Jason Wagner, wine director at Henri Restaurant, samples one of the biodynamic wines currently available at the restaurant. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times
20 BIODYNAMIC WINEMAKERS TO TRY
(Many available at Henri and The Gage)
Brick House Vineyards
Domaine de Terrebrune
Robert Sinskey Vineyards
You are going to need some cow horns if you want to be a biodynamic farmer and winemaker. You will need some quartz, too, and a stag’s bladder. It would not kill you to be keenly in touch with the cosmos, either. A dissenter might say with an eye roll that you also will need a pointy hat and a magic wand.
But a supporter of biodynamic farming and winemaking would say get the biodynamic folks everything they need — including oak bark, farm animal skulls and common horsetail (this is a plant but everything else is exactly what it sounds like) — because biodynamic wines deserve our respect and attention.
The fine dining restaurant Henri (and, by extension, its more casual sibling next door, The Gage) is a huge supporter of biodynamic wines, likely the biggest supporter in Chicago. Of the 100 or so wine labels that Henri carries, about 80 are biodynamic (about 40 of The Gage’s 80 labels are biodynamic).
On the surface the relationship could seem incongruous — such refined establishments devoting themselves so deeply to a style of winemaking that draws skepticism from some, and derision from others. Those people have forgotten, or perhaps never knew in the first place, that the winemaker widely considered among the finest in the world (if not the finest), Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, is biodynamic.
“A lot of people equate biodynamic wines with dirtiness and that’s just not true,” says Jason Wagner, the sommelier at Henri. “I think being biodynamic is being a really responsible farmer and really respecting the earth. And the wine as well.”
The practice of biodynamic farming is derived from the lectures of Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian philosopher who championed sustainable, chemical-free farming in the 1920s. So biodynamic farming could be called “New Age” but it is not necessarily “new.”
The most controversial aspects of the practice revolve around the nine preparations that require farmers to carry out tasks such as stuffing a cow’s horn with cow manure and burying it. The manure horn and other buried materials — quartz in a cow’s horn, yarrow flowers in a stag’s bladder, etc. — are then dug up to become part of a fertilizer spray, or a compost. This is all regulated not only by specific seasons but also the time of day.
Witch doctors come to mind. But once you get past those unorthodox practices the general concept of biodynamic farming is simply to treat the farm as a closed, self-sustaining system in touch with the rhythms and energy of the earth. Many biodynamic winemakers are as normal as can be at the dinner table. They are just a little radical about their farming and winemaking techniques, and if more people were as radical the planet might be better off. This is farming and winemaking for people who think that “organic” simply does not go far enough.
“There are a lot of reasons to have such an extensive biodynamic wine list,” says Wagner of Henri. “One that shouldn’t be lost is, I feel like the wines are better. At the end of the day they taste better, more alive, fresher and more vibrant. Once you drink a lot of biodynamic wines, other wines taste plastic.”
That vibrancy ends up in the bottle, but it starts in the vineyard.
“It’s the right way to farm, it’s the right way to carry out agriculture,” Wagner says. “You don’t do any good to your land by spraying chemicals all over it.”
Wagner has no plans to call attention to the biodynamic certification of his wines.
“I don’t bring it up much,” he says. “I don’t want that to be the point. I want the point to be that the wine is delicious.”
Michael Austin is a Chicago free-lance writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.