Harvest Bos: Biodynamic Grape Growing In The Napa Valley

Part One

The Case For Biodynamics

grgich winery, napa valley, California
Grgich Winery, Napa Valley, California (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During the difficult, cool vintages of 2010 and 2011, winemakers and vineyardists across California were complaining of harvests rife with rot and mildew  – everyone it seems, except Dave Bos.

Dave only makes 3 barrels of his own wine,  but he points to the wine in the glass and says, “Look at the color.” “I’ve got plenty of color.  I didn’t cold soak, or do an extended maceration.  I just did a normal fermentation, and this is the color I got.” The Syrah is very dark, almost black in color.  It is the nose that sets the wine apart. It is vivid, with lavender, plum, blackberry, earthy loam, ad lots of fresh black and green peppercorns.  In the mouth there was plenty of richness and weight, with tremendous freshness.

Both the 2010 and 2011 Boss “Pheonix Vineyard” Coombsville, (100% Syrah) were spectacular regardless of vintage. In both vintages -2010 (cool) and 2011 (cool and wet) a lot of really good winemaking teams saw difficulties getting the kind of color and concentration they were looking for.

“It’s how the vineyard is farmed.” Dave says. “It has nothing to do with the way I made the wine.”  Dave Bos is a vineyard consultant, who only uses Biodynamic practices. The name of his company is Harvest Bos Dynamic Vineyard and Farm Management where he manages several small vineyards in the valley. “I manage more then I consult, it allows me to have better control. I do have a few clients that I consult for in Napa”

“I have voodoo in my vineyard”

“I consult for Brian Phoenix, who owns this vineyard.” Bos says referring to the wine in our glasses. “He is a mechanic.  Brian’s a really sharp, meticulous guy who can fix anything.  “But he doesn’t really believe in Biodynamics, so I’ve had to convince him to trust me.  “Brian laughs and says, ‘I have voodoo in my vineyard!’ . . .”Brian would tell you,” Dave adds, “he has seen a huge difference in quality and health in his vineyard since he converted it to BD.”

Dave moved to the Napa Valley ten years ago, and signed on as a vineyard manager for Grgich in 2005. The winery had already started the process of converting a few blocks to Biodynamics the 2003 looking to combat the leaf roll virus that was infecting the vineyards. When Dave got there in ’05, they embarked on the mammoth, 2 year process of converting all of Grgich’s five vineyards, covering 367 acres of vineyards, to biodynamic farming. Dave worked closely with winemaker/general manager Ivo Jeramaz to see the enormous project through completion and Demeter Certification in 2006 and 2007.

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Dave Bos, Biodynamic Farmer and Consultant

Over that time, Dave has seen the direct, positive results of the changes in a vineyard due to Biodynamics. Most notably he has witnessed the problems have been completely avoided, that his neighbors have waged desperate struggles to contain.  The 2011 vintage was especially notable. Rains in June and September caused a significant amount of mildew and rot, whereas he notice much less of this at  Grgich. In 2011, at Grgich the whites were exceptional – Dave feels they are some of the best the winery has ever made.

Having visited many, many wineries over the years, it seems every sales manager spouted off about how they are farming sustainably, many saying that they are Certified Sustainable. “Certified Sustainable” however, can mean no more than someone at the winery took a class on sustainability, not that they ever implemented any sustainable processes in the vineyard to become “Certified.”  There is no legal definition for Certified Sustainable at this time, so the meaning of the term can vary widely depending on the organization providing the certification.

Certainly there is wide use of cover crops these days, to attract the right insects and give nutrients back to the earth. I have been told by many Sales Managers that they are no longer using pesticides… but they invariably slip in the caveat, ‘unless there is no other alternative.’

The French call this kind of farming lutte raisonnee, (the reasoned struggle.)    I have begun to think lutte raisonnee means, what happens in the vineyard, stays in the vineyard.  

While all these General Managers sounds like they really have a solid environmental plan, and they use all the right buzz words, I have always gotten the feeling that there is too much spin, and a lot of lip service, being given to the subject.  I mention to Dave that sustainable farming is a talking point of every winery manager, and his response was this: “By definition, if they can continue to stay in business they are sustainable.”

The Power of a Healthy Vineyard

When Grgich Hills started converting its vineyards over to Biodynamics, there was a section of old vine Cabernet that had been part of the reserve program that was dying, and had been scheduled to be replanted the following year.  In the meantime, it was easier to farm the entire vineyard in the same manner.  So for the next year, this section of Cabernet was farmed just like the rest, Biodynamically.  At the end of the year, it was noted that the vines which had barely be producing any fruit, were looking much better, and had produced a larger crop.  The decision was made to leave them in to see what happened.  Today those old Cabernet vines still has the disease that plagued it before, but now the vines are strong enough to withstand its affliction, and once again produces a high quality crop with a feasible yield.

On a ride-with a few years ago, I had asked Mike Benziger (who is a tremendous advocate of Biodynamics) if he thought Biodynamically grown grapes produced better wine. His response was surprising.  He said that he felt Biodynamics acts like a lens in winemaking, focusing whatever you have. If what you have is good, it will focus and heighten those attributes, and if it isn’t so good, then those lesser attributes will be heightened too.  He also said that he thought that the intense focus, observation, and effort put into the vineyard, moves with the grapes into the winery.  When so much work went into growing these grapes, greater effort is made to make them into the best wine possible.

It is no accident that if you look at a list of the world’s greatest winemakers, Biodynamic producers will populate the  top 100 in a remarkably high percentage.  The primary reason is the land is healthier, so the vines are healthier, and the fruit is healthier. But also this care in the vineyard has a dramatic effect at the crush pad: to take every opportunity to do everything right.  To observe, adjust, and to not take any short-cuts.

Next Post:  Harvest Bos: Biodynamics is ascending

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Diary of a Winebuyer

About Me: Thirty years ago, I graduated with a degree in political science from the College of Letters and Science at the University of California at Berkeley. Having grown up at the height of the Cold War, I still have vivid remembrances of being instructed to hide under our elementary school desk, covering our heads. The young, white, female teacher, training us without explanation, to face away from the windows. I suppose it is not all that surprising that I had a particular interest in the realpolitik of international relations. My fascination grew with the discovery that certain conditions almost uniformly exist where all revolutions ferment. Did this mean that the revolutions which had occurred in the first half century were revolutions which had been usurped by Marxists who were in the right place at the right time? Probably. A favorite professor was A. J. Gregor. This was a man who, while rakishly wearing a Gestapo-styled black leather motorcycle jacket, exuded expertise on fascism (which he looked the part) and Marxism. Improbably, he did it with a significant swagger. Then in my last semester, I had the blind luck to take a class on Asian Marxist revolution, and the professor, who just happened to be visiting that year while he worked on some unnamed project, was Chalmers Johnson. In retrospect, I should have known his name, as he was a luminary in the political science community but at that time, I did not. It was a remarkable opportunity to experience the ivory tower, but I seem to remember being anxious to get on with life. After college, I drifted through a few of jobs that were of interest to me. One of my former high school teachers said to me. "If I were in your shoes, I'd get a job as a flight attendant." So in order to be young while I could still afford to, I accepted a job serving chicken or beef at Pan American. With that airline losing money faster than it could sell its routes, I got a job doing cellar work at David Bruce Winery. This was the beginning of my wine career. All during this period, I wrote a still unpublished novel about homegrown terrorists the U.C. Berkeley campus, attempting to use some of what I learned in school, weaving in the Vietnamese political and military strategies of Dau Tranh as professor Johnson had lectured years before. Since the early 1990's, I have been involved in the wine industry, selling fine wine in both the retail and wholesale arenas. I have approached learning about wine, by always challenging myself to question how I know what I think I know? And in an effort to try to find answers I've turned, with varying degrees of success to wine books. Overall, I've not been happy with the quality of most wine writing, finding the authors either to lack any deep knowledge, or unable to move much past what I consider to be superficial information. I recognize that wine writers have to monetize their work, but I believe this has dramatically held back our knowledge and understanding of wine. I have set out to add to our industry's base of knowledge where I can. My first series, 'The Terroir of Burgundy' (which I should probably re-edit and complete some kind of conclusion, but I got involved in this project), can be viewed here. I currently work as a sales and marketing manager for a Burgundy and Bordeaux importer based in Atherton, California.

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