(Edited May 31, 2022)
In parts of the wine world, biodynamic viticulture has become the gold standard for farming grapes and achieving terroir expression in wine. In New York, that is not — yet — the case. Most growers across the state still regard biodynamics warily or dismiss it as irreconcilable with the region’s climate, structure, and labor constraints. Their apprehension may at first be difficult to understand. But getting out into the vineyards and speaking with people who do the work is crucial to understanding both the objections to and small shifts toward biodynamics, shifts that include two growers who have boldly embraced both its risks and rewards.
Against the backdrop of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation’s Sustainability Pilot Program and recent announcement of third-party certification for sustainably grown grapes and wine, now is an excellent time to examine how and where biodynamic viticulture may fit in. Many of the program’s objectives — including reducing reliance on off-farm inputs, conserving natural resources, increasing climate resiliency, and encouraging healthy ecosystems and biodiversity — align tightly with biodynamics. Understanding how they might intertwine has never been more important for the state’s 470 wineries.
Biodynamics eludes easy explanation. At its core, it is a collection of farming practices rooted in traditional European agriculture. In 1924, Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner was asked to address an audience of farmers in Germany about the crisis of their times: the declining health of crops and livestock that followed the advent of chemical-industrial farming post-World War I.
Steiner’s “Agricultural Lectures” offered solutions. He advised growers to think of their farms as self-contained, self-sufficient systems. He recommended a roster of herbal inoculations, teas, and sprays known as “preps” to help strengthen crops. He drew on the time-honored benefits of mixed farming, above all for the compostable manure it provides, to build soil health. More controversially, his recommendations were colored by a belief that the earth is influenced by “astral” forces and a particular form of spirituality he called anthroposophy.
“It’s an entirely different level of thinking about and interacting with the land, the vines, the fruit,” notes Mike Biltonen, a Finger Lakes-based organic and biodynamic farming consultant. “It’s not like you’re taking one spray material out and replacing it with another.” There’s a lot to absorb. Growers commonly rely on teachers and consultants who have invested years in studying and practicing biodynamics and can translate it into relatable terms.
New York-Specific Challenges to Adoption
“It’s a very complex situation with a bunch of different parameters,” observes Pascaline Lepeltier, a close observer of New York wines, both as a New York City-based sommelier and co-creator of an organic wine project in the Finger Lakes. These parameters include an extremely challenging environment for growing vinifera grapes, divisions between growers and makers, a sense of pragmatism among growers that can be at odds with the idealism of biodynamics, labor shortages, and the traditional markets for New York wines.
“Fear of crop loss is obviously high on the list of challenges,” notes Biltonen. Powdery and downy mildew, botrytis, and black rot are acute threats for New York growers, especially those who work with vinifera varieties.
Growing, making, and applying preps, keeping livestock, and managing compost and cover crops takes many hands, long hours, or both. But New York growers, through no fault of their own, are in most cases ill-equipped for these demands. The state has been grappling with vineyard labor shortages for years. A long-term shift away from extended communities that pitched in to prune or pick, combined with more recent restrictions on immigration and visas, and most recently Covid, have forced growers to focus on practices that are above all proven to save labor and be effective.
There are additional structural barriers. “You have a grower-versus-winemaker kind of situation,” Lepeltier points out. “A lot of the vineyards are grown by people who are not making the wine, in a very specific mentality.” Beyond that, many vintners work with purchased fruit, leased vineyards, or own only a percentage of the vineyards they work with. Although winemakers may be able to negotiate farming practices, they do not tend to control them.
Cornell University, in Ithaca, with its influential agricultural school, would seem a logical locus for biodynamic study and research. Yet biodynamic viticulture is not among the university’s course offerings. Justine Vanden Heuvel, Professor and Chair of the Horticulture Section of Cornell’s School of Integrative Plant Science, says biodynamics does not feature in her department’s research. “There is no science involved in biodynamics,” she explains. “I’m not dismissing the practice, but it’s not based on science so I don’t see a role for my research program to play.” On Long Island, at Cornell’s Suffolk County extension, Alice Wise, a seasoned viticultural researcher, notes that she hasn’t investigated biodynamics because “it is a systems approach” and as such the topic is difficult to research “as a very large area would be required to properly replicate treatments.”
The state’s hardwon efforts to gain recognition for its vinifera varieties must also be considered. Hybrid and native grapes, which are either naturally disease resistant or bred for these characteristics, could ease the transition to biodynamics. But with a firm focus on recognized varieties such as Riesling, Cab Franc, and Merlot, biodynamic viticulture faces an extra handicap in New York.
Finally, and possibly most crucially, consumers need to understand the value of biodynamics. Price-sensitive wine drinkers must be convinced there’s a reason to pay more for farming that protects the ecosystem from which it comes, as biodynamics does. “If there’s a clear correlation that our activities in the vineyard reflect a better wine with a higher price point that the consumer wants,” notes Oskar Bynke, co-owner of Hermann J. Wiemer, “then it’s not a push, it’s a pull.”
Biodynamic Viticulture in New York: Two Case Studies
Nearly 40 years ago, Rex and Connie Farr bought a 60-acre potato farm in Calverton, on Long Island’s North Fork. They planted market vegetables and, driven by concern for the state of the oceans and land, converted their rich loam plots to organics and earned NOFA certification. In the mid-1990s, influenced by local biodynamic consultant Steve Storch and author Hugh Lovell, and inspired by the “very good farming” of Joe Macari Jr., the Farrs started practicing biodynamics.
“We’re kind of self-taught,” Rex Farr says. He and his wife read books, talked to experts, and attended courses. They didn’t attempt to understand the science or thinking behind Steiner’s prescriptions. Farr says he accepted that biodynamics deals in “energies — of people and crops.” He has seen for himself that “it works.”
With an eclectic family of rescued livestock, including sheep, a burro, chickens, and a cow, as well as bees, their own-grown hay for feed and rigorous composting program, the Farrs have built the integrated conditions in which biodynamics can thrive. “Every block, every acre works together,” says Farr.
He buys his preps from a Virginia-based biodynamic supply company and from Storch. He happily shows off the tiny packets of horsetail that will go into the prep known as BD 508, to discourage fungal disease in the vines, and the horn silica powder used for BD 501, thought to stimulate photosynthesis and ripening. This year, Farr has made plans for a young farmer with biodynamic training to start a prep garden on his property that will allow him to source these materials closer to home.
In 2005, tired of hearing biodynamic viticulture on Long Island “can’t be done,” the Farrs pulled up 8 acres of vegetables and put in red Bordeaux varieties. They wanted to see for themselves what could and could not be done. There were indeed years with significant crop losses, Farr acknowledges. He blames most of these on not having the vineyard labor (most of which the Farrs contract out) he needed at just the right moment. “You’ve got to be spot on time with biodynamics,” he says. Still, he believes labor shouldn’t be the reason growers dismiss the philosophy: “There are always 25 jobs to do whether you’re farming conventionally or biodynamically.”
The Farrs initially sold all their grapes to local winemakers. But they grew frustrated that their biodynamically farmed grapes were being blended into conventionally farmed wines or bottled and sold for top prices while they earned no premium for delivering a biodynamic crop.
In 2012, working with a winemaker, they started bottling a small portion of their grapes. In 2020, they began farming for their own production. Greg Gove of Peconic Bay Vineyards makes their wines. It’s a curious choice, one Rex Farr candidly explains as being a product of his expertise “in growing and drinking, not making” wine. Gove says he treats the Farrm wines “just like all the other wines I make,” controlling fermentations with cultivated yeast and inoculating for malolactic conversion, adding SO2 and tartaric acid as needed. They get about 1,000 cases of reds and roses each vintage, selling direct to consumers and a handful of New York area restaurants.
“I want to retire,” Rex Farr, who is 75, says. “But I don’t want someone coming in and destroying 35 years of our work.” The Farrs have put 52 of their acres into preservation, protected from development. What happens to the only 8 acres of biodynamically farmed vines on Long Island remains to be seen. But the Farr legacy to biodynamic viticulture on Long Island is living proof that it can be done.
Hermann J. Wiemer
Hermann J. Wiemer is arguably New York’s flagship winery. This year, it’s set to become New York’s first and only Demeter-certified biodynamic vineyard, as well.
German immigrant Hermann Wiemer started this one-man venture on the western side of Seneca Lake in the 1970s. Highly trained and fiercely independent, his was only the second winery in the region to commit completely to vinifera varieties — above all Riesling. His insistence on quality vine material, careful site selection, and attentive viticulture were fundamental to the rise of Finger Lakes Riesling.
In 2001, Wiemer brought on Cornell graduate Fred Merwarth. Together, they helped raise the quality of the estate’s wines to international acclaim. When Merwarth and business partner Oskar Bynke bought into the estate in 2007, Merwarth was freed up to focus even more intently on matching variety to site, expanding their planning horizon, and building the team. In 2014, in an impressively far-sighted move, Merwarth and Bynke brought on Thijs Verschuuren, a charismatic Loire-trained biodynamic specialist.
Bynke recalls the ladder of decisions that led to Verschuuren’s hiring. Certain steps, like moving to spontaneous fermentation, trained Merwarth and Wiemer’s attention more closely on the health of the vineyards. That cycle of observation and response led them to stop using herbicides in 2005. In turn, they started paying attention to cover crops and trialing organic sprays. At the same time, quality was improving and Finger Lakes wines were gaining popularity. “That fueled the courage to start taking risks,” Bynke recalls.
Still, he says the addition of Verschuuren —“coming with extreme knowledge of biodynamics” — to the team propelled them to take a leap neither he nor Merwarth would have taken otherwise.
In 2015, a year after Verschuuen arrived at the estate, he convinced Merwarth and Bynke, both of whom live with their families adjacent to the farm, to start biodynamic farming on one 4.5-acre trial block on the home farm. It was a carefully calculated risk. “Anyone who approaches this needs to ask, ‘What am I prepared to lose?,’” says Bynke. “And ‘What am I willing to put into this?’ It’s a lot of work, including middle of the nights and early mornings. How do we justify that?”
Their first vintage yielded “a whopping 12 cases,” assistant winemaker Dillon Buckley jokes. But each vintage was a learning opportunity. “Fred and Oskar trusted me,” Verschuuen says. “So I kept going.” Soon their trials included blocks of some of Wiemer’s oldest vines of Riesling and Chardonnay, planted in the late 1970s, on the home farm. By 2019, they were farming the full 33-acres surrounding the winery biodynamically.
Without fanfare, Verschuuren was preparing the way for a revolutionary step. That year, the estate submitted its application for Demeter certification, a move that positioned it to become the first winery in New York to meet this rigorous international biodynamic farming standard.
The drive for certification grew out of a desire to offer consumers clarity, Verschuuen says. “With Demeter, when the customer says ‘I want a biodynamic wine,’ they know it’s been certified.” He notes that Demeter certification “is about much more than grape growing. Demeter certifies the whole farm — that includes the land, the woods, all the livestock and their feed, at least 60% of which has to come from our own farm, as well as the vines.”
He acknowledges that the first two years after conversion are “hard on the vines.” In a recent, tough vintage like 2021, with enormous disease pressure, Buckley says the younger vines “struggled.” But he also noticed that two blocks of older vines held up “quite well, all things considered.” Throughout their experimentation, “yields have stayed relatively the same,” Buckley notes. The end result, he feels, is that “probably a couple of the best wines in the winery come from these two blocks.”
Verschuuren is a realist, buoyed by charismatic optimism. “I truly believe the ag part of what Steiner wrote: the forces, constellations, earth,” he says. “But there’s also stuff I find weird. Like a prep we do with a skull we put oak chips in and put in a corner of the field as a fungicide. But I still do it, out of a kind of respect. In the end, it pays off.”
Lepeltier sees the potential for Verschuuren to become “one of the figures who are willing not only to show how it’s done, but to create associations, put in structures” to help catalyze more awareness and confidence in biodynamics. “It always takes a couple of individuals that are willing to push,” she notes.
In many ways, the Wiemer estate is exceptionally well positioned to make that push. They have the reputation for quality, visibility, diversified markets, and scale to take on some risk. Thirty-three acres is a substantial commitment. But with 185 total acres under vine, they’ll survive no matter what happens with their biodynamic experiment. Very few New York growers are in that position.
The 2017 vintage was the first that gave them enough volume to offer consumers a taste. Now they are up to making five different biodynamic wines. Vinification is the same for the biodynamically grown grapes as for the traditional: native yeasts, no additions save for minimal sulfur. The “Bio” Rieslings are labeled to be discreetly but recognizably distinct from the rest of the line-up. (“The Flower Day,” a second biodynamic line made from young Riesling vines, picked early, was also released this year.) There is a Blanc de Blanc from their block of biodynamically grown Chardonnay as well.
Plans are in place to expand the biodynamic experiment to blocks at Standing Stone, a 46-acre winery the Wiemer team purchased in 2017. They are exploring the idea of selling a little of the biodynamic fruit grown there, in part to help other winemakers join the conversation about biodynamics, especially with customers. “If someone buys the fruit, puts it in the bottle, can charge extra for it, and have a conversation with their customer about how it adds value, that’s the first step,” says Bynke.
Bynke and Merwarth educate their staff to have “difficult, convincing conversations about biodynamics,” Bynke says. During Covid, they offered biodynamic seminars for customers. Bynke says he thinks consumers are starting to understand “biodynamics as a tool in the tool kit for quality.”
Beyond consumer education, Merwarth and Verschuuen are trying to create a biodynamic apprentice and scholarship program. The idea is to train someone in biodynamics who might stay and work for Verschuuen, or end up working for another winery, ideally helping to promote biodynamic farming elsewhere in the state.
What will it mean for New York wines when a high-profile, quality-driven, hospitality-minded producer like Hermann J. Wiemer has a Demeter sign hanging outside its tasting room? Verschuuren says we should find out very soon. Certification approval is in its final stages.
New York is also home to a lengthening list of open-minded growers who may not be prepared to embrace biodynamics fully, but draw on selective practices and ideas for solutions. These are among the most notable:
Macari Winery, in Mattituck, Long Island, a 20-minute drive from the Farr’s, is a prime example. Joe Macari Jr. started planting vines on the family’s 500 acres in 1995 when he and his family moved to the oceanside estate. He dove into holistic farming studies, learning from renowned biodynamic consultants Alan York and Alvaro Espinoza, and implementing elements that fit his vision for the estate and wines. Macari’s daughter, Gabriela, now the estate’s general manager, has dug in even deeper, expanding her training in biodynamic farming at one of New York’s biodynamic teaching farms, the Pfeiffer Center in Chestnut Ridge.
It’s no wonder that “a lot of people visit and leave here talking about ‘the biodynamic winery Macari’,” Gabriela Macari says. But she and her father are upfront. “I really respect biodynamics and everything it has to offer,” he says.”I wish I was 100% biodynamic, but we’re not. It’s super hard to do that in this environment.”
With 160 acres under vine and production of 12,000 to 14,000 cases a year, they work to strengthen their vines through the application of horsetail and liquid kelp sprays. However, they also rely on synthetic fungicides to manage Long Island’s intense disease pressures. They have not chosen to trial biodynamics on select blocks, as Wiemer did, because they feel “it makes sense to treat the vineyard whole, as one biosphere,” Gabriela Marcari explains. That biosphere includes a herd of long-horn cattle and an extensive local-ingredient compost program that draws on the herd’s manure, as well as local fish waste, kelp, and hay. The Macaris do not use herbicides and have replaced synthetic fertilizers with compost. They stuff cow horns with manure and bury them for the BD 500 horn manure prep.
They are strikingly thoughtful and open about the possibilities of biodynamics. “As we see other folks like Wiemer [farming biodynamically], I think that’s an inspiration to see how we could do that in our own system,” says Macari’s head winemaker Byron Elmsdorf. This shift in mindset is a crucial first step.
Wild Arc Farm
Upstate in the Hudson Valley, Todd Cavallo and Crystal Cornish are conducting their own experiments with biodynamic practices at Wild Arc Farm. In 2016, the couple purchased and moved to the nine-acre property, within view of the Shawangunk Mountains but bounded by a residential community. From the outset, they wanted to build the most self-sufficient mixed farm and vineyard the property could sustain. Focused on viability and terroir expression, they planted an acre to vinifera as well as New York and Minnesota hybrids. (They also buy fruit, and co-manage 3 acres of organically farmed hybrids in Valley Falls, near the Vermont border.) In 2021, they made about 2,600 cases.
Their practicing organic farming, low-intervention cellar work, and zeitgeist-grabbing experiments with piquette and carbonic styles catapulted them to national attention. When Patagonia, the forward-thinking clothing company, launched a natural wines retail arm last year, Wild Arc Farm’s Marquette was in the mix.
“Looking at biodynamics in the philosophical bigger picture of holistic, internal/no-external- inputs farming, I believe in that fully,” Cavallo says. “And that’s what we want to get to.” But he doesn’t consider Wild Arc Farm biodynamic per se. “What you’re looking at with biodynamics should be figuring out what your property requires, then leaning into that.” As a pragmatist, he is interested in what’s doable and what’s effective, not “just following a prescribed system blindly.” He’s also put off by “problematic stuff about Steiner in general,” alluding to Steiner’s personal views on topics such as race. “Why tie yourself to a demagogue when you can figure out your own way and take the best parts of what people have done in the past?,” Cavallo asks.
Elements of biodynamics he’s adopted include the silica and horsetail preps as well as compost teas. Scale plays a critical role in his ability to work this way. He’s working at what he calls “a backyard level,” not across 10, 20 or more acres. He can give his vines the individual attention they need and work out the most effective responses. Few New York state growers have that luxury. This will be the first year WIld Arc harvests their own grapes, putting their theories and practices to the acid test.
Dear Native Grapes
Across the Hudson, high in the western Catskills, Alfredo Alcántara and Deanna Urciuoli are also building their wine-growing dream. In 2020, they planted 3.5 acres to 24 different native and hybrid varieties, trialing them for their suitability to cultivation at 1,600 feet above sea level, short growing seasons, and local disease pressures. They call the project Dear Native Grapes. Their philosophy builds on biodynamic sensibilities adapted to local conditions and materials. For instance, with an abundance of yarrow growing on their 30-acre property, they make a compost tea from it that is informed by the BD 502 prep. Surrounded by dairy farms, they are working to find ways to incorporate milk and cow manure products into “something that would resemble biodynamic practices,” Alcántara says. Thinking of their farm as a closed system “guides everything we do,” he notes.
Silver Thread Winery
Back in the Finger Lakes, Paul and Shannon Brock own, farm, and make wine on their 7-acre Silver Thread Winery. The site sits above the eastern edge of Seneca Lake, a place that Paul Brock says has been home to vines since the mid-1800s. Chickens scratch and cluck in the shade of a solar array that covers the winery’s entire electric needs.
The Brocks are among the most environmentally thoughtful growers in the state. Paul Brock leads a “biointensive” farming group that now involves growers from across the state learning about and sharing biological and holistic farming practices. (Verschuuren, Cavallo, and Biltonen are also participants.)
The Silver Thread vineyards were already organically farmed when the Brocks purchased them in 2011. “It was important to me that organics and sustainability remained the heart of Silver Thread and what we were all about,” Shannon Brock says. The estate’s previous owner based his farming heavily on copper applications and was willing to accept high crop losses as the cost of working organically, she notes.
“But we are supporting our family with this business,” she points out. “We have to have a crop.” Two potentially devastating diseases for which Shannon Brock says there is no “good organic control” are downy mildew and another fungal disease called pestalotiopsis. The Brocks counter this threat with carefully researched, targeted synthetics. “It’s not as simple as saying, ‘Is this an organic or a synthetic material? You could argue that material that is highly targeted and synthetic is less damaging to the environment than copper,” she says.
Although the Brocks do bury horns and make compost teas, they are skeptical of biodynamics as a whole. “Steiner has been glorified too much,” Paul Brock says. “And to be biodynamic means you have to worship the ground that man walked on. We’re going more along the lines of picking and choosing. Yes, I would adopt those time-honored practices. But I don’t feel the need to call it something like biodynamics. They were something before Steiner ever came along.”
“We both have masters degrees in science/social science,” says Shannon Brock. “All our life experiences before we owned a vineyard told us that biodynamics is a tough pill to swallow.” She is also concerned that biodynamics was “developed in a climate very different from here” and wonders if the methods are fully transferable. “We still have a lot of questions.”
The Outlook for Biodynamics in New York State
Looking beyond viticulture, New York is dotted with biodynamic orchards, vegetable farms, and teaching centers. Hawthorn Valley Farm, Churchtown Dairy, and the Pfeiffer Center, as well as a proliferating number of smaller farms, lead the way. New York’s thriving craft cider, beer, and distilling industries include growers who, at a minimum, fold biodynamic practices into their work, through to Demeter-certified growers such as Redbyrd Orchard Cider.
As cross-pollination across crops, regions, growers, and farming styles flourishes, biodynamics may come to inform the practices of more New York growers. “Wiemer is certainly leading the way,” says Biltonen. “But if we can get a few more growers that are utilizing biodynamics, either full scale or in concert with a strong organic or biological program, that will kind of tip the scales. At some point, people will want to make that shift just to kind of keep up with the winds of change, so to speak.”
The NYWGF Sustainability Program has a role to play, as well, says program manager Whitney Beaman. She cites its stated goal of “encouraging growers to explore innovative and traditional farming methods to enhance soil health, biodiversity, and nutrient cycling within the vineyard” and supporting experimentation and flexibility to accommodate growers of all regions, varieties, and growing philosophies.
“I know it isn’t going to be easy,” says Lepeltier. “But I can see there are more people, not necessarily going 100% full biodynamic, but at least continuing to try to find different ways of farming. It will be a minority for sure. But it will be the minority that will probably have the most exposure in terms of media, so it’s very important.”
Biltonen bills biodynamics as “next-level sustainable farming.” As New York wineries seek to take their sustainability efforts to the next level, there are more reasons than ever to believe two could work hand in hand.
(All photos provided by Valerie Kathawala.)