Phil Cline, the owner of Naches Heights Vineyard, is a third generation farmer. He grows all of the grapes for Naches Heights Vineyards wines and even sells grapes to other winemakers. Phil is all about growing his grapes with love, and for him that means using organic, salmon safe and biodynamic practices. I have to admit that I’m a bit of a skeptic when it comes to biodynamic growing, but I’m also a big fan of Naches Heights Vineyards. So Phil seemed like the perfect person to talk me through it.
Q: What’s the history of biodynamic growing?
A: Rudolf Steiner, a highly trained German scientist, philosopher and clairvoyant, was the father of biodynamics. His basic premise was that everything is connected, from the star systems in the universe to us in our everyday life.
With conventional farming, we manipulate the cycle of life by using large amounts of whatever we need to keep a plant alive [e.g., pesticides and other chemicals] even if the plant isn’t healthy or producing fruit. Steiner believed that by connecting into the larger system, using the energy of the cosmos, you can get healthier plants without having to use chemicals.
Q: How does it work?
A: You think about the vineyard as a single self-sustaining organism that’s all connected. You need to understand the biodynamic calendar and its implications on a day-by-day basis. Then you take preparations that have minute amounts of material and spread it out over large pieces of property. For example, you put a small amount of cow manure into a cow horn and bury it under the vineyard for four months, and then you dig it up and spray the contents into the vineyard to promote soil fertility. You also integrate animals so chickens, cows and birds play a role in the vineyard.
I think [biodynamic practices] are brilliant because the most important thing is the ability for all of the microbes in the ground to thrive via nurturing. With biodynamics, you don’t do anything with heavy metals, herbicides or pesticides that would discourage microbial population in the soil because plants with good immune systems, like humans, can fight off most of the common ailments and some of the more serious ones as well.
Q: How did you get into it?
A: A lot of things in farming involve faith. We farmed conventionally for years, and then we evolved to sustainable and organic growing practices. But even for me, biodynamics was a stretch.
I decided to try to apply Steiner’s logic to pruning [removing unwanted growth during the dormant season]. Steiner knew that from the moon’s pull, there was a gravitational effect on plants. When the moon is waning, you have less pull from the moon so the xylem and phloem [transport tissues that act as veins in a plant, moving water and nutrients around] stay in the root system. If you’re pruning something, you want to do it when there is less flow to help fight off infections. I have tried pruning both when the moon is waning and when it’s waxing, and you definitely see a difference in the levels of liquids coming out of the plant. So that was a very visual example for me and one of the first steps in my becoming a believer.
Q: Have you seen other tangible examples of how biodynamics work?
A: I purchased a vineyard that had been conventionally farmed for about 60 to 70 years. A lot of commercial fertilizer had been applied. In fact, our first soil tests showed that 100 pounds of nitrogen was still in the ground, even though it had been 10 years since anything was added to the soil. There were other heavy metals, salt and herbicides in the ground, so it was pretty much a sterile situation. We didn’t fumigate because I didn’t want to disturb what life was there, and when you fumigate you are basically nuking everything in existence, which is not a good start for the plants. The ground was like walking on concrete. But now, years after we have been farming it biodynamically, it has a better feel to it. Its softer and spongy. Now organic matter is starting to thrive and worms are moving around, which the soil was devoid of prior, so we have been very happy with the results.
I believe in biodynamics because it comes down to being observant and a little more prudent. You don’t have at your beck and call certain products that can fix things, so you have to be proactive and preventive.
Dear readers, I can tell you that the proof is in the pudding. Phil Cline is making some fantastic wines at Naches Heights Vineyards. I recommend the Pinot Gris to the Balanced Tribe and the Syrah to the Developed and Complex Tribes. Cheers!