Pontet Canet, the Biodynamic Bordeaux

“Over there, behind the trees,” the vineyard worker told us.  We were lost in a maze of Pauillac fields, wandering around the Bordeaux region of France with no rental car. An elegant elderly lady had given us a ride to the last vineyard, and now we were walking through the rows of orderly grapevines trying to find Pontet Canet, the biodynamic winery that had recently been awarded the much coveted 100 point Robert Parker Review. The worker was pointing straight across the fields and smiling, or maybe laughing.  We started off towards the far away line of trees in the distance. We were going to be late.

“These fields aren’t Pontet Canet fields,” said Josh, my sommelier chef brother. He had wisely learned to be suspicious of my listening comprehension skills in the French language, especially when it came to directions. “Just look at the tractor marks.”

Pontet Canet doesn’t use tractors to till the fields, they use ingeniously designed plows pulled by horses. This is part of what it means to be a biodynamic farm. Also, they don’t use pumps to macerate the grapes, they rely on gravity.  And, thankfully, they don’t waste a million powdered egg whites to remove the sediment from the wine. Other wineries Josh and I visited, wineries like Chateau Lynch-Bages, waste obscene amounts of egg whites by floating them through the wine to catch the little bits of grape in their protein on the way to the bottom of an industrial wine vat. Classically trained chefs sometimes use this same technique to clarify stock, so the whole tradition has turned into some kind of nostalgic gesture that is probably meant to preserve some kind of validating nostalgia. I have learned that logic and winemaking don’t always go hand in hand—often the marketing story trumps practicality.

There’s a different kind of story at Pontet Canet, and seems to have more to do with superstition than on cashing in on larger amounts of high-priced product. According to Josh, the skulls of the animals who work the farm are filled with flowers and buried at the end of the rows of planted grapes. Planting and harvesting only happen during the full moon. Pontet Canet’s radical switchover to biodynamic principles began as a collaboration between the manager and the owner. And it was expensive.

Biodynamism is based on the agricultural teachings of man named Rudolf Steiner.  Steiner was a crazy, genius, Renaissance man who not only founded a bizarre agricultural philosophy (emphasis on the “cult”), he also founded a new educational ideology that is still practiced in Steiner schools and Waldorf schools. In some ways, the Steiner methods are much more congruent with actual cognitive theory and brain research than traditional education. Vygotsky’s concepts of development and processes of learning, Bruner’s work on creating meaning with language—all of it supports Steiner’s pedagogy.

Steiner was a prolific author, and when browsing through his life’s work, I immediately notice that he was a strange hybrid of a man—half data-driven scientist, and half crackpot mystic.  The same man who wrote The Education of a Child and Early Lectures on Education also wrote Cosmic Memory: The Story of Atlantis, Lemuria, and the Division of the Sexes.

Steiner’s thoughts on agriculture seem to represent both halves of Steiner’s mind. In biodynamic agriculture, there are no harsh chemicals used, and the soil is organically enriched to keep it productive without exhausting the minerals. So far, so logical. But there’s also that whole thing with the moon cycles astrological year marks and flower-filled animal skulls.

Pontet Canet is certified biodynamic, so they practice the whole shebang. And it works for them.  Before the great switchover to biodynamic farming, Pontet Canet certainly never earned a 100 point Robert Parker rating. It seems that one day, the manager (who must be a quirky, radical, passionate type) came up to the owner (who must be an open-minded, idiosyncratic sort of rich person), and proposed getting rid of all the machines and switching over to biodynamism.  And the owner agreed. One day, all the men who rode tractors were told they had to learn to till the fields with horses. No wonder the man in the fields laughed at us as he gave directions.

Josh and I kept walking, and distant tree line began to materialize in the haze.  “Look at the ground, Annie,” he said. I looked down at my feet, and there were no more tractor tracks.  Instead, there were parallel lines carved in the earth, divots that could have been made by a rake. A rake pulled by a horse.