An Evening with some of Oregon’s Biodynamic and Sustainable Winemakers-An Approach to Viticulture: Part One

“All of nature begins to whisper its secrets to us through its sounds. Sounds that were previously incomprehensible to our soul now become the meaningful language of nature.” -Rudolf Steiner

From Left to Right: Moe Momtazi-Maysara & Momtazi Vineyard, Scott Flora-Native Flora, Steve Girard-Benton-Lane, Rudy Marchesi-Montinore Estate, Stephen Hagen-Antiquum Farm.

Many articles have been written in the last ten years about the Biodynamic movement in some Oregon Vineyards, so when I learned that part of the Wine Writers Educatinal Tour in Willamette Valley last year included a seminar on ‘Approaches to Viticulture’ I was really intrigued. As an avid edible gardener I am always looking to learn more about sustainability and Biodynamic farming. There was so much to share about this evening that I have broken this into two different posts, the second post will follow in a couple of days.

What I learned right away when the evening seminar started was the vast differences in how each of the ‘farmers’ viewed sustainability, Biodynamic and organic, and to what extend these practices should be applied to the land and vineyards. Since the seminar was hosted at Maysara Winery it only seems fitting that I start with the host of the evening Moe Momtazi.

Moe Momtazi of Maysara Winery and Momtazi Vineyard

One of Momtazi’s philosophies toward Biodynamics is “In order for everything to have a complete ecosystem, everything has to come from your own property.”

Already a down-to-earth environmentalist from his years growing up in Iran, Momtazi and his wife Flora purchased a 496 acre plot of abandoned farm land in 1997. Moe shared, “My grandparents refused to use chemicals and fertilizers in the soil or on the plants and I wanted to do the same,” so he began clearing those acres of land without the use of chemicals. Momtazi believes that practicing Biodynamics taps into the each element of the seasonal calendar, the creatures large and small that occupy the land and the earth itself, this brings the ‘farm’ back into the natural cycles that are in nature already.

If you agree with some that Biodynamic is a form of agricultural Voodoo, then you might also be interested in learning that the grapes grown in Momtazi’s Vineyards are some of the most sought after grapes in the Willamette Valley. In addition to making their own wines, they provide fruit to a few of the Willamette Valley’s top wine producers. Momtazi Vineyard has used strict organic and Biodynamic methods since 1998 and in 2005 it became Demeter Certified Biodynamic and the winery followed suit in 2007. There is much more to share about Moe’s philosophies and practices when it comes to Biodynamics and for this reason I will be sharing more about Momtazi’s passion for working with the land and his holistic farming techniques in an upcoming blog post.

The term Biodynamic® is a trademark held by the Demeter association of Biodynamic farmers for the purpose of maintaining production standards used both in farming and processing foodstuffs. Demeter International is the largest certification organization for Biodynamic agriculture, and is one of three predominant organic certifiers. … Demeter Biodynamic Certification is used in over 50 countries to verify that Biodynamic products meet international standards in production and processing.

Steve Girard Proprietor of Benton-Lane Winery

Steve Girard and his wife Carol founded Girard Winery in the Pritchard Hill area of Napa Valley in 1980 where they were known for producing notable Cabernets and Chardonnays. Then after tasting it for the first time, they fell in love with the Pinot Noirs from Oregon and a new journey began. Not only to make Pinot Noir, but also a new path to farming using a combination of Biodymanics, organic and LIVE certification methods.

“In Seattle at a district tasting in about 1980, I tasted my first Pinot Noir. I think that it was one of David Lett’s wines and I was in Love! I mean this stuff was like liquid sex, it was so good. It had all the flavors of the berry, it had cherry, it had root beer, it had cranberry, My God it had mushroom, there was cola. It was just this beautiful beverage and I had to make it.”

In 1988 the Girard’s purchased an old sheep ranch in the Willamette Valley that checked off all of the things they were looking for, an East faces slope, the right soils and the right elevation.

“I came up from Napa Valley thinking I was going to do the same Cha Cha that I did there. Napa Valley had no concept of sustainability. No Concept! We wanted pretty vineyards. We wanted the customer to come up and go ‘oooh la la’ look at that gorgeous vineyard. So, what we did is we used a heavy Pre-emergent Herbicide that we painted on the soil right underneath the vines, so there wouldn’t be a blade of grass and that’s what we wanted. It was gorgeous, it was just dirt and vines and then at the end of every row we put a little rose bush. That was it and we knocked them out. The customers came in and they thought My God this is so beautiful, this is what we want.”

Girard thought it would be business as usual planting and growing grapes in Oregon but change was on the horizon.

“I came to Oregon, I did the same thing. And my friend Dickey Erath came down and scolded me, he said ‘Steve what the hell are you doing?’ I said, well, I’m doing what I did in Napa and what I’m still doing in Napa. He said ‘No No No, this is Oregon, we’re all about sustainability up here.’ I didn’t even know what that meant and he said, ‘You know your killing the soil, the soil is a living thing and your killing all of the Mycorrhiza, the Nematodes, the earth worms that are gonna open up the soil.’ “

This conversation with Dickey Erath triggered a different way of thinking about the land, the soil and the vineyards for Girard.

“I really studied all of the three methods that we have available, Biodynamics, Organic, and LIVE Certification. I really read up on all of them and what I found was that they all had attributes and they all had defects. So, I thought to myself why would I want a defect? Why would I take it? Why would I take a system that had really cool stuff but also had baggage that I didn’t want?

Girard, like Momtazi referenced Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the Biodynamic approach to agriculture and how felt his suggested methods ranged from practical to “pretty goofy, absurd and silly,” but also how he took some of those ideas and implemented them into his Oregon Vineyards.

“When I talk to my friends, I have two good friends that are Biodynamically Certified, I say I just don’t get it, it sounds silly to me. Does it make better Wine? And they both say sorta the same thing-you don’t get the point, your missing the point. I say, there’s only one point for me and that is making better wine. So, I took the good stuff from Steiner that I learned and I left behind the other stuff.”

When it came to the remaining two methods, Organic and LIVE Certification, Girard said that he took the same approach by taking the best from each of these practices and leaving the things he felt wouldn’t work for him behind.

“How do I farm? I took the best of these things and I found out and then saw this incredible change that some of my colleagues have been talking about. I saw my wine juice nutrients go through the roof! You know it worked!”

Today the estate 145-acre vineyard uses a combination of sustainable, organic and biodynamic farming methods but Benton-Lane is not certified.

“I don’t think I need certification because I believe it. I believe in my system. And so, I do give up a certification but I don’t think it is a problem because I’m not going to let anything change my view.”

When asked what his idea of sustainability was Girard replied, “My idea of sustainability is that I need to nurture my vineyard so that a thousand years from now whoever owns my joint is still making sex in a bottle, Sexy Pinot Noir!”

You can learn more about Steve Girard and Benton-Lane on their website.

Rudy Marchesi President and Chief Viticulturist at Montinore Estate

Marchesi who began working as a consultant at Montinore Estate in 1998 went on to become the President of the winery and in 2005 he purchased Montinore.

Ruby Marchesi’s love for making wine dates back to the 1970s where in New Jersey his grandfather made wine at home and Ruby like him wanted to do the same. Marchesi’s start in the wine industry began in the early ’80s in the Northeast where he began making wine for his own small label while raising his daughters. However, when his oldest daughter wanted to attend Reed College in Portland, Ruby knew it was time to fund that college dream and he took on a job with a major distributor and wound up relocating to Oregon.

Marchesi returned to the work he loved, wine production in 1998 when his daughter graduated from college by accepting a consultancy at Montinore Estate. Things really began to change in the Montinore vineyard in 2003 when Marchesi started Biodynamic trials on sections of the vineyard that the Pinot Noir blocks were not producing as well as were expected.

“The story of how we are also a Biodynamic winery and have been for awhile now, is a little different. I had always been a vegetable grower and I loved organic this or that, maybe because I was a hippy from the 70’s. When I came to Montinore they had been farming conventionally and what I found were vineyards that had soils that were very compacted and there was very little oxygen in the soil. The Cover Crop Was Moss! And, the vines reflected that quality of soil so they were very uneven, some big some small. The fruit characteristic was a bit Ho Hum and the wine was a bit Ho Hum at best.”

“Biodynamics is a very elaborate system of farming, it has a lot of components that aren’t in our everyday toolbox.” -Rudy Marchesi

Soil and vines in poor condition was not the only thing that Marchesi discovered when he arrived at Montinore.

“When I got there the first year we discovered we had Phylloxera on the property and you could see the vine were dying. So I came to understanding organic and Biodynamic through that need of healing our vineyard from Phylloxera. What I started to understand was that there’s a whole community, the vineyard is a community, its not just an ecosystem, its a community of organisms. And, if their working together a lot of the problems that you might encounter aren’t there.”

Marchesi discovered a group in New Zealand had found a good Fungi, a Micro Rizal Fungi that works in amending the soil and actually crowds out the wood rotting Fungi Phylloxera, and works to an advantage in the Vineyard as well. However, the path to healing the vineyard was not an overnight process and a lot of hard work, patience and some bodily harm happened because the soil first needed to be opened up so that the new Fungi could be introduced.

“First, we had to open the soils, we had to cultivate, open it up and aerate. What was really interesting was we had so many gophers in our vineyard that our guys would have to wear Kidney Belts as they were driving in the tractor because they bounced around so much their kidneys would hurt! Once we started cultivating and cleaning up it was like Mother Nature was trying to aerate our soil with gophers. Once we got it aerated we didn’t have any gophers anymore, it was pretty wild.

The amendments to the vineyard didn’t stop with aerating the soil and more things were done before Marchesi said he saw considerable physical changes in his vineyards that he attributes directly to Biodynamics.

“Then we started doing cover crops, putting carbon into the soil to feed these good Fungi. We actually got spores and inoculated the entire 240 acres with specific strains of this Fungi that we knew would be happy in the vineyard. Then we started to seeing results in using compost as a remedy for the vines that were weakened by the Phylloxera. It started bringing back the vineyard from the brink of disaster due to the Phylloxera. We weren’t 100% successful in the thinner soils that you get up higher on the ridges, sometimes we’d lose some vines. But, that was in ’98-’99 when I started that and now it is 2019 and we still have 200 of the 240 acres Home Rooted in their late thirties.”

Marchesi was down for talking dirt with Scott Flora even if both of them don’t always agree on the bests ways to work and treat the Vineyard. You can learn more about Rudy Marchesi and Montinore Estate on their Website.

This whole process started leading Marchesi down the path to understanding that this piece of land was a community, not a vineyard, not just soil, but a community.

“What we are creating is a community of micro organisms that live in the soil, they have their own life cycles and they each have their own bi-products of their life that goes into the soil to create this interrogated community.”

Finding additional information to help him learn more about Biodynamics proved difficult and although their were a couple of books on the subject that he read by people like Nicolas Joly, Marchesi really wanted to learn more about how to practice Biodynamics. Answers to his questions finally were presented when he took a year long class at the Pfiefer Center in New York. During this time Marchesi learned all the techniques about Biodynamics that would not only continue to improve the Montinore Vineyard, but also broaden his impact in the Biodynamic community as well.

“We became Certified Biodynamic in 2019 and I became president of Demeter USA, so I’m running the organization, I don’t really know why or how I am doing this but I said, I’ll help and the next thing you know I am knee deep into it. I believe it’s a really fantastic way to farm. Every year at the end of the season the farm is healthier than it was when it started in the Spring.”

After hearing three passionate farmers talk about the road to Biodynamics and sustainability when it comes to producing wine then your mind shifts toward thinking about how all of these practice influence the final outcome, the wine.

“From a wine perspective we saw tremendous results, I should say changes and results. The wines prior to Biodynamic practices were fairly Ho Hum and, now we’ve seen a progression over the years that the wines become not only more complex and more interesting but their really reflecting the character of our place. This way of farming has allowed our vineyard to be more expressive and our wines to be a reflection of character and place.

For the dinner following the seminar Marchesi told us that he brought some of his Pinot Gris for us to try and that he thought that this wine had really taken on a unique liveliness from the health of the soil.

“I think that the soils that we have produced is making some really interesting Pinot Gris, relative to the rest of the Willamette Valley. It has the typical apple and pear, but after 4-5 years of farming this way some citrus and herbal notes came out and it was almost like we blended a little Sauvignon Blanc and I thought that’s kind of cool but then it continued during the next year and the next year. I realized that what was happening was an expression of all these particular soils. That’s what lights me up in the morning”

In Marchesi’s Biodynamic farming practices there seems to be compelling evidence that treating the soil in the right way is a practical way to protect the vineyard’s ecosystem while adding something new and different to the character of the wines produced. As the Biodynamic farming method continues to gain traction in the Oregon wine industry, and around the world, it is becoming less of a ‘trend’ and more of a way to help our planet bounce back from centuries of chemical treatments.

I learned so much from Moe Maysara, Steve Girard and Rudy Marchesi during the first part of the seminar, it really opened my mind to how Biodynamic, Organic and LIVE Certification can shape the future of wine production. I hope that you will continue to read Part Two as it will include what Stephen Hagen of Antiquum Farms and Steve Flora of Native Flora shared about how they farm their vineyards and what affect that has one their wines. Also, as mentioned earlier a third post coming soon will include a tour of Maysara Winery and Momtazi Vineyard as well as a conversation with Moe Momtazi.

Winemakers’ ‘Green’ Glossary

  • Biodynamics: A method of organic farming rooted in a spiritual world view espoused by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner; typically exceeds the standards and regulations for organic certified farming.
  • Organic wine: Made from grapes grown without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, as certified by Oregon Tilth.
  • LIVE: Low Input Viticulture & Enology, a nonprofit organization that certifies vineyards using international standards of sustainable viticulture practices in wine-grape production.
  • Salmon Safe: A nonprofit group operating in conjunction with LIVE to protect salmon habitat; has certified more than 50,000 acres of farm and urban lands in Oregon.

Photos and all rights reserved ©Drink In Nature Photography and Drink In Life Blog.

One Comment on “An Evening with some of Oregon’s Biodynamic and Sustainable Winemakers-An Approach to Viticulture: Part One

  1. Pingback: An Evening with Some of Oregon's Biodynamic and Sustainable Winemakers-An Approach to Viticulture: Part Two | Drink In Life

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