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Can Biodynamics Save Terroir? Part 1

“There was a profound shift in the culture in the 1980’s that derailed the necessarily humble search for terroir. It produced a sense of instant entitlement and self-worth. Instead of patiently exploring the potential for “terroir”, California Winemakers suddenly proclaimed that they owned terroir every bit as legitimate as any snotty old European – that is, in those cases where they didn’t deny it existed. Suddenly the styles and prices changed radically. Wine became a vanity piece, an expression of power. The Reaganite – and then Clintonite- nouveaux riches flocked to Napa to buy wineries and emblazon their names across labels. Even more outrageous claims were made for American wines based solely on money, power, technology, and the twin marketing monster of ads and – consciously and unconsciously – co-opted Journalists.”

Jonathan Nossiter, Liquid Memory

Frog's Leap Winery, Rutherford

Six or seven years ago I was on a field trip with the Culinary Institute of America’s Wine Education program to a prominent Napa Valley Winemaker’s Estate. The class, taught by Wine Bible Author and Educator Karen Mac Neil, was being led through a tasting of Sauvignon Blanc’s by the Estate’s Winemaker.  The tasting was held in an opulent and labyrinthine cave, and we sat at one long, white-clothed table adorned in crystal stemware. 

As aspiring Wine Professionals, Sommeliers, et cetera, we were all closely paying attention to every word said, most of us taking copious notes and asking questions.  Out of the blue, the Winemaker introduced a Wine he claimed was ageing in a ‘concrete egg’.  A few people chuckled, as they obviously thought it some sort of joke.  When asked to repeat what he’d said to make sure there was no mistake, the Winemaker repeated the wine was, in fact, currently still in a rather large concrete egg.  After some chuckles, a few attempted witticisms, and a couple sincere questions to clarify why a top Napa winery uses a concrete egg, he went on to explain that the shape of the egg is believed to be an ideal receptacle energetically , and  the French had been doing it for decades.  They were merely experimenting with it. 

The matter was quickly dismissed by the Winemaker and we quickly went back to the task of deconstructing the assembled wines. However, the incident piqued a strong sense of curiosity in me to hear Wine being spoken of on an energetic level – I wanted to know more about the egg and other arcane subjects.   While I thoroughly enjoyed the CIA program, I knew it was no place for the questions I had lingering in my mind regarding Wine.  To get the answers I needed, I would have to tap other, less-known sources.

Rossi Ranch, Napa ValleyAt the time I was working at a high-end Napa Resort under a Master Sommelier.  Far from my blue-collar, Hispanic roots, I found myself in the Wine equivalent of a “Devil Wears Prada” environment as a weekly retinue of Wine royalty paraded through the property.  Suddenly, the pages of Wine Spectator were coming to life before my very eyes, inexorably drawing me into their tangled web of power, money and purported gentility.  Deep in the hallowed caves of Napa’s royalty, out in their storied vineyards, and in their well-appointed homes, I chipped away at a future that became increasingly incongruent with what was deeply rooted in my nature.

I was losing myself in machinery whose reach I saw in the eye of every star-struck tourist, and whose financial make-up was akin to some third-world countries.  Part of me was saying, “just play ball for a while and make some money before you duck out.” The other part was screaming in my ear the sage advice of Keith Richards to “Walk before they make me run.”  Taking the Middle path of Mahayana Buddhism, I split the difference and switched jobs but stayed in Napa.  Aside from the global wine machinery, there are many wonderful and sincere winemakers, farmers and restaurateurs in Napa, and as I was in what I considered to be one of the world’s largest classrooms, I set about steeping myself in those areas I was drawn to.

“What about the many wine producers who use organic and biodynamic methods yet say nothing about that on their labels? They want to be judged on their wine and not the ethics of production, but they depend on a healthy environment, and to have that, isn’t it time to take a public stand?”

- Edward Behr, The Art of Eating # 81, June 2009.

Barrel Room, Frog's LeapNapa’s Long, Strange Trip from Falcon Crest to Green Acres

Napa worked ever so hard to achieve the “Falcon Crest” status it was awarded in the 1980’s. If one were to research the subject, they’d find romantic tales of Robert Mondavi and Warren Winiarski, the miracle of the 1976 Paris Tasting, and before that, the pre-prohibition glory of the To Kalon vineyard among such Arcadian palaces as Inglenook.  The opulence has been part of the allure.  To enforce the status of Napa wines the AVA (American Viticultural Area) system was instituted as a way to delineate specific growing areas.  It was outright mimicry of the French government-ruled AOC (Appellation d’ origine Contrôlée) system instituted in the 1930’s, and it worked beautifully.

Visitors to Napa are regaled with tales of Napa’s uniqueness, its dizzying array of soils, the differences between mountains and the valley floor, the Vaca range from the Mayacamas…it’s true, the Napa Valley is a great place to grow grapes.  However, great grapes aren’t grown in a vacuum, and as Winemaking is a farming pursuit, a healthy and beneficial environment needs be cultivated.  Responses to global warming, water issues, and other affiliated challenges have been well met by the Napa Valley Vintners, though, I would argue more out of necessity than desire. 

For the type of endeavor that owns substantial vineyard acreage in Napa, it’s all about the bottom line.  There are sales projections to be met, quotas to fill, product needs be bottled and disseminated.  In this world of timetables, schedules and projections, the natural rhythms of nature are oftentimes left out of the equation.  Grape yields must continually meet the demand of on-paper projections. Most operations take a page out of Malcolm X’s book and do so “by any means necessary,” attempting to supplement any shortcomings in the vineyard by artificial means, e.g., fertilizers and other chemical compounds.

In addition to the volume that needs be met, there are affiliated taste profiles and stylistic qualities to be replicated year after year.  Oftentimes the naturally occurring processes instigated via nature in the vineyard are manipulated in the Winery if they fail to meet the paper projections.  The arsenals of remedies on hand for inferior grapes are numerous and are meant to sculpt body, flavor and taste that resemble the trend of the market.  For large-scale, commercial wine production this has been a windfall, as it tends to mean masking by addition of artificial yeasts, barrels, blending, and other technology.

“The more you help the vine to do its job, by means of a live soil, proper vine selection, and avoiding poisonous treatments, the more harmony there is. If the wine catches this harmony… well you have nothing to do in the cellar: potentially it is all there.

-Nicolas Joly, Owner and Winemaker at Coulée de la Serrant, Savennières, France.

The current trend in “non-interventionist”  wines doesn’t bode well for this way of wine production, as it’s all about unmasking to reveal what the work of the farmer and the land have accomplished in any given year.  Non-interventionist winemaking recalls the European tradition of producing wines that display unique qualities which don’t follow a particular pattern, but exhibit the intricacies of any given year, for better or worse.

Unmasking the winemaking process thus brings a level of transparency that’s commensurate with rising consumer awareness.  As the culture of wine has grown in America, so has the understanding of the winemaking process.  Coupled with the rising awareness of the farm-to-table movement and its corollary of nutrition, the business of wine is poised to undergo dramatic changes in the twenty-first century. Water issues and climate change are at the top of any list of potential hazards, with affiliated soil and pest problems quickly following suit.

To its credit, Napa Valley had the foresight as far back as 1968 to declare the valley floor a preserve, barring any potential non-agricultural building outright.  Such prescient thinking led to the formation of the Napa Valley Vintners Association and their agenda of sustainability, including a Napa River Restoration project in 1998 and the development of the Napa Green Certified Land Program in 2004, which helps landowners by enhancing their watershed by preventing erosion and meeting regional sediment discharge requirements, reducing, or eliminating chemical use, and restoring the wildlife habitat.

So what is the difference between biodynamics and organics? “In biodynamics we are connecting the vine to the frequencies it needs—like tuning a radio, we are tuning the plant to the frequencies that bring it life. Organics permits nature to do its job; biodynamics permits it to do its job more. It is very simple.”

- Nicolas Joly

napa morningAnother Napa Valley Vintner’s program called The Green Certified Winery has its members demonstrate a commitment to conserving water and energy, reducing waste and seeking to reduce their overall carbon footprint.  If you enjoy Napa wines, chances are the winery is green certified, as they boast 3.3 million cases of wine produced per year. Their literature claims to have saved more than three million pounds of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere in 2012, and according to the California Certified Organic Farming program (CCOF), Napa Valley has more certified organic acreage than any other wine region in California at 3,616 acres.

The problem with Napa isn’t so much what they’ve done, as what they haven’t.  The Green Certified Winery program was instituted in 2008 – not exactly at the forefront of the green movement – the Falcon Crest mentality that’s ingrained itself into the mindset of Napa Valley won’t go away overnight.  Most landowner’s politics view environmental data with healthy doses of skepticism, preferring to embrace facts and figures that allow the minimal amount of intervention.  When you’re in such a high profile situation, though, it’s important to pander to the crowd a little, and with the aforementioned heightened public awareness, its proven necessary to do so.

The modus operandi of grape growing and production in Napa in the 1970’s was geared towards producing wines that purportedly could rival those of Europe.  The infusion of cash from external and internal sources led to purchasing the best technology available for use in the vineyard as well as the Winery.  America loved it, although most serious buyers stuck to European wines, at least for collecting.

The Eighties came along and Robert Parker and his palette began a market revolution that solidified his position at the top of wine chain by the mid 90’s. Suddenly, the paradigm was turned on its head, and Napa was at the forefront of the boutique-high-end “revolution” in wine. 

The first decade of the twenty first century has seen that era coming to a close as the science and study of wine has taken on a life of its own in America.  The old guard, led by producers who view their wine and vineyards as extensions of themselves and their excellent taste produce wines with a healthy dose of hubris and are appalled when consumers balk at paying upwards of $75 to $500 a bottle for their wines.  Money invested equals excellence for them, and their used to getting support for that viewpoint via the wine press and the fact they’re located in Napa. 

The new guard is in tune with the public’s need for transparency and truth in advertising.  They’re generally concerned about the welfare of the planet and believe changes need to happen regarding sustainability.  They’ve made the distinction between farming and Winemaking. Coming to understand that the greatest wine always starts in the vineyard, and the best vineyards not only are in the right places for the right vines, but are farmed sustainably.  Winemaking, as such, is more of a way of shepherding along the process from juice to wine to make sure nothing goes awry.   

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