Organic and Biodynamic Winemaking: Lessons from Two Weeks WWOOFing on a Vineyard in Tuscany
“Careful of the intestines,” my Italian co-worker called out casually over his shoulder as he swept broken glass into a spade.
I peered into the dark shed, which we’d been asked (sentenced?) to clean and organize one afternoon in the 95-degree heat. The dust alone suggested that the shed had been all but forgotten. I scanned the area for a sign of said intestines, recalling a comment made earlier that the shed smelled like a dead animal. Sure enough, there they were. Hung over one of the low beams running parallel across the length of the shed. Shriveled and dry and strangely pale pink.
“Biodynamic,” he said, nodding and grinning in my direction as I looked up at the intestines with curiosity and horror.
“Is that for the farm?” I asked. This wouldn’t be the first time the vineyard incorporated seemingly strange materials into its agricultural practices. Earlier in the week, we’d driven up the side of a mountain to collect spring water, which would be used as the solution for a fermented stinging nettle concoction. The resulting mixture, high in nitrogen, helped to feed the grapevines and eliminated the need for chemical fertilizers. But in order for the nettle spray to be considered biodynamic, the treated water from the farm’s plumbing could not be used. The water needed to be sourced naturally.
So, like any rational person, I assumed the intestines hanging from the ceiling of this virtually abandoned old shed must have served some practical purpose on the vineyard. Perhaps they’d be used to deter potential pests or further fertilize the vines.
The other WWOOFer translated and my question was met with a shrug. Nobody other than the head winemaker knew why the intestines were hanging there. They could have been for the farm just as easily as they could have been for his own personal use (a mystery I did not wish to pursue any further).
Twenty minutes later, while lifting a heavy box of weathered books, something brushed against my hair. I turned around to see the intestines swinging back and forth ever so slightly, inches from my face.
What the heck is WWOOFing and what is a WWOOFer?
How did I get here, going about my day dodging assorted innards dangling from the ceiling? The short answer is that I’ve spent the last two weeks WWOOFing on a vineyard in northern Tuscany (but I didn’t start a blog to leave it at the shower answer!).
For years, I’ve fantasized about coming to Italy to explore the countryside. I imagined picking perfectly ripe tomatoes of every shape and color, frolicking through rows of grapevines at dusk, and learning regional Italian recipes from an adopted nonna. The opportunity to live this fantasy presented itself at the end of a year spent teaching English in Spain, through the organization WWOOF (or World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). The WWOOF website allows volunteers (WWOOFers) from all over the world to contact farmers seeking extra help, and in exchange for a few hours of work each day the farmers provide volunteers with food and a bed.
I scoured the site for a vineyard and eventually found Fattoria Sardi, a relatively small winery located just north of a city called Lucca. The farm, I soon learned, produced wine through organic and biodynamic methods. It seemed like the perfect place to learn more about sustainable agriculture. Plus, working here would be an opportunity to peek into the world of wine production. It was almost too good to be true. The fact that it was tucked into the foothills of the Apuan Alps, located 20 minutes from the city and 20 minutes from the coast, may also have added to the appeal.
After arriving at the vineyard, struggling from the weight of my front- and back-packs and dropping everything haphazardly onto the floor of my temporary new bedroom, I set off to explore. I walked through the hills of the vineyard, up and around into a hidden olive grove. I spotted rose bushes along the rows of vines. I may or may not have squealed when I first caught sight of a bunch of green grapes fading to full, dark purple. A sign that harvest season was fast-approaching.
My work, though, consisted of just about every odd-job imaginable leading up to the harvest. During the next few weeks I would be cleaning equipment, crawling under enormous stainless steal vats with a high-pressured hose, raking, weeding, watering, bottling, labelling, organizing, and re-organizing. And tasting, of course, on occasion.
One day, a small group of us were asked to lay out irrigation equipment in order to water the winery’s youngest vines, at the very top of a hill. This seemed a little odd to me. At every other farm of this scale, I’d found irrigation to be a standard installment in every field that regularly needs it. It seemed laborious and inefficient to put hundreds of feet of metal tubes into place one afternoon and then remove it the following day, until next time. I figured it was a system that, while perhaps a little outdated, continued to work for them, so there was no need to upgrade.
I was wrong, unsurprisingly. This task was yet another requirement for the vineyard to grow its grapes according to the biodynamic method. Since only natural, untreated water can be used, it needed to be sourced from the small stream at the base of the hill. The water was pumped upwards to the top of the hill and gravity did the rest of the work watering the vines as the water trickled down.
Why on Earth would they go through all this trouble? What’s with this obsession with spring water? Why are they making us do all this extra work? My capitalistic brain apparently could not comprehend. Any business model that didn’t seek to save time and money seemed nonsensical to me. But with biodynamic farming, time and money aren’t the first priority. For once, the environment is.
Colline Lucchesi and the Vision of Biodynamic Farming
As mentioned above, the city of Lucca is located in the foothills (known as “Colline Lucchesi,” or “the hills of Lucca”) of a large mountain range and only a few miles from the Mediterranean. A small river runs through the valley and with the sea so close by as well, the area gets extremely humid in the summer (have you ever tried sleeping in 90% humidity? I have). Luckily, a breeze flows down from the mountains and through the hills, making it possible for the grapevines to grow in the humidity without a high risk of mold or fungal disease. Plus, the sea buffers the climate and keeps the region from getting too cold in the winter.
Just about every feature of this area of Italy is perfect for growing grapes, from the proximity of the Mediterranean to the sandstone and clay soil that allows for just the right amount of drainage to keep the roots happy. The hills face south, meaning that the plants receive full sunlight at nearly all hours of the day. This explains how the region Colline Lucchesi has been producing wine continuously since medieval times. Today, wine made here under certain specifications receives a DOC (Controlled Designation of Origin), like wines produced in Champagne or cheese produced in Stilton.
With all of these basic conditions working in favor of the vineyards of Colline Lucchesi, the grapes grow well without a huge amount of input from the farmers. And these exact circumstances are perfect for organic and biodynamic farming. But what does that mean exactly? To grow organically, the farmers must simply refrain from using any chemical fertilizers or pesticides. To grow using biodynamic methods, however, farmers must grow organically and go the extra mile… or five or ten, straight up the face of a mountain.
Biodynamic farming is more of a philosophy than a set of strict policies. It began in the 1920’s with Rudolph Steiner, a German who’s also credited with coining the term “organic agriculture.” The idea was born while he was researching the use of fertilizers and pesticides as a potential cause for farmers’ diminishing yields. Today, it’s a methodology that seeks to align agriculture with the cycles of nature, treating “soil fertility, plant growth, and livestock care as interrelated tasks, emphasizing spiritual and mystical perspectives.”
I heard of biodynamic farming for the first time at an agricultural conference in northern California last year. Over dinner, I spoke with a self-described stoner from the midwest who had moved to the Bay area to learn farming (which seemed counterintuitive… and expensive). He explained to me that the planting and harvest schedules at the biodynamic farm where he worked were determined by the phases of the moon. I think I stopped listening at that point.
But while it’s easy to write-off biodynamic farming as arbitrary or superfluous (like I did because I’m cynical like that), after spending a bit more time with it these past few weeks, I came to realize that many of the goals of this approach are practical and effective despite the fact that they often take extra time and effort.
For example, as mentioned before, biodynamic farming seeks to respect the environment in which the farmed plants are grown. This means cultivating not only the grapevines, but also the ecosystem in which they exist. In other words, Fattoria Sardi takes care of the soil in order to take care of the plants. By using green manure, the stinging nettle concoction, and a method called 500P where the soil is enriched with manure and powder made from the horns of slaughtered animals, the vineyard is able to increase organic matter, necessary microorganisms, and earth worms.
Additionally, the plants are dusted with quartz powder early in the summer months because refracting the sun’s rays with these tiny crystals helps the plants to absorb more sunlight. Two years ago, when the valley experienced a very unusual and potentially devastating frost, the workers built fires along the rows of vines to keep them at a livable temperature (they still lost 10% of their crop that year, unfortunately). The roses at the end of each row of vines are for pest detection, it turns out, because the roses are more vulnerable and therefore show signs of insects and disease before the grapevines are infected. The vineyard does, in fact, coordinate some of the bottling schedule to align with the new moon, but not always. Today, we bottled about 5,000 bottles of their best wine even though the moon is in Waning Gibbous Phase (yes, I had to look that up).
All this is to say that, though some aspects of biodynamic farming may seem far-fetched, the entire school of thought is based on the belief that everything exists in a greater context and that we should respect the natural world that is irrevocably intertwined with agriculture. Biodynamic farming uses the resources that nature has given us to grow ecosystems and, by extension, food. That’s why this vineyard has incorporated rose bushes, quartz dust, spring water, and cow horns into its practices despite the fact that it’s extra work, that there’s a faster and easier way.
Plus, working with a business that puts the environment first isn’t just refreshing. It’s revolutionary.