You won’t find reason to suppose so in the winemaking itself. Biodynamic certifiers dictate no loony methods for making wine, though the calendar for propitious times to make it–those leaf and fruit days–strikes many winemakers as superstitious. The winemaker’s skill, or lack of it, determines the taste of any wine. And so, of course, does the quality of the vineyard.
But the argument that biodynamic farming produces better-tasting grapes is easy to make and easier to test. Chefs including Jeremy Fox, at Ubuntu, say that biodynamically grown fruits and vegetables are more likely than organic ones to taste of themselves–that elusively pure and focused flavor cooks always pursue. When Jim Fetzer, part of a family that has adopted the slogan “The Earth-Friendly Wine,” converted its 160 acres to biodynamic practices to sell grapes to the Fetzer winery (now owned by a conglomerate), Benziger and others called them the most beautiful grapes they’d ever seen.
The wines Benziger makes from grapes grown in its own biodynamic vineyards are highly regarded–particularly the Benziger Estate Sonoma Mountain V.2006 Tribute, a cabernet blend the winery introduced five years ago as a “tribute” to biodynamic farming. It has a surprisingly shy nose for a wine that, as is the California custom, is a high 14.5 percent alcohol. It is delicate on the palate, too, because it includes cabernet franc, merlot, and petit verdot, and far cleaner and less oaky than the California norm. Tribute is deceptively luscious; it’s so clean in the nose and light on the tongue that only after a while does the deep fruit creep up on you and make you want more, much more–very unlike the usual brassy, heavy, overripe California cab. It’s not cheap (about $80 in retail stores), but the French style will appeal even to timid merlot drinkers. Is Tribute so good because of the sympathetic family’s beautiful property and admirable farming methods? Maybe. It’s certainly because they know how to make wine.
Many grape growers in both valleys are sold. David Bos, a young farmer with midwestern roots and the evangelical air of the religion major he once was, extols the advantages of biodynamics; all five of the vineyards owned by Grgich Hills, the Napa winery he works for, are Demeter-certified. “People ask if it makes economic sense,” he said when he took me to one, near Yountville in Napa. (Several farmers said their initial changeover to biodynamics cost them a few thousand dollars an acre over several years.) “But we’ve seen biodynamics heal our vineyards.” Using biodynamic methods, he rescued a blighted vineyard other growers would have torn up. Now, grapes from that vineyard are part of his esteemed Yountville cab. “We’ve been making 300 to 400 cases a year,” he says. “We sell it only through our tasting room, and it sells out at $135 a bottle.”
Vintage ’70s farmers move quickly from the realm of the practical to the spiritual. Michael Sipiora, for instance, farms at Quintessa, a spectacular property on the Silverado Trail. He knows wine; he farmed the vineyards at Stag’s Leap before joining the conservation-minded couple who own Quintessa, Valeria and Agustin Huneeus. The difference between organic and biodynamic, he told me, lies in “energy.” He went on to talk about Steiner’s levels of consciousness: the “etheric” level of plant life, the “astral” level of the animal kingdom, the cosmic and telluric levels of energy we share with animals, the “eagle” level attained by humans.
Sipiora buries crystals and “puts intent” on them. Water–“the great messenger”–is his main theme. His pride is the “flow form,” a cascading fountain with double bowls on each level that spins water in opposite “vortexes,” charging it with energy; he pipes that water around the property. He makes many of Steiner’s preparations himself–valerian, stinging nettle, and chamomile are basic components–and what he can’t grow on the property, he buys from the Josephine Porter Institute in Virginia: stag’s bladder, oak bark for burying in skulls.