Biodynamic vineyards are never static, but rather living, breathing and feeling habitats. Comprised of vines, plants, insects and animals, they are indeed constantly changing throughout a given day, week, season or year. Spanning many years grapevines grow and evolve from young nursery transplants with emerging roots, to large, multi-branched vines with root systems radiating far beyond the plants and deep into the ground. As the vineyard matures and evolves, it changes course – be it from disease, loss of vigor, lessening production, or changing demand in the marketplace. As part of the commercial vineyard process, the vines are removed, usually in whole blocks, to be replanted again. The result is a huge source of organic material, which must be removed from the vineyard.

For typical vineyards, the vines, roots and even the metal stakes are removed, piled up with tractors and left out to dry for several months before they can be burned. In Sonoma County, California where our vineyards are located, any commercial agriculture burn is carefully regulated by the local air quality control district. They require a permit and provide weather guidelines to ensure the smoke produced can effectively dissipate. Once a permit has been obtained and all of guidelines have been met, then the burn can occur.

Our approach

At Eco Terreno Wines, our commitment to holistically managing our vineyards has spurred us to use our dead vines and roots as a resource to be maximized. Utilizing a farming practice called a “biochar” burn, the vines, roots and even woody material are all burned using this method that reduces emissions, enhances carbon capture, and creates a usable end product with beneficial utility to the land. This in turn stimulates good soil management in order to retain and supply carbon to the soil as a food source for microorganisms. Additionally, it acts as an amendment to aerate and enhance water and nutrient retention, and to reduce the contribution to rising global greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, we feel this method is the ideal way to take dispose of removed vines and roots.

Burn Day

On the day of “The Burn” we arrived at our Cisne vineyard bright and early to attend to almost 10 acres of vines had been slated for removal. For the past 3 days we had placed an early morning call to the air district, with a response of “no burn today”. Finally, on a drizzly morning in late February, the weather was determined ideal by our local air district and we received the green light so we assembled at the burn site. Large excavators and dozers were on hand as well as a water tank, and a handful of folks from our vineyard management company joined us to commence the burn. The assembled piles had been “fluffed up” the previous day, which is essential for this technique as it allows for good airflow. The burn piles were tested with a moisture meter and determined to be sufficiently dry. They were then lit at the top and on the downwind side, as it’s required for this method so any smoke produced would be drawn by the wind into the flames and consumed.

Overall we had to burn 10 large piles, ten feet high by twenty wide. As the first few went up in flames, we decided to light them all and manage their reduction with the equipment. A large Volvo excavator was the ideal tool for removing metal stakes and unburned wood to condense the pile. When the piles were burned to the point of being embers, we spread them out with the heavy equipment, and then sprayed them with water. This is a crucial step, as it stops the complete consumption of the material at the charcoal phase. Though the incredible heat often kept us at bay, and even resulted in a number of us having our boots melt as we walked over hot coals, we worked safely to ensure the accumulated large piles of biochar had a thorough burn of material. As a result, we had achieved a successful burn and with no smoke! Or, to be perfectly accurate, very little, which was confirmed by a monitor from the air quality district when he came by to check on us. He even took photos and samples of the biochar to take back to the office, exclaiming that this was amazing and needed to be shared with the agricultural community!

In the end, we were left with around 20 yards of biochar, which was collected to be mixed into our compost piles. There the crystalline material, with incredible pore space and interior surface area, will be inoculated with the beneficial bacteria and microorganisms from the piles, creating a stable, long term component of our vineyard soils.

On a warm, breezy morning last fall, our vineyard team gathered at the Eco Terreno Bee Garden to contemplate the mystical power of cow manure. Granted not just any cow manure, but fresh, organic manure from mature lactating-cows and packed into 300 cow horns and buried underground. Now, while this might sound odd to some, it’s music to our ears as this is a key element of the larger Biodynamic process to create a healthier vineyard and ultimately better quality wine.

To begin, this process is known as BD500, and it is the first of the 8 major preparations outlined by Rudolf Steiner’s biodynamic agricultural process developed in the 1920’s. The purpose of these preparations is to enrich the soil, air, water, and plants within the area where the horns are applied – in essence creating a healthy ecosystem. The manure is utilized to increase the uptake and balance of nitrogen and calcium in the soil. By preparing this treatment in the fall, we are working with the larger seasonal process of the light recession/energy and organic materials (leaves, plant debris, expired organisms) that are being drawn into the earth to be processed and transformed by the soil food web. The goal is to stimulate healthy soil formation with improved structure, tilth, humate formation, mineral retention, beneficial organism populations, uptake and retention of water, improved root systems and enhanced nutrient uptake by the plants above ground.

Next, the burial site was carefully chosen for its ability to concentrate these forces of soil and energy by Daphne Amory, our biodynamic consultant. Since we previously secured multiple buckets of fresh manure and approximately 300 cow horns, we were ready to go. Our goal was to fill these horns with the manure and bury them, which sounds simple, right? But in practice this was not an easy task as really fresh manure means stinky, dirty work.

As we used spoons to pack the manure into the horns, many of us had to take breaks throughout the process to reset our sense of smell. This was an ever present reminder that Biodynamic agriculture methods not only stimulates the soil and environment on the farm, but the senses and attention of the farmer.

A couple hours later, the horns were completely filled, and our hand-dug pit was fully lined with them. We gathered around the site and spoke about our intentions for this preparation, for the vineyards to work with the receding life energies of the fall and for it to be transformed into an increasingly enlivened system by spring when the preparation will be dug up, placed in a peat lined storage vessel, and used in small amounts to create a powerful compost tea to spray throughout the vineyard.

To many, including us, biodynamic farming is somewhat mysterious. As we march towards certification we are inspired to adhere to these principles and processes as they are the guiding light of our journey.