Biodynamics is a form of farming that relies more on faith than science.
At Narrow Gate Vineyards in El Dorado County’s Pleasant Valley just outside Placerville, Frank and Teena Hildebrand know all about faith. Their Christian beliefs are evident throughout the estate, the name of which was inspired by a biblical reference (Matthew 7:13-14: “Small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”)
Just inside the winery’s front door is a table laden not with Christian icons but with cuttings of yarrow, steer horns, crystals — the tools of biodynamics, a gardening philosophy that says the key to a vital farm is a balanced, enclosed and diverse ecosystem that relies to a large extent on preparations of fermented compost, minerals and herbs.
Its most colorful and controversial precept may be the practice of filling cowhorns with a manure-based preparation, burying them in the vineyard at the autumn equinox, digging them up at the spring equinox and then diluting and spraying their contents about the vines.
Some vintners believe these practices result in better wine. Frank Hildebrand isn’t one of them, at least yet. He has a hunch, though, that his practices yield a healthy, lively wine, in large part because he eschews pesticides and herbicides.
“Wine is such a live product, why deaden it with all those chemicals?” he said.
His intent through biodynamics is to release wines that express more clearly what his land has to say.
It’s taking time. He’s just starting to ferment his juice with yeasts found naturally in the vineyard, rather than by using cultured yeasts. “I think I’m still learning how to do it,” he said.
Hildebrand grew up in Woodland, where his father was an agricultural electrician. He was headed into farming himself, earning a degree in agricultural economics and production management at UC Davis. Then he was diverted into a 20-year stretch in fashion marketing in Southern California during which he made wine as a hobby.
In 1999, however, while en route to Lake Tahoe on a weekend getaway, the Hildebrands were smitten with the Mother Lode’s expanding wine trade. The next year they bought an 86-acre spread with stands of Ponderosa pine rising from red Josephine soils and dusty white rhyolite.
In 2001, they began a vineyard that now stands at 14 acres, most of it dedicated to varieties traditionally associated with France’s Rhône Valley, the source of Hildebrand’s favorite styles of wine — viognier, mourvedre, grenache and syrah.
Three years later, they established Narrow Gate Vineyards.
At first, the couple farmed conventionally, relying on the usual assortment of amendments and controls. Then Frank Hildebrand read a comment by Nevada City winemaker Tony Norskog, something to the effect that “if more farmers had to live with their families in their vineyards there would be more vineyards farmed organically.”
“I’m in the vineyard every day with my children and my dogs, so I made a commitment to get away from chemicals,” Hildebrand recalled. “Besides, I hated wearing that big old spray suit.”
Initially, he transitioned to organic farming. In 2008, a friend persuaded him to kick up his commitment to sustainable agriculture another notch. Since 2011, the Narrow Gate vineyard has been certified as biodynamic by Demeter, a German verifier of the holistic principles and practices of biodynamic farming.
Vine trimmings, lees left from winemaking, manure from the Hildebrands’ six head of cattle and straw and eggshells from their flock of chickens also go into the 70 tons of compost they spread about their vines annually.
Hildebrand is convinced that the health of his soils has improved, at least as measured by a jump in earthworm population.
Narrow Gate has been expanding its appreciative audience with the clarity and balance of its wines. The lineup includes a 2011 chardonnay that is soundly structured, a fresh showcase for the tropical-fruit side of the varietal and unusually refreshing for its surprisingly crisp acidity. Hildebrand has retained that character by avoiding the common practice of putting chardonnay through a secondary malolactic fermentation.
His 2011 viognier is fine-boned and stony, with trademark suggestions of apricot and honey. The 2009 primitivo, a departure from his Rhône orientation, is succulent with suggestions of cherries, berries and plums. And the couple’s most unusual wine, the Lot ’11 Chocolate Splash, is a frisky and fresh take on the increasingly popular niche style that infuses a port-style dessert wine with chocolate.
The current release of the family’s flagship wine is the Narrow Gate Vineyards 2008 El Dorado County Estate Dunamis, a rich and hearty blend of 57 percent grenache, 31 percent syrah and 12 percent mourvedre. The wine is big, warm and powerful, but it also possesses the grace and complexity (raspberries, currants, forest duff) of the Rhône Valley models that inspired Hildebrand at the outset.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. Read his blog at www.ayearinwine.comand reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.