An Atheist’s Defense of Biodynamics

The vineyards of Eric Nicolas at Domaine Belliviere, who is converting to Biodynamics currently.

Ten years ago I went over and lived in France for about a year to help make wine in Champagne, right outside of Reims. I worked with a friend of my family who owned some vineyards and was also the manager of the cooperative where he and other people from the area made wine. It was backbreaking work, scorching at times (so hot I would wake up in the night with my hair soaked from the sunburn blisters that had formed on my ears popping), freezing at others (so cold i nearly cut my finger off with pruning shears while I couldn’t even feel it. I only noticed when blood began to soak through my gloves). It was rewarding, however. The food was great, the company excellent and I was making Champagne! I was outside all day working, doing something with my hands, that sort of nonsense romantic notion that rarely works out in real life.

The vineyards of Eric Nicolas’ neighbors, directly across the road. Notice a difference?

In the spring, after the flowering had stopped people would begin spraying the vines with what seemed like anything they could get their hands on. Tractors would rumble through the vineyards coating everything with dust, we would trudge row by row with roundup pumps on our back (this was as conventional as it got) killing everything that wasn’t producing grapes, and some people would fire up helicopters and spray entire fields in a matter of minutes. When this happened a thick pall of chemicals would hang in the air, burning eyes, causing skin to itch, coughing, wheezing, and one morning I even awoke with my eyeball full of fluid.

It was these helicopters I kept thinking about when I was reading a curious new blog Biodynamics is a Hoax. As the title of the blog so clearly spells out, the author believes that biodynamics is a hoax and he is out to unmask it, sort of like a wine industry Mythbusters. (Of course, it has to be said, that he is merely ripping off the schtick of The Zinquisition, who has been doing this for years now). The blog is the project of Stuart Smith, who is the winemaker at Smith-Madrone winery (I have never tried the wines so I won’t comment). As his bio clearly states he is the product of UC Davis and believes quite firmly in the primacy of science in winemaking, as opposed to tradition and “hoaxes.”

As for me, I’m an atheist and have been for a number of years, from the obnoxious first college years when I would argue religious points of view and got so angry at people for daring to disagree with me or not using their logic to see that we’re all going to just die . Since then I’ve mellowed and simply accepted that I don’t believe while others do. I also don’t keep kosher, eat halal, observe any lenten traditions, have never skipped a meal due to ramadan, or worried about bread, leavened or no. I also don’t believe biodynamics makes necessarily better wines, or that it imparts something to wines that can’t be achieved elsewhere.

However, I do believe some biodynamic vignerons are amongst the very best in the world. I’ve drank hundreds of these wines, from wines that tout a demeter certification on their label to wines that I didn’t know were biodynamic for years. In fact many of the producers consider marketing the wine as “bio” to be just that, marketing, so they let the wine do the talking. Despite my skepticism around some of the principal tenets and practices of Steiner’s agricultural followers, I simply don’t care if they are being used.

The resurgence in biodynamics, like modern organics, the Slow Food movement, fukuoka farming, locavores, and natural winemaking was a concious rejection of the big industrial food supply chain that twisted our view of food wrecked economies, and wrecked our health. The tenets of modernization, control, simplification, mass production, “big solutions.” When people saw what we had done to one of our most basic of needs they were aghast, and set out to find alternatives that would stop the pollution of both of the soil and of our bodies.

The scientific based winemaking at UC Davis and elsewhere is one that sees a straightforward path between the beginning and the end of winemaking, and deviation is dealt with as harshly as possible. Shouldn’t plant vines there? Irrigation will fix that. Weeds? Monsanto has you covered (which heavily funds UC Davis. Go Aggies!). Vines not doing so well? Chemical fertilizers. Mildew? Bring on the helicopters. Of course this all very scientific so skepticism about the ultimate problems should be shelved for now while we continue spraying. Aren’t these the questions we should be asking when it comes to winemaking? What price are we paying for this wine when everything is tallied?

I am beginning to work with a young couple in the south of France who have 14 acres of vineyards and olives that are all farmed biodynamically. We toured their vineyards, and they showed us several planting techniques they were experimenting with, from planting density to different cover crops and mixed use vineyards. As we walked through we were struck by the difference between their vineyards and others. They had some bio-culture in their vineyrads, the vines looked good, their old growth was healthy. The nearby neighbors had created a moonscape vineyard, dead, except for the vines, and even then the old growth was mostly gone despite being planted at the same time.

When we asked them about the biodynamic treatments they treated us to skeptical laughs. They said it was working, with a wave of a hand towards the vines, and even if the treatments were doing nothing, so what? Practicing biodymaics was getting them out and into the vineyards, with the plants and rocks, getting their hands dirty and teaching them to recognize things that they would never get if they were in a tractor all day, or if they simply killed off all the life.

Sure i believe there is a little bit of anti-scientific bent in biodynamics (quite a lot, actually) but it’s my belief that the results, or what is in the glass to paraphrase Mr. Parker, bear the assumption out of a lot of people who believe that farming under these techniques can create spectacular, mindblowing wines. (Let me clarify here that I believe, as many vignerons I have met do, that biodynamic practitioners need to take a good hard look at the heavy use of copper sulfate [Bordeaux mixture] and it’s effects). I can accept a little bit of mysticism in my vineyard work, because I don’t think doing so will lead the end of modern civilization and return us all to the dark ages or it will instill romantic nationalism that led to the horrors of WWII. I don’t believe, like Stuart does, that the growing use of biodynamics is “profoundly disturbing” because I’ve been sprayed in the face with chemicals in a vineyard that produces something I will eventually eat, and that is profoundly disturbing.

~ by Cory Cartwright on June 9, 2010.

22 Responses to “An Atheist’s Defense of Biodynamics”

  1. awesome piece.

  2. This is a great post Cory, I agree with your standpoint.

  3. Cory:

    One can’t assume that because one was educated at Davis, that they utilize “industrial” winemaking practices. And while I appreciate your direct experience n the matter of Biodynamics and the hard work you’ve put in, I wonder if in fact it can be proven that biodynamics is a better method of making wine and a method that produces better wine than organic farming.

    One of the problems many who criticize BioD have is that time and time again we listen to its proponents say they make better wine than those not using biodynamics. This is fraudulent in the extreme. What’s worse is that those saying this no it’s a fraud.

    There is a great deal of faith involved in instituting biodynamic farming methods, unless it’s being done for marketing purposes.

    It will be interesting to see how debate ensues at Stu Smith’s blog. The guy knows his stuff, is highly respected, makes remarkable wines and does not destroy the planet doing so. There’s a chance that he’ll get down to details and explain what it is in particular about BioD that hey objects to. When he does, it will be fascinating to see if BioD’s proponents address these issues, or simply say, “hey, look how lovely our vineyard is and how much people love our wines.”

    • Tom,
      Thanks for the comment. I can’t comment on Stu Smith’s wines at all, or his vineyard practices so i won’t do so. I also don’t believe that there is a “best” way to make wine from the standpoint of the end experience, but I will say I believe that there are better ways of making wine from the standpoint of impact, and bio happens to be right up there.

      I will however offer a different point of view. The side of the coin is faux-wide eyed winemakers who offer up things like “gee, I just want to make the best wine I can for the consumers” while dumping tons of chemicals into the ground. Is this worse than a little marketing flim-flam? I sure think so.

      And yes, I’m sure Stuart will “expose” many of the tenets of Biodynamics as a hoax or whatever and I’ll keep drinking a lot of them because they’re great wines, nothing more.

      Cory

  4. Four Thumbs Up.

  5. And no, I don’t think all UC Davis winemakers are “industrial.” Kevin Kelley is one of my favorites right now and he was educated there. But if Stuart is trading in cheap caricature (cultists? really?) so too shall I.

  6. Hi Cory, I think Stuart’s anger is weird. I’ve spoken to the guy a couple times. He’s a nice man who has tended his own vineyards for many years in a sustainable manner. His wines are terrific, by the way. Pure and site-specific and worth seeking out, especially the Riesling. Why he has his panties in a bunch about bio-dynamics is almost as big a mystery as why anyone would do anything that Rudolph Steiner advocated (setting aside the even bigger mystery that doing so turned out to work).

    I spent the weekend with a friend who farms his vineyards bio-dynamically. He’s very serious about “bio” but not that serious about much else. His religious views — in so much as he expresses them — are in line with yours. But he pointed out that while it’s true we can’t really explain why burying a turd filled horn improves the fertility of your vineyard, we can prove that it does.

    Much like your photos, side by side soil samples have been analyzed and demonstrate, with actual science, that the bio-dynamic soil is objectively better. Repeat this experiment enough and you have proof. Even if you don’t have an explanation.

    The Druidic stuff notwithstanding, for me “bio” is a clue that the vigneron is actually working the vineyards in a way that I think lends to better wines. I could have just put the period after vineyards and still had an accurate sentence.

    I love your biographical account of “farming” in Champagne. One more reason not to drink industrial bubbles.

    Cheers.

    • David,

      I agree the anger is what really got me. Starting a scientific discussion with name calling? Has he tried the wines? I have (Benzinger bores the hell out of me, by the way) and find a lot of them to be top notch. I find a lot of other wines to be top notch as well.

  7. I think it is important to make the point that biodynamics is a farming method, not a winemaking method. There is no “biodynamic winemaking”.

  8. great piece, a healthy mind wanting to eat and drink things grown in a healthy environment!

  9. biodynamic farmers=child molestors.

  10. Reminds me of what a farmer I’m friends with says: he doesn’t practice or believe in biodynamics, but respects those who do because they spend a lot of time in the field and know their land/crops really, really well.

  11. Thanks for the article. It is an important subject that some people are afraid of. Once you have seen the difference in the land, and tasted the difference in the wines, there is no doubt that it is the best way.

    • I’m not sure there is an actual “best” way to make wine, although I do know that some are more “sustainable” than others (another dumb marketing buzzword. is petro-chemical fertilizer use “sustainable” in the very long term? I don’t think so.) I think people can make great wines using a wide variety of farming techniques and I certainly don’t think bio-dynamics has the claim to “best” wines.

  12. Like many things, just because the results are good doesn’t mean that the practice is sound. It’s like the story of how the cure was scurvy was discovered, then badly lost until it was understood again; when the British Navy switched from lemons to West Indian limes, they were failing to understand why scurvy was stopped.

    What would serve winemaking best would be to understand why many Biodynamics-practicing vignerons produce good wine, so we can leave the voodoo behind and move forward. Otherwise, there’s no guarantee that the next round of magical thinking won’t end up harming the wine.

  13. I think the argument of biodynamics vs. conventional (chemical) farming is a bit of a red herring. Everyone knows (or should) that organically farmed vineyards provide healthier, higher-quality fruit and better tasting wines. The question that I, as a generally skeptical person has, is: does all the mysticism and do the preparations that separate biodynamic farming from truly organic actually make a difference? All evidence points to no, which makes some tenets of bio-d a waste of time.

    This used to upset me, but like your experience to atheism, now I’ve calmed down a bit and I don’t see too much of a problem, as long as the vineyards are being treated respectfully and the wine is well-made. I’d rather have that than a bunch of farmers who feel that bio-d is a “hoax” soaking the ground with Round-Up as a result.

    The final issue about bio-d that still bugs me is the fact that animal products (stag’s bladders, cow horns, etc.) are being wasted in homeopathic preparations, which in a way reminds me of animal sacrifice. I guess maybe someday I’ll get over that, too.

  14. We shouldn’t get over “animal sacrifice” any more than we should get over poisoning the fruit and soil. Bad practices are bad practices.

  15. This is well-said. As a left-brained guy, the switch to BD didn’t make sense to me, but neither did conventional ag or (post-USDA) organic standards. Our wines here at DaVero are better, as is our olive oil, but the big, entirely inescapable and unarguable thing is just the health of the farm. It’s a remarkable change.

    • Ridgely,

      Thanks for this. One can logically argue against bio-dynamics, but it seems wasteful when one could take the time to fight against entire agri-business dependent winemaking culture out there that is trodding roughshod over their vineyards. Sure, maybe some of bio-dynamics doesn’t make sense, but what about the alternatives?

      Cheers,

      Cory

  16. Cory – below is a copy of my comment to Biodynamics is a Hoax thought it was appropriate here:

    Stu, this blog is frightful to me not because it is questioning the scientific base of what biodynamic farming is, not because it is exposing large disingenuous wineries that are charlatan’s of the industry (20 plus years as conventional then all of a sudden are “beyond organic” – Bonny Doon – Benziger), not because it is showing that Rudolf Steiner was beyond the pale with an overextended imagination, or because it dares to quash the latest tastemaker trend … it saddens me because it is downright mean spirited and hurtful to people that have gained great insight into the human condition from places like the Waldorf school or performing Eurythmy – it is throwing the baby out with the bath water.

    It is unfortunate that Biodynamics has become so publicly associated with the wine industry – a business fraught with fraud, pettiness, huge egos, misrepresentation, perverted market ups and profit margins on par with the drug trade. This is a recent phenomenon mostly brought on by marketing types that saw an untapped gold mine of rich mythology to exploit.

    Most practitioners of BD do not flaunt the fact that it is superior in its methods to other types of agriculture. For the most part the people that have been at it for any stretch of time have been humbly and quietly doing this work because they know in their hearts and minds that the petrochemical solutions to farming are not sustainable and harmful to the earth and ultimately to people.

    Rudolf Steiner is probably rolling in his grave to see how his teachings have been misappropriated in ways he never imagined. He was approached to come up with a way to help ranchers and farmers who had been hooked into using the munition chemicals left over from WW1 – and the newly emerging science based farming methods of NPK – Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium – the three primary nutrients in any fertilizer. In a generation, these peasant farmers of Europe saw yields that were unbelievable – Brobdingnag proportioned fruits and vegetables. But with it came the downside of compromised immune systems of plant life that had evolved so quickly and unnaturally that they had no way to deal with the new pests and diseases that also fed on this bounty.

    Steiner (while not a farmer himself and probably not a drinker) gave his BD series of lectures after a lifetime of studying ancient traditions and understanding how small inputs can have large influences. His ultimate goal was to teach these farmers and ranchers ways to reintroduce healing properties into their soils so that they could attain the balance which had been robbed by these unnatural inputs. Composting, cover cropping, soil conservation, were the keystones of these talks. The best one could strive for was a farming system that was akin to the forests that surrounded the fields – the forests didn’t need human intervention to achieve perfection – the plants figured it out for themselves. The forest floor was biologically rich in all of the minerals it needed to self regulate its life.

    At its core Steiner was trying to get farmers to produce a patchwork quilt of fields that would in effect create a network of healthy soils and spread over acres together – outside inputs would become unnecessary – as this system eventually would co-opt and triumph over the chemically polluted areas.

    He didn’t stand forth with tablets set in stone like Moses fresh from the mountain top. He encouraged the farmers to experiment with these theories and to systematically test the results. BD is not as dogmatic and rigid as the skeptics here portray – preparation recipes for 501-507 are merely guidelines and it is a evolving practice that has its variants of practitioners much like the Catholic church has in it’s flock.

    While this may seem a Utopian acid trip induced fantasy – it was accepted and implemented by these attendee’s because they knew that something had to be done to correct the Pandora’s Box of synthesized products that had sickened their fields and threatened their very existence. One could say this was the birth of the back to nature movement.

    I think the biggest elephant in the chat room is the question of mysticism and its place in our matter of fact culture. I find it disingenuous for people to call into doubt someone’s beliefs because the science doesn’t bear it out. The so called scientific community’s absolute knowledge that something doesn’t exist because you can’t see or detect it is just as wrong as any other fanatic.

    How can you look up into the night sky and not think that there is a whole world of unknowns out there. Other life forms, planets, solar systems, discoveries that are truly mind blowing. I believe our addiction to petrochemicals, plastics, and all of the unnatural additives we consume are just beginning to reveal its true risks.

    Our reverence for food has been lost – the importance of recognizing that what we consume has implications beyond merely the physical realm. There was a time when the hunt was celebrated, the flesh of the animal considered a sacrament, an offering – yes this is spiritual stuff – but all cultures thirst for this. We have lost the communal table where eating in groups was time honored and regulating the intake of our food and drink. The days when your grandmother would cook all day producing clean, pure food unadulterated by additives is a memory.

    We have developed into a culture continuously eating alone in cars and have produced a sick society. We are directly effected by poisonous products and the long term implications are staggeringly important. We are seeing it now in America with the cumulative impact of GMO corn and it’s McDonald’s based homogenous Frankenfoods – the obesity epidemic is churning out Type II diabetes patients hourly, autoimmune disorders, ADD, oncology, coronary disease, its a long list. These foodlike products neither nourish nor taste good and it is inimical to the natural process of furthering the human species.

    I would rather put my faith in the all-knowing natural process of the earth than the scientific community at Cargill, DowAgro and Scott Labs. The hubris of these companies to produce such risky products and to sell them as harmless will surely bear itself out with time.

    Is BD belief based? Yes. Is it perfect? No, but it does challenge the paradigm that chemical company’s have created which is equally based in belief – that all problems have science based solutions. This type of equation doesn’t put into play all the interconnectivity of all the factors and creates greater risks than the problems solved.

    Take for example the massive catastrophe created by BP playing out right now in the Gulf of Mexico. The greatest minds on the earth are trying to figure out a way to plug this geyser from turning it into the Dead Sea. We as a people have developed a great faith our technological abilities to solve problems, and that faith have proved incorrect in this scenario.

    Stu your anger and frustrations pertaining to BD are better directed at these unethical business practices and dubious marketing schemes by your competitors. Obviously this esoteric theory threatens you to create this forum for such nasty comments. You come off as a bully and insecure in your own beliefs. Tilling rows in a Hazmat suit, spraying petrochemically laden products – pesticides, mildewcides, fungicides, adding sulfuric acids to the must and running out of the cellar to prevent from getting dosed, can you honestly say that these practices are safe?

    • Who’s Waldo?

      This is most articulate and sensitive response to Stu’s mid-life agro-crisis that I have yet seen. Kudos to you.

      With your permission, I’d like to reprint your remarks at the Lab.

      Shoot me an email if that’s okay: davidharden@gmail.com

  17. Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters.

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