Traditions Taken Beyond The Limit Of Logic


The annual harvest of the sangiovese grapes at the tiny Colombaia winery outside Siena. Credit Susan Wright for The New York Times

This story touches on many of our favorite themes, so thanks to Mr. Pergament for telling it well (click the image above to go to the original, at the New York Times website):


It was a hot, late summer evening in Tuscan wine country — and, unexpectedly, I was getting a lesson in astrology.

Inside a grid of cool, lush green vines, amid hills and valleys rippling toward the horizon, a cherubic woman in a wide straw hat named Helena Variara was pointing toward the sky.

“You have days of fire, air and days of earth — the 12 constellations are our helpers,” she said matter-of-factly. “Our work is to enter the rhythm of the planets.”

Technically speaking, Ms. Variara’s work is also to make wine. She and her partner, Dante Lomazzi, own a tiny winery called Colombaia, tucked onto a hillside of northern Tuscany, outside Siena. “We work the soil on earth days,” Ms. Variara said. “We work the leaves on water days. The sugar in the grapes grows when the moon grows. So we only harvest after a full moon.”

After a pause, she added: “By the way, the water days are also the best days for eating salad.”

Ms. Variara’s practices may seem unorthodox, but her method (better known as biodynamic winemaking) is becoming more and more prominent among a small cohort of Italian winemakers. It follows an ethos composed in the mind of the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the early 1920s, and the tenets are fairly simple: There can be no synthetic chemicals or mechanical irrigation. A true biodynamic farm must also grow a variety of fruits and vegetables, and there have to be animals, either domestic or wild, to keep this miniature ecosystem in check.

And Ms. Variara’s affinity for the constellations is not a personal idiosyncrasy. Biodynamic winemaking also mandates that the farmer adhere to a specific celestial calendar. Hence my astrology lesson.

Sebastian Nasello, the winemaker at Podere Le Ripi in Montalcino, explained it this way: “Organic farming does no harm to the earth. Biodynamic farming aims to make the earth healthier.”

People like Ms. Variara and Mr. Nasello are part of a movement of small vineyards; most produce about 10,000 to 20,000 bottles annually.


Dante Lomazzi and Helena Variara, Colombaia’s owners, whose biodynamic method of winemaking is becoming more and more prominent among a small cohort of Italian winemakers. Credit Susan Wright for The New York Times

As a point of comparison, Goliath vineyards like Antinori, Frescobaldi and the other wines of the duty-free world produce millions of bottles a year and export them all over the world. In 2015, Santa Margherita sold over 19 million bottles in 85 countries, totaling 118,200,000 euros (about $130,000,000) in net sales.

The biodynamic vineyards I visited export a few thousand bottles a year, if any, and the digits of their net sales numbers don’t usually exceed three or four zeros.

Unlike the giants of the wine world, these small, rough-hewed farms add no ingredients besides grapes and time to their wines (with the occasional exception of a pinch of sulfites to preserve the vintage). Where a company like Banfi or Antinori may get truckloads of grapes from all over the region delivered to a sprawling factory that also hosts tour buses, these biodynamic farms generally consist of a farmer, a tractor and maybe a few friends who come to help at harvest time. These farmers are the Davids.

What if the best way into the world of Italian wine was not on a tour bus, but walking through these tiny vineyards with these farmers as guides? It felt like unchartered territory, as if I was unpeeling the unknown side of Italian wine. And, as I would learn, it’s a world that only gets more fascinating the deeper in you go.

Officially, these wineries are not typically open to the public. Unofficially, such winemakers love nothing more than showing off their farms and vintages. For someone who is more traveler than tourist, these wineries provide the perfect entry into a part of Italy we don’t see very often, a part that has been untouched by throngs of tourists and Instagram clichés…

Read the whole story here.

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