We’ve spent a good part of our week in Sonoma, going to small wineries to try and pick up workflow and equipment ideas for Two Terrier Vineyards. We were especially interested in seeing how organic and Biodynamic wineries were handling things, as we’re aiming for organic certification.

One of the best wineries we’ve discovered is Benziger in Glen Ellen. The Benzigers are pretty much in the forefront of organic and biodynamic vineyard management and they love to preach the Gospel (although on a very informative and funny tour in their Bio-diesel powered tractor trains.) The tour is great. Not only of their wine-making but of the bio-diverse ecosystem they’ve developed on their Glen Ellen property.

Before you rush to buy Benziger wine at your local store thinking it will all be organic, be aware that Benziger processes tons and tons of grapes into wine. Their organic output from home property grapes is very small and is largely available only at the tasting room and to their wine club. However, with more and more serious Sonoma vineyards switching to organic production, and given the huge scale of the Benziger processing facilities, they are bringing more and more organic wine to conventional markets. Watch for it.

What we loved most about the tour, besides their resident olive oil maker and sometime tour guide’s dry wit, was our discovery that we’ve been going down the road to Biodynamics without even knowing it. Before I explain, let me caution you not to make the mistake I’ve made in the past. Using “organic” and “biodynamic” interchangeably. They’re very different.

At its simplest, organic farming can mean just refraining from chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Although most organic farmers do much more than that, practicing integrated pest management, soil conservation and ecological practices.

Biodynamics takes it all much further, and at some points starts to resemble Voodoo Farming. More on that later. First where we fit the mold.

1) Biodynamics dictates planting the appropriate crop where the soil and conditions are right for it. Check! Instead of planning our vineyard as expensive landscaping (“Ooh, we need to see it from the living room window”), we had a soil consultant come out and tell us where our particular varietals would want to grow if they were asked. Luckily they would have asked for a spot at the very ridgeline where Sonoma’s scenic view preservation laws wouldn’t allow us to build anyway.

2) Biodynamics dictates that you actively cultivate native companion crops, especially to attract and support large populations of beneficial insects and birds. Check! What little landscaping we did (and to look at it, you wouldn’t call it landscaping) involved what I thought would be the lowest maintenance, least water-consuming choices. I told the landscaper “Plant only natives. I want lots of color year round. And plant things that attract birds, bees and hummingbirds. And let’s put lots of these planted areas next to the vineyard.”

Turns out I’ve accomplished about sixteen chapters of the Biodynamics Manual without even knowing it. And unwittingly created an “Insectary”. Yup! I’ve got a birds and bees Club Med.

3) Biodynamics advocates replanting wilderness areas of native plants so the crop has an appropriate context. How about just not chopping down what’s already there? Check. Apparently what Benziger has accomplished with years of planting and cultivating — restored riparian areas — well, we’ve got it in spades. And it doesn’t cost a dime to keep it.

4)Create a closed loop system. Make fertilizer, mulch and compost from material in your area. Check. The three-tiered manure composting system I’ve had built against Andy’s protests (he insists on calling it “The Shit Boxes”) is actually Biodynamically Correct. And I thought it was just a way to keep a bit ahead of the mountains of steaming aeromatic gifts our horses, when we get them, will be presenting us with every day.

Then there is the under sink composter I’ve just ordered. Turns all kitchen waste — even meat, fish and chicken which you can’t normally compost — into garden soil in two weeks. We’ll see if their claims of odor-free operation really pan out. By the way, they make a dog-poo composter, too. I might just be tempted. . .

Now comes the Voodoo. There’s a lot of ritual in strict Biodynamic farming that involves things like burying steer manure in a cow’s horn at a certain point in the lunar cycle. Then digging it up during a later moon and making a compost tea out of it. I think I remember reading that there was chanting involved, but I could be mistaken. There’s certainly a lot of spirtual elements and agricultural homeopathy in the mix.

Here’s just some of the scarier aspects of Biodynamics. Check out the compost preparations:

* 502: Yarrow blossoms (Achillea millefolium) are stuffed into urinary bladders from Red Deer (Cervus elaphus), placed in the sun during summer, buried in earth during winter and retrieved in the spring.

* 503: Chamomile blossoms (Matricaria recutita) are stuffed into small intestines from cattle buried in humus-rich earth in the autumn and retrieved in the spring.

* 504: Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) plants in full bloom are stuffed together underground surrounded on all sides by peat for a year.

* 505: Oak bark (Quercus robur) is chopped in small pieces, placed inside the skull of a domesticated animal, surrounded by peat and buried in earth in a place where lots of rain water runs past.

* 506: Dandelion flowers (Taraxacum officinale) is stuffed into the peritoneum of cattle and buried in earth during winter and retrieved in the spring.

At first this put me off. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against chanting and working with the lunar cycle. Or even with the skulls and intestines of cows. It’s just if Biodynamics were something Native Americans had invented (and they probably did but just never patented the name), I’d get out there and chant with the best of them. But Biodynamics was developed by an Austrian scientist in the late Twenties. Again, not that I have anything against the Austrians, but they can’t know much about what farming practices would work in Western America. And weren’t they concerned with much more unsavory things than agriculture in the Twenties and Thirties. Like persecuting Jews and preparing to whole-heartedly embrace Hitler’s empire? I’m just saying.

But again, I want to keep an open mind as this Canadian journalist urges that I do. However the Washington Post seems to be leaning toward the VooDoo theory.

Then again, I’m going to seek out a Navaho, Hopi or Pomo version of Biodynamics. And that’s the cult I’m joining.

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