I knew something was different about this place when we drove up to the entrance to Martian Ranch in Los Olivos and saw a Live Oak tree with what appeared to be Spanish Moss hanging from its branches. I used to live in New Orleans and am very familiar with the sight, but I never imagined I’d see it out here in California in the middle of a parched and sun-drenched summer amid the golden hills of dead grass. But one should expect something different when one travels to a place called Martian Ranch.
We have carried some of their wines at Elf and we have loved them dearly. The 2012 Tempranillo “Gravitas” (a reference to the gravitational pull between planets), the 2013 Grenache “Local Group” (which describes a conglomeration of stars within the Milky Way galaxy of which our sun happens to be a part), 2012 Albarino “UFOric” (was somebody abducted by a flying saucer and really liked it?). The names of the wines are playful tributes to outer space, but they are not just invitations for extraterrestrials to visit and bring a couple of cases of wine home from their visit to California. The outer-space references point to the Biodynamic practices of the farm. Biodynamism is an agricultural practice which makes a serious goal of connecting the Earth with the cosmos, man and woman playing the part of caretaker of plants, plants which send roots into the earth and flowers up toward the sky, reaching ambidextrously for the dirt and the stars. I have been reading a lot of Nietzsche recently and he, like Rudolf Steiner, the creator of Biodynamism, was deeply impressed with the work of Johan von Goethe. These three men were interested in man and his relation to the cosmos, his Starstellung (a word that proves that the German language can be as beautiful as any) and Biodynamic farming places man in a cosmic position, between the earth and sky; the farmer is a sort of alchemical naturalist who seeks to work with the boons and difficulties of nature and the cosmos to bring up healthy and beautiful plants to sustain his life and the lives of the cosmic race.
Biodynamism is on a lot of wine drinkers’ radar these days. If I have 4 seconds in which to describe Biodynamism to somebody and they seem open, I usually just tell them that it is “organic farming + witchcraft.” And much of it does sound like witchcraft. One of the most famous biodynamic “preparations” involves stuffing a nine-ringed cow’s horn (female bovines have horns despite the cattle industry’s dislike of them and circumcisional practices; and nine rings show that the cow has gone through nine birth cycles) with manure from a lactating cow, burying it in the ground in the fall and digging it up 4 months later after it has fermented into what is described as a sweet smelling humus. Sweet cow shit! The manure then is put into a bucket with fresh rain water and stirred clockwise until a vortex is established and then quickly reversed to a counter-clockwise stir so that the elements in the bucket go through a chaos state and then back into an organized vortex of the opposite direction. The water tornado play is to be continued for an hour and the stirrer is to think positive thoughts to help send vitality and equilibium into the poop water. The water is then used to essentially baptize the crops, dipping a handful of straw into the preparation and then scattering it on the crops.
If this is sounding spooky to anybody, then maybe I shouldn’t tell you about how Biodynamic farmers also make decisions on when to plant, prune, water, and harvest during times when the moon is in a specific astrological sign that is auspicious for that particular farming activity. The four elemental divisions of the astrological signs have a plant correspondence in Biodynamism: Fire (Sagittarius, Aries, and Leo) is Fruit; Air (Aquarius, Gemini, Libra) is Flower; Water (Pisces, Cancer, Scorpio) is Leaf; and Earth (Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn) is Root. When the moon is in a certain sign (say Earth), farmers will make agricultural choices which correspond to the element which is expressing itself lunar-wise (say plant new vines as root growth is stimulated during this time). If you are deeply interested in Biodynamism as a viticultural practice, I would recommend reading Nicolas Joly’s (one of the most respected winemakers in the world for his stunning and sought-after Chenin Blanc out of the Loire Valley’s prized AOC of Savennieres) book Wine From Sky to Earth. Or buy me a bottle of something biodynamic and I’ll give you the run down while we drink it!
I should also like to mention that Biodynamism was created by Steiner, who was an Austrian mystic, poet, philosopher, architect, education designer (Waldorf Schools) and social thinker. He, however, was not a farmer. He meditated to find the answers to questions of how to operate and then gave lectures about his findings. His farming practice, which aims to bring vibrant and productive life to the soil, is based on Goethe’s philosophy of nature and Steiner’s own poetic understanding of what brings soil and plants into a vibrant harmony. The main players in that harmony? Microbes, rotting biological material, and lots and lots of poop.
At this point, we can return to Mars, where a group of goats and cows live for the main purpose of using their richest product. No, they are not milking the animals nor will they use them for meat. The animal product we are speaking of here is fecal. This is where you can really separate the wine maniacs from the more typical winos, as we all like to geek out about soils and direction of exposure, goblet or trellis growing methods, wind patterns, and distance from the ocean, but the real nuts are crazy for shit. And the quadriped employees of Martian Ranch are here just for that. Biodynamic farms aim to be a self-sustaining enterprise, a circle unbroken by products from anywhere outside of that specific plot of land. This is one reason why I think the wine world and the New Traditional Wine World, in particular, has taken so openly to Biodynamics, which I see as a “poetry of farming”. In our quest for a wine as an expression of the specific land from which it is grown, a terrior unlike any other, a Biodynamic farm uses only products from that land, all sourced from itself. The cows and goats eat the grass and the weeds that grow from that specific dirt on Earth and the vines are fertilized with the decomposed and microbially rich end product of those same grass and weeds. The soil is nourished by its own product in order to keep its energy vibrant. All biological life begins and ends in the same plot and that plot can grow to be itself more and more as time goes on. The more something is isolated, the more it has the opportunity to be exactly what it is, without influence.
I think the Ranch also brings humans who are deeply themselves as well. A vineyard is the child of many people and our guide through the Martian Ranch vineyard was Rodney, the ranch manager. We only spent a short amount of time with Rodney, but I wonder if Biodynamic farms are a type of magnet for unique individuals, for I found Rodney to be stunningly archetypal. He is the muscle and the kind Minotaur of this labyrinth of vines. He protects the grapes from foes insect and human, having told us that he has done some of the “incinerations” that Steiner recommended for pest control. This method involves trapping and killing an animal or group of insects that are attacking the vines and burning the corpse(s) using the ashes to scatter around the vineyard as a warning to all of its kind to stay away. While this particular practice may be hard to swallow for the squeamish, Biodynamism isn’t just a light hearted hippy dippy methodology and requires some real farmer-style proximity to death and its byproduct—life. Rodney has also told us how he has protected the ranch owners from predatory contractors who quote one price for the building of a reservoir pond, get halfway through the job, and then quote another price sometimes four times the original or more. I think we often think of winemaking in overly simplistic terms, but management is a major part of growing a lot of grapes and it was amazing to see how Rodney plays his role in bringing these wines to our tables. It was slightly astonishing to learn that he doesn’t drink wine or any alcohol at all but to still see how much he is connected to the vines and the grapes that he is charged to watch over.
While Rodney does not take deeply to the Biodynamic philosophy—he says its a little too “hocus pocus” for him—he does see how it results in a healthier vine. He told us how the leaves at Martian Ranch are green and on the vine often a month after their adjacent neighbor’s vines have wilted and gone bald for the winter. Many winemakers have found the ideas of Biodynamism strange, but have found that the proof is in the pudding, that it results in living soils which make great wine. The vines are on the young side (8 years if my memory serves me correctly) and the wines are fresh and exuberant with this youth. While I love an old vine wine as much as the next wino, it is beautiful to be able to taste the youth of a vine as well. It is like watching a young group of children play: while they may not have a deep focus, they exhibit a bursting forth of energy and creativity. Biodynamic young grapes are like the children who are fed good food and given a nurturing home with good books and a healthy rhythm of life. The wines at Martian Ranch are full of vigor and energy, creative and free of concerns, playful and fresh, alive and happy to be so.
With freedom loving vines, I recommend enjoying these wines outside. I was lucky to bring my bottle of the carbonic macerated 2013 Grenache “Area 52” (carbonic maceration involves a process where the grapes are not crushed but are sealed from oxygen where they ferment internally, usually yielding a very pretty, floral, and pleasantly fruity wine) to the Angeles National Forest where I enjoyed a couple of glasses among incense cedars 7,000 feet above sea level, in the fresh air that has never known smog. It was like a kiss between teenagers, exciting and innocent. It was to perfect wine to enjoy with fresh summer black grapes, the raw fruit alongside of its eventual product if guided along the right pathways. I also was able to enjoy the 2014 Rose of Mourvedre “Down to Earth” on my porch this last Sunday as the sun was falling and giving me and my wine some respite from this late summer heat in Southern California. It is like ripe strawberries and unsweetened cream, but dry and fresh as cold water from a spring. And do you see the resonant color in this photo? Astonishing! Not a heavy hitting rose on the acidity, which makes it great for porch drinking among ferns beneath the shade of an avocado tree.
I realize this may be a lot of information for a leisurely read (with a lot of parentheticals), but as we build our discussion here on The Elf Guide to Natural Wine we have to begin a great many threads of conversation; in fact, I feel like I have hardly touched on either Martian Ranch or Biodynamic farming! We love all of the exciting things happening in wine today, and realize it is a great time to be drinking wine and talking about it. I like to do both at the same time. And by the way, here’s what the vines at Martian Ranch get to look at all day. How happy they must be!