Exploring Biodynamics in Napa Valley with BOS Wines

Ask a vineyard manager 20 years ago what he or she thinks about biodynamics and their response would likely be, “Biodynamic what?”

Times have changed. Biodynamic viticulture is no longer trendy and has solidified itself as a force in the global wine industry. This “innovative” method of viticulture is utilized by only a small portion of the world’s total vineyard acreage and still pales in comparison to total organic vineyard acreage. Nonetheless, a growing number of vineyard managers are dedicated to the biodynamic cause, and they aren’t all as crazy as Nicolas Joly.  

Some of the most famous producers on the planet, from Domaine de la Romanee Conti in Burgundy, to Bordeaux's Chateau Pontet-Canet, Evening Land in Oregon, and Felton Road in New Zealand, have adopted biodynamics and swear by increases in quality that have come as a result. I wanted to hear a domestic perspective on the biodynamic craze so I reached out to Dave Bos for an interview. Dave is the the owner and vineyard manager for BOS Wine and my goal was to learn more about his path to biodynamic viticulture and his newish label, BOS Wines. With the help of the talented Julie Johnson at Tres Sabores, he produces an interesting and tasty set of wines from vineyards farmed biodynamically in Napa Valley. He was kind enough to send me a selection of the wines, on which I include notes later in the article.

 Credit: BOS Wine

Credit: BOS Wine

The first thing Dave told me when I reached him over the phone was that he might have to jump off the call to tend to some loose sheep on the property. I took this as a good sign that I was talking with the right person.

Dave double majored in English and Religion, two fields not well-known for producing concrete paths to employment (I should know-I was a Philosophy major).  While Humanities’ majors may not populate Wall Street, we are surprisingly common in the wine industry and are often at the helm of the industry’s most interesting projects (see Randall Grahm).

Dave started his career path as a bartender and he ended up working at an upscale restaurant in Chicago. His first revelation about wine and biodynamic farming was simple: he enjoyed wines from biodynamic producers more than others… Araujo in California, Zind Humbrecht in Alsace… to name a few. He decided to take the leap and work at a winery and ended up at Chateau Grand Traverse in northern Michigan. His experience there made him realize that he wanted to work in the vineyard full-time.

His next move was the most important in putting him on a path toward becoming an experienced biodynamic vineyard manager in northern California. He worked eight harvests at Grgich, which overlapped with their effort to convert to biodynamic farming. Grgich is where he saw the magic of biodynamics unfold before his eyes in the vineyard every day.

 “Grapes are the byproduct of good farming,” Dave says. “Providing a good foundation and healthy ecosystem will benefit any crop… health, quality, and vitality in your farm system can be applied to wheat in Michigan or grapes in Napa.”

I asked Dave what he thought the biggest misconceptions around biodynamics were and how to explain away the myths. He pointed to simple results. Compare side-by-side vineyards: one farmed conventionally, or even organically, compared to one farmed biodynamically, and the results will speak for themselves. He saw visible differences between biodynamic and conventional vineyard blocks at Grgich and continues to see this in the vineyards he farms for his own wines (see here for info on comparative studies).

 All natural weed killers - goats at Soda Creek Vineyards

All natural weed killers - goats at Soda Creek Vineyards

“Plants are forced to adapt and are more sensitive to their surroundings than humans. I like to show people the end result and how it differs from more conventional ways of farming,” Dave says. “I like to make it visceral and direct.”

While headlines about biodynamic farming often mention burying cow horns full of manure and the other more eccentric aspects of the system, Dave continued to stress the practical nature of most biodynamic farming. 

This observational approach to showing the benefits of biodynamics makes a lot of sense, given many of the methods and practices have been used to great effect by indigenous populations for thousands of years. Dave noted that many of the vineyard workers from Mexico and Central America that work in his vineyards created similar soil preparations (called “teas” in biodynamic language) on their rural farms and were quick to adapt to the biodynamic way of farming. “There is an instinctual wisdom that we need to be mindful of that much of the Western world has lost.”

My next question was simple: what is the main motivation for vineyards to adopt biodynamic farming? Dave noted that many wineries have farmed biodynamically for years, but either do not promote it or are not certified through Demeter, either due to cost or hassle. The aforementioned prestigious wineries, DRC and otherwise, and wineries like Benziger, may touch on sustainable farming on their websites or on the back of their bottles, but it’s rare to see a specific mention of biodynamic farming on the label.

While the California drought has temporarily subsided this year, I was curious what Dave thought about its long-term impact on the wine industry in California. He wasn’t as concerned as I expected, largely because viticulture is one the few, if only, forms of widespread agriculture that utilizes drip irrigation. The drought has created lower yields, certainly impacting business, but the quality often increases in dry years due to higher concentrations of flavors. The best way to protect against dry? Healthy vines from sustainable farming, Dave says, which more readily adapt to harsher climatic conditions.

I don't expect there to be a consensus on biodynamic viticulture anytime soon but I appreciated Dave's practical perspective. It's not one that is heard from either side of the discussion very often. By creating a healthier ecosystem and higher quality grapes, biodynamic farming earned Dave's trust. As more and more vineyard managers and wineries see the positive results that Dave did and set aside the voodoo magic stereotypes, there is little doubt that biodynamics won't continue to grow in popularity. I'm excited to see where it leads the industry.

If you’d like to learn more about biodynamic farming, check out Wine Folly, Katherine Cole's Voodoo Vintners, or if you want to get philosophical, Joly’s book on biodynamic farming is a deeper dive into his philosophical kaleidoscope of biodynamics.

BOS Wines

There are new vintages available for each of the sample wines Dave sent my way but I recommend seeking them out as they are a nice blend of new and old world styles. Don't forget to check out his website at www.boswine.com. 

MOON BOS Phase II Red Blend 2012 - $28
50% Syrah w/ Zinfandel, Grenache, Merlot
14% Alcohol
80% Napa Valley, 20% Contra Costa
No new oak

Not your average red blend from Napa! Immediately noticed a complexity and earthiness that is absent from typical new world wines. Wonderfully alluring nose with well-integrated blue/black fruits, white pepper, and spice. Well-balanced on the palate, mirroring the nose with black and blue fruits. I saved some for Day 2 and a mild smokiness developed.

2012 Phoenix Ranch Syrah - $48
100% Syrah
14% Alcohol
Single Vineyard in Basa Atlas Peak, Phoenix
No new oak, whole cluster fermentation

I let this open up for more than an hour. Brighter red fruits than MOON BOS red blend initially but developed in the glass and decanter into darker black fruit and wet earth on the nose. Wonderful nose with a powerful yet well-balanced punch in the mouth. Velvety mouthfeel and very long finish.

2013 Ode to Fume Sauvignon Blanc - $28
100% Sauvignon Blanc
13% Alcohol
7 months on the lees

This was excellent overall and one of the best domestic sauvignon blancs I've tasted. Similar to the reds, I let this open up in the glass for almost an hour and I'm glad I did. Notes of lime, pithy grapefruit, and green grass on the nose. Smells great. Enjoyment extended to the glass with similar notes as the nose: citrus, grapefruit, green herbal/grass component. Super fresh and tasty.

2013 Soda Creek Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc - $38
100% Sauvignon Blanc
Soda Creek Vineyard, Napa Valley

This was closed on the nose initially but it really opened up and was as good if not better on Day 2, 3, and 4. I noticed a trend with Dave's wines, almost all of them benefitted from air and some were better integrated on the second or third day. This was indeed the case. I was so amazed by it that I kept a couple sips in the bottle and tasted it a week later and it was still delicious. Similar to the Ode to Fume, this was great domestic sauvignon blanc.