Why Wines Made from Organically-Grown Grapes Taste So Pure

I recently tasted a group of wines made by Paul Dolan and grown near Hopland in Mendocino County, California. Dolan was for many years at the helm of Fetzer winery in Hopland, a pioneering winery using organically-grown grapes. His tenure at Fetzer was marked by many green innovations, including the planting of clover, vetch, and umbelliferous crops between the vine rows in order to enrich the soil and provide habitat for beneficial insects that keep the plant-eating insects in check. Dolan has taken that approach one step further with his ‘Deep Red’ wines, whose vineyards are certified Biodynamic by Demeter, the certifying agency for Biodynamic farms.

The wine that impressed me the most was his 2007 Deep Red—a blend of over 50 percent Syrah with the rest Petite Sirah and Grenache. Yes, it shows rich, round flavors with a deeply fruity core and sturdy structure formed from the iron-rich, deep red soils for which the wine is named. But beyond that, it shows purity.

What do I mean by purity? Think of a watercolor painting. When the colors are applied correctly, they have a clear, pure, jewel-like appearance. Amateur watercolorists often overlay complementary colors, which produces muddy results. In a wine, purity is like the jewel colors in a fine watercolor painting. No muddiness. No thick and impenetrable areas of flavor. You can taste right through the flavors, and they are bright and transparent to the palate.

How does Dolan produce wines of such purity? The answer lies in his Biodynamic approach. Biodynamics is based on organic farming, but goes further. The farm is viewed as a whole, living organism. How is any organism kept healthy? Proper nutrition. In the Biodynamic system, that means recycling every scrap of organic matter through the transformative composting process and returning it to the land. Compost is the engine at the center of life. It is the destination and source of life, all at once. As Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet, “That which is Nature’s mother is her tomb; what is her burying grave, that is her womb.”

Biodynamic culture also means having mobile chicken coops so the hens are always scratching at new areas and finding insects and their larvae to eat, and fertilizing the area with their droppings, before the mobile coop is moved again. It means setting up housing for owls and bats—scavengers who keep rodents and flying insect pests in check. It means having fresh water and insectiaries so beneficial insects can easily pass through their life stages, cleaning the farm of pests as they do so.

It means not only thinking of the farm horizontally—across the fields and vineyards—but vertically: taking into account the phases of the moon and the rising and falling of water in the earth. It means being humble about what we human beings know of the life on the farm and the energies of heaven and earth, so that we are open to learn, for there is no end of knowledge in nature and none of us can know it all. But we can improve, and on a Biodynamic farm such as Dolan’s, the improvements are all toward the health of the farm as a living whole organism.

Because of the health of the vines and his Biodynamic approach, Dolan produces wines of crystal purity. The wine lets the light come shining through.

Published on: September 28, 2010
About the Author
Photo of Jeff Cox

Jeff Cox is the author of 19 books on food, wine, and gardening from the organic perspective, including the James Beard Foundation-nominated "The Organic Cook's Bible.". He's the former managing editor of Organic Gardening magazine and has hosted two TV series on gardening, Your Organic Garden on PBS and Grow It! on HGTV.

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