By Mary Ann Norbom
The clinking of glasses, the swirling of wine, the breathing in of delectable aromas, smiles and opinions shared among friends and strangers. That’s the tasting room experience thousands of people enjoy in Santa Barbara County each year. And basic to the beginner and the connoisseur, every oenophile knows that how wine tastes is a reflection not only of the winemaker’s skill and style, but also of how and where the grapes were produced.
At the charming Qupé Tasting Room in Los Olivos, a section of shelving displays wines made from grapes grown under certified biodynamic farming practices. Bio what? you’re probably saying. “Biodynamics is a more intense form of organic farming,” explains Qupé owner/winemaker Bob Lindquist. “It brings a real sense of place to the wine. So much about wine is about the soil; you want it to have a lot of life in it.”
The practice dates back to 1924, credited to an Austrian named Rudolf Steiner, who was the unlikely combination of both scientist and spiritualist. In a series of presentations to German farmers, he spoke out against the use of chemicals in agricultural fields and implored those growers to understand how the movement of the planets impacted their crops. A true biodynamic farm—whether it is growing grapes or corn—has to be a self-contained and self-sustaining organism, Steiner proposed.
Bob and his wife Louisa Sawyer Lindquist, owner/winemaker of Verdad, are two of the most high-profile local champions of biodynamics. The couple’s 40-acre Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard is 100% biodynamic and is the source for about 75% of Verdad’s production of Spanish varietals, like tempranillo, and 25% of Qupé’s famed Rhone varietals, including syrah and grenache. At their lovely tasting room, Qupé and Verdad wines that began their lives at Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard are so labeled. The retail shop also carries Ethan wines, produced by Bob’s son, who is often found behind the counter pouring the day’s selection. His self-named label’s syrah and grenache are also products of Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard grapes.
“I know it sounds ridiculous that cosmic forces can impact the taste of a wine,” Louisa laughs, “but just like the alignment of the planets affects the tides, these magnetic forces have powerful influences on the way things grow. I’ve found that people with scientific backgrounds get it right away.”
Having a PhD isn’t a prerequisite for “getting it,” however. “I was in a bookstore with my son not long ago and began glancing through an old Farmer’s Almanac,” adds Louisa. “It was a revelation how traditional it is to consider the planets when you’re deciding when to plant and when to harvest.”
Vineyards employing biodynamic farming practices are quite common in France and Germany and, to a lesser extent, in Italy, Spain and other parts of Europe. There are still just a few practitioners in the United States, with the majority in Oregon south to Mendocino, CA. Santa Barbara County has several devoted followers (listed at right), and the number is growing.
At Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard, it’s easy to see the practice in action. In February, a herd of sheep was on hand, busily weeding between the rows of vines. They leave a natural fertilizer behind, by the way. Organic barley, as ground cover, naturally increases nitrogen in the soil and controls erosion in wetter years. Six strategically placed owl boxes attract these nocturnal birds of prey, whose job is to keep away ground squirrels and gophers that are detrimental to the crop. Two insectaries attract beneficial insects, such as ladybugs and bees.
“Plants are living beings that are influenced by their surroundings,” says Bob. “Our vines are healthy and happy and brighter.”
Louisa concurs, “You can see it in the leaves. Ours are so green and translucent. Healthy plants lead to better fruit, which results in better wine.”
Louisa first suggested planting the vineyard using biodynamic practices when the couple purchased the property a decade ago. The Lindquists’ good friend, Steve Beckmen, had already converted one of his winery-owned vineyards to biodynamic and was sold on the results.
“Louisa was definitely the spark, I was on the fence,” confesses Bob. That all changed in 2005 when he was on a sales trip to the U.K., where a colleague invited him to come along to a seminar about biodynamic vineyards. Following the presentation, the two men and a few others went to dinner and discussed the concept late into the night. “It must have been fate,” Bob says. “I got back to my hotel, and I admit that I think I drunk-dialed Louisa and told her she was right. We should go biodynamic.” The vineyard was planted just months later and produced its first vintage in 2008.
Soft-spoken Beckmen, who owns the Los Olivos-based Beckmen Vineyards(another producer of outstanding Rhone varietals) with his father Tom, is hesitant to be called a pioneer, but their Purisima Mountain Vineyard, at 125 acres, is the largest biodynamic vineyard in the county. “It definitely helps the quality of the wine,” Steve insists. “There’s a certain feel or texture, a fullness that comes from these grapes, because they ripen better.” To him, taste is not the only reason that the wine consumer should take notice, however. “Consumers should care about what they put into their bodies, and we don’t use any chemicals.”
It does cost more to farm this way, however. It’s far more labor intensive, which can add 15 to 20% to the cost. That’s just one of the reasons not every vineyard owner or manager, and certainly not every winemaker, agrees that biodynamic farming is practical. There’s also a sense that this is all a lot of hocus pocus, say many. Bob Lindquist understands the reticence and agrees, “there is a certain leap of faith” taken by subscribers to the practice.
The proof, though, is in the bottle, which brings us back to that tasting room. “The taste is very expressive and more vibrant,” says Louisa Lindquist. “There is such a broad spectrum of flavors in these wines. The taste is so alive.” Can she herself taste the difference between wine from conventionally farmed grapes and one from a biodynamic crop? “I think I can,” she says, avoiding even a hint of winemaker bravado. “There is a liveliness to the wine. I really do believe that a consumer with an astute palate can taste the difference too.”