V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Gentle grapes

Toronto Sun, Sun Media papers, December, 2008.

At Southbrook Vineyards in Ontario, vines are gently roused from their morning slumber with a heady mineral shower.

A mist of ground quartz and water is sprayed into the air to "activate the energy forces in the atmosphere," eventually coming to rest on the vines.

Horns filled with sheep or cow manure are buried underground to compost and stimulate microbial activity. Harvesting and pruning, meanwhile, are dictated by celestial forces such as the lunar cycles and the equinox.

These are the principles of biodynamic winemaking, an almost century-old philosophy which preaches an ecological and pseudo-spiritual approach to viticulture that goes beyond organic.

Southbrook is the first winery in Canada to be certified biodynamic by the international body Demeter.

It's a philosophy conceived by Rudolf Steiner, who, in 1924, delivered a series of lectures on holistic agriculture -- farming in symbiosis with the ecology, spirituality and energy found in nature. Farms should be self-sustaining, he says: Everything used to farm should be found on the farm.

"Science doesn't always address the complexities of forces and energy in the environment," said Ann Sperling, director of winemaking at Southbrook. "What biodynamic agriculture is doing is addressing forces not quantified by science."

While biodynamic agriculture has been criticized for being too mystical, winemakers claim the wine is more "floral" and tastes more vibrant.

Interest in biodynamic and organic wines, beers and spirits has been rising with the growing interest in the organic food movement, said product consultant Ellen Keleher of Ontario's alcohol retailer, the LCBO.

"People are leading healthier lifestyles. They're eating organic foods and want organic wines to go with their foods."

Only a handful of wineries in Canada are certified organic. In Ontario, Southbrook and Frogpond Farms are the only two wines able to make that claim. And labels which say "Made with organically grown grapes" don't mean the wine's organic, Keleher warns.

"It may be organic in the vineyards, but it's not necessarily organic in the winery," she said.

To be certified organic, the winery itself must also use natural cleaning agents such as ozone, for instance, and fining agents -- ingredients which reduce bitterness, astringency and aromas -- must also be natural.

While Tawse winery in Ontario grows organic grapes, for example, the winery isn't considered certified organic.

And while it's not certified biodynamic, vintners follow biodynamic methods as best-growing practices.

"Steiner was a spiritual leader of that time," said Brad Gowland, winery manager. "He followed the lunar, astrological calendars and felt they had a great impact on plant, animal and human life. We don't go quite as far as that but we know the lunar cycles have an effect on things."

Meanwhile, Canada's only certified organic farmhouse microbrewery, Crannog Ales in Sorrento, B.C., also produces beer that's a deeper shade of green than your regular organic. Co-owner Brian MacIsaac operates a zero-waste facility, where beer is available only on draught in mini "party pig" kegs to reduce the use of bottles.

"We know recycling exists but we don't believe in it," MacIsaac said.

Spent yeast and grain is fed to their pigs or composted and process water is reused in the brewery for watering livestock and the gardens. They grow their own hops and have found someone locally to malt barley.

And unlike most producers, MacIsaac follows a counter-intuitive business model. He has 60 clients and isn't looking for more.

"We're not based on a business-growth model. We're based on a sustainable level. We have enough customers. It's a weird thing to say but we don't want to outgrow our footprint. We want to enjoy this as opposed to being a big business."

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NEW YEAR'S EVE ALTERNATIVES

- Tetra Pak containers, plastic bottles and aluminum cans reduce package waste by more than 90% compared to glass bottles.

- Reduced packaging also results in lower fuel costs during transportation.

- New lightweight packaging choices have helped Ontario alcohol retailer LCBO eliminate 10 million kg of packaging waste a year.

- Look for locally produced products, and for certified organic labels such as Pro-Cert or Ecocert on Canadian-produced wines.

- When clinking glasses to usher in the New Year, consider Reyka Vodka. The distillery in Iceland is powered entirely by renewable energy in the form of geothermal heat, and uses pure, Icelandic water. While it has to be imported and may not be green that way, it makes a great vodka alternative.

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