Newberg, Oregon–It’s hard to believe that twenty or so years ago Mike Etzel was peddling us wine and spirits at Coaltrain, as a local distributor’s rep. Now he’s one of the most esteemed winemakers in Oregon at Beaux Frères winery. Like us, Mike has become a bit worn around the edges over that time. But he exudes boyish “joie de vivre” (which we lack), while perfecting the look of a laid-back, slightly rumpled and utterly organic Oregon winemaker. All true, except that he’s far more than organic…he’s biodynamic.
Now, you logically might inquire, “What is biodynamic?” Generally, it’s a way of making wine that is organic (no herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, chemical fertilizers, etc.) but much more. In truth, biodynamic winemaking has practically made organic winemaking passé.
Biodynamic winemakers, like Mike, work using a special calendar. This “cosmic calendar,” if you will, tells them when to perform their work according to the alignment of the planets and other astronomical manifestations. Okay, this does make you wonder. Sounds a bit like sorcery. But we do know that many winemakers have for centuries bottled their wine, at least, when the moon is full. One, Bruno Giacosa, of Barolo/Barbaresco renown, told us years ago that he only bottles when the moon is full.And, let’s get practical, looking at another field: money. Two past studies, cited in the New York Times, have suggested that stock prices are affected by phases of the moon (“Lunar Cycle Effects in Stock Returns,” by Ilia Dichev and “Are Investors Moonstruck? Lunar Phases and Stock Returns,” by Lu Zheng, Kathy Yuan and Qiaoqiao Zhu). Both studies contend that during the 15 days of the lunar cycle closest to the new moon—seven days before to seven days after—the stock market’s average return is noticeably higher than those of the other half of the month. Huh; maybe there is something to all this “luna-cy.”
Returning to Mike. In addition to gazing at the sky, biodynamic winemakers, like Mike, do a lot of other unusual things. He makes teas, sprays and potations of dandelion seeds, yarrow flowers and other plants to apply to sick vines. The dandelion seeds are fermented in cows’ intestines and the yarrow flower in a pig’s bladder. Mike takes particular delight in packing cow’s horns with cow dung and burying the horns over the winter in a specially selected trench with the ideal shade, pitch and proximity to stream water. Well, he does have a lot of fun with this.
Actually, this is all pretty complex. Mike showed us a handbook that tells him how to make the various biodynamic preparations, how to apply them and what to use them for. These preparations have numbers. Take the buried cow dung in the horns mentioned above. It is used in a preparation #500. It is to enhance the calcium process, to help plants and seedlings establish themselves. A ¼ cup of dung is dissolved in enough water to cover one acre. The solution is stirred for an hour. A whiskbroom is dipped into the preparation and it is sprayed on the ground in the motion of casting seeds.
That sounds easy enough. But the handbook cautions also that the spraying should be done in the evening when you sense the rhythm of the day is returning its life force to the earth. An hour before sunset is fine, later even better. No wonder Mike disappears for long lengths of time.
So it goes in a biodynamic vineyard. One might ask rightly, “Who thought all this up?” The credit goes to an Austrian scientist named Rudolf Steiner. As the story goes, Steiner delivered a series of lectures in 1924 that laid the groundwork (sorry) for biodynamic farming. He was a learned man in many fields. Kind of a Hesse, Ouspensky, Gaudi and the Jolly Green Giant all in one.
The general idea is that there is natural unity among living things which is also affected by the cosmos. When this unity is unbalanced, disease and disruption occur.
“We’re working with the whole picture,” Mike explains. “Instead of wanting to kill everything that competes with the grape by chemicals, as was the idea in conventional farming, we respect everything in the vineyard. We try to maximize every natural thing we have.”
As he talks, a pesky bee circles around. “Don’t hurt the bee, the bee is one of our friends,” he chides with a frown. I tease him by pointing out that deer are not apparently his favorite friends. He has erected a high wire “deer fence” around his immaculate “Upper Terrace Vineyard.” “Yeah, those deer really like to eat Pinot Noir grapes,” Mike frowns again.
It’s not hard to sense that Mike has a lot of fun with biodynamic viticulture. And he has fun at the periodic meetings with neighboring biodynamic winemakers, held in his cabin on the fringe of the Upper Terrace Vineyard. There, with his cohort Doug Tunnell of the wondrous Brick House Winery (and CBS news fame) and other local “biodynamicists,” they trade notes on the “yin and yang” of their labors. The cabin has no electricity which is important so that the winemakers don’t get disoriented by the electro-magnetic radiation of the current. And no cell phones, but of course.
Certainly, the crucial question for wine drinkers is, “Does the biodynamic processes really make better wine?” Mike and his circle believe it makes a palpable difference, particularly with the resulting wines’ tannins. It seems to increase the smooth, silky tannins of the wines. It also seems to increase the fruit intensity and add a minerality that was absent pre-biodynamics.
Finally, it should be noted that biodynamics is not something that has been applied mainly in Oregon. Ancient agrarian cultures have treated their farmlands as interconnected organisms with the cosmos. Witness the Egyptians and Mayans for two of very many. In Burgundy, touted winemakers such as Leroy and Leflaive have employed biodynamics, since the 1980s. Not surprisingly, the radical “terroirist,” Marcel Deiss, has been working this way in Alsace for decades. More recently, Cayuse in Washington has enjoyed immense critical acclaim with its biodynamic wines.
Still, with all these things said, there are aspects of biodynamics which some wine buyers would find “far out.” Mike admits, “We decided not to market Beaux Freres as biodynamic or even organic. We don’t want people thinking we’re a little nutty.”
But when you see the reviews and scores Beaux Frères’ wines garner in the world’s wine press, few would call the concept “nutty.” The winery consistently leads the pack of Oregon Pinot producers with scores in the mid to low nineties.
Peering out to the woods from the winery office, Mike frowns slightly and calls himself a “control freak.” “I want to be involved in every aspect of the wine making.” But, he really doesn’t come off as a control freak. For us, he seems more an adult/child who loves to play in the dirt by day and ponder the stars at night. And drink good wine most the day long. Just what biodynamic wine sorcerers do?
Following are two of Mike’s “magical wines” that we carry in Coaltrain today.
2009 Beaux Frères Pinot Noir, Les Cousins, Willamette Valley, $34.99/Sale $27.99: This has the light hue and the pretty fruit of a red Burgundy. Maybe a fine Chambolle-Musigny. A teasing nymphet sourced from some of the premier properties in Willamette Valley.
2005 Beaux Frères Pinot Noir, Beaux Frères Vineyard, Ribbon Ridge, Willamette Valley, $72.99/Sale 67.99: Traditionally this bottling displays more black fruit than the others. It’s a fatter wine than the above Les Cousins. In youth there was some “true grip,” but age has softened it. A Burgundy comparison might be to Pommard. 93 Points, Wine Spectator.