In recent weeks hail has destroyed thousands of acres of vineyards in Burgundy, Champagne and Bordeaux. Meanwhile, sparkling-wine producers in Northern California started picking grapes on Aug. 1, almost a month earlier than usual.
All of which is a reminder about the essential nature of wine: It’s farming, folks.
Grape growers deal with the same sorts of headaches from weather, diseases and pests as do those nurturing corn, peaches and rutabagas. Conditions vary wildly from year to year (with only so much adjusting farmers can do), and that’s not even accounting for climate change (or, as St. Innocent winemaker and Wisconsin native Mark Vlossak calls it, “global weirdness”). Pests such as the glassy-winged sharpshooter (which almost wiped out the Temeculah wine region in California in the 1990s), the phylloxera louse (which destroyed millions of acres worldwide) and grape-munching birds (which bring out vineyard nets in harvest season) are another hazard.
How do growers fight back? Often by going back to the past.
At Jean-Louis Chave, one of the Rhône region’s best wineries, “we do everything by hand or horse,” said Erin Chave, wife of the proprietor, during a Twin Cities visit last week.
Many of Chave’s French compatriots, from Nicolas Joly in the Loire to Zind-Humbrecht in Alsace, have converted to biodynamic farming, a set of almost zen-like principles that include careful pest control and canopy management and doing a lot of work by phases of the moon. Many of them stuff manure into cow horns and bury them over winter, then mix the fermented manure in rainwater and spray that on vineyard soil in spring.
That’s a 180-degree reversal from what their grandparents did. After World War II, countless French vintners opted for “better living by chemistry,” hoping that new fertilizers and pesticides could help them grow more grapes and regain their footing financially.
Within a few decades, they had leached all the “good stuff” out of their soil, most notably in Burgundy — as those of us who overpaid for thin, vapid wines in the 1980s and 1990s can attest. In more recent times, esteemed Burgundy houses such as Leflaive and Drouhin embraced biodynamic farming.
The method expands
Not all devotees of biodynamics (the word is a mashup of “biological” and “dynamic”) go that far, but once they convert to general biodynamic practices, they generally never look back. Often, through word-of-mouth (or taste of mouth), peers follow suit. That happened in Austria’s Wagram region after one of that country’s best winemakers, Hans Czerny of Wimmer-Czerny, went the biodynamic route in 2006. “If you do something and it works,” he said, “your neighbor asks ‘What is going on?’ ”
Those conversations happen frequently in Oregon, where wineries such as Brooks (coming to the Twin Cities soon), Maysara and Youngberg Hill produce stellar wines from biodynamic vineyards. It’s a popular enough trend to have spawned a new book, Katherine Cole’s “Voodoo Vintners: Oregon’s Astonishing Biodynamic Winegrowers.”
One Willamette Valley winemaker, Wayne Bailey, grew up on an Iowa farm. When he bought the Youngberg Hill property in 2003, he found Burgundy-like, chemically ravaged vineyards.
“Having grown up in the 1960s chemical revolution,” he said, “I knew that wasn’t where I wanted to go. My family lives in the vineyard. … In Burgundy it takes two years to have an evolution away from chemical farming to natural farming, and that’s what we did.”
In 2006 he enacted the biodynamic methods espoused by the movement’s progenitor, Rudolf Steiner. It turned out to be a, well, natural fit. “Steiner says do this here and that now and this over there then,” Bailey said. “Well, I grew up on the Farmers’ Almanac, so I already knew all that stuff.”
Does it make the wines better? I’m not smart enough to know. But every winery mentioned here produces stellar stuff. So at the very least, it’s safe to say that caring this much about the soil is a hallmark of a good winery.