Biodynamic and Organic Wine at Ampelos Cellars

Last year I attended a winemakers dinner where the wines of Ameplos Cellars were paired with a 5-course meal. The owners/winemakers for Ampelos Cellars are Peter and Rebecca Work. They are two of the leading proponents of Biodynamic and Organic viticulture in California. I had met Peter a few years ago (before they were certified as Biodynamic) and spent about two or three hours in his winemaking warehouse learning about Biodynamic practices. This was my first time meeting Rebecca (she was attending a trade show in New York when I ventured up to their warehouse in Lompoc). This night, I sat next to Rebecca, and listened to both Peter and Rebecca explain the basics of Biodynamic farming .

Now I don’t claim to be a farmer, but as a Sommelier, I do believe that great wines are made in the vineyard, and I’ve got to believe that if you grow any type of food, you want to first assure that your produce is the best it can be. Some growers add fertilizer and pesticides to enrich the soil and control pests. There is valid scientific research to show that these man-made additives eventually destroy the soil.

Organic farming is mainly concerned about healthy sustainable soil. Growers shun the use of man-made compounds, using natural compost, which in turn encourages living organisms to enrich the soil.  Additionally, “cover crops” are used to encourage beneficial bugs, such as ladybugs, which eat other pests that can affect wine growth.

Biodynamic farming adds another element above Organic. Biodynamic farming sees the vineyard as a large living organism that is affected by the cosmos. The earth and moon, and their position in the signs of the zodiac, are thought to create “cosmic rhythms” that affect the vines, grapes, and ultimately the bottling, to time you should drink the wine. Now if this all sounds “new age”…think again. Biodynamic farming dates back to the 1920’s with the theories of Rudolf Steiner. Interestingly, some well known winemakers in Europe adopted Biodynamic practices when they saw their revered Burgundy vineyards deteriorating. The soil was so depleted of nutrients something had to be done. Nicolas Joly was probably the biggest proponent, and it spread from there. Here in California, the practice is spreading, but is still less than 1% of the vineyards.

Organic and Biodynamic grapes are grown in the vineyard, but the attention to detail in the winery also affect the ultimate product. When I visited Ampelos (and Dragonette Cellars – who share the winemaking facility), they avoided using sulfur to clean their equipment. Instead, they used ozonated water. Both wineries gently handled their grapes. They limited the filtering and fining of their wines, letting the grapes speak for themselves, and express their terrior.

While talking with Rebecca, at the winemaker dinner, I asked about additives that some wineries are using, and learned about a preservative known as DMDC (di-methyl di-carbonate). Rebecca believes this might be an additive that leads to some of the “wine headaches” that some people experience. I’m still exploring this. Needless to say, Ampelos doesn’t use this man-made additive. Every time I am able to spend time talking with winemakers, I learn something new. It is a fascinating business they are in.

I know this is an overly simplified explanation of Biodynamic and organic, so I recommend you attend a winemakers dinner, and ask questions about vineyard and winemaking practices. So, what is the bottom line…can you taste the difference between a Biodynamic or organic wine, and any other wine? I must admit that I am still a bit skeptical about the cosmic influences, but the use of natural compounds, and the restriction of man-made chemicals can only be a good thing. The environment is less impacted, the ecosystem is sustainable….and, the wines are excellent.