"When asked how I got into this business, my honest answer is a big nose and lazy temperament make me well suited to a life sniffing wine.
Around age ten I made my first wine at home from tap water, supermarket oranges, supermarket sugar and yeast from the chemist. It was wonderfully unpalatable. I’d been interested in wine before I could drink it, and at secondary school, despite the suggestions of my teachers, I already knew my path wasn’t academic. My mind was made up: wine.
Also at a young age I recognised that nature is smarter than humans, and that smart humans who work with nature understand this. My father was one of those humans. He was a teacher and headmaster who grew up during the Great Depression of the 1930s. He told me that when the horse-drawn milk dray arrived in his street, the boys would all try to be first filling their pails with milk. My dad, meanwhile, would run to collect any manure the horse had left and use it to grow tomatoes for the family.
When I was young, he would take me to collect leaf mould for the garden. Leaf mould is just fallen leaves left to decompose over time: a dark, crumbly wild compost if you like. We’d go to a coppice in a field behind our house to find it. We’d fork it into a wheelbarrow, and its earthy, forest-floor smell was even better than fresh-baked bread to me. We’d use leaf mould to feed the soil as compost or as a mulch around plants. Mulching stopped weeds growing and made watering our vegetables and strawberries more efficient, especially in the famously hot British summer of 1976 when I was nine.
I was an enthusiast in the garden, willingly collecting leaf mould and also cow manure. I was not such an enthusiastic student in school, however, and risked failing a crucial French examination. So I was packed off to France for a summer.
I chose to work for a small château near St-Émilion in Bordeaux, the world’s biggest and most prestigious wine region. Instead of studying French, I spent most of my time there reading wine books and examining the local vineyards.
I’d assumed that all wine was grown like our family vegetables. We always had weeds in our home vegetable garden and managed them by leaf-mould mulching. I was surprised to find so few weeds growing around the Bordeaux vines, and stunned to hear they were routinely sprayed off with weedkillers. Yet people were still prepared to pay huge sums for bottles of wine because supposedly the liquid inside spoke of its unique ‘terroir’ or sense of place. How could you have wines tasting of their place while removing the whole eco-system from the vineyard using herbicides so hazardous you had to wear a mask to spray them?
A few years later in the early 1990s, I began selling wine in London. Our shop listed as many organic wines as possible. It helped that the first rules legally defining organic farming had just been enacted in Europe (in 1992).
Although welcome, these rules implied organics was more about what farmers were not allowed to do than what they should or could be doing. Organic farmers could not use chemical herbicides, organophosphate pesticides, soluble fertilizers and plant-penetrating fungicides.
Then in 1993 I returned to work in Bordeaux. Marc Quertinier, a sixty-something oenologist, used to lunch at the château where I’d continued to odd-job since my first visit as a schoolboy. Based in Bordeaux, Quertinier had worked with or informally advised almost every top Bordeaux château, winemaker, professor and consultant I’d ever heard of, but in a truly under-the-radar, self-effacing way. He suggested I go and meet Paul Barre in Fronsac. Paul was a biodynamic grower, the first I’d ever met. Marc had heard my ranting about my belief that the more soluble fertilizers and chemical sprays were applied to the grapes, the more additives and other corrective treatments were needed subsequently in the winery.
The winery where I worked was typical of this highly interventionist approach. This did, though, make it a great place to learn, because I got to use almost every ‘modern’ wine-growing and winemaking tool available. My conclusion was that many of these modern tools were expensive, unnecessary and were not working. Our vines were clearly getting weaker, and the wines were becoming more boring to drink. The château was on its way to bankruptcy.
Quertinier knew this. I sensed he agreed with my perhaps rather simplistic notion of letting vines express themselves by working with nature rather than making war on the vines with a different chemical every morning. Our château’s storeroom was literally overflowing with dilute wines we’d had to pump up artificially yet legally with sugar and colour, but which we still couldn’t sell. Despite this, we continued using really expensive soluble fertilizers to boost yields. It was a vicious circle that made no sense.
Quertinier gave me Paul Barre’s name and address in Fronsac but without mentioning biodynamics. ‘Barre is doing something that might interest someone like you,’ was all he said, adding, ‘Fronsac is not a zone that suffers mediocrity easily and its red wines can be flat, and lacking in aroma,’ as a warning. But I found Barre’s wines the complete opposite. They were aromatically uplifting and texturally expressive, and had an inner vibrancy I’d never previously encountered. They were the first real Bordeaux reds I had ever tasted. I’d already visited most of Bordeaux’s top châteaux, the ones with the very best soils. So I asked Barre how his vines, which had only moderately interesting soils, made such diverting wine?
He was reticent at first, shrugging his shoulders (he was French...) and saying that he just made his red wines in the same way as everyone else. But I trusted my nose and my nose said his wine smelt different. I didn’t believe him.
I grabbed Barre’s arm and dragged him out into his vineyard. His vines visibly radiated health, and the vineyard soil smelt as earthy as a forest floor. Unlike the compact, hard, bleached soils of the vineyard I’d been working in, Barre’s soils were so soft I could dig my hands in.
Then Barre said his vineyard was ‘biodynamic’. When I asked him what this meant he said biodynamics was a bit like organics but with some vital differences. First, biodynamic vineyards try to be as self-sufficient and biodiverse as possible. Second, vineyards become biodynamic only if regularly treated with specially prepared sprays and composts using cow manure, quartz (an abundant, sand-like mineral) and seven medicinal plants including chamomile, stinging nettle, dandelion and oak bark. Third, biodynamics makes both the vineyard and the wine-growers more aware of and sensitive to lunar and other celestial rhythms.
All of this made immediate sense to me, but I gathered from Barre’s initial defensiveness he’d been worried I’d take him for a wacko.
Over the next few weeks I visited every biodynamic wine-grower in Bordeaux. This was easy. Bordeaux had 10,000 wine-growers, but only half a dozen were biodynamic. I started tracking down biodynamic wineries in other parts of France, finding small but growing clusters in Alsace, the Loire and Burgundy. I went to work in an organic German vineyard, then in a biodynamic Californian vineyard. I knew I learnt things best when doing them first-hand.
Biodynamics is the oldest ‘green’ farming movement, pre-dating organics by a generation. Largely people agree that biodynamic wines taste different from mainstream wines, but sceptics say this ‘differentness’ is nothing to do with biodynamic practices, it occurs because biodynamic wine-growers merely ‘pay more attention’ to the vineyard when pruning, ploughing or picking. Yet such dismissal of biodynamic techniques cannot explain why both conventionally and organically reared cows have been hit by BSE (‘mad cow disease’), but biodynamic cows have never succumbed to the infection.
When I began writing about wine, I specialised in biodynamics. I knew many established wine critics would find this odd, but also that if my tastebuds were correct in telling me biodynamic wines actually tasted rather good and were really individual, then this movement had a chance of catching on."
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Waldin's book includes recommendations for biodynamic wines from around the globe. Here are his top picks for the United States:
- AmByth Estate Tempranillo, Paso Robles
- Araujo Estate Eisele Vineyard, Napa Valley
- Benziger Tribute, Sonoma Mountain
- Bonterra Vineyards The Butler, Mendocino County
- Ceàgo Vinegarden Sauvignon Blanc, Clear Lake
- Frey Vineyards Biodynamic Zinfandel, Redwood Valley
- Littorai The Haven Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
- Paul Dolan Vineyards Deep Red, Mendocino County
- Quivira Vineyards Fig Tree Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, Dry Creek Valley
- Robert Sinskey Three Amigos Pinot Noir, Los Carneros
- Bergström Wines Bergström Vineyard Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley
- Brick House Vineyards Evelyn’s Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley
- Maysara Winery Arsheen Pinot Gris, McMinnville
- Cayuse Vineyards Edith Grenache Rosé, Walla Walla Valley
* "Monty Waldin's Best Biodynamic Wines" is published by Floris Books at 16.99 pounds/$26.95. An e-book is also available.