'Consider the egg. When I was a boy on Staten Island, hens ate grit and grasshoppers and scraps from the table and whatever they could scratch out of the ground, and a platter of scrambled eggs was a delight. Then the scientists developed a special egg-laying mash made of old corncobs and sterilized buttermilk, and nowadays you order scrambled eggs and you get a platter of yellow glue. Consider the apple. Years ago you could enjoy an apple. Then the scientists took hold and invented chemical fertilizers especially for apple trees, and apples got big and red and shiny and beautiful and absolutely tasteless."
— from Old Mr. Flood by Joseph Mitchell
That was written in 1948. Nearly 40 years later, Jim Fetzer decided to open an organic garden at his family's Mendocino winery, where he served as CEO and the main engine of its marketing machine. (And what a machine — from 200,000 cases in 1981 to 2.5 million by the time the winery was sold to Brown-Forman in 1992. Fetzer introduced the notion of vineyard-designated wines to California, and their unoaked Chardonnay, which became a huge part of the winery's explosive growth through the '80s, was a savvy — and early — response to the proliferation of oak-heavy California Chard.)
Recalls Fetzer, "I saw early on that we wanted to sell more wine 'on-premise'" — in hotels and restaurants, as opposed to bottle shops and grocery stores. "So we called on restaurants and hotels, and back then, most of the chefs were European-trained. They were all complaining about the fruits and vegetables in America, that they had no flavor. At the same time, we were trying to get people to come up to our winery in Mendocino — food and beverage directors, bartenders, managers. That sparked our interest -- 'Maybe what we need to do is learn more about food. We can create this center, educate our own salespeople, and attract people to come up and learn.'"
In 1984, Fetzer started work on "a garden project," one that eventually "grew over 1000 varieties of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers. We had a demonstration kitchen. We hired chef John Ash." People took notice and started making the trek north "to learn more about the food part of it and to try the wine and food together. We put training programs together for Marriott, Hyatt, Westin, and Omni — they would send their general managers and executive chefs. We had a very cohesive marketing plan; the food thing brought us into something we could build on."
To manage the garden, the Fetzers hired Michael Maltas, Organic Gardening magazine's Midwestern Gardener of the Year for 1985. Born in Zimbabwe and educated in England, Maltas had made his mark in the earth at a biodynamic garden in Missouri. He came West, complained about all the chemicals being sprayed in the vineyards surrounding his garden, and presented the Fetzers with his first crop of organic produce. Paul Dolan, Fetzer's winemaker at the time, told Fast Company magazine that the vegetables were good enough to make him say, "God, we've got to try this in the vineyards." The article goes on to say that the experimental plantings of organic grapes "made the nonorganic grapes seem bland." Add wine grapes to Old Mr. Flood's account of eggs and apples.
By the time Fetzer sold, the winery was just beginning to market Bonterra, its first wine made from 100 percent organic grapes. Jim Fetzer was proud of his product but is quick to admit that it's very easy to make "piss-poor organic wine by default — if you don't do anything" to deal with various problems in the vineyard or winery just so "you can be certified organic." Biodynamics — the sort of gardening Maltas had done with his vegetables and fruits — seemed like the logical next step. If being certified organic meant that you avoided certain practices — the use of chemical fertilizers and insecticides, for example — then being certified biodynamic meant that you embraced practices that would take the place of things like chemical fertilizers and insecticides.
Fetzer established his first biodynamic vineyard on Mendocino's McNab Ranch in 1996. Being certified biodynamic, he explains, requires a number of elements, all oriented toward creating a self-contained, sustainable environment that works in harmony with the natural forces around it. For starters, "We can't have a monoculture; we have to have diversity on the farm. We have to have a crop rotation program — for us, that means planting different cover crops between the vine rows" to provide various nutrients to the soil. "We have to have a compost program on the farm" — grape pumice, chicken manure, etc. Getting the manure is easy, because "we have to have animal life on the farm." Send the chickens into the vineyard to eat cutworms (hello, natural insecticide) and let nature take its course.
The compost program does include one or two funky elements — the sorts of things that make people associate biodynamics with mystic hoodoo. Things like packing a cow horn with manure, letting it ferment underground between the fall and spring equinoxes, aging it in a cool, damp, dark environment, and then mixing it with warm water to spray on the vineyards. But there's hard science at work as well: the aforementioned cover crops provide nutrients, but the crops have to decay before the nutrients become available to the vine. Mixing the microbe-rich fermented manure in warm water can produce a new generation of microbial life every 20 minutes. "We're taking this huge population of microbial life and spraying it on the ground, and it helps break down those cover crops."
Besides providing nutrients, cover crops also aid Fetzer in his pursuit of terroir — the elusive aspect of a wine that gives some hint about its place of origin. "You can pick up the soil and smell it, and you'll smell a lot of the earthiness and things that are in the wine. It's almost a spicy character. When you do traditional farming with a lot of chemicals, there's no smell whatsoever. We want the roots to get down into that soil, at different levels of depth; hopefully that will reflect in the wine, adding more layers of flavors." How to manage it? Start by avoiding drip irrigation. "When you use drip, you just grow in one little area. The main root development is going to be where you're saturating those little areas with water." Once his vines were established, he planted rye grass between the rows, "to pull moisture out of the soil." The vines had to start digging deeper for their water, and Fetzer got his layers of root development.