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Douglas Gayeton
My shoes are caked with mud: a Tuscan photo diary

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«  Part 3: Una Scampagnata Part 5: Me Viene Latte Alle Ginocchia » 

Part 4: Vino Biodinamico
Tuesday, Apr 20, 2004 (11:10 AM)

It seems like everyone in the town where I live (Pistoia, about thirty minutes outside Florence) makes olive oil or wine or vinegar. Whenever I open a cupboard in somebody's kitchen, I find jars filled with strange objects suspended in a sea of olive oil (sotto olio). Making and preserving foodstuffs is a cultural thing. People in Pistoia never have more than two degrees of separation from il contadino (the farmer) in their past... which reminds me of an antique table I once had restored by a falegname (woodworker) in a nearby village. When he discovered how much I like olive oil, he emptied a bottle of wine into his sink and filled it with cold-pressed olive oil from the grove behind his workshop. We immediately poured some into our palms. It was rich, spicy, with hints of pepper and fresh cut grass... another fantastic Tuscan oil for my collection!

As we loaded the table into my car the falegname revealed his secret: a friend of his pumps out septic tanks for the town's sanitation department. Every few months he sprays the truck's cargo on his olive trees. Hmmm. Okay. I get it: the use of manure as fertilizer is obviously as old as farming itself. I have a close friend who makes organic olive oil from groves where his farm animals are free to roam; he even named his company after his favorite wandering cow (it's called "Clo's Hill" or "Poggio di Clo").

In fact, this same olive oil making friend told me that manure plays a critical role in sacred rites practiced by an agrarian movement that began in Europe in the early 20th century and has since spread across the globe. After World War I a number of European chemical companies that provided gas weapons to combatants on both sides aggressively moved into the civilian sector with the novel idea of waging war on weeds and farming pests. The entry of these industrial companies into a farming world that had seen little change or technological advancement in a thousand years provoked a series of lectures in the 1920's by Rudolph Steiner, who feared man was about to forfeit his close ties to the soil for the sake of "progress." Steiner's principles are now referred to as "biodynamics" and the movement's foremost practitioner in Tuscany is a specialty winemaker named Fattoria Cerreto Libri. After a few phone calls I set up a visit, and a most curious odyssey unfolded...

Feature launches in a new window (145 K).

EPILOGUE (or what happened on my second visit):

My first trip to Cerruto Libri ended appropriately enough in the kitchen. Bottles were opened. Many glasses of wine were drunk. Generous slabs of cheese were served. I then found myself seated at a dining room table for a seemingly improvised six-course dinner served on table linens I later learned were over 250 years old. We drank about a dozen biodynamic wines that afternoon. Leonello and Valentina talked about their unique business philosophy but I didn't come away with any pictures of manure or horns (I was truly fixated on this and wasn't about to give in so easily).

After some convincing, Leonello agreed to a second visit. This time he would show me everything: the manure, how it's mixed, how it's sprayed in the fields, how the wine is prepared.

As for photographs of the cow horn, it never happened, though I did get to see a lot of manure.

Click for larger version.
Biodynamic wine is made on the vine and not in the wine cellar.
It's a form of winemaking that focuses more on maintaining
a harmonious, well-balanced relationship with the soil instead of
using chemical additives and "tricks" during the fermentation process.

Click for larger version.
Each spring the "500" (a mix of cow manure and seven plant
essences) is carefully stirred into a barrel of rainwater in a rite that lasts over an hour.

Click for larger version.
Silvano Bartolini sprays
the vineyard with a mixture
known as the "500."

Further:

•  More on Rudolph Steiner, founder of the biodynamic movement

•  An article by David Darlington of the San Francisco Chronicle provides a beautifully detailed overview on biodynamic winemaking methods (PDF)

•  Robert Sinskey is my favorite American vintner so I was hardly surprised to learn that he also applies the principles of biodynamic farming in his vineyards

•  Learn how to bottle your own wine at home.

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«  Part 3: Una Scampagnata Part 5: Me Viene Latte Alle Ginocchia » 
Past Entries
04/05 Part 1: Un Vero Macello
04/08 Part 2: La Giuseppina
04/12 Part 3: Una Scampagnata
04/20 Part 4: Vino Biodinamico
06/01 Part 5: Me Viene Latte Alle Ginocchia