High on a hill in American Canyon I heard the faint hum of traffic and industry below. It’s purpose, it seemed, was to remind me how lucky I was to be at this peaceful vineyard on a beautiful blue, crisp morning in December.
My guide is Joey Brinkley, Vineyard Assistant for Grgich Hills Estates. Spending time with Joey, I can’t help wondering if the biodynamic approach to farming works for people too. On this little farm among the olive trees, vetch, rye, peas, barley, beans, yarrow, catnip, lavender, bees, owls, hawks, eagles, chickens and jackrabbits, I get the feeling that the sky to soil diversity that is good for the vines is also good for the soul.
It seems to be working for Joey. At the ripe old age of thirty he appears to have internalized the balance and harmony that is part and parcel of biodynamic farming. He has an easy laugh, listens intently and is healthy-handsome in a way that falls somewhere between Farm Journal and Abercrombie & Fitch.
Joey, a self-described “seeker,” became interested in biodynamics after earning a degree in horticulture at Virginia Tech (and economics from Virginia Commonwealth University). Organic farming was good, but he felt something was missing – he was looking for a holistic approach that went beyond inputs and production.
His father, a Vietnam vet who spent his working life at the Newport News Shipyard encouraged him to follow work he loved. His mother was supportive but a bit more pragmatic. Joey told her not to worry, “Mom. I have degree in economics. I can add.”
He was working at the Josephine Porter Institute, the "mother ship" of biodynamic farming, when he met Ivo Grgich. Ivo is the nephew of Miljenko "Mike" Grgich, the winemaker who helped change the world for California wines when his Chardonnay was named "finest in the world" in the now-famous "Paris Tasting of 1976." When Joey got the call to come to work for this famous family he didn't immediately say yes. He and his wife, Natalie were about to embark upon a cross-country trip. "We were going to end up wherever we ended up and try to find jobs. That was the plan. The plan was not to HAVE a job, it was to find a job when the money ran out.” He didn't accept till he talked to Natalie. "She said, 'Yes, yes, yes! Take it" and they took off on a month-long trek from New Orleans to their new jobs in Napa Valley.
Obviously Natalie has a strong streak of “seeker” too. She was his waitress in Blacksburg, Virginia when he was traveling from a farm in Kentucky where he was helping a friend. Four months later he went back to Blacksburg, and in a simple statement that says it all, “I found her.”
They live on Grgich property in Calistoga and Natalie works in the Grgich tasting room. This venerable winery is still very much a family affair. Ivo, is the winemaker and in charge of production. Mike Grgich’s daughter, Violet is in charge of all the day-to-day operations, marketing and sales. "It's not like this is just something fun to do, although they totally enjoy it. I think for some people in Napa it's a hobby. They made billions in some other industry and they come to do this because their friends did or because it was fun. Our situation is different. I think that changes things."
In addition to her business responsibilities, Violet is the inspiration for the Violetta desert wine, made with the botrytis-ized late harvest fruit that grows in this vineyard. “This year was great because of the rains. We got lucky. You can't really manipulate it. The rains and humidity helped it spread and it really concentrates those flavors."
The only thing missing in Joey's life seems to be a cow. Or cows. As he looked wistfully at an open field next to the vineyard, he muttered, "Good to get some cows on that." Later, when I spotted a jack rabbit, he told me they call them mini-cows, "The closest thing we have to cows right now. They eat the green stuff and poop." When I quiz him about what I consider some of the more bizzare aspects of biodynamics, cow-related and others (cow horns filled with dung and buried, intestines with camomile, vortexes and equinoxes) Joey replies simply, “For one thing, because it works.”
Yes it does work. Harmonious conditions and minimal manipulation allow Grgich wine to be the ultimate expression of terroir, that sense of place that encompasses soil, climate and topography. The wines taste clean, bright, and elegant, and with a complexity and balance that honors the farm in the vineyard where Joey works.
Tomorrow - what it took me to "get" biodynamics. What would my Dad the Physicist say?