CASTAGNA WINERY AND VINEYARD AT BEECHWORTH ON THE NORTHERN SIDE OF THE VICTORIAN ALPS: JULIAN AND CAROLANN CASTAGNA HAVE JUST WATCHED YET ANOTHER HUGE BUSHFIRE FROM THEIR RIDGE
More Old Drunks Than Old Doctors
Castagna Cleans Up Without Poison
by PHILIP WHITE - THIS STORY WAS WRITTEN FOR THE INDEPENDENT WEEKLY ON 30 JAN 09
When I started in this racket, back in the precambrian, a few lunies professed to make natural wines.
Gil Wahlquist made wines which would crawl outa the bottle all by ’emselves at his cobwebbed vineyard at Mudgee. In McLaren Vale, Gabor Berenyi almost equalled Gil with some of the most feral tinctures ever. If you didn’t let em out, they’d eat straight through the side of the bottle.
Through the ’eighties, and into the ’nineties, there were several characters who plied more intuition than wine science. Some even remembered what their grandfather had taught them about the draw of the moon. But they’d never admit such dangerous tendencies. Basically, everyone made hyper-sanitary wine like Brian Croser’s. That was the only way to get a trophy.
The petrochem industry, which grew from the explosives and nerve gas industry after the First World War, ruled the wine business. They’ve learned to switch back to explosives and gas when the demand’s there, but they, well, you know ... a man’s still gotta make a buck when peace breaks out.
Then, in 2000, I was half way down a row of two or three hundred masked shiraz bottles in my annual Top 100 tasting, when a wine exploded in my face. Vibrancy, intensity and vigour.
Disbelieving, I had my crew first check that it was Australian. Yep. They put it another bag with another number, further down the long row. It whacked me again. And again. As the day wore by, the damned thing just got more and more audacious, alarming and cheeky.
Once it had eventually earned the highest points of the whole tasting, all varieties, I rang the maker, who’d just got home from LA or somewhere, where he’d been directing a theatre ad for BMW or somebody, which is what he did to pay for everything. His name was Julian Castagna. He was a bit puffy from running to the phone, but his breath soon settled when I congratulated him and told him what had happened. I then asked his secret.
“Do you really want to know?” he asked ... perfect theatrical pause ... “It’s biodynamic.”
Castagna wines, of Beechworth in the Victorian Alps, went on to win that competition, or get in the top three, for years. He even won it with a rosé. Eventually he staged a conference of biodynamicists from all over the world, and many Australians who attended came back convinced.
Even David Paxton, who had been a relentless pursuer of yields came back to McLaren Vale, turned off the tap, and turned on the moonjuice.
You can drink the results in the Paxton bottles now: more intensity; more depth; more raw sex; more ethereal sensuality.
“It’s not the fact that you’re doing it”, he told me of his change of career, “but the resultant wine that hooked me, from vines which are all in balance – their natural ability to resist disease is enhanced.
“It’s about the density of the cells. The fruit is more naturally expressed. The true flavour is enhanced ... the further we go, the more we get into it. And surprisingly, it’s cheaper!”
Given the current allegation that bio-D is being used by charlatans as a marketing tool, I am the first to agree that you can make bad bio-D booze as easily as you make decrepit plonk the scientific way. But just as there are lot more old drunks than old doctors, there’s a lot more execrable swill being made by the scientists than the moon swooners, and always will be.
“Biodynamics for me is intuitive” Castagna wrote recently, “a craft rather than a science”. But he went on to cite the findings of Professor Stuart B. Hill, formerly of the Department of Entomology at McGill University, Canada, but now in the Department of Social Ecology at the University of Western Sydney-Hawkesbury.
"Biodynamics tends to be presented with a high level of mythology and talk of etheric forces and so on, but if you analyse the preparations you find they are in fact, if properly made, highly concentrated inoculums containing high levels of trace elements and a variety of micro-organisms" Hill said.
"A purely scientific approach does not allow for the intuitive understanding of the ‘good’ farmer” he continued. “Most people, including scientists, make decisions partly based on ‘feelings’ and intuitions, probably more often than they recognise, but science makes no allowance for that.
“In fact, most aspects of science are in denial about the phenomenon, and scientists set up experiments which ignore it. Those feelings or intuitions are, in fact, based on readings of inputs we don’t consciously recognise.”
Back to Castagna: “I wonder if the criticism now being levelled at Australian wine of ‘sameness’ would be tempered if our highly-skilled, highly-trained, science-based winemakers listened to their inner-self, their intuition, a little more often”, he asks.
Do they have any? I ask.