From cosmic forces to chickens, winegrowers embrace nature to make wines full of character
When the moon is full at Ceàgo Del Lago on the north shoreof California’s Clear Lake, things begin to happen around thevineyard. Not ghostly things; rather, vines are pruned and winesare blended. When the moon’s dark, there’s different activity. Thewines are racked ― siphoned off the sediment in the bottom ofthe barrels.
The lunar activity isn’t lunacy. It’s part of the biodynamicfarming system that Jim Fetzer, owner of Ceàgo, and a growingnumber of other winemakers are committing to, including RobertSinskey and Quintessa in Napa, and Benziger, Quivira, and DeLoachin Sonoma County. They practice biodynamic methods because it’s theright thing to do for the land, and also because they believe itinfuses their wines with the most vivid terroir, the Holy Grail of winemakers, the essence of theplace where the grapes were grown.
A full moon is a great levitating force: The power that liftstides in the oceans of the world also pulls moisture up ingrapevines and flavors out in wine lots, so it’s the best time tocut back vigorous vines and make informed blending decisions. Andwhen the moon goes dark and Earth’s gravity holds complete sway,the sediment in barrels stays put during racking.
As Jim Fetzer, owner of Ceàgo, puts it, “Would you try topaddle upstream when the tide is going out?”
Biodynamic methods go far beyond what you can’t do in organicland (that is, use no syntheticfertilizers or chemical pesticides) to what you can do to make a vineyard a fully alive, completelyself-sustaining ecosystem.
Like making sure that many things are growing there, becausebiodiversity is key to soil health and pest management. AtCeàgo, the vines share the property with lavender, olivetrees, and other edibles. Crop rotation is also important. Butsince it’s a tad impractical to switch out grapevines, cover crops― fava beans, strawberry clover ― are rotated.
The fertilizer on a biodynamic farm is “green” too. In thevineyards, some of it is dropped directly ― by sheep andchickens. The Ceàgo hens live in style: They have a minimobile home that gets pulled here and there, giving them a place tosleep and lay their eggs (which you can buy in the tasting room).Combining animal and plant lives is key to a holistic biodynamicoperation.
The real science and lore of biodynamic winegrowing, though,rest in a handful of preparations applied at very specific timesand some in seemingly peculiar ways. For example, ground-up quartzcrystals are sprayed over the vines in the morning to refract thesun and boost photosynthesis, and manure is packed into the horn ofa cow and buried in the garden from the fall to the spring equinox,before being made into a microbe-rich spray.
All of which seemed mystical to Fetzer at first. The sight ofsomeone stirring a crock of manure to pack into a cow’s hornconjured up witches in his head. But now it feels like smartfarming ― working with the forces of nature rather thanwresting crops from the ground.
He still can’t explain why burying that manure in a female cow’s horn, during the equinox in the fall, createslivelier microbial life in the soil. But the result is measurable.And the latest Ceàgo Merlot is more expressive of the landthan ever ― that part’s tasteable. So why not dig under afull moon?
Cooper Mountain “Mountain Terroir” Five Elements Series PinotNoir 2003 (Willamette Valley, OR; $30). Beautifullyunderstated, with hints of cherry, soy, cola, and minerals.
Presidio Syrah Rosé 2005 (Santa Barbara County; $17).Fresh, spicy, and off the charts with citrus zing. One of the bestout there.
Quivira “Steelhead Red” 2004 (Dry Creek Valley, CA; $18).Pine aromas, milk chocolate, and coffee mingle with wild raspberryand blueberry flavors in this hedonistic blend.
Robert Sinskey “Abraxas” Vin de Terroir 2005 (Carneros, CA;$28). Exotic, minerally, citrusy blend of Pinot Blanc, Riesling,Pinot Gris, and Gewürztraminer.
Robert Sinskey Los Carneros Pinot Noir 2004 (Carneros, CA;$34). Sinskey Pinots ― some of the best in NorthernCalifornia ― are delicate and rich at the same time. This onehas hints of mocha but explodes with citrus and minerals. ― Karen MacNeil-Fife