Cultivating grapes for wine-making has been going on since antiquity, as Monty Waldin first noticed in bible class at primary school. “Even at eight, I thought the Virgin birth was dodgy, and the stories all seemed to deal with wars, famines and stonings. The only bit that caught my imagination was the fact that, even in arid, disaster-ridden lands, people were always drinking wine with their unleavened bread and olive oil. The vine seemed to have incredible resilience.”
Though bible class left Monty cold, he has, nevertheless, found his inner evangelist. Author of seven books on wine and the subject of Channel 4’s TV series, Chateau Monty, which saw him give up a comfortable life as a wine critic to become a wine producer himself, Monty is one of the world’s leading authorities on biodynamic wine, and certainly its most impassioned.
The interest was there from the start. Asked to bring something he had made to the Bedales entry tests in 1980, 12-year old Monty arrived clutching a bottle of his home made orange wine. Though he did well at school, he never saw himself as particularly talented, an impression unwittingly reinforced by French teacher Odile Allen’s suggestion that he and his study-unit mate should spend the summer of 6.1 in France to perk up their French. He spent the summer working for a wine-grower in Bordeaux, where he had something of an epiphany: “Wine was the first thing I felt I understood”. He had found his passion, and was smitten enough to want to return the summer after his A levels.
He started to read widely on wine-making, on how the flavour of the wine differs according to its terroir – the individual environment in which grapes are grown, from the climate to the soil. Naturally cynical, he soon detected a difference between the lyrical writing on wine (“There’s an aura about wine – people don’t write about onions or carrots”) and the farming practices he had encountered in the real world: “In many areas, grapes are grown in a mechanised way. They are sprayed with the same fertilisers, given the same systemic fungicides and insecticides. It’s hardly a surprise if they end up tasting the same.”
In the 1980s, organic and biodynamic wine-making approaches were the smelly hippies on the margin of a highly traditional wine industry. Some of the principles of biodynamic farming sound eccentric even now – not least pruning, ploughing, picking grapes and even bottling the wine by lunar cycles. Monty sees it as common sense. As he wrote recently in an article for the Ecologist magazine, “The bottom line is that biodynamics is the oldest organic agricultural movement in the world, and the only one specifically to make sustainability and self-sufficiency a benchmark principle.”
Monty’s approach is not purely intellectual, however, but stems from a deeply held conviction that wine should be an everyday pleasure. He explains “I don't keep a wine cellar. For me, wine is liquid food. Drinking wine at meals is simply a part of my daily routine. If that's how you see it too, you would rather drink wine without added pesticides. When I was growing up in the 1970s, we had chickens, a bit like The Good Life on TV. I used to make compost with my father and I loved the fact that compost was a free resource. You don’t need a mask or protective gloves – just some cow manure. I always thought that sustainability makes sense, it’s fun to do and you get high quality results.”
Chemicals tend to cause as many problems as they cure, as Monty observes: “Fertilisers produced at huge environmental cost by the petrochemical industry are trucked into vineyards, making vines grow so fast that they end up weakened, with diseases that need treating with more petrochemicals. Biodynamic vineyards, by contrast, use organic compost, which encourages worms and other soil organisms that aerate and enrich the soil, rather than depleting its resources as chemicals do. The best and strongest vines are those that are deep-rooted, equipped to survive heat-waves and heavy rain without yielding grapes that taste “baked” or diluted. They also produce wines with the most terroir–driven flavours.”
Happily settled in Tuscany with his Italian wife and young son, Monty has his place in the sun, but isn’t planning on hanging up his boots – or putting down his pen – yet. As a wine writer, he specialised in green issues early. His first two books, The Organic Wine Guide (Thorsons, 1999) and Biodynamic Wines (Mitchell Beazley, 2004) broke new ground and won multiple awards. His latest work, the Biodynamic Wine Guide 2011 continues the tradition, while an easy charm and earthy turn of phrase make him a sought-after lecturer.
He’s pleased that his passion has worked out: “I’ve established a niche because I genuinely felt I had something interesting to say.” His reward is to see biodynamic approaches to wine-growing become part of the mainstream in this most traditional of industries.
Monty Waldin was interviewed by Kate Fairweather, OB.