Biodynamic Sprays, Mowing, Rhythms of the Farm and a Homeopathic Solution to Powdery Mildew??

Spring is most certainly here with all of the attendant work: we have beautiful buds pushing out everywhere, bud break first started in the Sangiovese and Tempranillo and quickly made it’s way through the Rhone varietals. We had ferocious winds and rain a couple of nights ago–Phillip was kept awake by his worry for those vulnerable baby shoots, he imagined waking up to destruction in the vineyard…but all is okay! (We are still slightly worried about frost damage, but at AmByth we seem to not suffer much from this malady to young buds.)

Back to the Spring work…Phillip commented to me that he is getting much more used to everything–the “year’s work ahead” seems much less daunting, perhaps we’re just getting better at what we do (farming-wise, and read on so this doesn’t sound so egotistical). Phillip is on day 8 on his tractor mowing, followed by 8 more days of disking, we are planting the Spring gardens, and oh yes-the weeding continues. We are eagerly waiting for Dutchess, our dairy cow, to give birth (is today the day?) The 09’s are blended and we’ve been busy bottling the 08’s, we will soon start preparing the May wineclub shipments and we have some fun events on the calendar. There are many, many other tasks to move forward with, BUT! this year it all seems manageable. Perhaps we are starting to achieve the ultimate goal of Biodynamic farming: to realize the rhythm of the farm. This sacred piece of land we’re tending has it’s own rhythm, as Phillip and I do, and we open our hearts, minds and souls to become more intimate with it daily.

A new sight at AmByth is our “stirring machine” (looks interesting, huh?). Phillip saw this in a book about a Tuscan Biodynamic farm and has been waiting until the time came to erect such an apparatus for our farm. Yesterday afternoon Biodynamic Preperation 500 was applied to the soil in the afternoon after stirring it for one hour in the barrel (shown in the photo). And as the sun rose this morning we were out stirring Biodynamic spray 501 (applied only to the Sangiovese). Both of these sprays are applied mainly in the Spring and Fall, and in a succession of 3. 500 is sprayed on the soil, and 501 on the foliage. It feels good to be back out in the vineyards, to see the growth, to apply the BD sprays and teas, to hear the sounds of life. 

Yet, the threat of powdery mildew infecting our vines looms…we are trying to new tool to combat it: itself!! And where did this come from? Mainly from reading our homeopathic books–“treat like with like”, and conversations with Gilles De Domingo, the winemaker from Cooper Mountain Vineyards in Oregon (a Biodynamic vineyard and winery). We took effected powdery mildew cuttings from about a dozen plants and burned them by themselves. We then took the best ashes (about 5 to 6 tablespoons) and ground them for an hour in a mortar and pestle. We then took 1 teaspoon of the ground ashes and mixed it with 8 quarts of water in a container and shook this container forcefully 10 times. We kept 10% of this quantity and discarded the remaining 90%–we then added 8 quarts again to the 10%, shook forcefully, kept 10%…etc, etc. We repeated this process 30 times (photo at left is our volunteer diluter, John). We sprayed just a whisper of this homeopathic spray on potentially infected vines, hoping to discourage further powdery mildew spread. We will continue to spray this as necessary. And we’ll definitely keep records and share the success or failure!

Harvest 2009 Update, Preperation 501 (Horn Silica) and Reflections from a Tractor

There’s nothing like driving a crawler on AmByth’s steep hillsides to clear the cobwebs. It’s great to have the grapes put away for the year, and to be FARMING again. A couple of days ago, we applied BD Prep 501-Horn Silica-combined with dried Horsetail (equisetum) tea to all of the vines, olive & fruit trees and vegetables. Horsetail always gives a little boost to the plant’s immune system (acting against fungus) and 501 attracts light into the roots through the leaves for the work to come in the winter–the REAL work in the vines and trees.

A brief pause for thought–working in the winter, everything goes dormant, right? Correct, our vines and fruit trees go dormant (shedding leaves and shutting down for the year, the olives remain their silvery green but they, too, are resting until late Spring), but think about Spring and that BURSTING forth that occurs. All of that energy comes from the roots clamoring out to get some sunshine. In order to do that, they need to prepare and be strong. Applying 501 in the fall aids in this process. Following the 501, we chisel the vineyards–a gentle opening process which encourages the sun’s rays to penetrate further and to prepare the ground for the winter rains. In the next couple of days we will be applying the first of 3 BC preps (Barrel Compost). This spray holds all of the BD preparations and has been aged in the ground, maturing and growing billions of enzymes to be transferred to our earth to make the soil a living, breathing entity (in other words, enzymes that will eat, sliver and slide through the soil aiding in the decomposition processes and further aerating the soil).

Now for a harvest recap:
The first surprise was the fact that it was harvest time again! It always feels like it just happened a few months ago (or so it seems) and here we are again…wow!
August 12th was the first pick: a light pick of the Viognier and Tempranillo followed by a complete pick of both a few days later. Incredibly, the Viognier is still fermenting dry nearly 2 months later. It is very close to bone-dry, but still working (on average it takes 10 to 14 days for our grapes to ferment dry). We pressed off the final pick, Counoise, a few days ago. It is settling in stainless before going into the barrel for aging. Yes, our harvest was early and ended very quickly. This seems to have been the trend in Paso Robles this year. There is still Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel hanging out there in the Paso vineyards, but almost everything else has been brought in. And don’t forget, we tend to be earlier because we’re dry-farmed.
As always, there are disappointments and hurrahs. The disappointment was the relatively light crop: we had an average of a 1/2 ton of fruit per acre. To put that in perspective, our goal is 2 tons per acre. A larger commercial enterprise is somewhere between 5 & 12 tons an acre (thus cheaper wine…among other things). The hurrahs: we managed to get all of the fruit in at the right sugar levels (which converts to alcohol). Or, in the case of Syrah, which was slightly over-ripe, we co-fermented it with some early picked Grenache and Mourvedre (lower sugar levels) to even it all out. All went well with natural primary fermentation and now natural malolactic fermentation happening at its own time, as it should.
The surprise of the Harvest was the Grenache Blanc, we will probably make a single varietal of it! (Which was not initially part of the plan.) We will also make a Viognier blend with Grenache Blanc as a secondary component. We will see how they evolve and make that decision in 6 months or so.
So now Havest 2009 is over…and we’re back to caretakers of the elixir.
“In Vino Veritas”, no really, “In Vino Veritas”–ingredients: grapes!

2009 Harvest Underway, Sourdough Starter, Biodynamic Spray 501 & Egg Shell Tea, an update on Powdery Mildew

Wow…there is so much to do and so little time: a reference to keeping a blog updated in the midst of harvest!
Here are Phillip’s notes from last week: On the 12th of August we did our earliest (in the month) pick ever by going through the Tempranillo and Viognier and hand selecting only ripe bunches, which on average we had 1 to 2 ripe bunches per vine. It felt too early in the season as there where plenty of what seemed to be unripe fruit still hanging. However, the results in the winery showed the fruit we picked was indeed ready with perfect sugar, pH and total acidity levels. Armed with these results and perfect weather over the next few days-ripening the remaining fruit very quickly (as the birds continued to bring to our attention to)-we picked again on the 16th. A terrific crew turned out to help on a perfect Paso morning. The crop load on these two varieties was similar to last year-very light, about 1/2 ton an acre (please let it rain a little more this year!)-so the pick was fast and we were through by 8:30. The grappa didn’t stand a chance though, that was finished by 8.

Photo above: just stomped Tempranillo; photo below: 3 day old sourdough culture

Thank you to our annual volunteer and Mary’s garden mentor: Swantje! It was her brilliant idea to get a sourdough starter “brewing” using yeast from our grapes. So while Phillip was pressing off the Viognier, Mary and Swantje were busy in the kitchen assembling the “mother”. Using Nancy Silverton’s Breads of the La Brea Bakery as a guide we started the fermentation with a cluster of just picked Tempranillo grapes. It is a simple recipe to follow, but it takes commitment. As of this writing, Mary is on day 11 of a 15 day starter-feeding the starter 3 times a day to get it ready for baking. It is an interesting process to watch (and smell…”whoo wee, stinky poo” is a common expression here, especially with a 2 year old saying it!). It is actually a miracle, to witness the transformation of something because of yeast. Don’t be shy to ask for some starter for yourself…there’s plenty!

Sunday, August 23rd we applied Biodynamic Prep 501 (horn silica) on the Mourvedre, Counoise and Roussanne in all 4 vineyards. These grapes are typically late to ripen so the 501 early in the morning acts to add available light intake into the plant and aid the ripening process. We sprayed an egg shell tea on all of the remaining vineyards with fruit. This does the same thing as 501, but in a milder degree. All of these plants will ripen in the near future so they don’t need as much encouragement as the Mourvedre, Counoise and Roussanne. We had 6 brave volunteers arrive at 6 a.m. for a 1 hour stirring to aerate the silica before applying it to the vineyards with backpack sprayers by foot.

Photo above: Ian and Bryan stirring in a barrel; photo below: Charissa, Yen, Amiee and Kumiko

As far as the ongoing battle with powdery mildew, in the last month we treated individual plants in the Mourvedre with the mildest solution of Milstop, a potassium based anti-fungal agent approved by Demeter. We didn’t want to apply it as a general spray throughout the vineyards, as so many plants seemed to not be affected. The system seems to have worked as the problem appears to be in remission. However, the Grenache Blanc is a different story: it has a heavy crop with no powdery mildew showing on any fruit at all, but with quite a few plants showing it on the canes. We decided to treat all of these plants with the minimum spray required. As we hand sprayed each plant individually, we applied varying quantities depending on its size and possible visible problem. So far this year, we have removed all of the fruit from only 1 Tempranillo plant we thought wasn’t good for picking. Our approach is a good start, but next year we’re going to apply preventative teas earlier and more frequently to see if we can nip it in the bud (excuse the pun!).

The morning concluded with an incredible breakfast made by Lety, as she puts it, “A Mexican, Mexican breakfast, from Vera Cruz”. Unfortunately, some Minute Maid orange juice made it to the table (not quite Mexican, Mexican), but we also shared AmByth harvest wine (a special wine Phillip makes just for our harvest volunteers) and Corona. She served an incredible casserole made with tortillas (that has affectionately been dubbed “Mexican Lasagna” by our middle son, Morgan). It was delicious, and such an incredible conclusion to a morning full of hard work.

For more photos, see AmByth Estate on Facebook–better yet, become a fan!

Biodynamic Preparations 500 & 501…and Why

Tuesday and Wednesday (12th – 13th) brought a close to our Springtime spraying sequence of Biodynamic Preparations 500 & 501. Tuesday morning Phillip was out at first light to stir the 501 (Cow Horn Silica) for 1 hour before applying it. As usual, we spray all BD preps on foot, with backpack sprayers to ensure better control over the spraying coverage. We feel this gives us more insight into the vineyard as each vine is sprayed and inspected. And there is a certain “vibe” in the process, the vineyard is visited by man on foot instead of the disruption of a tractor(diesel fumes, soil compaction, the breakage of tender canes as the tractor passes through, the absence of the sounds of birds and owls…just the rumble of the crawler…no thank you!) The 501 is normally a 4 hour process, but we thankfully (!!) had the help of 3 volunteers and the process was completed in half the time. Thank you Neil & Nick Sowerby, and Pepi!

Why BD 501? Steiner believed the silica properties found in finely ground quartz crystal were connected with our ‘light forces’, meaning they attract the sunlight to a particular item to help with ripening. In other words, it enhances the photosynthesis of the leaf. The ground quartz is buried in a cow horn under the soil for 6 months: the warmest months of the year, March-September. It is unburied at the autumnal equinox and stored until use in the Spring. It is applied in a fine mist to the leaves of the plant in the early morning hours. It is best to apply 501 in the early growth period of the plant, and again shortly before harvest. It has been found to bring the Brix level (sugar level) up in all fruits (I find this very, very interesting! One harvest, we had a difficult time getting our Mourvedre grapes to fully mature and it was suggested we spray 501 to encourage the vine to ‘keep on going’ before all of the leaves dropped off). 501 is also believed to strengthen the plants against some fungus attacks. (Above 2 photos taken in StoneCross Vineyard, in the head trained Mourvedre block.)
Wednesday afternoon Biodynamic Preperation 500 (Horn Manure) was applied in the afternoon, as the sun as beginning its descent in the sky. We stirred again for an hour–aerating the composition & creating the constant movement of vortexes and choas (see picture to the left: vortex, and the bottom picture is chaos–both photos taken from our copper stirring machine). This spray is applied to the ground in large droplets. We also apply this spray to our 20 acres of woods, since our steers live and eat there, as well as our natural predators. Spraying 500 is a much quicker spray–still on foot with backpacks, but you can arch your arm back and forth in a large wave motion, directing the droplets to fall 10 to 15 feet on both sides and around you.

Why BD 500? Picture yeast: and the magnificent transformation flour and water make when just a pinch amount of yeast is added to it. Or picture yeast: and the conversion of a huge amount of sugar from grapes into alcohol with the aid of a little bit of yeast. This same principle is applied to a minuscule amount of cow manure, diluted in water, and its incredible benefit when applied to the land. Cow manure is buried in a cow horn under the ground for 6 months, on the autumnal equinox and unburied on spring equinox. Steiner believed the cow horn would permeate nitrogen and oxygen forces into the manure due to its astral significance and the digestive processes of the cow. BD 500 is applied to the land, in the Fall and Spring, to promote root growth, the build up the humus properties in the soil and to stimulate it, and to contribute to good bacteria growth in the soil. At the moment, AmByth does not make any of our own BD Preps, but we are on track to do so, with nearly all herbal preps growing and the raising of our steers (with horns). Next year, we hope the BD 500 will be home-grown, buried in the Fall right here on the estate!

Biodynamic Preperation #500/Cow Stomach Spray, Fermenting Valerian Root/Horsetail Tea, To Weed or Not to Weed?

>Today is a Fruit Day on the Biodynamic calendar, which is the ideal working period for the vines. At the moment we are stirring for 1 hour a mixture of Horn Manure (BD 500) and cow stomach diluted in water (rate of application: 2.25 oz. Horn Manure/acre + diluted in 3-4 gallons of water/acre + 1/5 liter of cow stomach). We will begin spraying it at 1 p.m., this is believed to be the time the earth is breathing in as the sun begins its descent in the sky. We are applying this mixture to the whole property–which includes the 20 acres of Oak woodlands, as our steers are living in the woods, eating the grasses that grow under the trees. This mixture is to be sprayed in large drops on the earth itself, to stimulate the enzyme growth in the soil.

We also have a Valerian Root/Horsetail Tea fermenting in an oak barrel for 2 weeks. We will add this fermented tea to the 2nd or 3rd BD 500 spray we apply to the property. It is believed this spray will aid in keeping the powdery mildew in the soil, instead of on the vine.

Phillip has made a decision regarding the older vines and weeds…we are not going to pull out every single weed that remains under each vine after the last passes through the vineyard with the spader. We believe the vines are old enough, meaning their roots are deep enough, so that the roots are not having to compete for water with the weeds. The roots are tapping into their own water source deep in the earth. We will continue to hand weed around the younger vines, and olive trees as the roots are more shallow and closer to the surface. And of course, we are removing the larger weeds that are more of a nuisance, however, we are continuing to think outside of the box. This is a NATURAL farm, which includes a relationship between all things that are here naturally, and rightfully. It is a thrill for me to walk through the vineyards and observe all of the bees feeding from Fiddlenecks (a beautiful, bright yellow native winter annual). If we remove absolutely everything, we are disrupting a natural habitat for the beneficial insects we have present. This is an experiment, let’s see how the vines cope as the summer passes by.

Yarrow and Barrel Compost Tea, Rain!, Manure Spreading

AMEN!! You can hear it resonating through the hills of Paso Robles from the lips of farmers, we had our first rain! It is a joyous occasion, in our home we opened all the doors and windows just to breathe the raw dampness on the air and to hear the drops softly falling all around us. We measured just under 1/4″, but this is sufficient to get the grasses and weeds growing in the vineyards to stop erosion for the next big downpour.
Hence, Phillip is out this very moment, not even 4 hours from the last shower to broadcast the manure pile. We don’t speak about it much, but our compost pile is perhaps one of the most vital parts of farming at AmByth Estate, and for other Biodynamic farmers as well. Every year, when we bring fresh manure onto the property, it is inoculated with the BD preperations (preps). This means we put all the herbs: yarrow, chamomile, nettle, oakbark, dandelion and valerian in small dosages throughout the pile. As the pile ages over a course of a year, the preps act as “carriers” or “catalysts” in the pile–contributing their trace mineral elements and bringing life to the pile. The compost is generally spread after the first rains, and Phillip follows-up with a thorough disking through the vineyards before letting them rest for the winter.
Phillip and Gustavo applied the 14 day-old yarrow and barrel compost tea, this time they sprayed in the 20 acres of woods we have also. We are right now putting the fencing around the woods to bring our 2 cows to the property!


Finally–We’ve broken ground! Yarrow Tea Brewing

After a long, long, long 3 year back and forth with our county, we have finally broken ground on our winery building! Initially, we designed a very large, architecturally “modern” winery enabling us to utilize gravity for all aspects of winemaking instead of using pumps, we were to have barrel storage underground, we planned a beautiful tasting room, etc. etc. etc. But the county made our dream building nearly impossible for us to build, so we scrapped that plan and moved the location of the winery to another building site on the property and are now erecting a very basic building–a winery that is purely functional, no underground storage, and no public tasting room, and sadly, no use of gravity (except utilizing the forklift when necessary). We expect the building to be complete in about 6 weeks, come on over to celebrate!

We have a Yarrow Tea made that will brew for 2 weeks before we apply it to the vineyards. Yarrow, BD preperation 502, is a lovely herb. It is used for reproduction and growth functions, and it has a strong connection to potassium and sulphur. It’s Latin name, Achillea millefolium, is derived from the legend that Achilles used yarrow on his men for it’s wound-healing powers. We use it to attract trace elements that vitalizes potassium.

Janis Switzer published a nice article about is in our local rag:
Check it out!