Organic, Biodynamic and Sustainable Practices in the Vineyard

New England Wine Gazette - 2007


The stigma we attach to certain words comes can come as a surprise. Such a stigma came to light at a recent meeting of my wine tasting group. To several members of the group “organic wine” meant a micky-mouse beverage. Terms like “crunchy granola” and “Birkenstock” were bandied around. The term ‘Organic’ conjured up simple, bland and flawed wines – surely such wines are nothing to take seriously. I’ve long known about the great wines being organically produced, and the increasing number of wineries using sustainable and organic techniques. And a tasting of a selection of organic wines proved the point.

The vagaries of weather, and the threat of mold and insect infestation can make the life of a winemaker as uncomfortable as hell. Many wineries rely heavily on chemical fertilizers, herbicides and insecticidal sprays to keep the upper hand in the vineyard. And in the cellar, there’s an arsenal of help available with additives such as tannin powder, sulfites, wood chips, and aromatic yeasts. The wonders of modern science can offer an enticing arsenal of help to ease the winemaking process. But there’s a downside to all this chemical help. The reliance on mono-cultural practices often leads to insects and fungus developing a tolerance to spraying regimens that were once effective. And many believe the land, and the earth is being poisoned and that the structure of the soil is becoming damaged by indiscriminate practices.

Many wineries are turning to more natural means to grow, and process their grapes. Everything is geared towards balancing the natural ecological system.

Many maintain that organic produce tastes better and are better for you. Although there are always naturally occurring sulfites in wine, those sensitive to sulfites find organic wines more palatable. Sulfites are necessary to preserve wine, but the overuse of sulfites can mask delicate flavors and can cause headaches and allergic reactions to those especially sensitive.

The Proof is in the Pudding

A comparative blind wine tasting by expert tasters of organic and non-organic wines made by grapes grown in the same site at the Double ‘L’ vineyard at Morgan Vineyard in California’s Monterey region showed that the organic wines had more detailed fruit expression, better structure, and better aroma.

Compost Tea and Ladybugs

Basic organic farming is a system of natural agricultural techniques that uses decomposed plant material, instead of chemical products to enhance the land. The term ‘organic’ was named by farmer and publisher J. I. Rodale in 1946. In Pennsylvania, he established a demonstration farm and founded Rodale Press, which publishes Organic Gardening magazine and books about organic gardening. There are many reasons to support an organic regimen. Exposure to cancer causing agents, soil erosion, protection of water quality and conservation of fossil fuels are all considerations. Here are few vineyards and their practices.

Morgan Winery’s 65-acre Double L Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey County is the only certified organic vineyard in the region. Instead of using chemical fertilizers owner Dan Lee uses concoctions such as a ‘compost tea, by steeping compost in a large bag in a vat of water. It’s a similar unappetizing brew I use for the roses in my garden! The resulting brew, rich in micro-nutrients is drip fed into the vineyard.

Lolonis Vineyards have been committed to organic farming since the 1950's. Cover crops are planted to aid keeping pests from the vines and help return nutrients to the soil. Instead of using chemical  sprays, ladybugs are released every year into the vineyards to control pests. The Ladybug is a symbol that has become an intrical part of the Lolonis persona. Many of the wines are made by ace winemaker Jed Steele.

Dogs, Sheep and Bird Power

Honig in Napa Valley use specially trained sniffer dogs to seek out hot spots of mealy bug infestations so local rather than wholesale treatment can be used.

The Gallo Family in northern Sonoma, use a fleet of falcons to scare off invasions of starlings that can decimate the grapes rather than use expensive netting to cover their vineyards,. They are also leaving one acre of land in its natural state for every farmed acre.

Bonterra Vineyards in Mendocino County have been making organic wines on their 378 acres since 1993. Founding wine-maker  Bob Blue says, “only organically grown grapes can express the purity and intensity of varietal character that a truly great wine requires.” Such is the demand, over one third of their wines are exported.

They grow cover crops such as yellow mustard and natural compost, and encourage wildflowers to attract beneficial insects. Birdhouses are planted throughout the vineyards to attract bluebirds and swallows that consume many unwanted pests. Sheep are allowed into the vineyards during the dormant period too to help control weeds, and of course they naturally fertilize the earth.

Even more intriguing is the use of a mobile coop full of hungry chickens. Cutworms can be a problem in the vineyard especially in the spring. So when an outbreak is detected, the’ chick mobile’ comes to the rescue. Its wheeled into the location and the bugs become history. During the rest of the year the chickens help keep the weeds down on the vineyard perimeters. A few guinea hens are included in the mix too. Being naturally alarmists, their job is to warn the flock of hawks and bobcats that might make a sneak attack.

Other Organic Wines and Wineries to look for in California include Nevada County Wine Guild “Our Daily Red, ” Frey Vineyards, Robert Sinskey Vineyards, Frog’s Leap Winery, Benziger Sonoma Mountain Estate  and Cooper Mountain

A Case for Biodynamic Farming

Biodynamic farming is the ultimate organic regimen requiring even more stringent measures to maintain organic status. Based on the teachings of German philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the 1920’s, Biodynamics regards the earth a self-sustaining organism within the surrounding ecosystem, and details a process that connects agricultural practices to the dynamic rhythms of the earth and atmosphere. Lead by Loire Valley producer Nicholas Joly, such practitioners, including many top Burgundy producers in France, regard the soil as a living organism connected to the invisible energies of nature. They believe that cosmic forces impart an influence on the vineyard and use such devices as lunar and planet observations to determine favorable conditions in the vineyard and cellar.

There is a growing army of converts to the biodynamic system in the areas of biodiversity, soil fertility, crop nutrition, and pest, weed, and disease management. But there are critics of the system, who maintain that regular organic practices work just as well without all the mystical mumbo jumbo.

Never the less many large wineries are turning to biodynamics. The latest is Bonny Doon Vineyard in Califonia under the auspices of the wild man of the Californian wine-world, and true innovator, Randall Grahm. He says “… Bonny Doon’s primary goal is the establishment of Biodynamic estate vineyards to produce what we have always dreamed of: great wine reflective of its specific place of origin. This is a long term, even lifetime goal and one that will require every resource we have to successfully achieve.” Bonny Doon’s Ca’ del Solo vineyard in Monterey has been actively farmed biodynamically since 2003 and is a step away from complete certification by the Demeter Association (USA). Demeter is the premier worldwide certifying body for Biodynamic farming and production.

Any Possiblity in the Northeast?

At the Boston Wine Expo in Januray 2007 I attended a seminar on Biodynamics given by Nicholas Joly Hi is the guru for biodynaics in the vineyard, and is a winemaker extraordinaire from the Loire Valley in France. He gave an inspired and animated lecture and at the end we tasted a few of his wines. His Coulee de Serrant Chenin Blancs are complex, vibrant and express a purity that echo the vineyard’s soil and environment.

I attended the seminar with Greenvale winemaker Richard Carmichael and I was curious as to Richard’s take on not just Joly’s approach, but organic wine practices in general  and whether such practices could be applied in New England.

Richard Carmichael - The short answer is ‘no!’ Sustainability is the first goal for us. We have to become more sustainable in our vineyards and then see what happens from there.

Bob Chaplin - How would you define sustainability?

RC – It’s about minimizing the environmental impact of our farming practices. It includes better scouting so as not to spray by the calendar, and using chemical formulations that are more environmentally friendly. There are hopefully new formulations there that organic farmers can use too. Several  certified organic products like copper and sulfur can be toxic and damaging  if not used carefully. I have an issue with sulfur used later in the season as it can interfere with fermentation. We tend to use sulfur early in the season but it easily washes off so you can spray more frequently. Some newer chemicals have a longer period of effectiveness even with rain.

It’s also about using different approaches to problems. The Grapeberry moth is a real problem for us. You can spray for it, but an even better approach is using pheranome ties  that confuses the male grapeberry moth preventing it from mating. I would say that’s an organic practice. It’s a natural form of control. It’s not 100 % but we’ve had success with it. I think if you want to employ organic processes, you have to accept a certain mount of loss

BC – I wonder if the bottom line as to using pure organic practices in this region is that we shouldn’t be growing grapes in this region!

RC – well maybe! But I wonder how Nicholas Joly maintains his biodynamic regimen in the Loire valley. What is different from the climate there that enables him to practice biodynamic farming. Is the disease pressure less than ours? I’d be curious to know. But I still think our way would be to make our practices more sustainable and then move on from there. Though we are tempted to designate a few rows to try at least try organic practices for a few years to see what will happen.

BC. - Are there any wineries in the region pursuing organic practices?

RC – I don’t know, but I think virtually everyone is pursuing sustainability. It’s the watch-word in not just the vineyard, but in farming in general. New York State has just published a handbook of sustainability. I think it was modeled after a similar publication in the Lodi region of California. It’s in the form of a self-grading test to see where you might improve farming practices.

I’d be interested in feedback concerning organic practices from winegrowers and others fo a future article. Please e mail me at Bob Chaplin at