Does planting a cow horn full of fresh manure in a vineyard make a better wine than a winery using more conventional farming techniques? Kevin Morrisey won’t quite make that claim, but he does think it makes for more responsible farming.
Morrisey is winemaker at Ehlers Estate in St. Helena, one of a handful of area wineries employing the biodynamic farming principles espoused by Rudolf Steiner in the early 1920s. Steiner (1861-1925), an esoteric Austrian philosopher and social reformer, spent the early part of his career trying to prove a link between science and mysticism.
In his later years, he turned to more practical pursuits, including the creation of the Waldorf education system and biodynamic agriculture.
In practice, biodynamic farming is a lot like organic farming in that both emphasize the use of natural compounds and inputs instead of artificial chemical agents. Biodynamic farming, however, introduces the notion of biodiversity on the farm as well as a focus on crop rotation, care of the land and adherence to the lunar calendar. It also includes elements of spirituality and mysticism, which is often blown out of proportion by those skeptical of the practice.
“The essence of biodynamic farming is the big picture view, the holistic view of what you’re doing,” Morrisey explains. “It’s not about how much productivity you can get out of a piece of land. It’s about having a relationship with that land, with the soil, with all the cycles of nature and participating in all that. So I am giving to the land, and the land is giving back to me. And this goes on.”
Morrisey was exposed to Steiner when he and his wife enrolled their youngest child in a Waldorf School, and were eventually introduced to the founder’s teachings. Already embracing an organic lifestyle, and being in the wine business, Steiner’s principles resonated with Morrisey.
While working as winemaker at Stag’s Leap, he and others urged management to adopt an organic approach to farming. But before they could make that commitment, Morrisey had landed the winemaker position at Ehlers, where they had already been farming biodynamically for five years. Within two years, the winery had received certification from Demeter International, the official body of biodynamic farming.
Ehlers isn’t the only winery that adopted Steiner’s controversial methodologies. Such well-known and highly-regarded wineries including Robert Sinskey, Joseph Phelps, Araujo and Benziger are either certified biodynamic, or abide by a majority of the provisions. Many other local wineries are organic.
So does biodynamic or organic farming make the wines any better?
“When people used to ask me that,” Morrisey said, “I would just say ‘Of course it does!’ But tongue in cheek, right? Because, why would you do it if it doesn’t make the wines better? You do it because you enjoy it, because it’s fulfilling, it feels good to be nurturing the land, and it’s responsible. And I like that. But I am not evangelical about it; it does not help our marketing. No one really buys our wines because they are organic or biodynamic. The people who buy these types of wines buy them because they are awesome wines.“
The most widely-known — and often ridiculed — practice in biodynamic farming involves the planting of the cow horns, known as field preparation 500 in Steiner’s treatise. At Ehlers, 30 such horns are filled with fresh organic manure and planted in the vineyards every winter, where a slow composting activity occurs underground.
In the spring, before the vines have blossomed, the horns are dug up, and the manure extracted. Now transformed into “beautiful, silky earth,” Morrisey said, the manure is made into a “tea” and spread in small homeopathic quantities over the entire vineyard.
“We get criticized because people say, ‘Well, come on, you take your little horns and you fill them with cow manure and you bury them underground and you dig it up and you spray a teaspoon of that on your grapes and you’re going to tell me that’s going to make a better wine?’”
Biodynamic farming encompasses eight other proscribed field and compost preparations, as well as the use of cover crops and insectary rows, which help eliminate the need for fertilizers and pesticides. In addition, the biodynamic calendar, based on phases of the moon, instructs farmers when the best times are for planting, cultivating and harvesting the crops.
While the calendar may dictate when to do things, Morrisey still retains a pragmatic approach. “Nobody ever said you should be foolhardy and dogmatic about it. We are still human beings and we are still farmers and we still use our brain. So while today may not be the best day to pick based on the phase of the moon, we’ve got 10 days of rain on the horizon so we’re getting the fruit in!”
Critics generally lavish Ehlers wines with fairly high scores, but Morrisey doesn’t credit the farming. He usually doesn’t even mention it. “If people want to talk about it I am happy to. But the most interesting part about Ehlers is the terroir, and the 100 percent estate-grown fruit, and the legacy and the quality of the wines made on this property. That’s what people are interested in.”