Thu 28 Jun 2007
One of the most startling recent developments in the California wine industry occurred in July 2006, when Randall Grahm, the outspoken owner and chief winemaker of Bonny Doon Vineyards, sold two of the company’s best-known labels, Big House and Cardinal Zin. Then Grahm reconfigured his Pacific Rim line as a separate entity and moved its production to Washington. Finally, in a radical move that strikes against the expansionist tendency that motivates many large producers in California, Grahm reduced Bonny Doon’s production in its base at Santa Cruz from 425,000 cases in 2006 to 35,000 in 2007. In addition to the enormous impact of these changes, Grahm culminated several years of efforts and, this year, had the Ca’ del Solo vineyard certified biodynamic.
Randall Grahm has long been one of California’s most madcap and eloquent winemakers, a man capable of writing a newsletter in the terza rima of Dante’s Inferno and of filling back labels on his wines with wild puns and double entendres. He is also a highly imaginative, thoughtful and dedicated producer, one of the first, for example, to understand the utility and potential of Rhone Valley grape varieties in the Golden State.
From the time that I first heard of and started reading about biodynamism and listening to people rhapsodize about it, I have been wary and suspicious of its extreme methods and quasi-mystical philosophy, suspicions I expressed in a Featured Article last year on my website. You may read it here. At the same time, many winemakers that I respect have become passionate advocates of biodynamism and its techniques. I thought that it would be fair and interesting, then, to allow Randall Grahm space on this blog to explain his feelings about the changes underway at Bonny Doon and his zealous involvement in biodynamism. I have reproduced without editing our email exchange:
Q: How does it feel personally to have reduced the wholesale “footprint” of Bonny Doon by divesting brands and labels and by lowering production to less than 10 percent of what it was?
A: It feels absolutely great. I can’t think of a precise analogy, but the removal of a large albatross from around one’s neck will do. While on some weird level it was fun to have a large brand — I was well known and could very often get into otherwise totally booked restaurants — it was mostly not fun. I didn’t really enjoy working with large distributors for whom wine was essentially a commodity. More to the point, I was making wines that I did not entirely believe in. Being a lover and defender of vins de terroir, I was not personally making wines that expressed my own deepest values. It was absolutely necessary to make such a radical cut to even begin to bring my practice into congruence with my beliefs.
Q: Why go biodynamic? Aren’t the rigorous methods of organic practices good enough to produce “great wines of finesse, subtlety, specificity and terroir,” as a recent letter from your office stated? Many wineries alternate row crops, utilize birds and insects and so on in the search for organic integrity; what do the extreme methods of biodynamism actually contribute beyond that?
A: I think that organic methods are perfectly well suited to helping bring health and balance back into the vineyard, essentially by enriching the microflora of the soil, which helps the vine fight disease as well as helping the vine to extract minerals, enhancing the structure and longevity of the wine itself. But organic practice is not nearly as effective in helping a grower discover the originality of his site. The use of animals on the farm as well as the essentially homeopathic aspects of the biodynamic preparations brings the land into the kind of balance that is not possible merely through the efforts of a human being, as intelligent and well-intentioned as he or she may be. Biodynamics works on a much more subtle level than organics (maybe so subtle that it appears to be rubbish to skeptics.) But the practice is intended to transform the grower as much as that which is grown, and only until that happens can the vineyard or farm develop a distinctive identity.
Q: Biodynamic methods purport to produce healthier vineyards and healthier grapes. Healthier in what manner? Is there a quantifiable measurement that tells us that biodynamic wines are “better,” better for us, superior to non-biodynamic wines?
A: Better is definitely a tricky one. Biodynamic practice will not enable a grower to turn grapes from a crappy vineyard into brilliant wine, or certainly if other aspects of his practice are not skillful, he is also SOL. Apart from the somewhat subjective effects that I and others have personally observed — healthy vines don’t need as much water, appear to be more resistant to disease, i.e. mildew pressure, etc., produce grapes that are themselves more uniform in maturity (It is quite striking to observe a biodynamic vineyard in stark contrast to a conventionally farmed vyd.as far as the overall aspect of the vines — the vines look far, far less stressed) — there is in fact one well-known scientific study performed by an agronomist in Washington state where he did side-by-side trials of biodynamic, organic and conventional and found that biodynamic practice produced by higher numbers of microflora in the soil, both in diversity as well as absolute numbers. It is a general consensus that these sort of data correlate to quality.
Q: Randall, I don’t mean for these questions to sound hostile but I am on record as being skeptical about biodynamic philosophy and practice, so I would like to hear from a winemaker I respect about what exactly the advantages of biody are and why they might be worth the trouble.
A: At the end of the day, the biodynamic practice may likely seem a lot like voodoo to someone who is scientifically minded. By the way that we typically imagine things to work, it is hard to imagine that the spraying of a few ounces of material/acre is likely to change things one way or another. (Is one observing a placebo effect?) The only real way to appreciate the value of biodynamics on one’s own site is to observe its effects side by side w/ respect to other practice, conventional, organic, whatever, and to see if it produces dramatically different results. Myself, I am absolutely persuaded that biodynamics produces very significant changes in the vineyard and the resulting wine. If one is absolutely serious about producing a true vin de terroir, I think that (along w/ enlightened site selection, no mean feat), biodynamic practice is perhaps the most efficient means to attain that end. The reality is that biodynamic practice is not so very different from really old-fashioned farming, done 100 years ago. For me, it is a sort of heuristic that brings the farmer back into touch with his farm — developing a much more acute, anticipatory sense of what is needed — an almost instinctual facility that many farmers have largely lost.
Grahm was at his most eloquent on the subject of earth, soil, vineyard and biodynamism in April 2006, in a paper he gave to a meeting of Appellation America. You may read “The Phenomenology of Terroir” here.
This question remains, for me, Do supposedly healthier grapes grown biodynamically make better wine, and how is better to be defined? Does healthier wheat make better bread? Do healthier eggs make better pancakes? If so, what’s “better” about them?
If it were possible, the most valuable course would be for producers to make the same style of wines from conventionally farmed vines, organically farmed vines and biodynamically farmed vines, lay them aside for several years and then conduct blind tastings as well as chemical analysis. Until that process, or a similar and completely detached and objective process occurs, our conclusions about the effects and benefits of biodynamism on vineyards, grapes and wines will continue to be based on passion, romantic notions and hearsay.
Photograph of Randall Grahm by Alex Krause.