The Benzigers are quick to point out that they use satellite imagery and sophisticated soil analysis and winemaking technology to verify their low-tech methods. The high-tech-low-tech seesaw they boast about–and also the high-tech money that finances low-tech methods all through Sonoma and Napa–is on equally scenic display at DaVero, a farm just outside Healdsburg, the Napa-fying but not completely Napafied main town of Sonoma County. DaVero is kept alive by the money its owner, Ridgely Evers, made developing QuickBooks software. Its chief product is olive oil, and it leaves much more than the required 10 percent of its land open–60 percent, Evers claims.
Evers gives at least one compelling reason for paying to be certified as biodynamic rather than organic: it’s good marketing. Biodynamics can fulfill the promise that organics make but don’t fulfill: as Evers succinctly summarizes it, food that’s “sustainably and responsibly farmed near where you live.” That, indeed, is the idea that started Slow Food in the 1980s and made it into an international movement in the ’90s, and that made locavore the New Oxford American Dictionary’s 2007 word of the year. And it’s the promise that got buried in the years leading up to the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), which finally set a single national standard for organic certification after years of state-by-state definitions. “They didn’t codify best practices,” Evers says, in an undiplomatic summary of what many farmers think of the USDA’s approach. “Lobbying organizations came in, and now the NOP is so far from what people think organic means as to be a joke.”
Many of the vineyard owners and farmers I talked to called biodynamic the new organic. And unlike early organic-farming associations, Demeter is taking no chances that the standards it’s using will be watered down. It has registered a trademark in the United States on the word biodynamic itself. Now its work will be to make consumers understand the meaning of biodynamic farming and its stricter-than-organic rules.
Interest in biodynamic farming is growing, chiefly among winemakers. Disillusion with big industry’s encroachment on organics and desire for a marketing edge have led Demeter’s U.S. membership to triple in the past five years, according to Elizabeth Candelario, Demeter USA’s marketing director.
One reason winemakers are more drawn to the biodynamic label than the organic is that they outright reject organic winemaking methods (though not organic farming methods). “The organic law in the U.S. is not sustainable for winemaking,” says Larry Stone, a legendary sommelier who is now pursuing his boyhood dream of winemaking as the general manager of the very successful Napa winery Rubicon, owned by Francis Ford Coppola. The problem, he explains, is that the standards for organic wine were written at the same time that high sulfite levels in salad bars were causing health problems. So the permitted levels of sulfites in wine–10 parts per million–are much lower than the European standard of about 50 parts per million. Good news for migraine sufferers who think sulfites are triggers. Bad news for red-wine makers: “It’s almost impossible to make wines, especially red wines, that can withstand the ravages of oxidation after a year,” Stone says. Thus the great disparity between the number of organic vineyards and the number of organic wines. Biodynamic standards for sulfites are in line with European ones for organic wine–which gives Demeter a big market opportunity.
But is it even possible to tell that a wine is biodynamic? In particular, does biodynamic wine taste any better?