Nicolas Joly and the Music of the Spheres
“Death is only a triumph of materiality over the living. To understand life profoundly, we must leave matter behind and focus on understanding the system that gives life to the Earth.”
- Nicolas Joly
“To be dying is to be living, and to be living is dying. Death and life cannot be separated. They only have different names.”
- Soen Nakagawa, Zen Master
In this third and final installment of Can Biodynamics Save Terroir, we delve deeper into the theories and practices behind Biodynamics in an attempt to glean the reasons why Biodynamic practitioners choose this particular form of farming . This trilogy began in Napa and questioned the sector of Wine production there that has helped shape the current view the American public has regarding farming and winemaking in the United States.
Currently, the winemaker’s of Napa, for the most part, have adopted a forward- thinking sustainable program, and as the longest standing AVA, or recognized wine area in America, it should be expected they do so. If Napa is to be considered the vanguard of wine production in the United States, it goes to reason they should be at the apex of global wine culture.
As I previously pointed out, the measuring stick for Napa wine production has always been France. Robert Mondavi and his kind in particular suffered from a serious case of Francophilia, and correspondingly sought out French advice in all matters related to viticulture. Today, ironically, it’s the French that can be said to have adapted Biodynamics as the new standard.
Over the past several decades the French “houses of the holy” have come to realize they can recover their terroir by applying biodynamics to their centuries-old vineyards. In Nicolas Joly’s case, the vineyard land in question is nine-hundred years old, and consistently produces award-winning wines whose appeal is undeniable. The success, according to Joly, is Biodynamics.
Last week, I sent an e-mail off to Joly to let him know I’d included him in the previous articles. Although in France, Joly responded the next day with plenty of advice and encouragement. He also attached a copy of a document he’s written called, Recovering the Lost Art of Agriculture. Said document goes into the Biodynamic process and how it’s affected by the planets and earth.
Rather than convoluting the ideas and processes behind Biodynamics, the document simplifies things by pointing out truths that are self-evident in farming, such as understanding the simple fact that between spring (bud break), and fall, (branches, leaves, and grapes), the several tons of matter that have appeared in that six-month period have occurred primarily by 94% photosynthesis and 6% by the soil. So the task of the plant, or the vine, is to catch the energies to which they are connected (each kind is different) and convert them into matter.
According to Joly, Biodynamics differs radically from organics by harnessing the universal energies that usher the vines through the various stages of growth. The few grams per hectare of Biodynamic preparations that are applied don’t directly affect the plant on a physical level according to Joly, but on an energetic level. At the moment when energy becomes matter, Biodynamics is there to harness and crystallize those energies to the fullest, particularly at this point in the history of the planet, where the vitalizing energy of the Universe has been greatly diminished by cutting agriculture off from said energies by using herbicides and chemicals that poison the soil and the sap of the vine.
In conjunction with vineyard practices that encourage diversity, rather than uniformity, Joly has found the rhythm inherent in his 900 year-old plot by employing a detailed massal selection, wherein large quantities of buds are selected for propagation of vines. Oftentimes, winemakers will employ a clonal selection, where a single “perfect” mother vine is chosen, but Joly finds that the lack of diversity in this process can lead to a genetically inferior plant due to its homogeneity. The diversity in a mass selection provides a healthy heterogeneity that allows different aspects to contribute to the process when appropriate.
This heterogeneity makes a more complete whole when carefully scrutinized vines act in concert with one another to combat any problems that might arise. When Biodynamics are applied, the concert grows to include what Kepler referred to as the “music of the spheres”, that creator harmony of the universe that allows wine to connect to its place in a natural and original way.
Joly believes a “well raised” Biodynamically farmed wine needs zero manipulation in the cellar. The vines ability to connect to the positive universal energies should allow it to become fully itself in all its uniqueness. Cellar work is only needed to correct problems created by secondary effects of synthetic or chemical products, or if the place doesn’t fit the vines, or if there is a misunderstanding somewhere.
Most consumers are unaware of the fact that winemakers can choose from around 350 aromatic and genetic yeasts, the variety allowing wineries the ability to make a wine to please a particular sector of the global wine market while the true, un-manipulated taste of wine from healthy, Biodynamically farmed vineyards has been kept on the fringes of the wine world for the past several decades. What’s come to be accepted as “good” and “valuable” oftentimes is the creation of science and technology, a process that in the history of wine making – is somewhat of an anomaly.
I started off this trilogy with an anecdote from my days at the Culinary Institute of America’s Wine Education Program that involved a Sauvignon Blanc vinified in a concrete egg. The wine was phenomenal, but it was the excitement of working with unseen forces that the egg brought up for me. Fortunately, there were a bevy of Napa wineries practicing Biodynamics, although few were openly advertising it.
I’d heard Quintessa winery in Rutherford was working with Biodynamics, and as I’d led tourists through there on many an occasion and knew the staff personally, I sent an e-mail to the winemaker to see if I might interview him and possibly participate in some Biodynamic practices around the winery and vineyard.
A few days later I received a response saying I was welcome to help with making Biodynamic preparation #500 – cow dung stuffed into a cow horn and buried in a pit from the autumnal to the vernal equinox. I wrote back that I’d love to and noticed that the winemaker that I’d be working with was the same gentleman that introduced the concrete egg to my CIA class that day several years previous.
We spent a long afternoon in over a hundred-degree weather stuffing the horns with the help of trowels and proceeded to bury them in a deep pit out on a ridge on the estate’s vast property. Sweaty and exhausted in the aftermath, I couldn’t help but feel connected to the place and the process, knowing our horns would be dug up six months later, mixed with water to create a tea, and sprayed over the vines.
Somehow, the experience had shifted something in me where I felt connected to something indescribable, yet palpable. Perhaps it was the execution of the act in a frame of mind that was open to the wonder of the process? I used my mind’s eye to imagine what positive benefits the foul-smelling concoction I was working with might bring about, and visualizing that left me with indelible images of stardust and vines co-mingling.
Luke Frey was born outside Ukiah in Mendocino County in 1959. When he was eight, his father had him and his siblings, (of which there were twelve), plant grape vines on the family’s farm. In 1980 he bonded his winery and has been producing since then. Frey was the first certified organic winery, and in 1993 he was exposed to Biodynamics. By 1996, Frey became Demeter certified and Luke and his winery are now staples of the Biodynamic community.
The Summer 2010 Newsletter of the Josephine Porter Institute (a sort of Harvard for Biodynamics) entitled Applied Biodynamics featured the article Frey Vineyards: Cultivating Biodynamics in an Evolving Social Organism wherein the Author, Hunter Francis interviews Frey at his vineyards about his twenty years working with Biodynamics. In the article, Frey openly discusses his feeling about Biodynamics being a spiritual pursuit, stating that working with the preparations is tantamount to working with life forces. His words resonated deeply with me, reminding me of my day at Quintessa, and subsequent others at various vineyards since then, where just being around Biodynamic preparations awakens a sense of wonder. In his own words, Frey says,
“The first thing I realized in working with biodynamics, is that biodynamic agriculture is a spiritual practice, in my view. To recognize that, is essential in the work. I noticed how my thinking and perceptions were changing. I started to see the world through different eyes. And of course, if you really ponder it, that’s a prerequisite for any real change. It has to come from within. In a physical sense, the first thing I noticed was the change in the light and the characteristics of the soil with each passing year.”
Frey believes the benefits of Biodynamics are best appreciated qualitatively, rather than quantitatively, that when one looks into the natural world they see aspects of themselves they cannot deny, this “wake-up” call allows one to see directly into what he refers to as “the open secret of the natural world”, allowing one to see Biodynamics as an instrument for developing an evolving human consciousness.
He speculates Biodynamics will move into vegetables soon. Not just on a small-scale, as it is now, but on a mass scale, citing huge changes in the economic infrastructure and food quality as the major factors predicating this change. The lack of vitality that is present in commercial produce and processed foods lack the necessary ingredients to feed our bodies and minds.
Rudolf Steiner, the creator of Biodynamics, saw this point as a major stumbling block in humanity’s quest to evolve out of the culture that had just created the First World War. Roughly eighty years later things have devolved to the point that humanity finds itself at a crossroads. One direction continues down the path we’re currently on, where processed foods and greenhouse gasses proliferate, uranium continues to pour into the oceans, and social and behavioral problems spread through our children at alarming rates. The other road is Biodynamics and its worldview. It looks at nature from the universal, to the earthly, to the microscopic and sub-atomic, and charts the workings from that vantage point: It’s the invisible energy of the universe that Biodynamics works with.
In his 1918 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Physicist Max Planck stated, “Matter as such does not exist; all matter originates, and exists, solely by virtue of a force which induces particles to vibrate.” It’s this force that the Biodynamic preparations connect their plants (and people) to, in the process providing them with the energy necessary to foment social, cultural and political resilience.
One of the things that will be necessary for humans to survive is a totally new relationship with food. And it’s all going to have to do with quality. Quality food is a prerequisite for being able to make the transition we will go through.
– Luke Frey
Nicolas Joly wrote to me, “real progress is understanding how a macrocosm, an energetic world imprisons itself, separates from and isolates itself in matter; how each piece of the puzzle can help bring into being the link to a global image, an energetic whole, that is to say, a macrocosm that becomes a microcosm.” It sounded wonderful to me, but I thought to myself, “how exactly does this happen?”
How does the universe turn itself into genes, atoms…DNA? It all takes place at the mesocosmic level, in the earthly realm, with the help of gravity. Death is only the triumph of materiality over the living. Earth does not possess life; it receives it by belonging to a solar and stellar system. “All the world’s a stage” takes on a different and deeper meaning from this perspective, when the galactic impulses have been taken into account, e.g., gravity, solar attraction, materiality…
All kingdoms on the planet play their own unique part in the dance. Within this boundless matrix, the past present and future are available through the macro (large, or universal), micro (microscopic, sub-atomic), and meso (middle, or between the realms, earthly), realms. The mesocosmic, or earthly realm is what the majority of us apprehend, however, it’s important to realize that within this realm of the senses that we frequently, mistakenly, refer to as “reality”, all the other realms simultaneously co-exist.
This fact is vividly described by Zen Master Soen Nakagawa (1907-1984) in his biography, Endless Vow: The Zen Path of Soen Nakagawa:
“When we talk about the spiritual realm, we may feel that it is a place where we go after we die. Most people think that we live in the actual world while we are alive, and that after we take the last breath we somehow wander into a vague realm of the spirit. It is a great mistake to see two separate realms. Instead, where we live is in fact the spiritual realm, a realm of many billion world, which goes beyond three, four, or even infinite dimensions. Then the danger is that we might think that this realm is empty and boundless. Watch out! It is alive and kicking!”
Today is the Feast day of San Geronimo at the Taos Pueblo. In the Pueblo world it’s a big day, with the historic barefoot races in the morning and later that afternoon, locals and tourists will watch the Pueblo clowns dressed only in breechcloth and bodies painted in broad horizontal black and white stripes filter through the crowd and groucho-like heckle and mock whomever they feel they need to.
Later that afternoon, one of the clowns will have to climb the forty-plus foot pole and collect the bounty tied to the top of sheep carcass with throat cut, and bag of squash and melons, retrieving them for the sake of the Pueblo and its people. To not make it would be shameful, and not bode well for the coming year. With so much at stake, it’s hard not to get drawn in to the drama of the lone climber towering above. Will he make it? Will he fail? Will he fall?
Time after time they try, until the air grows thick with worry. Finally, one reaches the top and releases the primordial whoop! to the mountain that nonchalantly looks on as the crowd erupts with applause. He has made it, the wheel continues to turn.
That evening on my after- dinner nightly walk with my wife out in Ranchos de Taos on the southernmost outskirts of town, further away from the influence of city lights, stars brilliantly dazzle against the boundless black of night. The breath of the Milky Way hangs as celestial fog, so close it seems as if you could touch it. Behind its silver veil, an arc of diamantine stars emerge from the tip of Pueblo Peak, stretch across the sky, drooping off into the south, towards Albuquerque, into the tip of Sandia Peak, literally connecting heaven and earth. With the heavens so close, my intuition about Earth’s unseen forces becomes certitude and the monkey-mind chatter of doubt and questioning is momentarily silenced.
Understanding Biodynamics and knowing it’s growing as a practice provides my spirit with the essentials of its existence: hope, beauty, and truth. The inter-connectedness of the plant, animal and mineral kingdom extends to all of us, connecting us to each other, the past, the present, and the future.
Currently, Biodynamics is slowly spreading and being practiced at a variety of levels. As with Organics, certification is a contentious point, as it is oftentimes cited as too costly to a small-scale operation. Preparations are more often than not bought directly from the Josephine Porter Institute, as they are the leaders in this field. A few brave souls, like Luke Frey make their own preparations and are directly involved in their application. The compost pile is the heart and soul of Biodynamics, and is where the preparations cure, so the most successful Biodynamic farms will have an amazingly rich compost pile.
As with any sort of viticulture, if the wrong vines are planted in the wrong place, it doesn’t matter how you farm, you will never achieve the harmony that one will enjoy in a place with excellent terroir: the right vines in the right place with the right rootstock.
So…Can Biodynamics save terroir from being bastardized to the point where consumers don’t know how to appreciate it? Both Frey and Joly say that the public has to be re-taught about wine, and I would agree with that, but more than the public, it’s the individuals that make up the wine community, the “professionals” that need to take a step back and question what they know from the ground up.
Several years ago I was walking with lauded winemaker Ted Lemon at his Biodynamic vineyard in Sebastapol, California. At that point, I had many questions regarding Biodynamics. I was unsure about how it truly worked, and as I was living and working in Napa at the time, was exposed to the viewpoint that Biodynamics is a hoax; hippie mumbo-jumbo that has no scientific basis. As Ted and I walked along I worked up the nerve to ask him what he says to people when they tell him Biodynamics is a joke. He took a long beat and looked off at his vineyard before replying, “I don’t care what they say. I’m a farmer: I can see the results.”
Lemon’s frankness instilled a sense of purpose in me. His Pinot Noir and Chardonnay set a new standard for the grapes in California, and he has no intention of looking back. Those are the sort of moments that have allowed me to stay resolute about the necessary implementation of Biodynamics as a way to heal the earth and ourselves. Here in New Mexico, Biodynamics is being practiced on a very small-scale from Albuquerque to Taos. As far as I know, there are no New Mexican wineries practicing Biodynamics, and, as far as I know, none of the practitioners creates all of the preparations themselves. Yet, there is a strong dedication to working with the energies associated with Biodynamics here in New Mexico, and as Frey stated, the qualitative aspects of Biodynamics can oftentimes provide a “conversion of St. Paul moment”, where one suddenly gets religion…or at least one can always hope.