a biodynamic vineyard tour of Littorai, Sonoma County

by Stevie on April 4, 2012

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The Pivot vineyard was pivotal for the establishment of Littorai in this spot

The Pivot vineyard was pivotal for the establishment of Littorai in this spot

Littorai barrel room

Littorai barrel room

We’ve been talking about taking the tour of Littorai for months. Really ever since we went last fall for their members event. Now that we’ve done it, it is funny to think about how naïve I’ve been. For example, I didn’t actually know that Littorai embraced organic and biodynamic practices as part of their wine production philosophy.

I took a mini-break just now from writing to look at the labels on a bottle of the 2009 Littorai Les Larmes Pinot Noir Anderson Valley. It doesn’t mention biodynamics. So perhaps it isn’t that odd that I didn’t know about it until the tour, though probably I shouldn’t have been surprised as biodynamics has received a lot of traction and, though sometimes mixed, generally positive press in recent years.

On the day of our visit it was overcast and threatening rain. Margie Truter was our delightful, well-informed guide. We arrived about 20 minutes early but were greeted cheerfully just the same. It was only the two of us for the tour, which made me feel like we were celebrities or something. I liked it.

We started in front of the wine production facility but quickly turned toward the newly installed organic gardens near The Pivot vineyard. (It’s called The Pivot, English accent please, because this is the hill that convinced Heidi and Ted Lemon to buy the property. This “pivotal” hill with its proximity to the Ocean and its southern exposure apparently enchanted the couple with its winemaking potential.)

flowers were everywhere

flowers were everywhere

I like the purple ones a lot

I like the purple ones a lot

dandelion flowers are cultivated for their health benefits for the vines

dandelion flowers are cultivated for their health benefits for the vines

the chamomile flowers were marvelously aromatic

the chamomile flowers were marvelously aromatic

The garden had flowering chamomile and dandelion, stinging nettle and some other plants (or in some cases things that my mother would probably call “weeds”) that are either composted with manure from organic cows, chipped grapevine cuttings and other plants from the grounds; or are dried and put into huge sacks which get used as giant “tea bags.” Sometimes the plants are put into pots and buried for a year or so, then added to the rest. This Littorai-made compost gets spread in the various vineyards and the “dandelion tea” is sprayed at various times on the vines. They believe that these plants contain various essential minerals and nutrients that aid in grapevine development and health.

here Margie is telling us about the various minerals and nutrients to be found in the garden plants

here Margie is telling us about the various minerals and nutrients to be found in the garden plants

Littorai uses the cane method of pruning their vines

Littorai uses the cane method of pruning their vines

the red trees seemed so cheery and welcoming on this overcast day

these red trees seemed so cheery and welcoming on this overcast day

Down the hill lie a small creek and a wood. Unfortunately we didn’t see these. Apparently there are certain reeds, I think they’re called horsetail, that the staff use as a natural fungicide.

We did troop through part of The Pivot vineyard and saw several small hills of organic compost in a meadow nearby. Margie referred to them by their year of production (2010 or 2011) just like vintage wine. I suppose there might be something to that. It seems that they allow these hills to sit for a year or two to fully develop. I picked up a sample of the 2010 which seemed more like a rich soil than poo. (Of course I washed up afterward!) They turn it only once, so it isn’t that much work once you’ve gotten started. They’ve this cool window onto the 2011 pile that allows you to see how the compost changes over time.

chamomile on a drying rack

chamomile on a drying rack

rock samples from The Haven vineyard

rock samples from The Haven vineyard

they use these large sacks of stinging nettle like tea bags to fertalize the vineyards organically

they use these large sacks of stinging nettle like tea bags to fertalize the vineyards organically

carpenter bee hives

carpenter bee hives

These folks recycle their own water in reed filled lakes near the old building where they dry the nutritive plants. We saw numerous lovely free range chickens and some adorable ducks there. They had some geese until quite recently but eliminated them after they started getting aggressive. The team actively cultivates honey and, is it carpenter? bees, as they’re both very productive pollinators. Some of the flowering plants like the French lavender are there to keep the bees happy year round.

The idea of biodynamics is that everything on earth and in the universe is interrelated in a literal as well as a mystical or spiritual sense. That second part is where you start to lose some people. In our post-modern age, there’s frank hostility to most stuff that science, or perhaps social media, cannot explain.

Personally, I’m of two minds on the matter. Preserving the environment makes perfect sense, which in an agricultural setting translates into exactly what you find at Littorai: reduction of waste, composting and recycling, avoiding toxic chemicals, and eschewing monoculture. And there’s no reason to disbelieve that plants contain essential nutrients. Think vitamin C in citrus fruits for example, or for you real diehards, “medicinal marihuana.” As to the more um… abstract parts, well, to each his or her own. Personally, I think that it is rude to find fault with others’ spiritual practices, don’t you?

rock samples from Hirsch vineyard

rock samples from Hirsch vineyard

side view of Littorai winemaking facility

side view of Littorai winemaking facility

a happy stain on this barrel

a happy stain on this barrel

Biodynamics does raise some interesting questions beyond the metaphysical. First off, before the rise of mass automated agriculture in the late 19th and Twentieth Centuries, wasn’t this more or less how everyone farmed? I do wonder about biodynamic grape and wine production in the context of Northern California merely because we’re talking pinot noir, a plant from Europe. And for that matter, are chamomile, stinging nettle, etc. native? In that sense biodynamics and the locavore movement are not related, despite getting blurred together at times.

2010 Littorai Sonoma Coast and The Pivot pinots noir

2010 Littorai Sonoma Coast and The Pivot pinots noir

In any event, the farming practices at Littorai sound like they are minimally harmful, which is a good thing. Certainly the wines that the Lemons produce following them are marvelous. We tasted several that day: the 2010 Thieriot chardonnay, the 2010 Hirsch and The Pivot pinots, 2009 Cerise and Savoy pinots, and the 2010 Sonoma Coast pinot blend. Sadly I forgot my pen in the car, so didn’t write down our tasting notes to share here. The chardonnay was wound tight with lots of fruit and mineral notes, and as always the pinots were all delicious yet each beguilingly different from one another. I splurged a bit that day as you might imagine. I suppose that we’ll just have to return to Littorai soon to share our tasting with you, our faithful readers.

Hegui and I in the Pivot vineyard

Hegui and I in The Pivot vineyard at Littorai

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Shelly Golly April 12, 2012 at 4:17 pm

Thank you for the great pictures and commentary. We’ve linked this to our facebook page. Looking forward to seeing you again at Littorai!

Heguiberto April 15, 2012 at 11:50 am

We can’t wait to go back!

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