For years the question in winemaking was how technology could make wine better. This was especially true if the wine was Californian. When California cabernet sauvignon bested the best of Bordeaux–in a legendary blind tasting, the “Judgment of Paris,” convened by the English wine merchant Steven Spurrier–it was a moment of great national pride at the time of America’s Bicentennial, and it was achieved in part because California winemakers had used technology in ways tradition-bound French winemakers would not. As California wine became respectable, Silicon Valley millionaires bought vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties. California wine and tech soon enjoyed a happy marriage.
Two generations of winemakers came out of the University of California at Davis armed with the latest knowledge of clones, viticulture, and gas chromatography. With their chemical toolbox, they could fix any flaw–a dry year, overripe grapes left on the vine a day or two too long, sour wine. The descendants of the original Hungarian and Italian immigrants who first planted grapes in Napa and Sonoma may have been slow to sign on to the new methods, but not the high-tech grandees who were living the California dream by buying land and putting their names on bottles of wine. New money is always attracted to old vineyards (even if California’s vineyards aren’t really that old).
Like most activities the very rich are drawn to, winemaking is highly subject to fashions. The current fashion is a practice that was far on the fringes even 10 years ago: biodynamic farming, ever so much more authentic and true to nature than plain old organic. It’s the realization of what an increasingly vocal minority of winemakers, particularly in France, began calling for in the 1980s–utterly unmanipulated wines, with no corrections, no adjustments, no filtering, and no chance to compensate for a mistake made during the growing season.
That true reflection of the air, rain, sun, and soil of a place is what’s meant by terroir, the cachet-laden term being slapped on every local food these days. Biodynamic farming, says the studiedly eccentric, preternaturally persuasive California winemaker Randall Grahm, “is the royal road to terroir.”
This approach sounds completely in tune with Slow Food, the movement (about which I wrote a book) that since the 1980s has called for a return to growing and production methods dictated by nature, place, and subsistence economics. These are the methods that gave rise to the world’s great artisan foods and wines in the centuries before artisan was needed to indicate “nonindustrial,” when organic was the default.
Biodynamic principles in fact predate organic farming, although both were reactions to the rise of nitrogen-laced fertilizers in the early 20th century. In 1924, the Austrian-born philosopher Rudolf Steiner gave a series of lectures on farming as it related to anthroposophy, the movement he founded upon Goethe’s scientific works. Anthroposophy attempts to unite science, the arts, and the spiritual and invariably views the part in the context of the whole, up to and including the cosmos. It survives in applied “daughter forms” that include the Waldorf schools–and biodynamic farming.
Steiner’s followers argue that Sir Albert Howard, the British botanist who pioneered organic agriculture after observing Indian farming practices, Lord Northbourne, the agronomist who coined the term organic farming in his 1940 book Look to the Land, and the publisher J. I. Rodale, who popularized it in the United States, were simply building on and codifying his ideas. As organic farming is now defined in government standards, however, the important things are what you don’t do: apply chemical pesticides and fertilizers to crops and soil. But farmers can draw on a whole range of nonchemical surrogates for the chemical correctives they give up. It takes three years to gain full organic certification, as the land detoxes, and then it’s relatively straightforward.