We often explain that biodynamic farming is, “organic and then some.” To be more specific, biodynamic agriculture is a system designed to raise fruit in a state of nature. The fruit is treated by human hands rather than corrected with chemical sprays. Vines are protected with plant-based remedies, not poison. Farming decisions are made with regard to nature’s rhythms. Farming like this isn’t meant to be the most productive way, but if you care most about the flavor of your fruit, we believe that it is the best way. This is why farmers that consider quality, not yield, are so attracted to biodynamic wisdom. This is how we became believers.
Conventional farming felt reactionary. You wait for something to go wrong, and you fix it once it does. There is no system. Biodynamics are a system and one that prevents problems by fostering fertile, healthy vines through a regiment of natural treatments.
Steve Beckmen learned about biodynamic farming in the early 90s while visiting a friend in the Bay Area who was using the techniques on his backyard hobby farm. The farm was small but mighty. The plants were thriving, but the complex, arduous process of biodynamics seemed impossible to expand to the many acres of commercial vineyards that Steve was farming.
A few years later, Steve met Châteauneuf-du-Pape producer and biodynamic evangelist Philippe Armenier. They would grow closer every year at a Central Coast festival for Rhône wines and Rhône style producers. Back then, Beckmen Vineyards was one of few American wineries that was even aware of biodynamics. Noticing that quality-minded producers were experimenting with these farming techniques, Steve was intrigued. He wanted to learn how he could make biodynamics work for his vineyard, so he hired Armenier as a biodynamic consultant as he cautiously began the transition.
Over the years, Phillippe’s passion for biodynamics became infectious, and several American producers began hiring him as a consultant, such as Opus One, Grigich Hills and Cayuse Vineyards, among dozens of others.
Biodynamics at Beckmen began in 2002 by testing the new farming principles on a young block of Syrah. This would go on to become our iconic Purisima Mountain Vineyard Block Six. In 2003, the block was thoroughly farmed biodynamically, and Steve noticed the results immediately. The vines had a healthier look and a powerful energy. 2003 Block Six Syrah is still a legendary vintage, and it was enough evidence to convince us that biodynamics were the best way forward.
Biodynamic conversion isn’t easy. In 2004, biodynamic farming was applied to 40 acres, and it would take two more years to apply it to all of the Purisima Mountain Vineyard. It would take another two years until the vineyard was first certified in 2008. Philippe was there throughout the entire conversion. Phillippe was a biodynamic consultant for Beckmen Vineyards for about 10 years in total. Over the course of a decade, he imparted a specific vision for agriculture on our winery: the idea of farming as a holistic “closed system.”
If biodynamic farming didn’t work, we wouldn’t do it.
When we began farming biodynamically, we were part of a small group of wineries that became convinced of what biodynamics could do for fruit quality. Thanks to the efforts of biodynamic teachers like Philippe and the late Alan York, there are dozens of California wineries that have improved their output by using biodynamic techniques.
For us, the journey into biodynamics didn’t end with certification. Every vintage, we strive to farm in a more holistic manner.
A closed system is the biodynamic ideal. Farming like this means that you bring nothing external to the land. The fertilizer and vineyard treatments are sourced from the farm itself. In practice, this is an enormous challenge. The first leap of faith of biodynamic farming is to push aside the crutch of chemical fertilizers. Doing so requires natural fertilizer (manure), and literally tons of it. Many biodynamic farmers source their dung from dairies, but the closed system farmer would have to house hundreds of cows on the farm itself rather than outsource the poop production. While our animal population has steadily increased as we’ve attempted to push further into closed system farming, we don’t nearly have a hundred cows. Instead, we utilize homeopathic principles to fertilize our vineyards with manure tea, allowing us to fertilize over a hundred acres with only a few acres worth of manure from our cows, pigs, and chickens. Biodynamic teas and sprays are prepared on the property from herbs that we farm ourselves. It took many years of steady improvement, but we are now realizing the ideal of a closed system farm.
Our vision is that of an independent farm with no external inputs. Our journey towards becoming a closed system farm is a process that continues every day. Every vintage we inch closer to realizing the dream of Purisima Mountain Vineyard becoming a totally self-contained ecosystem. The reward for our efforts are wines that are truly of place.
In future installments of Beckmen on Biodynamics, we will explore the topics of Biodynamic Preps and Treatments, Homeopathy, Biodiversity, and the Biodynamic Calendar.