Preston and Westwood in Sonoma County).

"You know guys, this is doing things without chemicals," Lato said to the audience, most of whom were not from the wine industry. "That's a very simplified explanation," he said. "It's making wine through the soil itself, not a bunch of chemicals."

"Over 14 years of making wine, I've become disillusioned with the conventional way of growing," Lato said. "Sometimes I have no choice (but to use chemically grown grapes) but as I venture more and more into Biodynamics over the past few years, I can clearly feel the difference. It's not just intellectual. It's really seeing and feeling it."

Dan Ditzler weighed in on the broader implications of chemical farming, quickly summarizing the path that led to conventional farming practices - pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. "Thinking about the future," he said, "and the past - with the advent of industrial agriculture after World War I when these chemicals went from tank warfare to chemical warfare against nature (in agriculture), NPK farming, GMO crops...where has that brought us?"

"I ask growers and other people, how is your farm working for you? In the wine industry, the overwhelming majority use chemicals."

"It's been said that we have only 80 years of topsoil left. With Biodynamic farming, you're leaving something in the ground," he added.

For Benziger winemaker Jeffrey Landolt, Biodynamic winemaking is a play between control and artistry. "We have so many tools in conventional winemaking and growing," he said. "We tend to box ourselves in. The more tools you have, the less artistic you can be. With Biodynamics, part of the appeal is controlling the need to control."

"What I took most from Mike Benziger is showing restraint. Instead of having zero tolerance for something, we can have three to four percent tolerance, for instance. The things you chose not to control make the wine way less manufactured."

"It's not recipe farming," he said.

Like others, Landolt varies his Biodynamic preparations according to the needs of specific sites. "Out on our coastal Pinot vineyards in Freestone, we use the traditional quartz crystals, because it's cool out there and we want the quartz crystals to heat the vines up a bit. But in our sunnier spots, like in Sonoma Valley, we'll use a mixture higher in amethyst (80%), because it's not going to be as hot for the vines. Our goal is always to get the most balanced fruit."

Benziger is the only winery featured that regularly makes some of its wines (its de Coelo Pinot Noirs and its Sonoma Mountain Tribute) at the Biodynamic Wine standard, which means nothing is added to the wine, except for sulfites used to preserve it.

"When you're not able to add acid (a common - but safe - practice in the wine industry), the onus is on our farming style," Landolt said. "Out in the vines, our goal is to tee up the ball so that even a four year old could make great wine from this harvest."

Paul Lato, a former sommelier, spoke about his journey from tasting wine to making wine. "As a sommelier, 25 years ago, I barely knew what Biodynamic was, and then I somehow started noticing Biodynamic wines and I realized that some of the greatest winemakers in the world were farming that way."

His approach in the cellar is more hands on than others who spoke. "I adjust the acidity," he said. "I want to make the best wine, according to my taste, like a cook."

"For me, Biodynamics is complex. But it is growing on me," he said. "Maybe in my older years, I'll have a long beard and be a fanatic," he said, getting a laugh from the crowd. "But I'm not afraid to be like a chef. If I want to add a little spice to my wild salmon, I will. The amount of stuff we can add as winemakers is scary, so I don't use most of it. But acidity is something I will adjust. And sometimes I'll use a commercial yeast to make the wine I want to make."

Is there a discernible difference for Lato between Biodynamically grown wines and conventionally grown ones? Yes, he said. "I don't think I can look at a bunch of grapes and tell if they're Biodynamic or not," he said, "- maybe one day I will be able to."

"But I can definitely see the difference in the vineyard itself. It's obvious. In conventional vines, the soil is compacted, there are no bees, no birds, and no sounds, except for mechanical sounds and the wind."

"A Biodynamic vineyard is alive, with insects, and earwigs, and spiders, and life. You feel that there is much more life in that spot. It's not something that I get in touch with with my intellect. It's things that make me feel."

Sebastian Donoso, who has been sourcing grapes from a large number of growers - including conventional, organic and Biodynamic farmers during his tenure at Campovida - brought up the topic of fermentation. "I've done a lot of fermentation's on conventional, organic and Biodynamic grapes," he said, "and with the fermentations from Biodynamic vineyards, the kinetics are always much more balanced. You don't get heat spikes. The fermentations tend to be more controlled."

The audience enjoyed a tasting at the end of the program, sampling one wine from each of the participants.

Sebastian Donoso of Bonterra with The Butler,
a Rhone blend incorporating a little bit of Zinfandel (5%)

Evan LaNouette of DaVero with the Altobasso, a 60/40
blend of estate Sangiovese and Barbera
Paul Lato of Lato Wines and Grimm's Bluff

For me the standout wine was Paul Lato's own 2015 Sauvignon Blanc ($50), made from a vineyard Philippe Coderey planted at Grimm's Bluff in Santa Barbara County.

It was ethereal, light on its feet and deliciously balanced. A tour de force of purity, finesse and elegance. 
Lato's own Sauvignon Blanc, sourced from Grimm's Bluff
I have also loved the Sauvignon Blancs that Lato has made under the Grimm's Bluff label - the winery's web site is showing the 2014's for sale now. The regular Sauvignon Blanc lists for $36 while the Reserve Sauvignon Blanc is $48.

While many wineries make Sauvignon Blanc as their go to white wine (a wine that often is bread and butter income for the winery), few are made with the kind of artistry and attention to detail as these two. Even if you don't think you are a Sauvignon Blanc drinker (and I count myself among that category a lot of the time), these are something special and well worth seeking out. 

The Lato Sauvignon Blanc is available locally at Enoteca in Calistoga. The Grimm's Bluff bottling is available from the winery itself or via these merchants listed on wine-searcher.com

In the meantime, you can buy any or all of these wines to put on your own Biodynamic wine tasting at your house. Or visit these wineries in Sonoma Valley and Dry Creek Valley.

And though nobody spoke about it, the future of Biodynamics in the region seems assured by these wineries and winemakers. And that's definitely something to raise a glass to. May it continue. 

[*Case production statistics and vineyard acreage based on my estimates from what wineries have reported to me.]

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