By Becky Garrison
Even though Oregon only produces one percent of the wines made in the United States, this states accounts for 52% of total vineyard acres that received biodynamic® certification from Demeter USA, a not-for-profit that offers biodynamic certification to farms. According to their statistics, Oregon has 15 wineries that meet their certification criteria though an 30 additional Oregon based wineries claim to be following biodynamic principles but are not officially certified. To put this number into perspective, only 83 wineries in the United States have achieved Demeter USA’s biodynamic certification to date.
Photo credit: King Estate
The reason for this large percentage of biodynamic certified acres points to this state’s history and culture of sustainability. While one can find the first vines planted in Oregon by 19th century pioneer settlers, the election of Tom McCall as governor in 1966 marked a period of innovative thinking that led to such bills as Oregon Senate Bill 100. This landmark legislation signed into law in 1973 placed restrictions on allowing urban sprawl to take over farmland by requiring cities and counties to adopt comprehensive land-use plans. Hence, regions that possessed ideal growing conditions for producing award winning wines such as the Willamette Valley developed into world class wineries instead of becoming yet another suburban metropolis.
Ray Nuclo, Director of Viticulture, King Estate Winery (Eugene, OR), observes that when he first got into the business in 1998, a lot of people were already growing organically well before the emergence of formal organic certifications. “Many of these farmers were part of the counterculture of the late sixties and early seventies who wanted to do things differently.”
This craft sensibility led to the production of organic and natural wines that ranged from world class to undrinkable. Rudy Marchesi, Chairman of the Board, Demeter USA and Managing Partner, Montinore Estate (Forest Grove, OR), points to the dangers of assuming if a winemaker just lets the wine alone to ferment that it will turn into something great. “That can happen once in a while. But there’s a reason we work so hard as winemakers to guide that process to an endpoint that’s delicious.”
For those unfamiliar with biodynamic practices, these wineries follow practices that Rudolph Steiner set forth in 1927, which Demeter International formalized in 1985. These practices follow organic principles by prohibiting the use of synthetic chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. Additional measures include the utilization of eight specific treatments, called preparations, that comprise of medicinal plants, minerals, and composted animal manures. Furthermore, a certified biodynamic farm must dedicate at least 10% of farm’s total acreage to biodiversity.
Photo credit: King Estate
In the vineyard and winery, biodynamic practices focus on minimizing manipulation of the grapes and the wine. Brent Stone, Chief Operating Officer and Winemaker, King Estate Winery notes, “We want to get away from this recipe driven approach of trying to make the same wine every year. Rather we want each year to be unique and a reflection of that particular vintage.”
According to Marchesi, once the grapes are harvested, biodynamic certified wineries must adhere to specific standards in the winery. “We can’t use synthetic yeast nutrients, or other compounds to enhance the flavor of the wine.” While winemakers can add a small amount of sulfur, the amount permitted is much lower than the US Federal guidelines for organic wines. Also, prior to bottling, their wine has to be tested by an independent laboratory with the records available for inspection.
E. Justin King, National Sales Manager, King Estate Winery, believes that becoming biodynamic certified was simply an extension of his family’s identity as organic farmers. “We want everybody to be farming sustainably. That’s always going to be a win, but we do think it’s really important for people to actually get certified because it makes a statement that they’re ecologically responsible. We want everyone to invest in actually going through this process, and doing it the right way.”
Photo credit: Youngberg Hill
Wayne Bailey of Youngberg Hill Winery in McMinnville, Oregon is among those winemakers who follow biodynamic principles but choose not to seek out biodynamic certification. Rather than follow the prescribed schedules set for biodynamic farms, he chooses to use products like sprays when the timing feels right. “I’m looking more at the health of the vineyard,” he opines. “We’re trying to make the highest quality product without taking anything away from the natural beauty and everything that we have here.” Bailey did become certified by Oregon Tilth, which is an organization founded on the idea that food and agriculture should be equitable and sustainable.
These winemakers’ enthusiasm and commitment to biodynamic practices has yet to influence consumers’ wine buying decisions. According to Emily Carroll, Research Manager for Wine Intelligence, “Using three measures of ‘opportunity’ – awareness, purchase intent and affinity – we created an index to show which alternative wine types have the best opportunity by market. In the US, biodynamic ranks 9th in opportunity out of all tested alternative wines.”
Photo credit: Youngberg Hill
Since organic wines topped this index for the second year running, followed by sustainably produced and environmentally friendly wines, consumers appear to be drawn to wines made using biodynamic principles, but not recognizing it. Marchesi points to the need for consumer education adding that Demeter USA is in the process of creating a plan to raise awareness among the consuming public. “We’re very passionate about the fact that we feel this method is not only sustainable, clean, and environmentally friendly, but it also produces really high quality products.”