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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!

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.

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