Published in Wines and Vines Magazine, September 2005
Presidio Winery Pioneering the way to Biodynamic Winegrowing on Central Coast
By Mark Storer
Doug Braun is evolving. From his early days at Fresno State and UC Davis where he learned to become a winemaker, to his work with such varied wine producers as Cribari and Thomas Jaeger, Braun has become a farmer—and not just any farmer. As winemaker and president of Presidio Winery since 1991, he has committed Presidio to a level of sustainable practice farming that is classified as biodynamic. The winery has evolved as well. It has moved from making wine “by the book”, to claiming its place as a premier sustainable practice vineyard and wine producer.
“When you’re in the wine industry, the schooling, your degree, kind of forms you,” Braun said with a schoolteacher’s admonition in his voice. A product of his schooling, Braun spent his formative years doing the right things in the winery during the winemaking process. As he garnered more kudos for the wines he made, he began focusing attention on the vineyard. “More and more, I realized the farming side of it is the most important side. And even now, that side gets ignored…I think, too much.”
Originally, Braun leased a vineyard in the Santa Maria Hills and sourced fruit from other vineyards as well and began to see patterns he didn’t like. “There were certain styles that I wanted to see in farming that weren’t there,” he said. The leased property had advantages in consistency and in access, but as Braun put it, “Did we really want to spend money on a leased property to make farming changes?” The answer was a resounding “no’. Presidio then began to use per acre contracts rather than purchasing fruit by the ton. Braun still uses this system for fruit that does not come from the Presidio estate because it provides the grower with a fixed amount of money no matter what and it allows the winemaker to go into various acres and pick and choose how he wants to prepare and harvest the grapes.
“The last thing that Santa Barbara County needed was another vineyard. I mean look around: vineyards are everywhere. That said, though, what we were trying to do wasn’t being done,” Braun said. With that, the Presidio estate was established along highway 246 just west of the Santa Rita Hills AVA and near such well known growers as Babcock and Melville. It totals 100 acres with some 30 acres currently under viognier, syrah and pinot noir vines.
The first experiment in sustainable practice farming, however, came with a crop of Cabernet Franc that Braun was using for making a Merlot blend. The Presidio team found that using chemical fertilizers made the vines grow abnormally fast and damaged their own natural immune system. “We had two sites next to each other. One was farmed chemically and the other was using organic practices. We looked at it from the air and the chemical one looked much better. But when it got down to fruit quality, you found something totally different.” According to Braun, the chemically farmed Cab Franc had a heavy vegetable character to it and the fruit was inferior to the organic berries. “The taste was just there and that got us into organic farming.”
Another prime mover for Braun was a trip to Europe with the late Central Coast wine guru, Mike Bonaccorsi. There, Braun began learning more about biodynamic farming. “Europe is way ahead of us in this and so there was a lot to learn.” The Californians who went found that biodynamic farming was in use all over France and Germany, particularly Burgundy, Braun said. “We were captivated by it. The difference in wine between these biodynamic farms and others was stunning—it was just stunning.”
When organic farming or sustainable practices come up for discussion, the number one reason people feel it is being used is because of social responsibility. With the attention being paid to the environmental movement, organic farming has taken its place right up alongside global warming and hybrid automobiles. “Honestly though, that was not our goal. That’s not to say that it’s not good to be socially responsible, obviously. But if we could make great wines with chemicals, we’d be doing it,” Braun said highlighting his single-minded commitment to winemaking. He seems to have found what works best and is sticking with it.
Biodynamic farming is really a system that covers everything from the soil to the seed to the vine to everything else. It is more intensive farming and it certainly requires more people power, so the overhead can in some cases be higher. The payoff, though, is in a vineyard that is sustainable and a product that is as focused as it can be. “But we’re even talking about taking into consideration the aspect of the moon and gravitational pull,” Braun said. “When I rack wines, for example, I notice I get a cleaner rack when the gravitational pull is at its highest. I know it sounds crazy, but I’ve found it to be true and when you think about it, it makes sense.” Having farmed using both chemicals and organics, Braun argues that he is in a position to know how both work. Out in the vineyard, the advantages of biodynamic farming show up in all facets of the growing process. A vineyard that doesn’t use chemicals at all, for example, is less likely to get a higher presence of more noxious weeds. “We do spend more time hoeing, but it pays off—and the weeds we do get, like mustard, for example, aren’t all that serious.”
Doing the work of many of the chemicals in a biodynamic vineyard is something called a compost tea. These teas serve two purposes in that they work as natural herbicides and fungicides as well as providing nutrients to the vines. “But a lot of people do them badly and don’t analyze their teas so they aren’t convinced they work. You need to analyze the composition of the teas and their effects, rather than just start spraying them on and hope for the best,” Braun said. The teas are manufactured right at the vineyard using compost that the vineyard itself produces, including manure from local cows. Sitting awkwardly on the roof of the sprawling ranch house that Presidio calls home, a bit of an embarrassment to his wife, Braun said, are two barrels that gravity feed the compost teas as they brew down below. Again, the work is labor intensive, but again too, it pays off in the vineyard.
“We’re actually not a really good definition of a biodynamic farm,” said Braun. “A good one would have its own cows and other crops to create an almost closed total system.” But sustainable practices work less on a 100% scale than on a sliding one. Biodynamic is indeed more strict than just organic farming, but still, there are levels that are acceptable within a framework of biodynamic practices. The Demeter Association is responsible for certifying biodynamic farming operations in the United States and Presidio is working on becoming certified as a biodynamic organization.
The differences between organic farming and biodynamic farming are actually quite large. “Biodynamic farming assumes that if the soil is healthy, then the vine will be healthy. Organic just says you should use organic processes, but biodynamic focuses on the soil and everything starts from there.” Braun suggested that this is why biodynamic farming is popular in France. “They’re the real terroirists and so it makes sense that they want to make that the focus of their wine.”
The Presidio vineyard is really a thing of beauty both from a farming standpoint and even aesthetically. Using cover crops such as purple vetch and sweet pea that build up nitrogen in the soil, the vineyard has a rustic look to it, especially before hoeing. Those plants, particularly the vetch, also attract ladybugs that help with the unwanted pests in the vineyard and so far, Braun indicated, pests have not been a tremendous problem. The trellises themselves are planted three feet between vines in seven-foot rows. This is one foot less in either direction than many standard vineyards but creates an intense growing environment in which there are 2,074 vines an acre. “That’s an increase of 1,000 vines an acre,” said Braun. The clusters of vines are very close together, much like a European style. This creates root competition and low yields. Each one is set with vines pruned to grow horizontally and much closer to the ground to take advantage of light refraction. “It’s a pretty cool area with the sea breeze and the fog that can last well into the morning and early afternoon, so we want to take advantage of the sunlight that we do get,” said Braun. By contrast, traditional California farming would be on eight and a half by 11-foot rows and have approximately 450 vines per acre.
“I’m not just interested in the brix I get in the harvest. When I was in college and worked with a gas chromatograph, I was fascinated by the huge number of aromatics and other components in the grapes,” Braun said. “So, yeah—sugar turns to alcohol and that’s important, but there’s much more to the picture than that.” In a sense, Braun’s American entrepreneurial spirit is being fed by old world Europe where the terroir is indeed everything. “I wanted to find the coolest spot I could find and then find a south facing slope so that I could take advantage of that California sun,” Braun said. Santa Barbara County’s most unique feature for winegrowing is that in a land of mountains that all run north-south, the county’s mountains run east-west, allowing sea breezes to come far up the canyons and creating extraordinary microclimates.
“There are the basics, you know, of bass, drums and guitar,” analogized Braun. “But the melody can be enhanced by so many other things and so that translates here. There are so many characteristics to explore and when you get down to choosing what you want, creating them becomes the ultimate challenge.” Braun seems uniquely suited for the job. He knows what he wants in the wine, and even teaches a class on sensory evaluation through Alan Hancock College, the Santa Maria Community College that has expanded its wine course offerings. Like the students he teaches Braun never stops learning or listening, in this case to the soil out of which he coaxes his grapes. “It’s early in the game right now, so it’s hard to be really dogmatic. But if there’s a balance in the vineyard, then there will be a balance in the wine. So far the balance has been great,” Braun said. As the evolution is a never ending process, so too is Braun’s attitude about winemaking and winegrowing on the Central Coast.
Hidden away from the Presidio tasting room in tourist laden Solvang at the opposite end of the 246 highway in Lompoc, we barrel tasted through the 2004 varietals of viognier, syrah and pinot noir in Presidio’s winemaking facility. The viognier was full of peach and apricot flavors that burst through. Soft and supple, even from the barrel there was no harshness about the wine, no acid or overly sugary notes.
The pinot noir, even though it was still in barrel, already exhibited the jammy and fruity flavors that pinot breeds. It was balanced, though, with a loamy and smooth finish that was beautiful.
The syrah was the specialty of the day. A peppery, mineral-laden wine with a core of real blackberry and black plum flavors. This syrah had been blended with about three percent viognier in a classic French style. The result was elegant, long lasting and complex.
by Mark Storer