One of Beckmen Vineyards’ defining attributes is its dedication to biodynamic farming. Biodynamic farming is based off principles Rudolf Steiner formed in the 1920’s, when farmers were starting to see a decline in seed fertility and crop vitality, when commercial fertilizers and commercial farming in general were starting to transform the world of agriculture.
More akin to organic farming than traditional farming – or whatever you would call today’s form of mass produced agriculture – biodynamic farming is only used by a small percentage of grape growers. Learn why Beckmen Vineyards backs biodynamics, as I sit down with owner, winemaker, and vineyard manager Steve Beckmen.
What made you decide to look into biodynamics?
I first got exposed in 1995, so not too long after we started Beckmen Vineyards. I was exposed to it by a college friend, who was using it for his garden. I had a lot of conversations with him over the next few years about it – I didn’t understand how I could use the philosophy over the amount of acres we had to farm. It wasn’t until I met someone else who was in the wine business who was successful with Biodynamic farming, who opened my eyes and explained how it could be done across a larger amount of acreage.
Who was this person?
Philippe Armunier, he used to run Domaine de Marcoux in Chateauneuf-du-Pape for his family and is now a Biodynamic consultant in the US. I kept meeting with Philipe and thinking about making a change. After he came by one day in 2002, we had a really good conversation and I just decided to do it, to try it initially across the 17 acres of syrah in block six. It allowed us to try the biodynamic style of farming next to our traditional farming.
You saw positive results?
We saw some things fairly immediately: in the vineyard, in the grapes and grape quality. We isolated that and started bottling block six as an experimental thing. The wine was incredibly successful, arguably one of the best syrahs we had made up to that date. Then I decided to expand (biodynamics) the next year, in the beginning of the 2003 vintage. In 2004 we expanded to include areas that were more challenging, with issues that we didn’t have in block 6. Over the next couple of years we took the steps to be fully equipped to do what we needed to do, across the whole vineyard – 125 acres. It’s crazy and cool that Purisima is now the fifth largest certified Demeter Biodynamic® vineyard in California.
When you made the transition into biodynamics, did you have to change everything you did?
Obviously there’s a lot of things that change when you transition, to fit within the practice. If anything, it was new, right? So in those areas where we were doing it initially, it was totally different. Completely different. Nothing was the same. It changes the way you approach farming, the issues you have, and how you deal with them. It gives you a philosophy to work with. The biggest change is we were no longer reactionary farmers; we are now proactive in our goal to create a balanced vineyard, a balanced farm. Other changes and differences were that you’re scheduling work and conscious of when you’re scheduling work. There’s actually more spraying involved in biodynamic farming because you’re doing more compost tea sprays and biodynamic prep sprays.
How long did it take before you were 100% comfortable farming this way?
I was comfortable the whole time. I think it’s similar to winemaking – you don’t ever stop learning. I had (Philipe’s) help pretty strongly for the first 3 or 4 years. After that you just have to start making your own decisions, and seeing things your own way because that person isn’t living it day-to-day like you are. My thinking was to embrace it fully, to take it to the fullest extent, and then dial it down or tailor it to the different parts of the vineyard and the issues we were dealing with in those different areas.
What makes biodynamic farming different than organic farming?
Really it’s as simple as three things:
- Following the Biodynamic calendar for sowings and plantings.
- Using preparations BD 500 – 508.
- Not using any type of mineral fertility programs. All of our fertility is done through natural ways like composting and cover cropping.
What was the most challenging part in starting to farm biodynamically?
To do it, to try it. That is really one of the biggest hurdles. And then once you’re trying it, you’re seeing it work, even though you can’t necessarily explain everything that is going on. In a way you have to embrace the unknown.
What is the biggest misconception that the general public has about biodynamics?
The biggest misconception is that people don’t really know what it is. The general public just lacks an understanding of what biodynamics is.
Stay tuned as we dive deeper into the world of biodynamic farming: breaking down the principles, learning why farming this way is better for the environment, and showing you how we apply these techniques at Purisima Mountain Vineyard.