Thursday, October 4, 2018

Jancis Robinson Sings Biodynamic Wine's Praises - But Is More Education Needed?

PRAISE

Jancis Robinson, one of the world's leading wine writers, turned her attention to the subject of Biodynamic wines this week, writing in the Financial Times and on her own web site that she has "often found extra vitality in wines that turned out to be biodynamic."

This is a wonderful and apt observation.

Pop star Pink might agree. The newly coined winemaker recently announced she's in love with the Biodynamic approach, too, after a wine "aha" moment with Chateau Pontet-Canet.

IS MORE EDUCATION NEEDED?

While it's thrilling to see Robinson weigh in on Biodynamics, one can't help but wish she, like almost all wine writers, had been grounded in a more serious and encompassing education (as is the prerequisite case for writing seriously about most other topics in wine) about Biodynamics.

Robinson emphasizes the moon, which isn't really the most compelling aspect of Biodynamics and wine (as Monty Waldin stated in his dynamic keynote here in San Francisco in May, where he repeatedly said "Biodynamics is not planting by the moon.")

She writes that skeptics laugh about lunar influences. (Having lived on the coast of Maine for seven years, I can say for certain that telling your local fishermen that lunar influences are negligible would bring shrieks of laughter to people who are never more than three feet away from a tide book).

Robinson says it is easy to see the "warm, fuzzy, if irrational appeal of biodynamics."

But in reality, with each new day of research about soil and the microbiome, it becomes more apparent, in the scientific realm, that something is afoot in our limited understanding of how microbial life is made all the richer by adding substances that stimulate microbial life in soil systems.


At the IBWC, both David Montgomery and Anne Bikle, scientists and authors of The Hidden Half of Nature offered hugely informative talks on the connections between soil health and the microbiome and cited one peer-reviewed science article from South Africa that found a discernible influence from Biodynamic practices compared to organic and conventional. The study stated that, "The data confirm previous results (on other crops) that biodynamic farming leads to higher microbial diversity."

It's important for us to look at verifiable facts and scientific literature - however limited it is, sadly - and validate that Biodynamics is actually a topic we should bring serious attention to bear upon, not one that is just hocus pocus.

WINE QUALITY

What about the wine scores and wine quality?

To a person, Robert Parker and California French wine import star Kermit Lynch - like Robinson herself in her quote - report that wines from Biodynamic vines are often higher in quality.

"I can taste the difference in the grapes," said Lynch, in a book talk that I attended a few years back in his wine shop, when he was referring to the winemaker of a winery in Corsica in which he's a part owner. Robinson has said (to me in person and to others as well who have quoted her) that she can taste when a wine is Biodynamic versus one that's farmed organically or chemically.

At the International Biodynamic Wine Conference (IBWC), a general session panel of Bob Lindquist of Qupe, Victor Gallegos from Sea Smoke, and Jason Haas of Tablas Creek, all reported that they decided to grow using Biodynamic practices after tasting discernible differences - for the better - in their wines from Biodynamic vines.

JUST NOW?

Robinson goes on to say that Biodynamic viticulture is "just catching on in California."

Cooper Mountain Vineyards was the first Oregon winery to be certified Biodynamic in 1999
That would be news to Bonterra or Frey, each of which was certified in 1999, the same year that the first Biodynamic winery in Oregon - Cooper Mountain Vineyards - was also certified. That was nearly 20 years ago. (Do we need a megaphone to extend that news across the pond?)

The IBWC, held in San Francisco in May, featured no fewer than 37 wineries in the U.S. (out of a total of 45+) in its Grand Tasting. Most have been certified for a decade or more.

Tablas Creek, who Robinson mentions as her California example, became certified just last year (although its part owners, the Perrin family, have been practicing Biodynamic viticulture on their famed Chateauneuf du Pape vineyards for decades and Tablas Creek in Paso Robles was already practicing Biodynamics for a number of years).

TOO EXPENSIVE? LET'S DO SOME MATH

Finally, Robinson concludes that the Biodynamic approach is just too expensive for all but the priciest producers.

Montinore Estate's 220 acre Willamette Valley vineyard
You can't mechanically harvest, she says. Not so here in the U.S. or Chile. Montinore Estate in Oregon does it, as it is allowed under Demeter USA's regulations. (Perhaps it is different in France and Italy).

And as for the price points, let's fact check Robinson's statement that Biodynamic farming (and presumably therefore the wines it produces) is too expensive.

Rudy Marchesi of Montinore Estate
Anecdotally, we have reports, year in and year out, over 15 years, from Rudy Marchesi of Montinore Estate in Oregon (and previously from Ivo Grgich of Grgich Hills in Napa) that Biodynamic farming costs are 20% below those of their conventionally farmed neighbors. Not everyone reports cost savings, but there are enough stories to make this a serious line of inquiry for individual vintners.

Aside from the anecdotal, we do have a very nice study from U.C. Extension, our public agricultural research agency here in California, that looked at whether or not growing Biodynamic wine grapes was cost effective. The study was headed by Glenn McGourty, the farm advisor for Mendocino and Lake Counties (where vintners have more than 600 acres of Biodynamic vines). It found that the Demeter certified Biodynamic farming costs were competitive with other farming systems.

DISEASE MANAGEMENT

Robinson also says that BD growers lose a lot of crop to downy mildew. As a viticultural expert friend reminded me today, it's not just BD growers that suffer from this. Vineyard managers in Europe, Australia and the eastern U.S. have the same problem; synthetic chemical fungicides do not enable them to save their crops from the scourge of downy mildew.

WINE PRICE RANGE

As for the costliness of the wines from BD vines, we have many wines from Biodynamic grapes in the U.S. that cost less than $20 - Frey Wines, Martian Ranch & Vineyards ($20 rosé), and Cooper Hill ($11-15) are just a few of the producers who sell wine in the $11-20 range.

In actuality, the price of the wines Robinson mentions in her article - from Burgundy and Bordeaux - are more a reflection of the regional price of vineyard land (and/or the date when it was purchased) or the going market rate for the caliber and pedigree of the wines than the farming system.

SCALE

This leads me to one of my favorite topics - scale. The top 10 U.S. producers have a lot of vineyard land. Ownership is very concentrated.

If you look at the list of the top 10 Biodynamic vineyard owners (as I did in the directory of U.S. Biodynamic wines I'm preparing to publish), the top 10 own vineyards ranging from 100 to 465 planted acres.

Collectively, they own a huge percentage - in the U.S. it's more than 60% - of the Biodynamic vines overall. In the U.S. that includes King Estate, Bonterra, Maysara, Frey, Montinore Estate, Beckmen Vineyards, Cooper Mountain, Benziger and Eco Terreno.

The widespread existence of these large scale Biodynamic vineyards was the topic of a panel I put together for the IBWC called Scaling Up. (Betsy Andrews followed up on this with an article for Seven Fifty Daily entitled Biodynamic Goes Big last month.)

If wineries are going to have an impact on climate change or in promoting more eco-friendly practices (that don't require the use of carcinogens like glyphosate), Biodynamics has to scale. And scale it does. You just have to know where to look to see that that is happening.

LOOKING ABROAD

On the international front, the numbers are equally big.

FRANCE

In the south of France, Gerard Betrand has nearly 1,500 acres of Biodynamic vines (including 285 hectares that are currently certified already and another 315, in transition, by 2020), which means he will have 12% of the Demeter certified Biodynamic vineyards in France (a country which has 12,350 Demeter certified acres in France, according to Monty Waldin's recent article on Jancis Robinson's site. [Behind a paywall, sorry.]) Many of these wines are quite affordably priced.

Bertrand's Biodynamic holdings are on track to become the largest in the world.

The vintner is converting his remaining non-Biodynamic acreage as quickly as he can, since he sees better wine quality from Biodynamic vines. (Producers at the high end of the industry have already zero-ed in on the wine quality and have committed to these practices as well as certification. Examples: Eisele Vineyard in Napa, DRC, Chateau Pontet Canet, Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, and others.)

ITALY

In Italy, in the Abruzzo, the 600 member cooperative winery Cantina Orsogna - and its Lunaria brand - is on track to becoming the largest Biodynamic vineyard owner and producer in the country with 864 acres of certified or in transition BD vines. The winery makes 25,000 cases of lovely Biodynamic wines, including an orange wine, that cost under $20.

SOUTH AMERICA

In South America, the picture is similar in that large scale producers make affordably priced Biodynamic wines - wines that express their terroir and taste great.

This Sunday I tasted a fabulous $15 Cabernet Sauvignon Gran Reserve from Koyle, a Chilean producer who exhibited at James Suckling's Great Wines of the Andes tasting. Suckling rated it at 91 points (a score most Napa wineries would very much like to have for their $150 wines). Koyle has 130 planted acres of Biodynamic vines. The winery makes 12,000 cases of this wine (out of 40,000 cases of Biodynamic wines overall).

Emiliana
Another Chilean producer, Emiliana, has 645 acres of Biodynamic vines, much of which goes into its organic brand Natura. Chakana in Argentina has 185 acres, producing 28,000 cases of wines under $20.

IN THE END

Wine writers might need to look beyond the obvious choices in Burgundy and Bordeaux before deciding that Biodynamic farming costs are too pricey. The facts don't support this - nor that Biodynamic farming is like Harry Potter and Hogwarts. Is it time to take a more factual approach to this intelligent farming path (Biodynamic) - and its relationship to wine quality - a bit more seriously?

Let's keep our fingers crossed and hope that more serious and nuanced - and factual - attention - for this category becomes the new norm. The time for mentioning the moon and hocus pocus in every article about Biodynamics is over; it's old, it's tired and it's dreary.

Most of all, we need to get on with the show if we are looking to ag - including wine - to mitigate climate change (and still produce wines of great value, flavor and variety). In this chapter, Biodynamic viticulture could be destined to play a starring role, if we take it seriously.

COMING SOON

To help educate the industry, I'm launching a new newsletter aimed at bringing fresh and informative coverage of organic and Biodynamic wines for the industry. It's called Organic Wine Insider and you can sign up for the mailing list to be notified when it launches on the site now.

The first issue will feature stories on a natural foods chain that's starting the first all organic/BD wine departments, an interview with Anne Bousquet of Argentina's Domaine Bousquet, an overview of all of the Biodynamic wineries in Oregon's Willamette Valley and a story about canned wines from organic vines.

I'll also be publishing a directory of all the U.S. wines from Demeter certified vines.

Stay tuned!

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