Biodynamic, though–that’s really hard. Steiner, who gave his lectures on the home farm of a count who had an estate in what is now Poland, viewed farms as living, unified organisms that should be completely self-sustaining. Maintaining that standard means paying daily attention to exactly what’s happening in your vineyard and your dirt. It means not buying the pest fighters and fertilizers that still get delivered every season to organic farms. It means constantly rebuilding soil for the future. It means not planting a good portion of your land at all–and if you’re in Sonoma or Napa, that’s some of the most expensive farmland on earth–and raising cows, sheep, goats, chickens, and the other animals that keep a farm thriving and independent.
A biodynamic label can differentiate a wine from the passel that are already organic. But the term hasn’t quite reached the point of conferring bragging rights. Also standing in the way of status is the hippie image. Biodynamic farming involves using sprayed applications meant to encourage growth and keep pests in check, composts infused with various herbs in homeopathic quantities, and a bunch of shamanistic, ridiculous-sounding “preparations” based on a too-literal reading of what Steiner, observing life on Central European farms, mentioned in his few writings on farming.
The Benziger Family Winery, in Glen Ellen, is a postcard-perfect biodynamic farm, and the people who run it speak with the air of calm longtime converts–unlike several winemakers I talked to on a recent visit to Sonoma and Napa, who were slightly scary. When it comes to hearing about some biodynamic practices–burying manure in a cow horn in autumn and digging it up in spring; burying oak bark in a goat’s skull; using stags’ bladders and cows’ intestines as casings for herbs; planting and picking on “root, leaf, flower, and fruit days” shown on lunar farming calendars covered with zodiac symbols–it can be hard to tell the difference between calm and zealotry.
Glen Ellen is a relic of an era when a family of normal means could buy a beautiful piece of land and grow grapes. Mike and Mary Benziger bought the property in 1980 with the help of Mike’s father, Bruno, a wine and spirits importer. Bruno and his wife moved there a year later, and other siblings followed. It was “quite mediocre” wine, Mike Benziger says, that made them change their farming ways: “We’d killed what would have been native yeasts”–the naturally occurring organisms long beloved of sourdough-bread bakers and now of winemakers–“through years of using herbicides, so we had to add lab yeasts.” The soil was “very like dirt balls or talc,” and was strangely quiet: “You just heard the wind in the vines. It was a green desert.” Now, Mike says, the soil is “almost cakelike–like brownies.”
The view as Mike talks, from a hillside vineyard across to another hill, is a patchwork of zinfandel vines, lavender, rosemary, and olive trees. Demeter, the international certification program for biodynamic farming (it has branches in 43 countries), requires that 10 percent of a farm’s land be uncultivated–not as much as the percentage that would have to be wild, or reserved for grazing, in a truly self-sufficient farm, but enough to scare off farmers who profit from a single crop, however much they dislike monocropping.
Although many biodynamic vineyards do not have enough cows to make all the manure they need (and are thus not the truly closed system that is the biodynamic ideal), the Benzigers’ three cows are sufficient to their needs. They also raise sheep that clean fields by eating weeds, and grow vegetables that renew soil by providing cover crops–and provide beautiful purslane, lamb’s-quarter lettuce, and fresh peas to be sold to Ubuntu, an organic vegetarian restaurant in downtown Napa that is the talk of the food world. And this being a postcard, the farmer who delivers those vegetables is a photogenic straw-hatted college grad married to a former cook at Chez Panisse (and who, by complete chance, tested recipes for my book on Slow Food).