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Biodynamic Wine? Try It Before You Smirk
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Biodynamic Wine? Try It Before You Smirk

Food

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

There's a lot of debate these days about the health of the nation's food supply and the quality, good or bad, using food grown with pesticides and artificial fertilizers. But it's rare to hear about the spiritual shortcomings of some farm practices. That is the basis of biodynamics, a farming technique that raises organic agriculture to a higher plane.

It's becoming popular among some California winemakers, and from member station KQED, Cy Musiker has this story.

CY MUSIKER reporting:

There's a saying among some biodynamic growers - a great wine begins in the compost pile.

(Soundbite of backhoe)

MUSIKER: A backhoe turns a pile of grape pumice and manure. This is Paul Dolan's composite pile at his Dark Horse Ranch in Mendocino County, two hours due north of San Francisco. There's nothing radical about compost, but Dolan says biodynamic growers mix in extras. A teaspoon each of dried yaro flower, oak bark and other so-called preparations.

Mr. PAUL DOLAN (Dark Horse Ranch): We find that we get 30 percent more nutrients from the biodynamic compost than we do from the organic compost.

MUSIKER: The Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner invented biodynamics in 1924, part of a much grander spiritual science. Steiner believed that a farm should be a self-contained living organism. Steiner said farmers must avoid pesticides and raise animals to provide their own fertilizer. There are other practices, too, which sound a bit wacky. That yaro in the compost, for instance, is supposed to be aged in a red deer's urinary bladder.

Mr. DOLAN: I have to admit when I first started getting involved in this, I did question did it have to be this amount and under these conditions.

MUSIKER: Paul Dolan is the former president of the giant Fetzer Vineyards and he's chairman of the industry's powerful lobbying arm, The Wine Institute. So this successful businessman is nobody's chump. But Dolan went biodynamic when he bought this vineyard a decade ago. We move on to a table under a stand of redwoods. Here Dolan pours a glass of wine called Deep Red slated for release next year.

(Soundbite of wine pouring)

Mr. DOLAN: So this is a blend of syrah, petite syrah and zinfandel.

MUSIKER: So how does this biodynamic wine smell and taste?

Mr. DOLAN: You smell lots of berries in here and it's very, very ripe. Maybe little violets.

MUSIKER: And in the mouth?

Mr. DOLAN: Well, let's taste it. Lots of the briery fruit. Lots of the blackberry.

MUSIKER: It makes you lick your lips, I would say.

Mr. DOLAN: Yeah, this is one of those juicy fruit flavors, you know. Lot's of those red berries that you just want to eat more and more of.

MUSIKER: Dolan says in each of his wines, he's striving to distill the unique qualities of the grape on this land. It's a concept that French call (foreign language). Dolan says biodynamics amplifies that characteristic.

Mr. DOLAN: Biodynamics comes from the place which I would suggest where there is a deep level of respect for the energy and the life force that exists in a particular piece of property. So you overlay grape growing in that and then you get the ultimate expression in your wines at the end of the day.

MUSIKER: It may not sound like good science, but others are adopting biodynamic techniques, including dozens of European wineries. In the U.S., The Demeter Association, dedicated to Rudolph Steiner's teachings, has certified just over 100 farms, nearly a quarter are California grape growers. The wine critics are mixed. They've rated some biodynamic wines highly, others just fair, and there are plenty of skeptics among the winemakers, people who dub biodynamics doodoo voodoo.

Mr. ANDY WALKER (University of California at Davis): It would be very hard to find biodynamics practiced on a very large scale.

MUSIKER: That's Andy Walker. He teaches Vidiculture at the University of California at Davis, the state's premiere wine making school.

Mr. WALKER: The cost would be much higher because there's more man hours of hand time in those vineyards.

MUSIKER: Walker rolls his eyes at what he calls the religious dogma of biodynamics, but he notes biodynamic growers often get good results. Maybe that's because, Walker says, it's hard to go far wrong in California, where the climate is nearly idea for wine grapes.

For NPR News I'm Cy Musiker in Davis, California.

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