There are moonlight wine tastings in British supermarkets and a calendar advising when conditions are right for drinking certain varietals. Some folk swear by these practices … and others swear at them. So, should you start asking a bottle of wine, “What’s your sign?”
The question really is this: how much truth, if any, is there to the belief that astrological signs affect what adult beverages you drink and, more specifically, how the ingredients are grown and made?
Planting according to the phases of the moon is a practice as old as agriculture itself, but employing the same celestial portends as guidelines for tasting the fruit of the vine is much more recent. It’s generally based on biodynamics, a holistic agronomy system created by philosopher Rudolph Steiner in the late 1920’s. Adherents believe that not only the vines are impacted by phases of the moon but, even more surprising, that the finished wines themselves are also influenced by celestial conditions. What this means is that proponents claim certain times of the month are best for bringing out qualities within the wines. The four aspects of influence are divided into the categories of flavorful “fruit,” aromatic “flower,” and tannic “root” or “leaf” (all those planty adjectives).
Not all biodynamic growers are convinced about the sky-palate connection, but most agree that the main reason for embracing the philosophy is the preservation of terroir. Randall Grahm, founder of the award-winning Bonny Doon Vineyard, adds, “Biodynamic practice seems to enhance root-hair fungi that aid the transport of minerals into vines and make the resulting wines more resistant to oxidation and capable of much longer ageing.”
For more than two thousand years, Chinese have practiced astrological agriculture, and the Farmer’s Almanac still looks to the heavens for guidance. But, while some biodynamic wineries go so far as to stir the lees (the yeasty sediment) during prime lunar cycles to add flavor to fermentation, hard scientific proof lags way behind anecdotal allegations. Many biodynamic success stories are also true of organic farming techniques.
Mendocino’s Frey Vineyards is not only America’s first organic winery (1980), it was also the first to be certified biodynamic (1996). Derek Dahlen, Frey’s vineyard manager, acknowledges that the two agricultural practices are very similar in their prescriptions about natural balance, techniques of planting and harvesting, abhorrence of chemicals in both growing and processing, and in their desire for soil improvement and long-term conditioning. What separates the Orgs from the Bios is the celestial component and some esoteric biodynamic methodologies: composting yarrow flowers in a red stag’s bladder, burying a manure-filled cow’s horn, and fermenting dandelion seeds in “cow mesentery” (gut membrane). Strangely enough, it’s easier to secure and spread the unusual mulch ingredients than it is to stick to a lunar schedule. “It’s challenging sometimes to plan everything around the window, especially when the weather proves uncooperative,” says Dahlen, “but we do our best—including some harvesting under the full moon this past October.”
You already know that October’s is the harvest moon, but there are other agrarian-linked full moons through out the year. They are the sap (March), seed (April), flower (May), Sun (June), Mead (July) and wort (August). As to why such a system of full moon designations might have validity, some believers refer to the gravitational pull of the moon on the earth’s tides and claim that moisture in the soil, or even within plants, may respond to the moon as well. Marion Owen, co-author of Chicken Soup for the Gardener’s Soul, writes that the moon’s last quarter is the best time to till the soil “because that’s when the water table has dropped to its lowest point,” making the earth lighter and easier to turn over. This is also a “good time to prune plants… so less sap will flow out of the cut ends.” The final quarter is also an auspicious time to graft fruit trees, fertilize, and weed. But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to do when the moon is dark. That is the perfect time for planting vines that need strong roots and, according to Owen, “harvesting crops that mature above ground as they are filled with vitality and energy.”
Like wine, beer also has a place in the greater cosmology. Noted Astrologer Heather Roan Robbins told me, “Brewing is yeast-based; we want the yeast to grow, so start that on a waxing moon, preferably the second quarter and in a fertile earth or water sign.”
If you are not a home brewer, there are a few biodynamic commercial imports from Belgium and Australia, including Leirekin Biere Biologique and Glenbar Lager.
Randall Grahm cautions with this caveat: “Biodynamic practice does not automatically mean your produce is superior. You still need to be a competent farmer.” He speaks from experience, having practiced biodynamic growing in California’s Salinas Valley “but never completely overcoming some of the real challenges of farming in an inhospitable environment.”
Historically, few civilizations were more obsessed with celestial observation and time than the Maya so, if you believe that time’s up for all of us at the end of this new year, then don’t worry about planting, harvesting or even tasting. Then again, according to other interpretations of ancient Maya beliefs, the world has been created five times and destroyed four. Providing the celestial signs are auspicious, I’ll drink to that.
by Paul Ross, Drink Me Magazine’s Travel Editor