A STORY FOR CHANGE by Franz Weninger
Today we share the story of Franz Weninger and his path towards biodynamic viticulture.
27th April, 2020
When I came back from my internship in California in 1999, I had a clear goal in mind. I was impressed by the way Americans thought big, but I was disillusioned by the copycats: wineries that recreated Bordeaux or Tuscany – they felt like Disneyland. Anyone who has been to one of those places knows what I mean.
I was so glad that our vineyards were in the Old World, and I had plans to make great wine there.
But when I came home, I found my father in the cellar with an oenologist from France (financed by the EU and Burgenland). This man was telling my father how to ferment wine, he sold him French yeast, enzymes, tannins, and barrels, as well as vines from French nurseries. It suddenly dawned on me: the copycat approach – what I had seen in America and was determined to avoid – was the very thing my father was doing here at home, just like everyone else in Burgenland!
A New Course
I spoke with my father and found that he had an open ear for what I had to say. “Yes,” he said. “You’re right.” And so, in 2000, in search of our own identity we stopped using additives and began relying on spontaneous fermentation for all our wines.
The first year it worked very well, but we noticed problems in some of the vineyards. Some wines showed a reductive or oxidized character, and others were simply not clear. Since we used the same plant treatments in all our vineyards, the difference could only have come from the soil. So we hit the books again, got information, read specialized literature, and took courses on soil science.
In 2002 one of my vineyards was affected by stem necrosis. I called in an Austrian expert and in addition also the French consultant. Both suspected magnesium deficiency. A leaf stalk analysis performed in France confirmed this. The subsequent soil analysis, however, found sufficient or even excessive magnesium in the soil. The scientific solution was to apply leaf fertilizer every year prior to flowering. To me, however, that was no solution at all. Was the vineyard to be a patient no longer capable of eating on its own but being force-fed to stay alive? What a horrible prospect! To us the logical next step was to work on the soil structure, making sure the nutrients in the soil could actually be absorbed by the plants.
Organic, Biodynamic, Humus
We started with humus cultivation, and by the following year eighty percent of the problems had disappeared. Most of the courses and books about soil science that we found helpful dealt with organic farming, and after a year of building up the soil/humus structure, it quickly became clear that this was our path for the future.
And so in 2004 we started the certification process. Successful yet still hungry for answers, we soon realized that although organic farming called for a clean product (deposit-free), it had not – socially and scientifically speaking – come up with anything new. To us something was missing, we just didn’t know what.
In 2005/2006 we met a biodynamics teacher who explained his basic principles of agriculture to us, and we were enthusiastic. He taught biodynamics from an agroecological perspective. The basic rules were logical, but the spiritual use of the preparations wasn’t. And our primarily scientific minds refused to accept it. The teacher managed to persuade us with one simple argument: “Why don’t you give it a try for one year and then we’ll see what you think of it.”
And that’s what we did. Around that time a new association (Respekt), was founded in Austria, and since 2006 we subject our operations to an independent monitoring body. We have been using biodynamic preparations. In 2016 we became members of Demeter Austria and since then have been monitored according to these guidelines as well.
A lot of winemakers claim to farm according to this system or based on organic principles, they just don’t want to go to the trouble of being certified. “Freedom” is the argument they give. To me, the stricter the boundaries I set myself, the more I rise to the occasion within those boundaries and the brighter my wine shines. It is the same as with architecture: if you limit yourself to fewer materials, it may be more difficult, but the architecture becomes more defined. No crop-thinning, no batonnage, no adding of sulfites, no sampling… all this reduction leads to pure wines. In this way certification and monitoring help me to establish a framework and to focus. And in today’s world there is probably nothing more important than staying focused.
Sustainable Applies to Cellars… and to Technology
But sustainability doesn’t stop here! Not only the work in the vineyard or in the cellar but also the social interaction and energy at the winery must be sustainable. For heating, we use wood from our forest. We have a natural cellar. We use groundwater for cooling. We generate electricity with solar panels, and we drive to our vineyards in electric cars. We look forward to the first electric tractors, but we are well aware that it is not technology that preserves our environment but the conscious handling of it. That is why with each step we take we always ask ourselves if it is really necessary.
“Reducing things to what is essential,” that is the way.