Today, we’re going to chat about one of the trendiest, most debated, and most passionately idiotic areas of the wine biz: biodynamics. (This is the part where I piss-off a whole bunch of really nice, really delusional, people.)
Loosely defined (cuz that’s the only way it can be), biodynamics (BD) is a set of agricultural techniques which are hostile toward “Western” farming practices (crop rotation, synthetic fertilization, chemical pest control, etc.), and which are, according to their supporters, even more organic than ordinary organic farming methods. Biodynamics is often referred to as a “science,” which, as we will see, it is—in much the same way Jeffrey Dahmer was a chef.
The thirteenth century has invaded the wine industry. And we’re not talking about a handful of oddballs blathering away on the fringes, either. We’re talking about some of the biggest names in the wine business, on both sides of the Atlantic: Zind-Humbrecht, Domaine Leroy, Chapoutier, Benziger, and Fetzer. Wine writer Monty Walden, in his book Biodynamic Wines, estimates that almost 15 percent of France’s organic vineyards are fully biodynamic. And as a cherry on top of the movement’s soy milk parfait, BD wines have been extolled by both Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson, the two most important and powerful wine critics in the world. A Google search for “biodynamic wine” yields better than 62,000 results, and of the fifty-some-odd sites I perused, forty-eight of them offered nothing but enthusiastic praise for BD wines.
If we listen to BD advocates, wines produced from biodynamically-grown grapes surpass, in flavor, and thus value, wines made from grapes grown according to traditional, proven organic methods (and they kick the screaming poop out of wines born of grapes produced by mass-production agri-giants). Advocates also claim that BD wines stay drinkable longer. Hey, sounds super-cool to me. Wine tastes pretty fabulous already, so who wouldn’t get at least a tad twitterpated over a better-tasting, longer-lasting beverage?
BD grapes—like their organically-grown cousins—are 100 percent free of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and other potentially harmful gunk. No problem here, either. What rational person wouldn’t favor a decrease in (or, in truth, an elimination of) the chemicals currently sullying our beverages?
Organic growers (they call their discipline “agri-ecology”) have long boasted that their fields, once freed of artificial chemicals, display measurable increases in soil fertility and soil biodiversity, decreases in weed and pest populations, and easier disease management. Supporters of biodynamics point to these same examples as proof of BD’s effectiveness.
So far, BD wine sounds just peachy, even if the differences between it and its organic cousins are all but nonexistent. But that’s okay. The BD-ers are only getting warmed up. (If you begin to hear a shrill beeping noise, it’s your Bull-Pucky Detector going off.)
Proponents will tell you that BD wine is the most “natural” of all wines, more so even than basic organic wine, because of the steps taken to ensure that BD grapes are raised in sync with the Earth’s “rhythms.” Supporters further claim, without irony or a shred of evidence, that the Earth “inhales and exhales,” and that all growing things are directly influenced by their positions relevant to the sun, the moon, and other celestial bodies, so BD growers carefully monitor the lunar cycle, and take pains to plant and harvest only when the zodiacal constellations are correctly aligned in the heavens. And finally, enthusiasts maintain that biodynamically produced wine is so “tuned in” to “nature’s ways” that sharing a bottle within a group of people will bring them closer together.
There are so many farcical notions contained in the above paragraph that I don’t know quite where to begin. But let’s see how it all started, shall we?
Biodynamics in a Nut(ball)shell
Rudolf Steiner was a relatively obscure Austrian occultist when he coined the term “biodynamics” in 1924. Biodynamics formed the centerpiece of Steiner’s larger intellectual project, the creation of a “spiritual science.” A philosophical vitalist, Steiner believed that all life was created by infusing empty or inert matter with “ethereal” and/or “astral” energy, and that life is constantly influenced by “cosmic forces,” though he never offered precise definitions for any of his terminology.
Good ol’ Rudy also believed that human beings, in the incarnation we recognize today, are the faulty (read: negatively materialistic) descendants of more highly evolved and super-spiritual race of humans who lived in Atlantis and Lemuria—the mythological twin holy lands of New Age dogma. We became materialistic, Steiner said, from…wait for it…eating potatoes. (I am not kidding. It’s right there on p. 149 of his collected writings, Agriculture Course: The Birth of the Biodynamic Method.)
As mentioned above, a BD vintner must heed certain celestial cycles, and also ensure that his vines are exposed to the correct alignment of zodiacal constellations, but the main elements of BD farming have to do with treating the fields themselves in accordance with numerous “preparations,” as enumerated by Mr. Steiner.
Preparation 500, for example, recommends burying a cow’s horn filled with manure in the vineyard. He doesn’t say what purpose it serves, exactly, only that it is a good idea. Along those same lines, Preparation 505 asks the farmer to bury oak bark inside an animal’s skull, while Preparation 506 calls for the interment of dandelions inside a “bovine mesentery” (a segment of a cow’s intestine). Preparation 502 advises burying a stag’s bladder stuffed with yarrow flowers. Why a stag’s bladder? Well, here is Steiner’s explanation:
“The bladder of the stag…is connected with the forces of the Cosmos. Nay, it is almost the image of the Cosmos. We thereby give the yarrow the power quite essentially to enhance the forces it already possesses.”
I haven’t the faintest idea what that means.
But anyway. If your vines are beset by insect pests (which are spontaneously created, Steiner says, by “cosmic influences”), they can be eradicated “by means of concentration.” That’s right, folks, just think those nasty bugs away. Mildew is a traditional problem for grape farmers, but is easily overcome, says Steiner, through a “homeopathic dose of horse tail.” And if the vineyard becomes infested by naughty field mice intent upon devouring its young grapes, just capture one of the little buggers, skin it, burn the skin, and scatter the ashes about the field “at a time when Venus is in the sign of Scorpio.”
Contemporary BD-ers, apparently of the opinion that Steiner’s “preparations” are lacking in some way, have made several additions to the man’s basic tenets. “Specialists” (in what we are left to wonder), now routinely use standing-stones and pendulums to perform “geo-acupuncture” so as to “restore the cosmo-telluric balance” of their vineyards (“telluric” being fancy-speak for “of the earth”).
If Dionysus were with us today, I figure he’d make what went down on Mount Cithaeron look like an episode of “The Wiggles.”
Science, Actual and Not So Much
The gushing testimony of BD fans notwithstanding, is there any truth to the claims espoused by Steiner and his later followers, or was he (and, by extension, they) a goofball who got free of his mental moorings?
Several actual scientists have conducted several actual studies (complete with double-blind testing, peer review, the whole scientific-method shebang) into the veracity and/or effectiveness of BD as regards soil biodiversity and grape growing.
At the University of Washington, Lynne Carpenter-Boggs and John Reganold undertook a six-year investigation into biodynamic farming. On BD-treated soil they write that:
“[N]o consistent significant differences were found between the biodynamically treated and untreated plots for any of the physical, chemical, or biological parameters tested.”
And as for the crops themselves, they looked at BD and non-BD grapes and found that:
“Analysis of the leaves showed no differences between treatments [and] there were no differences in yield, cluster count, cluster weight, and berry weight.”
And so we see that, after a careful, scientific, examination, BD can be summed up thus: There is no difference between biodynamic wine and the regular organic stuff.
No difference. None. Zip. Bupkis. And for my friends around the world: Keiner. Ninguna. Ei mitään. Kανένας. なし. 没有. 없음. لا شيء.
So What’s the Big Deal?
At this point, thoughtful readers might be saying to themselves: OK, fine. BD is, as Douglas Adams might’ve said, a load of fetid dingo’s kidneys. But in the end, why should we give a fig if a bunch of credulous lackwits want to muck about with peeled mice and stuffed bladders?
We should care for several reasons.
The Cost of Folly
Biodynamic field preparations are preposterously expensive. The head of production at the Benziger winery estimates that the BD process costs 10 to 15 times more than conventional practices. The BD process also wastes time and human resources (most local supermarkets don’t regularly stock bovine mesenteries) which translates, when coupled with the increased production costs, to a higher price per bottle for consumers.
Which is sad, seeing as wine already has a higher sales mark-up than any other agricultural product on the market. BD enthusiasts (not to mention the merely curious) are being ripped-off, shelling out extra cash for a needlessly expensive product that in no way delivers on its promises, because its promises are fictions.
BD hokum perpetuates foolishness. Just when you think we’ve come a long way as a species, we’re hit with the fact that some of us are still living in caves hiding from the lightning. I find it mystifying that people continue, not only to revel in superstition and irrationality, but to present their views as superior. Don’t get me wrong. In life, it pays to have an open mind. Just not as open as a slop sink.
Do wine snobs really need any additional pretensions?
Folks, biodynamic agriculture is quackery. Snake-oil. A marketing tool aimed at the badly informed, the gullible and the narcissistic. Don’t let yourself get taken in.