Back to basics: How old ways of farming are revolutionary

For my brother, Steve, farming is a calling. His connection to the soil has been with him since we were children. Seeing him now, in his chosen profession, feels like watching him happily slosh around in his destiny. I'm reposting the article I wrote about Steve's passion for farming for the Los Altos Town Crier because I like reading it and because he gives meaning to many of the buzzwords around organic and biodynamic farming that are so popular these days.

pinot noir grapes doing their thing
Without meaning to, I wrote a love letter to the farming practices of yesteryear. Here’s what happened.
After hearing the results of the latest climate change report, I, like many people, have been thinking more about how the environment is changing directly before our eyes. Then, on the heels of the report, I learned of a pledge Sonoma County vintners made to become the nation’s first 100 percent sustainable wine region by 2019.
With these two news items percolating in my mind, I thought: Could caring for the environment result in better wine?
It seems the answer would be a clear yes. After all, when I think of green farming practices, I think of an approach to vineyard management that emphasizes quality over quantity.
Could kinder, more conscious farming produce a higher-quality wine? I didn't want to throw another buzzword-heavy article onto the pile of reasons that green is good, so I asked a vintner who practices biodynamic farming.

The vineyard as ecosystem

My brother Steve Moore is vineyard manager at Teac Mor Vineyards in the Russian River Valley appellation of Sonoma County. Teac Mor produces estate-grown Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines but also sells a large portion of its harvest to other wineries in the area.
“There are three main terms you’ll hear related to green farming: organic, biodynamic and sustainable,” Steve explained. “The distinction among the three styles can be subtle and sometimes comes down to government regulation and schools of thought.”
All three farming styles use chemicals, but organic farming uses only organic chemicals such as sulfur. Biodynamic and sustainable farming can use both organic and synthetic chemicals, but generally use far fewer synthetic chemicals than conventional farming.
In each of these styles, the vineyard is viewed as an ecosystem. Steve farms using biodynamic practices, many of which have been handed down through the generations of farmers in our family.
Biodynamic farming is an ancient philosophy that encourages a holistic approach to vineyard management that takes into account things such as lunar cycles. Because biodynamic farming is an integrated discipline, Steve manages his use of natural resources and considers how his actions impact the larger environment.
There is an element of marketing at play here. Often, wineries have practiced sustainable, organic or biodynamic wine growing for years, but with the increase in consumer interest have only now begun to advertise their methods.
“We just call it farming,” Steve said when asked how the terms impact him and his fellow vintners. “I’m committed to growing the best grapes I can, and doing that requires a holistic approach to farming. What I do this year will impact future harvests, and I’m always thinking several years ahead.”

Sustainability revolution

Steve works hard to promote soil health and biological diversity at Teac Mor. Rather than using chemicals to add nitrogen and other important elements to the soil, Steve relies on cover crops. An olive orchard and large vegetable garden on the vineyard promote a healthy ecosystem by attracting beneficial insects. Steve describes the sustainability revolution we are witnessing as a simple return to basics.
“Industrial agriculture is the practice of growing mass quantities of produce as efficiently as possible,” he said. “But farming wasn’t always done this way. Farmers of years gone by spent time nurturing the soil and coaxing the best out of their plants.”
Steve inspects his vines daily and adjusts his farming techniques based on what the vines call for.
“There are five types of soil on this site alone,” he said. “To be successful, I need to see the distinctive needs of each plant.”
Steve recently turned on the irrigation on a block of Chardonnay vines.
“I haven’t watered for years, and this would be early in a season to water,” he said. “But when I saw the shoot tips growing faster than the tendrils, I knew the plants were in need of moisture.”
Before I overly romanticize farming, I’ll state the obvious: It is tough, tough work. A late frost, an unwanted pest invasion or unexpected environmental changes can derail long hours of physical labor and all a vineyard manager’s best-laid plans.
But watching my brother tending to Teac Mor’s vines, I can’t help but revel in the artistry of it all. He nurtures his vineyard – and the results show. His grapes produce wonderful wines. He’d be the first to downplay his role in the outcome, firmly believing that it’s his job to serve as a steward for what nature is wont to do.
I’m thankful for the sincere and unrelenting practices of vintners like Steve. The wines from California are celebrated around the world for good reason. With renewed focus on the quality of grapes grown here, California’s future as a wine leader and a warden of the environment is bright.

Try this at home

Why is biodynamic farming interested in moon phases? The practice of paying attention to the phases of the moon is centuries old.
Steve explained that relative gravity impacts alcohol levels and phenolic compounds (i.e., color, flavor and aroma of grapes) in viticulture. Vineyard managers plant or prune based on what is happening with the moon. And winemakers might take moon phase into account when harvesting or bottling.
Here’s something fun you can do at home: There is a theory that red wine should be drunk biodynamically. I grew up on a farm and earned a degree in poetry, so of course I’m interested in the notion.
In essence, red wines should be enjoyed on days when the biodynamic plant calendar shows the moon in a “fruit” or “flower” phase. In June, you should avoid drinking red wine on the 10th, 27th and 28th. If you try this approach, let me know how it goes.


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