Oregon’s Biodynamic Wines

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Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden › Ronald Holden has been writing an award-winning food, wine & travel blog, Cornichon.org, since 2004. A ...

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Ronald Holden reviewed Katherine Cole’s 2011 book Voodoo Vintners, a fascinating look into the history and current practice of biodynamic winemaking in the state of Oregon. Celebrated and derided in the wine industry, biodynamic farming goes beyond just organic or sustainable practices, hooking into the cycles of the moon and a near-religious treatment of the earth.

In the mid-80s, one spring afternoon, I stood in a magnificent vineyard overlooking the Loire Valley in the Savennières appellation of central France, listening to a mild-mannered investment banker turned gentleman farmer (corduroy work pants, dress shirt, well-worn blazer) talk about cow horns and phases of the moon to explain what he was doing to his mother’s vineyard. It made little sense to me at the time (and I was not alone, believe me), but the wine itself, La Coulée de Serrant, was incredibly focused, an expression of chenin blanc that I had never tasted. Similarly impressed two decades later was the distinguished wine journalist Robert Camuto, who devotes a chapter to Joly in his book about independent thinkers in French wine country, Corkscrewed.

In the interim, Joly has become the guru of the biodynamic winemaking movement. His book, Le Vin du Ciel à la Terre (Wine from Sky to Earth), has been translated into nine languages. He describes the four tragedies of modern agriculture (herbicides, chemical fertlizers, interfering with the vine’s sap, and “technology” generally–commercial yeasts specifically) that replace the grape’s natural flavor with genetically engineered substitutes.

And Joly, for his part, had fallen under the spell of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian cultural philosopher who attempted to reconcile science and mysticism, and, in 1924, came up with the concept of biodynamic agriculture. (Earlier, Steiner had developed the theoretical basis for the Waldorf schools; he also wrote plays and political books. Hitler attempted to discredit Steiner, after his death in 1925, because he called for better treatment of Germany’s and Austria’s Jewish citizens. Biodynamic practices were banned under the Nazis.) But in the last decades, Steiner’s agricultural manifesto has taken on a life of its own, especially among the most elite wine growers.

In addition to Joly’s Coulée de Serrant, several of the leading vineyards in Burgundy, the famous Domaine de la Romanée-Conti among them, converted to biodynamic viticulture, and in the summer of 2001 the DRC’s feisty, diminutive co-owner Lalou Bize-Leroy arrived at Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore., to address the annual meet-up known as the International Pinot Noir Celebration. The scene is recounted in detail by Katherine Cole in Voodoo Vintners, her new book about biodynamics in Oregon.

Within weeks of Bize-Leroy’s talk, several wineries began incorporating biodynamic practices in their viticulture, and six months later the indusry established a formal biodynamic study group. The Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association made Oregon its home, and Demeter, an international organization that actually owns the trademark of the term biodynamic, and has the exclusive right to certify farms as biodynamic, has since established its American headquarters in Philomath, Ore.

Seattle-born Cole, who now lives in Portland and writes about wine for The Oregonian, takes her readers on a guided tour of vineyards run by cast of Carhartt-wearing characters. They may only farm five or six percent of the state’s vineyards, but they produce an outsize share of its best wines, especially the elusive pinot noirs for which Oregon has become famous. Many of the practitioners come to the wine-grower lifestyle with what Cole calls “good genes, good fortune, good work ethic and good credit,” the good credit being particularly important, in my view, in an industry with 800 competitors state-wide. (When I wrote the first guidebook to the nascent Oregon wine country in 1981, it proudly proclaimed to cover “All 37 Wineries”!) So far, 68 vineyard properties in the US are Demeter-certified, 16 of them in Oregon.

So what’s the point of biodynamic, or BD (as it’s called)? Above all, it’s a respect for the land and its connection to the cosmos.

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This article originally appeared on Cornichon.org. It is partially posted here with permission of the author.

Photo Credit: Galveston Wine Guy