Biodynamic Wines: Lessons from a Vineyard
It’s 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning in Los Angeles. In the heart of Hollywood, most people are sipping lattes or talking on cell phones, but at the base of a rocky slope in Nichols Canyon, surrounded by spindly young Syrah vines, fledgling winemaker Lisa Kring and vineyard consultant Jeff Dawson are pouring silica paste and dirt into a cow’s horn.
This is biodynamics. Kring, a certified sommelier and a chair of the wine committee for the L.A. chapter of Slow Food, has planted a small vineyard behind her house according to the principles of this exacting, somewhat spiritually driven school of organic viticulture. Today, Dawson has come down from his home in Napa to help her with some of biodynamics’ more esoteric preparations, and also to lend his expertise to a biodynamic wine tasting Kring is hosting for members of her supper club.
Biodynamics, a growing agricultural movement both in the U.S. and internationally, is based on a series of lectures given in the 1920s by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. The movement views the vineyard (or farm) as an ecological whole—not just the vines, but also the soil, insects and other local flora and fauna. As Dawson puts it, "The microcosm reflects the macrocosm." Like organic farmers, biodynamic growers are interested in naturally healthy plants, and in enriching their soil without artificial fertilizers or pesticides. Where biodynamics differs from classic organics, however, is in the belief that agriculture can be aligned to the spiritual forces of the cosmos. This may mean harvesting grapes when the moon is passing in front of a certain constellation. Or, as Kring and Dawson are doing, creating a homeopathic mixture that, when sprayed on the vines, will—in theory—help the grapes ripen and improve their flavors.
While Dawson and Kring are working, Kring’s friend Octavio Becerra starts on a lunch to go along with the tasting. Becerra, the former chef and cofounder of L.A.’s Patina Group with Joachim Splichal, is about to open Palate Food + Wine, a wine-focused restaurant and store. One of his partners, wine director Steve Goldun, has helped make the choices for today’s tasting.
In the house, Becerra stands at the sink, washing ingredients for a side dish of buttery carrots and caraway seeds, while outside, Dawson mixes a paste with the pale pink silica, some vineyard soil and water. Kring examines two horns (from dairy cows, a requirement for this preparation) that Dawson has brought with him from Napa. She selects the larger and smoother of the pair, and she and Dawson pour the gluey mixture into the horn. Then they top it with more soil and bury it in a patch of dirt between the vines. In about six months, Kring will dig up the horn, dilute a smidgen of the contents with water, and stir the mixture by hand for at least an hour to "activate" it. Finally, she will spray the treatment over the vines.
As she and Dawson finish up, friends begin to arrive. Dawson dons his wide-brimmed straw hat and guides the group down to the vineyard. Kring grabs a handful of glasses and two bottles of Larmandier-Bernier Brut, a crisp biodynamic Champagne, and follows with her husband, Tim, the creator and executive producer of the NBC series Heroes. Becerra brings a plate of hot croquettes, savory-sweet with winter squash. As Kring pours the wine, she and Goldun exchange approving nods. "It’s got that biscuity quality of a good Champagne," Kring says.
One of the guests, NBC News correspondent Michael Okwu, asks Dawson how he became committed to biodynamics. "It’s simple—I’ve seen the results. The vineyards are healthier, and the wines, well, they’re profound." Everyone heads to the pool, where an array of biodynamic wines have been uncorked for tasting. Kring and Goldun begin with a Movia Sauvignon Blanc from Slovenia. The wine, aged in oak for 20 months, is unusually aromatic, with a lovely minerality. "Crushed stone, I just love that taste," Goldun says, then describes the Slovenian winemaker, a colorfully outspoken character named Ales Kristancic.
Becerra’s food is laid out family-style on the table, including a platter of grilled quail with pine nuts and plump, sherry-soaked currants. When he was growing up in California, the chef once hunted for quail with his father. "I like the idea of being able to grow or hunt for your own food," he says; but compared to his commitment to organic agriculture, "hunting’s not one of the things I became passionate about." He sets down a bowl piled high with nutty wheat berries dotted with crisp pancetta and soft roasted apples. A second salad right next to it is bright with roasted beets, smooth crème fraîche and crunchy pickled red onions, a terrific combination of earthy, creamy and tart.
Another white wine is poured, this time a minerally, Alsace-influenced blend from Robert Sinskey Vineyards in Napa. The wine—made with Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Riesling and Gewürztraminer grapes from a vineyard Sinskey owns in Sonoma—is a hit. "I’m not much for Alsace grape varieties," says TV actress Lisa Kaminir. "They’re typically too sweet, but this one is peachy and flowery—it goes perfectly with the wheat berries and pancetta."
The guests sample a juicy pork tenderloin rubbed with a surprisingly tangy Middle Eastern–style mixture of paprika and sumac (Becerra once did a stint in Beirut, Lebanon, and fell in love with the region’s za’atar spice blend). The chef serves the meat with roasted sweet potatoes and a luscious hazelnut vinaigrette. To pair with the spiced pork, Kring pours a peppery, aromatic Domaine Leroy Bourgogne Rouge. "Lalou Bize-Leroy is considered the high priestess of biodynamic wines," she says of the Domaine’s proprietor, a grande dame of L’Agriculture Bio-Dynamique, as biodynamics is called in France. "Guess what this Burgundy costs?"
One of the guests, Finding Nemo screenwriter Dave Reynolds, takes a sip of the spicy red, then hazards a guess: "It’s either outrageously expensive or exceptionally cheap, otherwise we wouldn’t be guessing. It’s at least $100."
"Great—I still can’t afford to drink delicious Burgundy!" Reynolds says with a laugh.
Jessica Strand is a Los Angeles–based writer. Her latest book is Margaritas, Mojitos " More (Chronicle Books).