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.