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Best Wine + Good Earth = East of Eden

LPTrendsFood: Writer Kathryn Mattingly knows the best wine comes from the good earth (somewhere east of Eden) … where biodynamic farming keeps everything in balance, in this the second installment to her biodynamic farming series this week. June 20, 2012


A small but mighty Amador woman, Betty Riley, has taken on biodynamic grape growing almost singlehandedly in an effort to restore balance to the land and what it produces.

I visited Betty recently and spent an afternoon lovingly tucking grapevines into their wire corrals while watching a red tail hawk fly overhead. It was cawing repeatedly with each glide by. We spied her nest housing a newborn not far from where we worked. Betty shared how the hawk in the air was a property ‘pet’ returning to share the circle of life.

It’s impossible to work the land without running into a variety of wildlife. A jackrabbit eyed us nervously while nibbling clover a few rows down. Fortunately, the snake that left his gnarly shriveled skin tucked beside a vine was long gone.

You have to ask yourself how much these creatures we share the earth with must appreciate the biodynamic farming Betty has established on her vineyard. Chemicals used in the past couldn’t have been any more pleasant for the fury or slithering wildlife than it was for the humans applying it.

We ended our afternoon of vine tucking by sipping on some of the just rewards of such work from the wine cellar. I took the opportunity to ask Betty some questions about her grapes.

How long have you been living on the vineyard and what has been one of your biggest challenges since working the land alone as a woman?

I’ve been here since 1991 and have been doing all the farming since Jan 2007. One challenge is the mechanical side of things. This Lady Farmer did not learn about such things in school, although I am picking it up as I go! I am blessed with a lot of local Amador friends who support me. When I first began tending the grapes alone, they helped me learn things I needed to know. Two very dear friends who were immeasurable in guidance were Dick Cooper and Tom Dillian.

After harvest in 2010, Daniel D’Agostini, who does biodynamic gardening down the road from my vineyard, took me to Napa to meet friends who were biodynamic vineyard managers – Dave Bos at Grgich Hills and Michael at Quintessa. These dedicated men spent many hours showing me what they do and answering my questions. Daniel shared books with me on biodynamic farming and was a faithful mentor in the process.  Together we are now making our own biodynamic preps (it will take me several years to fully transition my property).

2011 was my first biodynamic/organic year of farming.  So proud of myself in knowing NO chemicals were used (that means, no RoundUp!).  I brewed my own teas as foliar spray, adding ascorbic acid, kelp and whey to the mixes. I began by using 2gal hand sprayers to do the work. It took countless hours walking and spraying.  In the July/August timeframe, I began using my 50gal spray rig, which really helped me get through harvest.

It must be rewarding to know that you’ve accomplished transitioning your vineyard back to an all natural environment and that your ‘best practices’ for health and balance of nature have produced the best grapes ever grown on your property!

What other challenges have you overcome to make this happen?

Another challenge has been finding harmony with the crews I bring in to get some of the bigger maintenance jobs done, such as pruning and crown suckering/tucking the vines.  The first year my vines suffered a lot of breakage and I just wanted to cry. Most grape growers allow for a certain amount of loss.  Not me. Every single grape matters and so now I hand pick my crews as much as possible, and work along beside them whenever I can. I really do have fun with my crews now, always calling them my “angels.” They work HARD, and deserve to be appreciated and respected for all they do.

I’ve worked beside you in your vineyard to tuck those grape vines in, and can easily see that if anyone is too rough with the delicate vines there will be breakage. Not many are as passionate about the final outcome as you are – protecting every single glorious grape from seed to harvest.  Is anyone else in Amador doing biodynamic farming?

I know of other grape growers who are farming organic, yet to my knowledge, I am the only grape grower in the County farming biodynamic/organic.  The principles of biodynamic farming appear to be embraced more in El Dorado County.  Winemakers, who are familiar with organic means of farming, are usually more open to biodynamics.  There is so much good that comes with stepping into “balance” with mother earth. I am witnessing the proof of this with every new year of biodynamic farming.  Proof is in the final product, the grapes produced – and my buyers are pleased.

As we all know, there are many different types of grapes that grow well in the Amador climate. What do you grow on your vineyard and who do you sell them too?

My grape varietals are:  Barbera, Primitivo, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Grenache, Petite Sirah, Syrah, Souzao, Pinot Noir, Nebiola, along with a hodge-poge (a vine of this and one of that).

Seasonally, I have 10 or 12 different buyers.  Depending upon crop availability I may have additional buyers. Typically my buyers are all repeat customers. Many of them have been buying my grape for years.  Andrew Tanis, of Tanis Vineyards purchases a lot of my varietals – Barbera and Primitivo, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Pinot and in years past has taken my Syrah left to hang for use in making a late harvest or dessert wine.

Scott Mahon of Legendre Cellars is another repeat buyer who gets my Grenache and Petite Sirah. Tom Dillian, of Dillian Wines is my biggest buyer of Primitivo fruit. In 2009 he was so pleased with the grapes in one specific area of my vineyard he made their first Reserve Primitivo.  Each year to date, Tom has taken more of my Primitivo. This year however, he got cuttings to graft over some of his own vines, so there’s a chance next year I may have more Primitivo available for new buyers.

Tell me a little about how biodynamics work. I know you have a calendar that tells you what needs to take place during each season.

I have always known and am most sensitive to the fact that everything living is made up of energy.  We are energy, the vines are energy.  For me, biodynamic farming is simply attuning to the life force (energy) of the vine. It’s always humbling to be in my vineyards at harvest and have winemakers/buyers acknowledge the evidence of the TLC I have invested in my grapes.  In 2011, Joe and Reno of Fiddletown Cellars popped in to check sugars as we were nearing harvest – I was spraying whey on the vines to clean up mildew and Joe said to me, “You’re hand polishing EVERY berry!!!”

Everything done biodynamically is homeopathic in nature. It’s using nature’s gifts to naturally restore balance, health and vitality to the vines.  When plant life is balanced, it can grow and thrive, verses being weakened structurally thus opening the door to disease.  Much like us and our human bodies.

Biodynamics is applied using a calendar as a guide for when best to apply each nutrient. There are Root, Fruit, Flower and Leaf days.  Depending upon the aspect of life force for nutritional treatment, application is done in conjunction with seasonal influences.

Biodynamic 500 (cow manure) is applied in the fall after harvest and again in the Spring at time of cultivation, on Root days.  500 promotes root activity, stimulates soil micro life and increases beneficial bacteria growth.

In the spring, I make teas from Yarrow, Chamomile, nettles, oak bark and dandelions, and spray them foliar, applying on associative days of best cosmic influence. I add ascorbic acid (to help the vine strengthen itself and develop resistance to pests and disease) and Kelp to add micro nutrients needed for vitality.  In July I add Whey to the mix to deal with any mildew. Whey also adds beneficial calcium and structural nutrients to influence strength – the same way calcium helps human bones.

Working my vineyards with these sprays is like getting a spa treatment. Much more pleasant than when I used to cover up from head to toe to avoid getting sprayed by chemicals which can cause any number of allergies and probable diseases.

Where do you get the ingredients for all your spraying?

In principle, it is best to grow your own materials for these biodynamic uses because then it contains the life force and vitality of the actual area where everything is transpiring.  I was thrilled to discover I had Yarrow, Dandelions, and Oak Bark readily available to me on my property.  I have since begun growing Stinging Nettles and Horsetail. Chamomile and Valerian are accessible to me in this area as well.

Once you are through winter and spring what happens in the summertime with the biodynamic applications?

End of May-June is typically time of bloom. During this time, ideally, you leave the vines alone to go through their magical stage of transformation from seed to fruit berries.  Did you know that different grape varietals, like different flowers, have their own unique scents in bloom?

The Barbera has this amazing, robust sweet floral mix of scents. The Tempranillo has this more elderberry scent with a hint of eucalyptus. I am beginning to understand why our wines can have these interesting smells, which may seem so unusual.  The plant takes on the personality of the terrain in which it is grown. It is well known to winemakers that the same varietal can be grown on different plots of land, very near one another, and be completely different in character.

How amazing to experience all the different varietal aromas! That’s one advantage to growing so many different types of grapes on your vineyard. What happens at harvest time?

Depending upon the growing season, harvest begins anywhere from mid-September to early October for Red varietals.  I have so many different varietals and they each come along at their own timing – even my hillside, which is mostly Primitivo, ripens at different rates.  I contact my buyers and ask them to begin checking the fruit, because harvest of each area is done at their call, in coordination with my getting a crew in to do the harvesting.

It takes about six weeks to harvest all the varietals. On any given day, I may have fruit going to one or multiple buyers. It takes considerable coordination to pull it all together, and I am thankful for my repeat buyers who have become quite helpful in assisting with the coordination process. I have friends and neighbors who have worked with me year to year at harvest.  My harvest crews are always the BEST and I enjoy having the opportunity to work with the same ones each year.

My day at Betty’s vineyard was as sweet as the wine we drank that evening on her deck overlooking the straight immaculately groomed rows of healthy well-nurtured vines. Nothing quite compares to hand polishing every berry with a kiss of love -and natural sprays aligned with the energy of the universe!

You can find this East of Eden on the Shenandoah Highway, where the magic of oak tree speckled hills will eventually bring you to endless rows of grape vines. Follow the straight furrows of precious fruit to winery doors open for tasting. No paradise lost here. I would say it’s everything you need for a sultry day of sipping and dreaming about the good earth, and all its many treasures to behold.

Article by Kathryn Mattingly.

Enjoy also the first installment of this series: Biodynamic Farming/The New Foodism.

If you liked this, you might also like: Yes You Can Paint & It Isn’t the Mimosas

More on biodynamic farming: About, by