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biodynamic pinot noir

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  • gastronaut Aug 4, 2005 05:16 PM

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  1. Cool list! I'm a huge fan of Benziger. Their wines are good, their prices are reasonable, and their staff is fantastic. Even though a lot of people in Wine Country don't take young people seriously, I've never had a staff person there make me feel unworthwhile or ignorant. In fact, when I was there with a group of young friends one of the staff took the time to walk us through all the biodynamic wines, regaling us with the growing process, difference between biodynamic and organic, and what to look for in each wine.

    Best of all, her detailed description of what meal she would eat with each wine were spot on ("This one's a big red, so I could eat it with a charred ribeye steak, with a little bleu cheese on top, and a side of leeks...," "Do you taste the mushroom in this one?"). We were all drooling by the end.

    1. For slobs like me who never heard of biodynamic wines and tend to cellar our boxes of Franzia under the sink.

      Link: http://www.winemag.com/issues/apr05/m...

      23 Replies
      1. re: rworange
        l
        littlestevie

        Yeah, what the h**l is biodynamic piont noir? Are the winemakers closet chiropracters or is it just marketing b.s.? I do not see any California central coast wineries that I would think would be on the leading edge ot pinot production on that list, such as Tablas, Sanford, or Qupe. I know them best, that why I just mentioned them.

        1. re: littlestevie

          A lot more European growers grow biodynamically. It is not that common in California although it is growing.

          1. re: wally

            It takes a lot of time to transition between regular production and biodynamic production. To the best of my knowledge, you have to go completely organic first, and then there are additional rules on top of that (see the article linked by rworange).

            I know from tours that some wineries in California (Robert Mondavi, though again not primarily a Pinot maker), actually use organic techniques but don't label their bottles as such because they sometimes get chemicals blown over from other vineyards. Because monitoring that contamination would be so costly, they just do what they can to be organic growers but don't advertise it. I don't know if there are wineries that are similarly hesitant to advertise their biodynamic growing methods, but it is a growing technique.

            To me, it seems like these growers are just dedicated to putting back in the earth whatever they take out. And if they're able to produce a great tasting wine at the same price point as the other growers, I'm more than happy to support them.

          2. re: littlestevie

            Bah! Feng Shui for grapes. In my opinion, this is superstitious nonsense.

            1. re: David Kahn

              Ditto. Anyone who bases their agricultural practices on the belief that a vineyard is a "closed ecosystem" and then throws in astrological cycles can't be taken seriously. Most of these people are making good wine in spite of biodynamics, not because of it.

              1. re: FlyFish

                While I might agree with your last statement, I think the overall outlook in this section of the thread has become very narrowminded.

                No one disputes that biodynamic growing is harder than regular growing. Similarly, producing organic products that taste good is more difficult than using mass production techniques that strip the earth.

                Biodynamic farming sounds like hogwash on paper, but after researching more and talking to growers who have made the switch, it makes a lot of sense. To me, it makes a lot more sense to base your growing and harvesting cycle on the climate of that particular year. That means consulting astronomy and the almanac. It makes a lot less sense to say "we harvest in September, every year, no matter what." Calling it Feng Shui for grapes is really pretty dumb.

                I was just at Bengizer Winery in Sonoma this past weekend. They are the biggest producers of biodynamic wine in the US. Between their regular reserve wines and their biodynamic wines (similar prices), I was hard-pressed to say which I liked better. And compared with other wineries that have similarly priced bottles ($30-75, plus some ho hum $10-ish bottles), Benziger beats a LOT of them hands down.

                I don't have extensive wine experience, but I have done a lot of tasting throughout the more often visited parts of Napa and Sonoma. I have to say, Benziger ranks very high on my list of producers of mid-priced wines. I'd be curious to see what others typically consider "good" Californian wine, and whether they've even given biodynamic wine a chance.

                I know it's fun to joke about feng shui for grapes and I'm taking this post way too seriously, but I do think biodynamics is an interesting topic.

                1. re: nooodles

                  Or you could look at it the way my BF does. He likes the fact that all the grapes in one bottle come from one plot, and each wine tastes very different from each other, from year to year, and from other wines of the same name (Benziger's sauvignon blanc, for example, is the only sauv. blanc that I've ever been moved to buy.)

                  He could care less that they're biodynamically grown. If the same effect could be achieved by razing the earth so that nothing would ever grow there again, he'd still drink it. But (fortunately), it can't.

                  1. re: nooodles

                    I don't think any premium wine grower says... "we harvest in September, every year, no matter what". seems to me, crush (in napa for example) can start as early as july for the champagne grapes.. and go as late as november for zin.. based on sugar content and fruit maturation. I think a lot of wine-makers with their refractometers in their back pockets would disagree that harvest occurs strictly by calendar and not by the weather, etc.

                    anyway.. if biodynamic is the new buzz word and if it impresses people and makes them buy more wine.. and thus encouraging more sustainable farming methods that is a good thing. I'm not a raging environmentalist... and am an enthusiastic wine drinker... but there isn't much natural about growing grapes and making wine. it is a chemical laden, wasteful process. (not unlike the bulk of manufacturing in this country).

                    1. re: withalonge

                      But another way of explaining it would be to say that Sonoma is near the coast, the tides are affected by the moon, and the tides can greatly affect temperature changes in Sonoma.

                      Temperature changes, of course, are of vital importance to wine growers. I would be curious to see a study of how the schedules on biodynamic farms differ from schedules of traditional growers. Maybe they're all after the same final answers (when to plan? when to harvest?, just using different measuring devices to try to get there. Which way is better, of course, is still under hot debate.

                      1. re: nooodles

                        I think you make a solid point.. I think most of wine-making and vineyard management is all about the quest for trying to decide when to do what... e.g. pruning, picking, sulfering, cover crop, no cover crop... trellising methods, irrigation... frost control, pest control... all in aim to get a decent yield with better and better fruit.

                        this biodynamic stuff reminds me of when the terroir discussions got popular a few years back. where the drainage, soil composition and whether your vineyard was on an east or west facing slope came in to play.

                        I do think it all has something to do with the art vs. science of grape growing... it is all very interesting.. but I must admit a lot of it sounds like it is as useful as a winemaker rubbing the sides of a barrel of wine (like a genie in a bottle) when the fermentation gets stuck.... I fall on the practical side of the spectrum... not overly impressed with the more romantic allusions people make about wine... but I'm enjoying the debate!
                        :)

                    2. re: nooodles

                      Let's review.

                      I went to the web site that rworange provided (Moonstruck) and learned, among other things, that biodynamics involves (1) a belief that a vineyard should be, or can be, a closed ecological system (whatever that means) and (2) a belief that astrology has something to do with growing grapes and making wine (not astronomy, which similarly has nothing to do with those things either, but at least is a legitimate field of scientific enquiry). I concluded that any agricultural enterprise that includes those two precepts as part of its fundamental beliefs is immediately suspect.

                      Do you disagree?

                      1. re: FlyFish

                        I guess I just really don't agree with the article. It has a definite "hey, these moon-gazers might be onto something" slant, and just makes the whole process sound really hokey.

                        On the other hand, the folks I talk to at Benziger are much better at explaining biodynamics as giving back to the earth, making sure you don't saturate the earth with chemicals, and creating a wine that tastes like it comes from Sonoma (where Benziger is).

                        I'm perfectly willing to believe that there are some processes in nature that can't yet be explained by science. If looking at the moon cycles coincidentally can help you produce great grapes, so be it. It sounds about as silly to me as when you tell little kids that talking to plants makes them grow better. We all learned when we got older that no, the plants aren't really lonely for your company, but they might grow a little better because of the carbon dioxide you're breathing onto them. Similarly, there might be something about moon cycles that has yet to be fully explained but does indeed affect crop growth.

                        As for the "self-contained ecosystem" bit: isn't that a lot like sustainable small farm processes, where you have a certain set of animals and plants because they can live off each other without requiring much human made food/fertilizer/pesticides? I forget the name of it. It's not that the winery's under some giant bubble like Biosphere, but all the bugs/animals/plants cultivated in one winery are designed to reduce the level of other materials needed to make the farm healthy.

                        Whether you believe any of this is up to you, but it doesn't change the fact that at least biodynamic growers are farming in a responsible manner, and producing darned good wine while they're at it. The selling point for me is that, at this point, Benziger produces what tastes to me like better wine than many of the traditional growers in Sonoma. If this weren't true, I wouldn't bother defending anything they do. What really bothers me is people making comments like "ugh, hippie hogwash" before they've done a blind taste test and tried the product for themselves. It's as bad as people who refuse to drink anything other than French wine because of some preconceived notion about quality.

                        Link: http://benziger.com/vineyards/biodyna...

                        1. re: nooodles
                          b
                          Bob Martinez

                          "It's as bad as people who refuse to drink anything other than French wine because of some preconceived notion about quality."

                          Ah - the Straw Man argument. Always nice to see an old friend.

                          1. re: Bob Martinez

                            How is it a straw man? Looking at a bottle of biodynamic wine and saying "that must be bad, and if it's good it's only in spite of biodynamics" is analagous to looking at a bottle of French wine and saying "that has to be better than Californian wine, and if it's not it's a fluke."

                            1. re: Bob Martinez
                              s
                              SuzyInChains

                              How is that a straw man argument? Both are concerned with not trying a wine based on a preconceived notion about quality. Looks like a straight-up comparison of similar situations to me.

                              1. re: SuzyInChains

                                The French wine argument is one based on taste and judgment - the Biodynamic Wine argument is based on astrology and the phases of the moon. Linking the two is a weak attempt to bolster a weak argument.

                                Astrology isn't science - it's magic.

                                Could biodynamic methods result in improvements in wine? I'll take Melanie's word for it that sometimes they do, but I'd like to see firm cause and effect relationships established behind every biodynamic technique and specific results.

                                Sometimes the very act of trying something new yields better results because people expect things to improve and increase their level of effort across the board. The "Hawthorne Effect" is well documented. (See the link below.) I mention it as an example of another factor which can influence people's perceptions of the effectiveness of a specific technique.

                                There's a recent NY Times article about the application of scientific techniques to change the qualities of wine to conform to critic's tastes. Obviously it's possible to question whether the changes are a good thing but the techniques *do* work and there's a scientific basis to them.

                                http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/07/mag...?

                                Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hawthorn...

                                1. re: Bob Martinez

                                  Ah, but I specifically said: judging biodynamic wine without tasting it is like refusing to drink non-French wine because you're expecting it to be bad. Isn't this always true, no matter what the situation? How can you ever present a good judgement on something you've never tried, no matter how much you think the process by which it was produced is complete hogwash?

                                  Melanie makes a very eloquent point that does take into account a Hawthorne effect. Biodynamics might be no more than a mechanism by which to force growers to pay more attention to their land and their crops. The trend in modern society seems to be to try and take processes that seem to be based in superstition, and to then justify them through Western Science. That doesn't mean that growers who use these processes should be ridiculed.

                                  I, too, would love to see a report comparing a biodynamic farm with a traditional farm.

                                  What are the crop yield comparisons?
                                  How the the grapes themselves taste different from each other?
                                  How much water/fertilizer/pesticide does each farm need?
                                  How do the costs of labor compare?
                                  How does a blind taste test of the wine compare?
                                  Over the long term, what are the effects on the soil on each farm?

                                  If anyone knows where to find this info, it would be extremelly interesting reading indeed.

                                  1. re: nooodles

                                    One key aspect I believe is how modern (western especially) ag practices treat the growth medium, applying weed killer, pre-emergents and sterization then adding back synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Europeans have long looked at soil as a dynamic system, if not more of a living organism, utilizing the natural biotic and chemical cycles that occur in it. I think this alone should be reason for incorporating biodynamics. Basically, we treat our soil like dirt.

                                    1. re: nooodles

                                      Agreed.

                              2. re: nooodles

                                Thanks for the reasoned response and the link to Benziger. As a working scientist, I'm trained to treat any new ideas with devout skepticism - so I remain unconvinced, but always appreciate the opportunity to broaden my education.

                                1. re: FlyFish
                                  m
                                  Melanie Wong

                                  I've been an interested spectator on the use of biodynamic principles in wine production for some nine or so years now, in part because of friends with children enrolled in Waldorf schools. Early on my reaction was much the same as yours branding the practices superstition. I also disliked the wild-eyed advocates who tried to recruit me to their "religion".

                                  Over time, I've learned to ignore the "how" and just focus on the results. This has been long enough to have be familiar with wines from producers before they went biod. and after. The improvement in quality has been stunning for the most part. And, these were very good producers to start with who have become so much better in their craft.

                                  Likewise, the children who are now in college are magnificent in every aspect. In education, children's success is attributed largely to involved parents rather than the particular methods themselves. Perhaps there is a parallel in winegrowing. A wine producer who commits to using natural means must be more attentive to the cycles and rhythms of her plot of earth. She does not have quick fixes at her disposal. Through this level of attention she learns in more detail how to improve her practices season over season to express more fully the unique character of her place.

                                  These sentiments are summed up in this quote from Julien Castagna of Australia whose vineyard has been biodynamic since 1997 - "Too often, when people start learning about Biodynamics, this is a lack of understanding of what Biodynamics viticulture actually is. There is too much dogma, demonstrated in the attitudes of some growers, educators and certifying bodies, both organic and Biodynamic, who seem to be more interested in 'correctness' and in saving the 'world' rather than concern about quality and taste. Different Biodynamic producers often have very different ideas about how best to implement Biodynamics. Steiner's Agricultural Lectures give us the basis, perhaps even the soul, but it is the Biodynamic practitioners and their interpretation of Steiner, who with sensitivity and great understanding of their particular patch of dirt, in the end, make Biodynamic viticulture work."

                                  1. re: Melanie Wong

                                    very well said.

                                    1. re: ed
                                      m
                                      Melanie Wong

                                      I should have credited you --- the third paragraph is a paraphrase of a lesson learned from you, sir.

                  2. some biodynamic bottles we enjoyed recently . . . available in NYC

                    in the under $20 category:

                    Saint-Chinian, Domaine Rimbert, Le Mas au Schiste -- he had three wines, all of which were v.nice
                     
                    from the Corbieres, Dom. des Deux Anes -- I'd try anything from this vinyard
                     
                    and the $30-ish bottles:

                    Côteaux du Languedoc "Promise", Fontedicto 2001
                     
                    Fitou, La Grangette, Clos des Camuzeilles 2001

                    anyone else?