Practicing BioDynamics With Paul Dolan

Ξ November 23rd, 2010 | → 5 Comments | ∇ Wine & Politics, Wine History, Wine News, Winemakers, Wineries |

“A Dog comes to you, a Cat runs away”, said Paul Dolan. Deep Biodynamic principle? No, it’s a lesson taught children in elementary school on how to tell whether the Moon is waxing or waning by using the capital letter of each proper noun. And so did Mr. Dolan mix the wisdom and humor of the humble farmer with the still-negotiated principles of Biodynamics. Where one might have expected slogans and unsatisfying workarounds to difficult questions, instead what the four wine writers gathered for what was called a BioD Camp got from Mr. Dolan was wonder, openness, and, most importantly, the willingness to say, “I don’t know”. Intellectual curiosity disarms the dogmatic mind every time. But such a principle is a two-way street, something both parties must embrace in order to learn, to make a conversation be worthwhile. We were all called upon to listen, each of us encouraged to contribute honestly, as though encountering Biodynamics for the first time.
Earlier this month Jane Firstenfeld, an editor at Wines & Vines, certified sommelier and author, Courtney Cochran, Jeffrey Weissler, veteran of the wine industry and author of the site Conscious Wine, and yours truly, gathered at Dark Horse Ranch outside Talmage, California, a few miles from Ukiah in Mendocino County, for a full day with winemaker, Paul Dolan. I thought I had been suitably prepped for agricultural adventure the night before with a communal dinner at Parducci’s and a warm bed at Vichy Springs Resort. Mr. Dolan had left us with the parting thought to reflect on our place in Creation. Though comfortable with mystery and the unknowable, the next morning I stood slack-jawed on a rise above the Dark Horse vineyard. This was no ordinary site. Oddly, the collapsed perspective of the web page’s naïve painting reproduced above, like the best pieces of folk artist Lewis Miller’s gives a good idea. But the practical reality is that it proved impossible for me to take a proper picture. From rolling hills to ridge line of terraced vines, white goats grazing in green fields dotted with old oaks, wheeling raptors and buzzards already riding thermals in the morning sun, the vista was impressive. Even from a distance the complex landscape of flora and fauna, both native and introduced, whether placed by the hand of man or diverse natural vectors, spoke loudly of very bright biological creativity, so to say. And as I was soon to be convinced, all of the ranch’s hundreds of living elements and resources collectively generate the finest example of Biodiversity with a capital ‘B’, but also permaculture I’ve yet seen in a California vineyard. Rather than dominating the landscape by monotonous monoculture common in the state, the vineyards appeared proportional, integral to the larger environment.
First visited by Mr. Dolan in 1977, and finally purchased in 1998, Dark Horse Ranch is 160 acres, 69 acres of which are under the vine, most planted on gentle slopes. Like the fine terroirs of Cahors and the McMinnville, Oregon AVA among others, highly desirable red clay soils are abundant in this portion of the Mayacamas Range. And after a broad sit-down introduction to Steiner’s Agricultural Lectures and a bit of play with the gestalt of perception, our troupe, joined by Mendocino Wine Company’s brilliant Tim Thornhill, descended a dirt road riven between a wind break and vineyard block to the animal paddocks, cows, chickens and their portable pens, bee hives, and scattered owl boxes.
It was here, after a preliminary discursus on the viticultural arts of pruning, discing, the cultivation of inter-row biodiversity, and the scourge of leaf curl, Mr. Dolan explained the importance of the cow in biodynamic thinking. The cow expresses the vintage. How? The cow eats the local vegetation. The vegetation shares in the bounty of the local terroir, expresses that terroir; indeed, the flora owes its very generation to the elemental by-products of local soil life and microbial activity. Now, inasmuch as the cow’s habitus is the local terroir itself, so much so that its everyday life, whether rough or relaxed, informs its very physiology, the animal’s manure, its own by-product, comes to be seen as the sine qua non of the regeneration of the local terroir itself. The cow essentially recapitulates the terroir as a whole, recycles the truth of a place.
This brought us to our first big question: biodynamics privileges the closed cycle, however meandering are its means and measures. It understands the farm, too, as a closed circuit, repeated in minature by the cow, at least as a virtual ambition. What are we to make of these nested circles? My passing mention of permaculture above was meant to introduce an important coupure into biodynamic’s circularity. For permaculture understands a farm as open to externalities, as irretrievably open to the world and its energies, whether wind, water, slope, neighboring farm practices, all elements traditionally understood as informing a terroir’s specificity. In permaculture the effort is to understand a farm, for example, as a complex of obstacles inserted into greater external natural processes and forces. Unlike the cow (and horse) in biodynamics, there is no central, organizing figure in permaculture. There is no unity as such; there is only, if done attentively, an ever increasing energy efficiency (in the broadest possible sense) of all a farm’s elements. The goal on a permacultural farm is ultimately to approach the ‘natural’ by maximizing these self-same natural processes the farm itself initially frustrates. The goal on a biodynamic farm, as I see it, is to understand a farm as a self-sufficient organism, a closed system. Additionally, permaculture includes everything, from farm buildings and machinery, to irrigation equipment and water reservoirs, to make its calculations. Biodynamics seems to limit its purview to living elements alone, the balance left to other disciplines and sciences.
I shall write a more detailed piece on this matter in the fullness of time. I will say here that I believe permaculture, broadly speaking, can resolve numerous sterile, trivial intellectual debates between growers of the organic and biodynamic persuasions. Moreover, I think the Mendocino Wine Company, under Mr. Dolan and Mr. Thornhill’s visionary leadership, has already largely realized this ‘third way’. More later.
From the lowest point of the vineyard, we piled into a truck and drove up the terraced vineyard slopes to the higher elevations where our troupe grew dizzy looking across the valley to higher mountains beyond. We talked of Dark Horse’s 21 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, the relatively new 4 acre block of Petite Sirah bringing the total to 10 acres planted, shoot positioning, the virtues and demerits of various trellising systems, and rootstock. Yet it was on the drive up the slope we perhaps learned the most. We passed extensive plantings of insect-friendly brush and flowers and yet more owl and assorted bird boxes. Truly a very progressive brain trust was at work. Everywhere we looked, we saw the practical implementation of any and all environmental improvements and refinements most often read about in books and magazines. What should be done is here on Dark Horse Ranch being done. Paul Dolan walks the walk. And as we returned for lunch, I don’t believe any one of us, now relaxed friends, felt any different.
After a nourishing meal and a song powerfully sung, both gifts of the sultry Rochelle, we drove back up the terraced southeastern slope to view the water fall built to dynamize water (as the process is called) used in the production of certain biodynamic preparations, those to be applied directly to the vineyard or compost. In Steiner’s original works, dynamizing was written to take an hour of vigorous stirring. I vaguely recall an amusing passage from his Ag lectures about how a farmer’s children might enjoy participating such an activity. I am not so sure! Now, a creative solution has been developed, a tiered falls, to ease the process (though I get the feeling purists might object). I should add that all around us were, again, insect-friendly rows of shrub and flower. Mr. Dolan was to then show us the wooden box in a small room beneath the water falls tower where the finished preparations are kept.
Perhaps the high point of this visit to the dynamizing falls was digging up last Spring’s cow horn packed with the 501 preparation, one made of ground quartz (silica) and rain water, for Autumn is the proper time for unearthing these spiritual instruments. (Preparation 500, cow manure packed into horns, is buried in Autumn and disinterred in Spring, another cycle.) After some searching for the right spot, the shovel hit something hard in the dark red, well-textured soil. Because so many of us had never seen such an object, there was a polite scramble to retrieve one of the horns, at the very least to feel its exotic texture.
I could well imagine the biodynamic farmer’s gaze falling upon a bare Winter field and, full of hope, wondering after the subterranean work such horns might be doing. In any event, nearby were piles of manure awaiting additional prep. applications. I could not but help notice the recent rains had produced a riot of what I am confident were psilocybin mushrooms. Another research project, perhaps(!)
More seriously, it was here that the second big question presented itself. Almost in passing, Mr. Dolan touched only very briefly of one of the most controversial aspects of biodynamics: that the overall practice creates more energy and health on a farm than the sum of all its parts. This key biodynamic concept is where the rubber hits the road as far as one’s dedication to its philosophy is concerned. Now, from my perspective and that of our collective sciences, energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It merely changes form. Something can never come from nothing. Such is the fundamental truth of Physics and Biology. And entropy implacably increases in all systems, just as water always flows downhill and a cup of coffee always cools. Organic life is precisely the management of entropy par excellance, the miraculous way life found to maximally use energy on its way to the cold of absolute zero. Life is the disorganization of all the energies informing it. Balance and equilibrium is death. And these are principles, broadly stated here, I cannot abandon. For it is my humble opinion that it is the seemingly unreasonable complexity of living systems creates doubt among us as to its materialist foundations. But that is not life’s fault. It is ours.
I am reminded of a philosophical parable involving an encounter between the engineer and the peasant. Having just witnessed the passing of a train, a machine the peasant has never seen, the peasant asks, “Where are the horses?” The engineer attempts to explain the principles of Thermodynamics, the concept of a heat sink, etc. Undaunted, the peasant triumphantly replies, “Ah! The horses must be invisible!”
In any event, with our quartz-filled cow horns we traveled back down to our base. But what if we hadn’t found the horns? Tim Thornhill then told us a very funny story about his effort when a youngster, to find something he’d buried on his family’s property weeks before. In no time at all, his back forty was covered with holes!
It would soon be our turn, we writers, to pack Autumn’s cow horns with fresh manure. But first Mr. Dolan would take us through the basics of the biodynamic calendar. Broadly speaking, there are rhythms of the natural world: lunar cycles act upon tides, day and night, faunal migrations, seasons, birth and death, vegetative succession, weather patterns and the like. Overlaying or comprehending these rhythms, biodynamics proposes the following elemental grid:
Spring corresponds to Water and Leaf.
Summer corresponds to Air and Flower.
Fall corresponds to Fire and Fruit.
Winter corresponds to Earth and Roots.
Now, none of this is particularly controversial. Our popular imagination readily grasp the principles at work. Indeed, as Mr. Dolan was to repeat, biodynamics is in essence a distillation of the collective wisdom of centuries of farming practice. Whether in the Farmer’s Almanac or last century’s Sears Catalogues, and books of the Ancients and pre-Moderns, biodynamics is said to be this comprehensive compendium of civilization’s every encounter with the soil. The spiritual dimension not-with-standing, this brought us to our third big question: Inasmuch as biodynamics makes the claim to encyclopedic farming knowledge, along with that, though its spiritual aspect, of the human condition itself, what is to become of the creativity of the contemporary farmer? I mean, can there ever be anything new under the sun? Are all biodynamic farmers committed, avant la lettre, to merely follow? For Mr. Dolan, and certainly for Tim Thornhill, they are innovators and experimenters of the first order. So, what are they to do should they discover a practice outside or contrary to the official biodynamic program? Laughing, Mr. Dolan had an answer as profound as it was simple, “I don’t know”. His vulnerability in this room of unpredictable strangers was palpable.
Biodynamics is under assault from diverse quarters. It is faulted for poor thinking, for sloppy thinking; it stands accused of crypto-fascism, of being a force of darkness; of dogmatism and irrationality. But all of my experience with Paul Dolan this fine Fall morning tells me otherwise. Biodynamics is not a force apart from those who practice it. And Mr. Dolan is, in my opinion, the perfect embodiment of its flexible performance, especially by answering as he did. “I don’t know.” My finest ‘take away’, the best lesson of all.
From the basics of the biodynamic calendar, we went outside, and holding horns enough for all, we began to texturize manure enough to fill them. Let me just say a number of hilarious photos were taken I hope never surface! We all then went our separate ways until regrouping for another good dinner.
The following morning brought us to the Parducci winery, and a lesson on what is probably the least understood dimension of biodynamic practice. After an amusing temperamental electric shuttle failure, we walked to historic building where Mr. Dolan took us through a portion of the barrel room. Enough of me. Mr. Dolan said this of biodynamics and winemaking:
“When we’re in the cellar there are a number of different considerations we take when we’re thinking about the activities that we would consider relative to using the biodynamic calendar, for making biodynamic wines. The first is harvest [....] Ideally, if we could pick the grapes on the waning of the Moon, moving to the dark side, we know that is the period of time when the moisture is moving out of the grapes, out of the fruit; and we think that is a period of time when you get more concentration as opposed to when it’s moving into the full Moon; that’s a levitational period when you’re moving liquid water up into the plant and up into the fruit. So once we bring it into the winery, we don’t have a lot of considerations with the crushing time. [....] It’s the yeast that’s probably the most critical at this stage of the game. So we’re not adding yeast. So therefore we would add little to no SO2 during that period of time. It’s critical that the fruit be very healthy. If the fruit is healthy then we don’t have any considerations as to whether we’re going to add natural yeast or not. If the fruit is not so healthy, we would declassify it and use it as ‘organic’ as opposed to biodynamic. For all biodynamic wines, it’s native yeasts, natural yeast.
“Now, for me as a young guy I can remember being trained, not only in school but by other winemakers, that you really had to use cultured yeast because you couldn’t trust natural yeasts. They wouldn’t finish the fermentation. So I never even tried a natural fermentation as a young man. When we decided to do the biodynamics, that was probably my biggest anxiety, but not so much my winemaker’s concern. He actually just said not to worry. Now, today, we do even our organic wines using natural yeast.”

The use of natural yeast is particularly important owing to two major factors. Cultured yeasts produce specific flavor additions to the finished wine. And the native populations of yeasts blooming on the grapes in one vineyard differ from those on a neighbor’s vineyard fruit. Terroir expression is, therefore, most honestly completed by native yeast expression. This principle Mr. Dolan insists is perhaps the single most important feature of biodynamic winemaking. He continued,
“The other considerations we have are when we would do rackings, or when we would do filtrations or bottling. When we rack a wine, we want to make sure all of the sediment goes and stays at the bottom of the tank. We find that those timeframes are, once again, with the waning of the Moon. And when we’re in a Root day or a Leaf day, that’s a recessive timeframe. Those are the best times to rack a wine because you get the least disturbance. We’ve also done a series of tests on bottling. There are some winemakers who have chosen to bottle on days moving towards the full Moon, or waxing, and also on what I would call ‘expressive’ days, Fruit days or Flower days. We’ve chosen to do just the opposite. We want the wines to go into the bottle in a quiet state; so we bottle them on a waning timeframe as well as a Root day, or even a Leaf day; ideally a Root day.”
A quick walk back to Parducci’s tasting room brought us to a blending exercise of their latest biodynamic Big Red, a blended wine, often but not always, of Grenache, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Syrah, in diverse proportions. I’ve blended wines in the past, but I must say Jeffery Weissler and especially Courtney Cochran blew me out of the water. Somewhere in Ms. Cochran’s brain a switch was thrown. I have never seen such a tour de force as when she set her mind to the blending task. Incredible palate. Brilliant performance.
I had to get back to my daughter in Santa Cruz, and so left before we had finished the exercise. Ms. Cochran and Mr. Weissler stayed behind to complete the job. I bid good bye to all. And was gone.
To Paul, I’ll now call him Paul, I offer my heartfelt thanks for the time he spent with us. Thanks to Tim Thornhill, a gentleman and brilliant, if reserved resource. Great thanks to my scribbling colleagues. To Kelly, Rochelle, and Jan, thank you. To Selina Luiz, well, I’ve a special affection for this charming, affecting soul.


5 Responses to ' Practicing BioDynamics With Paul Dolan '

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  1. 1winedude said,

    on November 24th, 2010 at 6:05 am

    That guy makes a hell of a Zin!

  2. Kelly Lentz said,

    on November 24th, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    In this season of giving thanks, we would like to thank Ken Payton for his thoughtful essay on his Biodynamic Camp experience. Not only did he take time out between his busy travels (literally around the world) his openness, willingness to explore and insights have helped us deepen our understanding Biodynamics and its impacts.

  3. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on November 24th, 2010 at 3:42 pm

    Thank you, Kelly. What a kind message. I had a wonderful time. Parducci’s is at the top of its game. Best wishes to you and yours.

  4. on December 18th, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    Aw, shucks, Ken. Tx for the sweet shout-out! Blending was a blast and my cup of tea but the whole w/e and Paul’s enthusiasm has just stayed with me as such an impactful experience. I really enjoyed meeting you and look fwd to hopefully crossing paths again soon :)

  5. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on December 18th, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    Great to hear from you, Courtney. You put on quite a tasting clinic. Remarkable tour de force. Hope to see you down the road.

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