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Green Wine: Biodynamic Farming

  As part of our ongoing discussion on green wine, let’s take a look at a growing (and controversial) category: biodynamics. The common understanding, or at least my understanding before I did research, is that biodynamic farming is organic plus. This is essentially true, the question being what exactly the plus is.

 

Demeter

  While biodynamic farming is popular across the world for a variety ofcrops, here in the US it hasn’t caught on much outside of the wineindustry.Worldwide biodynamic farming is regulated primarily by Demeter, an international agency with branches in many different countries. You’ll find a Demeter certification logo on most bottles of biodynamically grown wine.

  So what is biodynamic farming, and how does it differ from organic? To be considered biodynamic, a farm must already qualify as organic. The difference is that a biodynamic farm is treated with a different mindset one that views the farm holistically, as a living organism, and recognizes the forces acting on the farm. From the Demeter USA website:

Examples of such forces include the climate, inherent wildlife of the earth (above and below the ground), the light and warmth from the sun and the focusing of even more distant cosmic influences through the other planetary members of our suns solar system.

 

…Cosmic influences? Here’s how it all started:

 

Rudolf Steiner

  Biodynamics is entirely based on a series of lectures given in June of 1924 by Rudolf Steiner, a philosopher who put emphasis on spiritual science, and the leader of a movement called Anthroposophy. Before organic farming existed, Steiner viewed the use of chemicals as poisonous and destructive, and sought to treat each farm as a self-sustaining organism. I can understand the mindset. He was also passionate about interpretive dance.

  In his lectures, Steiner lays out guidelines for basic farming practices based on lunar cycles and the movement of the planets through the constellations (modern supporters of biodynamics point out that they use an astronomical calendar, as opposed to an astrological one). Steiner highlights The Four Temperaments, and says these are reflected in the moon’s travels through the Zodiac, thus different days are ideal for different activities: there are root, leaf, flower, and fruit days. You taste wine on a fruit or flower day. You water your crops on a root day.

  I have not been able to find a free biodynamic calendar on the internet, though I have been given many opportunities to purchase one.

  Steiner also lays out holistic alternatives to chemicals, called Preparations. Preparation 500 involves burying a cow’s horn full of cow manure over a winter, then digging it up and mixing a small amount of the manure with water and spraying it over soil. Other Preparations include things like valerian flowers, dandelion, horsetail, and quarz crystals. They are used in a homeopathic method, meaning highly diluted in water.

  Homeopathy is bunk. It is quackery.

  To show both sides, though, here is a video of biodynamics advocate Mike Benziger; at 2:45 he explains the cow horns. By the way, his wines, in my experience, are good.

 

The Conversation

  Last Wednesday, Chicago Tribune wine writer Bill Daley featured an interview with Italian wine producer and biodynamic enthusiast Alois Lageder. In the interview, Lageder makes this claim, Biodynamic wines are more harmonious, more elegant, more expressive of the terroir and more authentic.

  Why aren’t journalists asking tougher questions when these claims are made?

  Let’s be clear: there are some truly great biodynamic wines, and some of the best producers in the world are using biodynamic practices to produce world-class products. Some producers, such as M. Chapoutier in France, are pushing for scientific studies to advance biodynamic farming to a higher level.  I respect that.

  Generally, though, the mood is anti-science. I’ve seen many discussions making claims like “some things can’t be measured” and “natural science has a limited perspective.” The debate is often cast in extremes, as though anyone not practicing biodynamic farming (this one of many methods of responsible farming) is a mega-sized industrial polluter spilling out tons of chemicals. What about organic farming, a very similar process, only minus the astrology and homeopathy?

  I know that sometimes people crave mysticism; I understand that they desire a spiritual element in life. But I also suspect that a big reason that the term “biodynamic” carries such weight is because most people don’t really know all the details, and assume, as I did, that biodynamic simply means organic plus.

  A true, honest conversation begins with an understanding of what that plus really is.


Homebrew Contest Returning to South Loop

Binnys South Loop is hosting their 3rd annual homebrew contest sponsored by Samuel Adams on Saturday, April 17th from 2:00-4:00pm. There is no charge to enter the contest, but entries will be limited to the first 50 beers submitted. Each entrant may only enter one beer. Entrants need to drop two 12oz bottles or one 22oz bottle of their beer off at Binnys South Loop, Tuesday 4/13 through Thursday 4/15, along with your entry form. Judging will take place Friday, and winners will be announced on Saturday at 3pm. You must be present to win. 1st place will be a trip for two to the Great American Beer Fest that includes tickets, airfare, and hotel. Runners up will win valuable prizes, and every entrant will take home a free gift. The event also includes a Samuel Adams beer and cheese pairing and raffles for beer themed prizes. Contact katie@binnys.com with questions.  Click here for an entry form.


Paddy Has Arrived!

We receive a lot of questions and product requests on the Whisky Hotline, we can finally answer yes to the most common one.  Yes, we do have Paddy Irish Whiskey.  For the first time, a limited amount of this Irish staple has hit the shores, and we have bought a pile of it, at least enough to get us through St. Patrick’s Day.  Named for famous Cork Distillers Company salesman Paddy Flaherty in 1912, this light, soft gem consists of a high portion of triple distilled malt whisky.  The owner of the brand, Pernod Ricard, is insisting this is a limited release, we can only hope that they decide to make it readily available.


What’s in a Vintage?

2008 in Australia
  I was heading home one day when Steve, a wine guy at the Skokie Binny’s, handed me a bottle of 2008 Steeple Jack Shiraz. He said it was the best six dollars I could spend on wine. The recommendation came with a warning, though: he told me not to expect the simple cherry pie filling standard in Australian shiraz at that price. I bought one (for six bucks, why not?) and drank it that night.

  I had tasted the 2006 when it first arrived. I found my notes in the file I keep: red fruits, then some spicy qualities, turning funky on the finish. Not too complex, but not bad for a six dollar bottle.

  In comparison, the 2008 Steeple Jack Shiraz is great. I’m not going to say that it will knock your socks off (the internet is no place for hyperbole!) but I will say that it drinks like a $15 shiraz and costs $6. On top of lots of heavy fruits (think dark red raspberry) there’s a healthy amount of herbal backbone, keeping things in focus and offering a level of complexity that you don’t often see at this price.

  So I reported back to Steve. I told him that the ’08 blows the ’06 out of the water, that it’s a good bottle of wine and a fantastic value. He agreed, adding, “That shows you the impact of the vintage even on the cheap stuff.” I agree.

  By the way, most everything I’ve read about the 2008 vintage in Australia has been relatively negative. The story is always about how hot it was, especially late in the season. This heat caused moisture to evaporate from the grapes, resulting in low yields and high levels of sugar. From what I’ve tasted mostly inexpensive wines so far the reds have been great, if a little overblown and overextracted. I’m okay with that. We’re seeing great shiraz values like the Steeple Jack, Stump Jump, Boxhead, Marquis Philips, and more. We’re still waiting for most of the reviews to roll in, but I’m guessing the vintage will be declared more successful after the top-notch wines are released.

 

2007 in the Rhone

  Another recent vintage that has caught my eye is 2007 in the Rhone. I’ve tasted quite a few 07’s, characteristically showing intense, heavy fruit framed in a tannic or herbal edge. I’ve found many under $20 that have been outstanding, like the Piaugier Sablet Cotes du Rhone Villages, with dominant black and blue raspberry along with notes of cola and licorice, all for $15 (on sale through February for $12.99)! Or the slightly more refined and rustic Chateau des Roques Vacqueyras, with raspberry and plum and dried orange peel supported by a tight ‘tea leaf’ herbaceous quality, for just two bucks more. After tasting these side by side with more expensive wines of the region, I started to wonder why anyone would ever want to spend the extra money for a more expensive bottle.

  So I was pretty stoked on the 2007’s, but then I found myself at a tasting of French wines that were mostly unrepresented here in the Chicago market. I discovered a whole new world of ’07 Rhones thin, herbal, coppery, lazy and simple wines that had none of the vintage character I was looking for. What a letdown. But I realized two things: 1) vintage isn’t always everything, and 2) the wine buyers at Binny’s do a pretty good job of seeking out the best (nobody tell them I said that).

 

So Then

  All this was on my mind early last week when I sat in on a seminar about the “Terroir, Diversity, and Complexity of Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti Classico and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.” After pushing through a solid presentation and tasting nine good but vaguely samey wines (from excellent 2004 and 2006 vintages), the conversation turned to a Q&A with representatives from the Tuscan regions.

  One member of the audience asked for a recap of all of the vintages of this century for Brunello di Montalcino. The esteemed representative of the region, whose name I should have written down, cordially gave his opinion of each vintage since 2000. He was speaking in Italian, and everything was translated. After finishing, he offered this:

  “People who drink from vintage charts drink vintages, when they should drink wine…. You should trust a good winemaker to make great wine in any year. Drink the wine, not the vintage.”


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