Part II: Sebastiano Cossia Castiglioni
Born in Milan, Italy in 1966, Sebastiano has been a vegetarian and an animal rights activist for nearly thirty years. He is the owner and chairman of one of the most renowned and pioneering wineries in Europe, Querciabella, where organic viticulture implemented in 1988 led to a complete conversion to strict biodynamic practices in 2000. His Tuscan wines have garnered worldwide acclaim, including “Best Italian Wine” in 2004. Sebastiano is an industrial designer and the creator of a multinational business network encompassing fields as varied as agriculture, financial advisory, advanced technology, and real estate. He currently lives with his family in Northern Europe.
Hello, we’re back. I’m Caryn Hartglass and you’re listening to It’s All About Food, because you know what? It is – all about food. Everything that you can think of, I think, is related to food. Our health, the environment, animals, all life on Earth; it’s connected to the food we eat and what we are doing to get food in our mouths. Every time we sit down at the table we really should be thinking at least for a moment where that food came from and the incredible path it took to get to the point where it’s on our plate and we get to enjoy it. Something a lot of us take for granted. Okay, so I want to bring on my guest Sebastiano Castiglioni. He was born in Milan, Italy in 1966. He has been a vegetarian and an animal rights activist for nearly 30 years. He is the owner and chairman of one of the most renowned and pioneering wineries in Europe, Querciabella, where organic viticulture implemented in 1988 led to a complete conversion to strict biodynamic practices in 2000. His Tuscan wines have garnered worldwide acclaim, including “Best Italian Wine” in 2004. Sebastiano is an industrial designer and the creator of a multinational business network encompassing fields as varied as agriculture, financial advisory, advanced technology, and real estate. He currently lives with his family in Northern Europe. Welcome to It’s All About Food.
Sebastiano Castiglioni: Thank you, Caryn. It’s great to be here.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, I’m so glad I got to meet you last week and to coordinate it so that you could come into the Manhattan studio because you’re not always here
Sebastiano Castiglioni: Absolutely. It’s a pleasure to touch on the subjects that you often talk about. I’m convinced, really, it is all about food, and we need to start asking ourselves some serious questions. That’s what we did when we started figuring out a different way to produce wine. Not only had we approached it from the organic standpoint, which I think is a ‘must’ nowadays. I mean, how else can we think to do anything responsibly, sustainably and in a healthy way, if not going the organic way? But as you know, we also share a passion for animals and for their well-being, and so I thought about how to create an agricultural complex, a farm that would work without ever using any animal based products. And it is possible. We are doing it. We’ve been doing it for years now. Now the question is, I don’t know if you want me to explain a little bit about biodynamics.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh, sure. Absolutely.
Sebastiano Castiglioni: Okay, not too many know. We all know more or less what organic is. You take away all the harmful chemical products and get rid of them. With biodynamics you take a much wider approach, and you’re actually very proactive, so what you are trying to do is to bring nature back into agriculture. So, you’re trying to reestablish an ecosystem where nature does what it normally does; what it does best. And so, there are lots of techniques that we use. Most importantly, cover crops. Cover crops are these plants that you plant among the ones that you are growing for food. So, in vineyards for instance, every year we plant every other row with this wonderful mix of flowers and aromatic herbs, legumes and you name it. It’s 32 to 36 different plants, depending on the period, the area and…
Caryn Hartglass: Do you use those legumes and herbs?
Sebastiano Castiglioni: No, because the way you use it in biodynamics is you plant in between rows and when they bloom, when they come into flower, you cut them and mix them into the soil. This brings so many nutrients back to the soil. You might be familiar with the fact that legumes, for instance, extract certain substances and give back nitrogen to the soil. So what you do with this process is, first of all, these plants have a fantastic influence on everything around them while they are growing and they are in flower. For instance, at our winery Querciabella, we have a fantastic population of bees that we support by planting tons of organic flowers all year round. By the way, I’d love to say that these bees produce a ton of honey, which we do not harvest. We only take what’s in excess and bothers them. Actually, it’s a very long story, and Jane, my wife, is the one who deals with all of this, and she’s the mastermind behind all the work on the bees. Anyway, there are certain ways to build beehives that are more natural to the bees, where they live happier and, believe it or not, they produce exactly what they need and very little extra, so all we take is what bothers them when they need to move around, but we leave them all their honey which they need in the winter. Anyway, back to the cover crops, they have fantastic functions, for instance there are plants like mustard that repel funguses, and there are plants that attract certain insects that are beneficial. There are other plants that repel other insects that you don’t want to have around because they are damaging to the grapes, so there’s this fantastic balance, and there are scientific studies that show that where you have cover crops, you have twenty times more animal species than you have where you don’t. And so, imagine…
Caryn Hartglass: That might be good for nature, but does that affect the grapes at all in a negative way?
Sebastiano Castiglioni: Well, it does in many ways. First of all, the vine is a vine, as the word says, so yes it’s normally in our hearts to assist them where it grows, but if you let it grow more freely, it will actually produce much better grapes and a better fruit. So this environment that has lots of insects and birds and where the soil is fantastic- imagine that the goal is to obtain a soil that is very similar to what you find in a forest, humus in a forest, so it’s very soft, it’s humid. In some of our vineyards, you can stick your arm into the soil and it goes all the way to the elbow, it’s so soft. Imagine this environment that is very conducive to nature being in balance with itself and the fruit that you obtain. We all know the difference between the flavor of a conventional carrot and an organic carrot, and it’s shocking. The difference is shocking. Now imagine a fruit that not only is organic but has lived in an environment that is as natural as it gets, with all the flora and fauna and the insects and the microorganisms that are supposed to be there and normally are not because they are all killed. So, biodynamics tries to recreate this balance and this beautiful ecosystem where life is abundant and beautiful.
Caryn Hartglass: I can’t believe that that’s not going to add to the flavor.
Sebastiano Castiglioni: Well, what happens is, technically speaking, the roots go much deeper. There’s no irrigation in biodynamics and, of course, no fertilizers and of course we do not use manure because that’s against our principles. So, what the vines do is they grow these roots that go very deep down. They go 45, sometimes 60 feet underground…
Caryn Hartglass: Wow!
Sebastiano Castiglioni: … so their nourishment comes from very deep in the soil and comes from this beautiful soil. They, of course, get some nourishment from the surface, from this very soft soil that I described, but there is also nourishment from deep down. So what you get is fruit and therefore wine that is very mineral; it’s very rich in deep flavors, and it respects, let’s say it reflects much more the character of the place where it grows.
Caryn Hartglass: You mentioned that there is no irrigation used.
Caryn Hartglass: I remember maybe five years ago or something, France didn’t use irrigation, and then they made it legal to irrigate in their vineyards. So, I guess…
Sebastiano Castiglioni: Well, in France, actually they have irrigated for a longer time, but they usually irrigated only when the vineyards were… when the vines were very small and this and that. There are always excuses to use irrigation. But just imagine, a vine that is nourished from the surface with horrible petroleum-based fertilizers and the roots turn upwards, and everything is dead basically because the soil is absolutely dead. The difference is the soil is completely alive. You look at our soil and you see insects crawling all over the place and birds flying around. The birds tend to nest all around these places and these plants, because of course they eat the insects, and the whole cycle is beautiful. That’s a fundamental difference. The interesting part is, as it often happens to those who do things differently, we get criticized all the time. The funniest thing is I have people coming up to me and saying, “But, is there any scientific basis to biodynamics?” And I say, “Well, let’s assume for a second that there is no basis for what we do, there are hundreds of scientific studies that show that conventional agriculture is dangerous, harmful and damaging to the world, to people, to animals and to everybody else. So just because of that, I think it makes sense to explore alternative venues.” Then there are people who say, “It cannot work because you have sicknesses, and you have this, and you have the weather and this and that.” Well, guess what, we have been organic since 1988. Not a single molecule of chemical product has been sprayed on our vineyards since then, and we’re doing great.” In fact, many times, we do better than our neighbors who spray all the time.
Caryn Hartglass: Does that affect you at all that your neighbors around you are spraying?
Sebastiano Castiglioni: Well, actually, I’m talking about the neighbors, but we luckily have very few neighbors. In fact, most of our vineyards are surrounded by forest, luckily, and we border with only one guy in one specific spot, and we are working very hard to convince him not to spray, in every possible way, but it’s a microscopic contact. For the rest, we’re very protected. What I meant by neighbors, I meant other people in Tuscany or the region of Chianti Classico who grow vines in a conventional way.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s frustrating what people will believe without really being knowledgeable. So, this is kind of an analogy but last week <a href=”https://responsibleeatingandliving.com/?page_id=5539″ target=”_blank”>I was talking with Brian Clement</a> who works at the Hippocrates Institute, and he just put out a book called Food is Medicine, and I really didn’t understand the point of the book, because all it is are lists of studies that have been done with a brief description of the results on all these different foods and how they affect health. And I thought I can go on the internet and find this stuff out, but he said he goes to these conferences where doctors and nutritionists say, “Oh, you know, I don’t believe it, what work has been done showing plants are healthier?” And now he has it, here it is; here’s the book.
Sebastiano Castiglioni: It is very important. Absolutely.
Caryn Hartglass: You need something like, here it is! Here’s all the organic vineyards, biodynamic vineyards that are doing it, and here’s all the studies that show chemical pesticides are dangerous.
Sebastiano Castiglioni: You bet. The greatest demonstration is opening a bottle, drinking the wine, tasting it and wow, it’s great. We, as you mentioned, won the award for Best Italian Wine. It can be done. It certainly can be done. Paraphrasing my friend <a href=”http://www.teslamotors.com/about/executives/elonmusk” target=”_blank”>Elon Musk, the creator of the Tesla</a> and many other things, he says, “I don’t want to hear complaints from losers. All I want to hear is ideas from people who actually do things. I’m tired to listen to people who sit there, criticize and don’t do anything.”
Caryn Hartglass: Well, that’s a problem in this country unfortunately.
Sebastiano Castiglioni: Absolutely. It’s a problem everywhere.
Caryn Hartglass: The biodynamic thing, I was talking to somebody about it recently, and he kind of rolled his eyes because he thought about the woo-woo wa-wa stuff that’s associated with biodynamics. So, what part of it… or, I imagine there’s a range of what biodynamics is because there really isn’t an official…
Sebastiano Castiglioni: The way it is, biodynamics is based on these conferences of Rudolf Steiner at the beginning of the twentieth-century, and then one part of biodynamics, this group decided to codify and establish these very strict rules, but what Steiner actually said is: These are my ideas. You have to adapt them to your environment and dynamically transform them to better your environment. The main concept is to create an ecosystem that is in balance with the rest of the planet.
Caryn Hartglass: Work with nature, not against it.
Sebastiano Castiglioni: Work with nature, not against it. So now there are the biodynamic zealots who say that you have to do it this way, not that way, and if you change an iota it’s not the real thing. And then there are people like us who adapted and actually go much further than the original ideas or the codified ideas. For instance, we have banned all animal-based products. You may have heard of the biodynamic thing, the cow horn that’s filled with manure and buried underground and then blah, blah, blah. Well, there are very useful things there, and I could go into that, but the point is you don’t really need a cow horn, and you don’t need cow intestines to transform other products that then you spray on your vineyards. You can do it all plant-based and it can be done. It’s done, not only by us. There’s a very famous woman called Maria Thun who codifies the biodynamic calendar, and she publishes every year the calendar that we all follow that instructs you about the best time to plant and to harvest and this and that. But it can be done. Regarding the esoteric image of biodynamics, I concur. In general the perception and the substance in many cases is absurd. I’m an atheist; I despise astrology. I have no time whatsoever for any new wave nonsense. I’m completely separate from all the woo-woo surrounding biodynamics. In fact, I’m more interested in scientific evidence that is mounting evidence, it’s growing, about the positive effects of biodynamics, and the way nature and plants interact. For instance, there’s this fantastic scientist called Peter Barlow in England who’s been collecting information about something very important. We know that our ancestors for thousands of years relied on moon phases to decide when to work in the fields, and only during the twentieth century it’s been considered superstition, but it makes complete sense. These studies by Peter Barlow show that the strongest force in the life of a plant is the interaction between the moon and the sun and the gravitational forces they create. We all know that plants live by the sun; that they point towards light and that temperature influences their life. But guess what; if you put plants inside a box, inside a closed box, with no temperature change and no light, they will still move every few hours, and no one could explain why they were moving until Peter Barlow figured out that it was the exact coincidence with gravitational phases of the moon. So this force is so strong, as we can see with the ocean tides, that it influences the life of plants completely. Now, we don’t have a manual that says exactly ‘if the moon is like this, this is what you have to do.’ What we’re doing is we are trying to learn and listen and try and empirically establish what works best. Believe me, there are huge differences. The most basic experiment being plant a plant during a certain phase and see how much is grows. Plant it during another and see that it grows three times as fast.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow.
Sebastiano Castiglioni: I mean, who can explain that?
Caryn Hartglass: Well, we think we are so smart and we have so much to learn. Just by paying attention, we might learn a lot more. I just know as humans a lot of us are affected by the phase of the moon, just in terms of our moods. There’s evidence of that. There’s a lot of magic out there that we haven’t quite figured out that isn’t really magic, it just looks like it is.
Sebastiano Castiglioni: Especially for thousands of years, people have used certain techniques. They must make sense. It can’t be that… throughout the world lunar phases were followed in places as varied as Latin America and Australia and Europe when they had no contact with each other. How could that be?
Caryn Hartglass: Have you heard of veganic agriculture? [Sebastiano: Yes, yes I have.] So maybe what you’re doing is… I’m like trying to come up with another name- biodynamic or bioveganic.
Sebastiano Castiglioni: The way we call it is cruelty-free biodynamics. I like that because I focus on this mostly because I care about the animals, so I want to emphasize the fact that the alternatives require cruelty. We all know that there is no sustainable way to farm animals, to grow animals in a farm, no matter what kind of model is put in front of our eyes. And we all know that raising animals for any purpose in agriculture means suffering and pain to them, and so I want to focus on the fact that cruelty is part of that model and I’m against it. I want to do without it.
Caryn Hartglass: I love that you’re doing without it. There are some that believe you need animal manure, and they use that to justify having animals, but then I think, ok, so have a few cows and chickens. You don’t have to kill them. Why don’t you just let them hang out?
Sebastiano Castiglioni: But then again, we are the demonstration that you do not need manure. You can use green manure. Not only do we grow grapes, but we now have, I don’t know if I ever mentioned this to you, but we now grow all of our grains and all of our legumes and all the plants and all the flowers, the herbs that we need for preparations, and we grow everything ourselves in biodynamic fields without a molecule of manure. Manure is not necessary. In fact, plants are much happier when you feed them with plants.
Caryn Hartglass: I don’t want this sh…!
Sebastiano Castiglioni: Think about a forest. Yes, okay, there’s the occasional animal that dies in the middle of the forest and nourishes the soil there. But mostly, what is it fed by?
Caryn Hartglass: Mostly plants.
Sebastiano Castiglioni: Leaves and other plants that die. It’s so natural. That’s where you find, guess what? The most wonderful soil and if you imagine your ideal soil is the one that grows at the bottom of a forest. So that’s the ideal soil if you want to do the most wonderful agriculture in the world. So why go and reinvent everything and bring animals into the picture when they don’t belong? I mean, they belong free, happy, alive and flying around and playing. We have a population of rabbits that is incredible, and we have all the most beautiful animals you can imagine. They’re happy, they eat the plants there and that’s it.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m just curious, how did you get started being an animal rights activist and getting into biodynamic agriculture?
Sebastiano Castiglioni: I was 15 years old and, by chance, I saw some literature about vivisection, and so I became engaged in that. Of course, once you see that you cannot eat meat anymore and so I became a vegetarian overnight
Caryn Hartglass: Some people can, unfortunately.
Sebastiano Castiglioni: I couldn’t. It didn’t make sense to me to say, oh I don’t want animals to suffer in experiments, but I’m going to have them slaughtered and killed and tortured for my food, so I just made the decision. Overnight, I became a vegetarian, and now I’m vegan. I’m vegetarian every once in a while socially when I can’t avoid it, because I travel a lot for work, and in some countries the word vegan has not even appeared in the dictionary yet. I certainly am involved in animal rights activism, and I have been since then. I’m honored to be on the advisory board of Sea Shepherd and I would like to take a chance if you’d let me…
Caryn Hartglass: Oh sure, absolutely.
Sebastiano Castiglioni: To send a heartfelt hug to Paul Watson, wherever you are…
Caryn Hartglass: Wherever you are!
Sebastiano Castiglioni: Paul, we’re with you. It all goes together.
Caryn Hartglass: The message that I really like to give is that we can eat delicious food, we can drink wonderful tasting wines, and we can do it in balance with nature. Now some people may believe that you can’t produce enough food or enough wine by growing in this way.
Sebastiano Castiglioni: It’s quite the opposite. We have fantastic, fertile soil, and there are thousands of scientific studies that show that organic and biodynamic soil is more fertile, and especially that it is going to be fertile forever. Whereas, conventional soil might be overnourished for a while and then it dies and it becomes desert, so it’s the opposite. For one fertile acre of conventional soil, you know that thousands are going to die.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, it doesn’t. Well… thank you!
Sebastiano Castiglioni: Thank you.
Caryn Hartglass: Thank you for making wine. We’re not drinking anything else anymore, just Querciabella.
Sebastiano Castiglioni: That’s fantastic. Thank you so much.
Caryn Hartglass: Thank you for joining me on It’s All About Food. Where can people learn more about your wine?
Sebastiano Castiglioni: Oh, we have a website. Querciabella.com, so Q-U-E-R-C-I-A-B-E-L-L-A dot com and our wine is sold throughout the U.S. Actually, the United States are our number one market.
Caryn Hartglass: And I noticed you are on Barnivore.com, which is where we find out all our vegan wines and alcoholic beverages.
Sebastiano Castiglioni: You bet; we’re there. Fantastic, thank you.
Caryn Hartglass: Thank you! I’m Caryn Hartglass. You’ve been listening to It’s All About Food. Please visit my website ResponsibleEatingAndLiving.com. Send me a note at email@example.com and don’t forget, have a delicious week. Bye-bye.
Transcribed by Maggie Rasnake, 3/2/2013