Article By: Fred Bouchard
It should surprise nobody in the trade that Cambridge be the quietly self-designated hotbed of a pop in the still small niche explosion of biodynamic wines. Where but in that socio-political cauldron of Cantabrigia could such extremism grip sommeliers' and diners' imaginations? Violette Imports' eclectic and discerning portfolio has played a vital role in influencing the tastemakers around town. Chez Henri got involved when ex-wine manager Scott Holliday, trained as a chemist, became intrigued with Violette's book. Tony Maws, chef/owner of Craigie Street Bistrot pairs some of these wines with his earthy dishes of pig, offal and other exotica.
Establishment destinations like Rialto have done well hand-selling biodynamic wines. At a recent dinner, upon sommelier Tiffany Taylor's recommendation, this writer found Pierre Frick's 2OOO Pinot Blanc to be a subtle gray-green-gold, with a deeply fruity, slightly earthy nose, rich and smooth in texture, long on flavors of caramel and alfalfa. (Most 2OOO whites are deemed past peak and off most lists and shelves). Violette owner Richard Kzirian offers background: "This wine fermented two years on the lees! Frick says, 'Lees contain the essence of the flavors the soils have given our grapes.' He shifted to organics in 197O, biodynamics in 1984, with no chaptalizing since 1988. He's a founder of Alsace's biodynamic movement; his peers look to him and Zind-Humbrecht for counsel."
Oleana Manager and Wine Director Theresa Paopao is on board: fully half her 8O-entry list has organic wines color-coded blue and biodynamic wines red, giving the list a patriotic Old Glory look. Of Oleana's 22 wines-by-the-glass in March, 8 were organic and 4 biodynamic. Says the young half-Samoan, Hawaiian-born wine director, "Rhones are most popular: the grape varietals Grenache and Marsanne/Rousanne are well suited to our spicy food. Since we use sustainable ingredients from our farm, it makes sense to include similar products on our wine list." The farm Paopao refers to is Siena Farms in Sudbury, Massachusetts, run by Chris Kurth, husband of Oleana's chef/owner Ana Sortun and named for their baby daughter.
Do biodynamic wines have better flavors? "They are better wines, in my opinion," avers Paopao. "They may not be always more intense or aromatic, but they do speak more of the place they come from. There's more work involved, you can't just dump chemicals in the vineyard and call it a day. You have to be dedicated and pay attention - and then a quality product comes forth."
Do they need handselling? "Hey, this is Cambridge, the land of hybrid cars and Whole Foods! These wines sell themselves. When I started at Oleana four years ago, there was less interest, customers were not so versed in the concept. But today there are seminars everywhere, biodynamic wine symposiums in NYC and France. I'm sure there's also a direct awareness factor with concerns for global warming. People shop at Whole Foods, and the logic is 'If you buy organic foods, why not your beverages, too?'
Paopao considers many factors in choosing sustainable wines. "Beyond how the vineyard is farmed, it is so important that the wine goes with our food. Many go-to wines are from Southern France and Northern Italy as they generally tend to pair better with the complicated flavors and spices of Oleana's menu. But you'd be surprised how much wine from Slovenia, Greece and Lebanon we go through. I think people check their 'food reservations' at Oleana's front door. Because our flavors and spices are brand new to them, once they get through the unfamiliar territory of the menu, it's not a stretch to get them to try something adventurous from the wine list."
The trend has national echoes in the green movement. Paopao asserts: "Oleana is also 'going green': we compost most kitchen waste, use no Styrofoam; we're in the process of installing energy efficient lighting; our current renovations utilize recycled building materials. A boston globe (3/14/O7) article on the Green Restaurant Association listed Oleana and Upstairs at the Pudding from Cambridge, and Lumiere from Newton among Eastern Massachusetts' eight members in a national group of 3OO.
Upstairs on the Square offers many organic and biodynamic wines and sustainable food products; at their recent high-profile spring dinner at the James Beard House in Manhattan, Chef Steven Brand served five courses paired with "dynamic wines from sustainable and organic vineyards".
What was perceived as a trend has become an international movement. "Cambridge has its reputation for being green," says Chef Maws, "but the biodynamic revolution is going forward on many fronts. Articles and books are being written everywhere. France has wine festivals in Paris and Narbonne. It's easy to embrace politically because of the way it encompasses everything that's happening environmentally within the borders of the vineyard property. You can grab onto the concept from a philosophical perspective, sure, but at the end of the day the wine has to taste good. If you're not a good winemaker, biodynamics is not going to help you."
Maws is less keen on the marketing than the tastes. "Most of my wines are organic. For Americans, it may just be a marketing gimmick. We're brainwashed into thinking at Whole Foods that if it's organic it must be better - not necessarily the case. While it does say that these products were grown using such and such farming practices, it does not guarantee it's worth the difference in price, or how it hits your palate. With us, we're serving food that is definitely off the beaten path, so we like surprises in our wines, too. We serve cockscombs and pig's tails, and these foods need robust wines with a lot of acidity. The Loire's a good place for them, and a high percentage of biodynamic and organic wines are being made by Loire producers, so it's a natural fit."
To farm as flora and fauna.
Biodynamic grape-growing stems from the philosophy and practical teachings of Viennese physician Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). His own spiritual/practical philosophy, called anthroposophy, includes understanding nature from the ecological, energetic and spiritual perspectives. Steiner, who founded homeopathic medicine and The Waldorf School, taught biodynamic ideas in classes on agriculture that predate organic winemaking by a generation. Biodynamic agriculture is a holistic system where soil is nurtured through natural remedies, and planting, harvesting and bottling take place according to the positions of the planets and lunar phases. Natural animal and vegetable matter is applied to soil to strengthen it, and various homeopathic herbal and mineral preparations are added to help the soil maximize light and heat for photosynthesis.
Holliday, a biochemistry major before becoming a wine-buyer, found the notions of sustainability and self-sufficiency appealing. "Your property is an organism in which the components need to be in balance with the right mix of mammals, birds, insects, micro-organisms, plants - even the ideal cosmological conditions (where I withhold belief). Your compost comes from the animals, pomace, yeasts. It's a permanent reinforcement from within, year after year. There's a fractal, metaphorical relationship between your property (an entity that has every living thing in it to produce great wine) and a grape (a fruit that has everything in it to produce great wine - sugar, flavenoids, tannin, pigment, enzymes) and a bottle of wine (fruit, acid, color, weight, alcohol.)"
The two certifying agencies of biodynamics exercise but limited influence on the free-thinking farmer-growers, asserts Holliday. "Demeter is older and more general in that its certification covers all agriculture (www.demeter-usa.org). Biodyvin is a competing/complementary agency specifically for French wine producers (www.biodyvin.com). Many growers ignore or resent being told how to interpret biodynamics in their vineyards; some highly individualistic producers, overworked already, are less likely to jump through extra bureaucratic hoops. In general, the more prestigious the producer, the less likely they are to proclaim their biodynamic status (Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, Domaine Leflaive). Many have long (sometimes centuries-old) reputations that could only be tainted by any sort of marketing ploy."
Leonardo LoCascio, founder and president of Winebow, confirmed Holliday's remarks at a dinner at Stonehedge Inn's Silks Restaurant, adding an incontrovertible one: the economic factor. LoCascio pointed out that the stringent and expensive chemical testing that Italian wine regulations require of organic and biodynamic wineries end up costing producers such whopping fees that they prefer not to disclose such processes on their labels.
Biodynamics started in Europe but has spread in a limited way to the New World. France leads the league of nations with biodynamic wineries; its 17O outnumbers all other nations combined. Following are Austria, USA and Germany [see sidebar].
California's Wine Institute records that the state has about 8OOO wine-type acres certified as organic, and much of the fruit is used by wineries that label their wines "organic" or "made with organically grown grapes". Both labels indicate grapes grown without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides. or fungicides for a period of at least three years with third-party inspection. The key difference between the two is that wines labeled "organic" have no added sulfites to sustain prolonged shelf life and must have laboratory certification that the wine contains 1O parts per million or less sulfites. Labels for "organic" and "made with organically grown grapes" are approved both by the US Tax & Trade Bureau and FDA's National Organic Program. Consumer concerns for welfare of their families, the earth and the future of society drive the growing interest in "green" products and industries. The widespread practice of sustainability and similar farming initiatives demonstrate this deep commitment. California wineries utilizing organic and biodynamic practices include Bonterra, Lolonis, Frey, Ceago del Lago.
Violette Imports goes about its business quietly, no trumpeting, but the subtle and persistent choices of an ecologically oriented portfolio put forth over the years have had a marked effect on winelists throughout Cambridge - and elsewhere. ("We don't wanna be rock stars," says Kzirian. "It's all about the producers.") Though his conversations with Violette's David Mitchell and Kzirian opened Holliday's eyes, his BS in biochemistry kept him skeptical. "My background as a scientist was to hold outlandish claims up to the light. Some ideas are right up there with pyramids that keep razor blades sharp and copper earrings that cure arthritis. Some claims sound so ridiculous that people call biodynamics the lunatic fringe of organic farming. One precept that raises eyebrows is that you bury a quartz in a cow's horn on the property from equinox to equinox. To fertilize, bury cow manure for a year, dig it up, dilute and stir it dynamizingly (vigorously clockwise and counterclockwise). Some great growers are stone cold serious about these procedures. Here's an example. We were pouring Muscadet by a producer who spins his wines in dynamizing fashion (counterclockwise to the Earth's rotation) before bottling them. I mentioned this as a joke to a Californian biodynamic producer, who looked at me thunderstruck and said, 'What a fabulous idea!' It was an epiphany for him!"
Holliday weighs in on the wines' pronounced chemical and mineral components. "A major difference between organic and biodynamic wines is the increased availability - a huge spike - in calcium ions, a traditional and coveted source of minerality and flavor distinction in many of the world's best vineyards. Biodynamic vineyard practices tend to supercharge microbial activity within the soil, as opposed to chemical-based agriculture, where microbial activity is nearly dead. As nothing gets trucked out or in, the composted and recycled culture goes back into the soil; micro-organisms make minerals available for uptake by the plant's roots. Chemical fertilizer tends to make the vines turn their roots upward, instead of seeking downward for the minerals.
"I've come to approach these wines - and others outside people's everyday drinking experiences - as if they're 'characters'. If you're introducing someone to an eccentric friend, you might say more than just: "Steve, Bob. Bob, Steve." You might prepare them a little, give a preview. You might tell a customer, 'Unlike most Shirazes, this one has real animal quality - a meaty core. Once you get past that, the flavors are complemented by fruit and mineral.' Give them a framework to help diminish the shock. As professional tasters we're trained - first and foremost - to look for flaws. With most wines, if you look hard enough, you'll find them. That's not a good approach when trying to enjoy wines, and can quickly eliminate a lot of interesting ones." Chez Henri carries Holliday's biodynamic selections: Domaine de Roquefort [Provence] Clairette, Les Portes Rose [Languedoc], Rateau [Cotes de Beaune] a pioneer who preceded that biodynamic prophet and poster boy, Nicolas Joly [see Profile in January 'O7 issue of beverage].
Maws concurs with Holliday's being persuaded by knowledgeable enthusiasts. "Wine friends like Richard Kzirian and Cat Silirie [Nine Park] are great proponents for teaching and discovering wines. They've been a tremendous influence on my wine list from day one, and continue to be great sources of information. They both love to embrace the spirit of biodynamic wines . . ."
There are no bargains.
"There are no short-cut, bargain biodynamic wines," continues Holliday. "What these producers do is highly labor-intensive and requires all sorts of extra tasks. They value hand over machine harvesting. They value slow, wild-yeast fermentations (that tie up your equipment for weeks) over boutique hot yeasts that ferment in seven days. They entail a huge disparity ratio of land versus vineyard: to keep an ecosystem in balance costs plenty of acreage. Mike Benziger's 85 acres are only 5O% planted to vine; the rest makes room for swamp, pond, an 'insectory', and forest for beneficial predators. He pushes his growers to achieve 'sustainability'; that may not be enough to benefit the wines, but from a humanistic standpoint, it's a great step."
Benziger's Tribute, carried by Horizon Beverage Company, is one of the occasional Californian efforts to achieve fetish status.
"Though organic production doesn't go far enough," admits Holliday, "biodynamics is no magic bullet to produce exceptional wines. Yet, if your property has the potential to produce exceptional wines, biodynamics will help enhance that potential. You're not gonna make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Chenin Blanc from fertile-valley California won't ever taste like Savennieres. It's a harsh reality. I never had the build to play hoops in the NBA; no coaching program or breakfast cereal regimen will ever get me there!"
Retailers chime in
Roger Ormon of Brookline Liquor Mart mentions the restructuring of vineyards. "Biodynamic and organic producers range and terrace their rows so as to get maximum sunlight, and respect the integrity of the hillside. Yet they make it possible for vineyard workers to access the vines without too difficult slopes by training the vines upward to ease hand-work. William Fevre (Chablis) and Bouchard [same ownership] tout hand-picking in small buckets. Important benefits are less refuse in the crusher/basket and on the sorting table. Their wines show that - clean, pristine." Ormon, who'd just tasted Bouchard's Volnay, Beaune Greves and l'Enfant Jesus, declared they showed "real sex appeal".
Retailers confirm that organics are catching on. Penny Knapman, proprietor of The Epicure in Chatham says: "Organics I leave some space for, as I have people who specifically call for them. To people who say that they're allergic to sulfites, I gently suggest that they're likelier to be allergic to the tannins. You can't fault people for being health conscious, and my small organics section - Lolonis, Coturri and others - suffices for my client base."
Ormon continues: "I respect the choices of producers to implement [sustainable] methods and techniques in growing and winemaking, but that, in and of itself, is not sufficient to create good wine. It still takes talent to do it right. Some of the best producers do it, but aren't advertising the fact. It's a little like religion: some of the most vocal proselytizers are suspect. By their wines shall ye know them! The main thing is that the wines taste good!"
Amazing mouthfuls, but . . .
Chef Maws readily admits that biodynamic wines are for more adventurous diners. "All the wines we bring in, we have to enjoy, whatever their provenance; they all have to have personality. But biodynamic wines have a certain - unpredictability - about them, for one reason because they don't add sulfur. Without adding preservatives, you're opening yourself to the possibility that the wine might take a right or left turn. My staff is well-educated and it's up to them to tell people about the wines. We don't offer wine flights, but we open lots of bottles to pour by the glass. (At the moment we have biodynamic wines by the glass, though we don't flag them as such: Zusslin Alsace Sylvaner and Derain red Burgundy.)
"What's overlooked with food in restaurant settings is that the grand marque wines that you can swirl in your glass and contemplate are not necessarily all that good with foods. Wines more high in acidity and tannins are going to go better with our dishes. There are plenty of wines I love to drink that I don't put on my list for various reasons. Some wines that you think of in terms of vintage and aging are almost too pretty to have with venison, they'd overpower it. This week we're serving cod cheeks poached in mustard oil and served with cardoons and tarbay beans. A white Chinon or Derain Bourgogne Blanc are fine with this. Or Sika venison with a walnut puree served with a wild red Burgundy or Pierre Frick's Pinot Noir (Alsace). We think it's important to decant most of our wines, biodynamic or not.
"Some biodynamic wines - not all - are full of surprises, they have a real life of their own. Nicolas Joly's Coulee de Serrant is really whacked-out, phenomenal, but it's not for everyone's palate. When you first learn to drive, you don't get behind the wheel of a Porsche, know what I mean? Some of these wines have a profound flavor profile, but that doesn't mean they're inaccessible. Richard is always bringing in amazing new wines to try, but some of them are really whacked-out, too weird for my list. That doesn't mean we don't like to drink them when we're off on Monday nights! " Kzirian confirms, with a chuckle, "Tony tastes with me 2 to 3 times before he puts anything on his list!"