Gena Nonini pops open her favorite French oak barrel and siphons off a little brandy. She cuts it with a little water, gives a swirl and then offers a drink.
It’s smooth on the palate, with a pleasing hint of caramel, or maple, as Nonini likes to say.
She talks of the flavor imparted by barrels with light, medium and heavy toasts. She shows her copper still, which lends a better taste to brandy than a still made of stainless steel, she says.
All common talk for a brandy maker, but Nonini isn’t typical at all. This Fresno-area farmer is the first in the country to produce distilled spirits from her own certified biodynamic grapes.
“Biodynamic” refers to Nonini’s style of farming. Think of it as organic plus: In addition to refusing to use most chemicals, biodynamic farmers take into account astral influences.
“You start looking at planetary influences and the cosmic world,” Nonini says. “It’s even more fluid and alive than organics.”
Biodynamic farming involves unconventional methods, such as burying manure in cow’s horns and applying the resulting compost to the fields at certain times of the year.
Nonini also creates “festival sprays” timed to important Christian dates. She’ll mix up ingredients such as frankincense and stinging nettle, then spray the mixtures on plants during the Epiphany, the Ascension, Michaelmas and other Christian festivals.
All the treatments are meant to improve the quality of her grapes and other crops.
These practices may cause skeptical folks to raise eyebrows, but the superiority of Nonini’s grapes speaks for itself — it’s what caused Quady Winery to make an amontillado sherry-style wine from her Palomino grapes, says Quady winemaker Michael Blaylock. That sherry, called Palomino Fino, was released last week. Nonini expects to sell her brandy later this year.
The moves into biodynamic spirits and wine make Quady and Nonini part of a small but growing list of viticulturists and vinters buying into these farming practices.
According to the Demeter Association, the international organization that certifies biodynamic products, almost 40 wineries and vineyards are certified. That’s almost a fourfold increase over 2004.
Nonini operates in an even smaller niche. Demeter records show that only one other distilled spirits company has applied for biodynamic certification.
In addition, there are an unknown number of uncertified companies — such as Quady — that use biodynamic ingredients.
The practice may be in its infancy in the United States, but it’s far better known in Europe.
In the 1920s, Austrian scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner pioneered biodynamic techniques to boost crop fertility and address pest and disease issues. Since then, various European wineries have tried biodynamics. In the esteemed wine region of Burgundy, France, for example, wine writer Natalie MacLean found that the famed Domaine de la Romanée-Conti had experimented with biodynamic techniques. And Domaine Leroy and Domaine Leflaive have embraced biodynamics wholeheartedly, MacLean writes in “Red, White and Drunk All Over: A Wine-Soaked Journey from Grape to Glass.”
“It just makes good sense,” Anne-Claude Leflaive of Domaine Leflaive says of biodynamics in “Red, White and Drunk All Over.”
“It’s not a matter of marketing — we don’t even put ‘biodynamic’ on the label.”
In the United States, the small number of farmers and wineries tackling biodynamics means that the average customer is unlikely to recognize biodynamic wines — no matter what’s on the label.
No one has asked about biodynamic wines at local shops such as The Grape Tray at Fresno Street and Shaw Avenue or Eau de Vie at Champlain Drive and Perrin Avenue, the owners say.
Some may go as far as to ask for organic wines, but only “people buying [wines] less than $20 look for things like that,” says Stan Kato of The Grape Tray.
Eau de Vie co-owner Susie Davis says she hasn’t researched biodynamic wines enough to have an opinion of them.
That may change as more producers adopt biodynamic practices.
Also, as larger companies enter the organic industry, consumers looking for relationships with smaller farmers may seek out biodynamic products.
With their many crops and smaller yields, biodynamic farms aren’t well-suited for large-scale production. Ideally, all of the materials needed to maintain a biodynamic operation would come from the farm itself.
“There really cannot be the exponential growth that has been seen in the organic food marketplace,” Demeter Association director Jim Fullmer writes in an e-mail.
“Even out of certified organic status, it can take a farm two additional years to achieve Demeter certification. It takes time to develop these systems.”
Nonini shows how much a biodynamic farmer must consider. Several weeks ago, for example, she realized the positions of the moon, the Earth and the constellation Pisces created strong water forces. A couple of days later, it rained.
Conventional farmers typically would wait until after the rain to respond, she says. But Nonini started applying treatments before and after the rain.
Nonini also says she uses more spray treatments than required by the Demeter Association.
“We do more than what’s required, and then some,” Nonini says. “My only job is to get the life force of the universe into food.”
For its part, Quady explored turning into a biodynamic or organic winery. In the end, the winery didn’t move in either of those directions, but it still was eager to use Nonini’s grapes. It has taken five years to transform them into wine.
Quady’s Palomino Fino has some characteristics of traditional amontillado sherry.
Its color is a rich, golden amber. The flavor has “a very pronounced hazelnut character to it,” Blaylock says. “It goes really well with a seafood bisque.”
Amontillado sherry typically is paired with the small Spanish dishes called tapas, he adds.
Other foods that pair well with it are manchego and dry Jack cheeses, as well as salted almonds, Quady’s assistant wine maker Darin Peterson says.
Palomino Fino sells for $30 a bottle. Locally, the winery’s tasting room in Madera is the best place to buy it; distribution is extremely limited.
Blaylock, though, expects demand for it to be high.
He credits the sherry’s quality not just to winemaking techniques, but also to Nonini’s grapes.
Organic and biodynamic farmers “are passionate,” Blaylock says. “Almost by nature, they’re going to make a great product.”