KUSP Reports | By Amy West
Bonny Doon Winemaker Randall Grahm doesn’t just have a vision for his vineyard. He actually dreamt about the San Juan Bautista property before he saw it.
“It’s a very ambitious project. God only knows how long it will take,” said Grahm. “I need to move it forward at least for my own spiritual advancement and psychological well-being. The thought is to actually plant a vineyard that doesn’t really look like a vineyard,” he said.
Grahm describes it in his blog as an “untamed, feral garden of one’s dreams that happens to grow some grapes.” Usually a vineyard is covered in acres of a single species. Lining Grahm’s property, however, are olive trees and black raspberries. Garden veggies grow for his restaurant. Aside from owl boxes, flowering crops, beginnings of jojoba, and fruit trees for wind breaks, are also black rows of composted manure mixed with soil-enhancing biochar.
Biochar is organic matter baked at high temperatures typically without oxygen – a process known as pyrolysis. To obtain sufficient quantities of biochar made from wood chips, Grahm shipped it from Romania. Research shows that depending on the type of material, this soil conditioner can also potentially sequester carbon for hundreds of years. Grahm believes it will enhance the water retention of the soil by “building up the organic matter, and really supercharging the beneficial soil microflora, the micorrhizae, which bring minerals into the roots of the plants.”
He pins his hope on this porous charcoal to help him dry farm in this water-starved region of California. He may be the only US winemaker using biochar, which is not an element of Grahm’s biodynamic farming. Biodynamics is a holistic discipline of agriculture founded by Rudolf Steiner, the early 20th century philosopher who helped create Waldorf schools. Large soil amendments are normally frowned upon in biodynamics, though Grahm believes biochar to be an” extremely benign if not salutary modification to the soil.” He’s awaiting biodynamic certification this year.
“I am so excited about biodynamics and biochar because it does seem to preserve this freshness in the food for greater periods of time, so the produce we get is a lot more wholesome,” said Grahm.
Grounded in biodynamic practices are moon-influenced plantings, energizing life forces, unusual composted preparations, and the simple act of observation. The goal: infuse these grapes with energy from the cosmos and essence from the winemaker. And create an unmatched wine that essentially makes itself.
“As we often say at Bonny Doon – what could possibly go wrong?” said Grahm.
Driving around the hilly 200 acres in San Juan Bautista, the vineyard manager Nicole Walsh shows off the expansive views. Native Ohlone called this site “Popelouchum” meaning village. Walsh hopes by encouraging biodiversity here, it will support the natural fight against disease.
“Agriculture is already so far from a very natural state,” she said. “We are deciding what plants we want. We are manipulating and controlling so much.”
Walsh witnessed how biodynamics increased grape and wine quality at Bonny Doon’s Soledad estate. Iconic to this practice is a calendar system of leaf and root days, and homeopathic recipes. Some include manure, plants, or quartz packed into items such as cow horns, intestines or deer bladders and buried over a season. The mixtures are either made into sprays or mixed back into the compost and doled out in miniscule amounts to the vineyard… about a teaspoon an acre.
Agriculture has a spiritual side to Walsh that’s hard to quantify, but this practice helps her feel connected to the work.
“We are working with life forces that don’t equate to pounds and volume and that’s a part of what is hard for people to grasp in concept,” she said. “How can you believe in something you can’t see?”
John Reganold, a soil science professor at Washington State University is one of the few to compare different farming techniques. He found biodynamic plots yielded similar results to organic but outperformed the conventional ones. More experiments showing whether there’s an advantage to biodynamics requires extended access to sections of land with the same variables, which is hard to come by.
“It’s real hard to find consistent evidence for it. But it doesn’t mean that farmers shouldn’t do it,” said Reganold. “Farmers could be better off doing certain practices because it gets them out there observing the farm more, and they take better care of their crops and their land.”
Grahm’s plans for his land including adding cows, chickens, and maybe pigs, but that isn’t all.
“The other part that is quite possibly lunatic is the idea of hybridizing grapes,” he said.
Usually vineyards buy rootstock, graft vines onto them and create identical clones. Grahm hopes to start from seed and develop plants genetically different from each other. With this diversity, he not only seeks varieties well-suited to his terrain but also wonders how it will affect the wine. “A different gestalt might emerge,” he said.
He describes an electricity and vibrancy in biodynamic wines. This notion is echoed by Mike Sinor, winemaker for his own label Sinor-LaVallee in San Luis Obispo. Sinor once integrated biodynamics into a conventionally farmed section of a vineyard, and was surprised by the results.
“Very quickly we found more snakes, and more worms, frogs and more life out there, said Sinor.”
It’s not an overnight transformation he said, but the practice builds a healthy ecosystem over time, and taps into wisdom that predates modern agriculture.
“For a lot of years people were doing this with no iPhones, w/out Google Earth, and without The Weather Channel,” he said. “All they had to look at were the stars and the moon. That’s it, and they got sh*t done!”
In his opinion the techniques improve the wine quality.
“If it didn’t I wouldn’t use it. The first rule of wine quality is staying in business, making a profit,” said Sinor.
And make a profit many do. Some of the most well-known winemakers in France use biodynamics. A bottle of Domaine LeRoy can fetch more than $1200.
For the Bonny Doon Vineyard owner, it’s not so much about the biodynamic label.
“It’s important to me that I believe in what I am doing. I want to certify myself. I want to do the practices I believe in that are most beneficial to the site,” said Grahm.
He doesn’t believe biodynamics by itself makes great wine; a good site is still crucial. But the practice helps him bring the distinction of the land into the grapes.
“Whether or not you can explain the mechanism, is sort of aside the point. The question is can you make amazing wine?” said Grahm. “If your product tastes like everyone else’s its going to be hard to really sustain yourself in the marketplace.”
The reason behind biodynamics isn’t as important to these vintners. It’s really about creating something they’re proud of.