What On Earth Is Biodynamics?
No cheating, now: without retreating to Google, what is biodynamics, and what, exactly, makes a wine biodynamic? If you're like most of us, half-baked tales of cow horns buried in the fields leap to mind. And while they may for a small part, they're not the whole story.
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What is it?
No cheating, now: without retreating to Google, what is biodynamics, and what, exactly, makes a wine biodynamic?
Though widely used, and responsible for a remarkable amount of controversy in the wine world, the term “biodynamics” isn’t easily defined. If you’re like many of us, your response to the question may be informed by half-recalled tales of buried cow horns, esoteric calendars, and cosmic energies.
And, while each of these pieces does indeed play its role in biodynamics, a clear definition of the concept is hard to come by. In fact, when recently asked about biodynamics, I realized that–even as a recently lapsed, organically oriented winemaker myself–I could offer only an embarrassingly vague response.
So, in an effort to find out what biodynamics is all about, I decided to explore what may be the most perplexing issue in the world of
contemporary wine, for grape growers, winemakers, and consumers alike.
First, a little necessary background.
Early in my research, I learned that although these terms are often used ambiguously and sometimes even interchangeably, “sustainable wine”, “organic wine”, “natural wine” and “biodynamic wine” are in fact all distinct from one other. These designations may be defined as follows:
In California, wineries may obtain a “Sustainable Winegrower” designa- tion by meeting a number of criteria, and then applying to the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance for certification.
In the US, “organic wine” is defined as wine which is made from organic grapes, and to which no sulfur has been added during the production process.
(Somewhat confusingly, wines labeled, “Made with organic grapes” must be produced from organic grapes, but may contain added sulfur, an anti-microbial and anti-oxidant compound used as a preservative.)
In some ways the most difficult of these terms to delineate precisely, “natural wine” encompasses a wide range of winemaking styles, but generally refers to wine which is fermented only with the naturally- occurring yeast that is ubiquitous in the air around us; wine to which no sulfur has been added during the production process; and wine which is unfiltered.
There currently exists no certification process for natural wines, and though natural wines may be produced with biodynamic grapes, there is no general agreement on this point among natural winemakers.
(For comparison purposes, so- called conventional wines–those made from grapes grown with non- organic pesticides and fertilizers, and employing the addition of sulfur–comprise the vast majority of wines produced in California, and internationally.)
Which returns us to our question: What is biodynamic wine?
And, for that matter, what is biodynamics? Having been described as perhaps the first modern ecological farming method, and incorporating organic farming practices, biodynamics originated with a series of lectures by Rudolf Steiner in Poland 1924.
In these talks, Steiner, a polymath philosopher, focused his belief in a “spiritually scientific” approach to farming, on the issues local farmers were then facing: depleted soils, poor crop yields, and diseased plants and animals. Steiner believed that each farm is a living ecosystem, governed by what he called the “formative forces” of earth, water, air, and fire.
Organic fertilizer, Shutterstock
In this view, occasions of poor health of plants and animals on a farm stem from a lack of balance in these forces.
According to Steiner, the biodynamic farmer should take a holistic approach, working with these formative forces and recognizing that everything that takes place within the ecosystem of the farm has an effect on its overall health.
Thus, in order to manage and ensure the balance of these formative forces, and to ensure long-term self- sustainability, each farm should ideally be treated as a self-sufficient entity which requires no additional “inputs” (such as fertilizer) from the outside world; ideally, “whatever you need for agricultural production, you should try to possess it within the farm itself ”.
Additionally, Steiner’s theories emphasize the following:
use of organic fertilizers such as cow manure; use of a series of preparations unique to biodynamics (an example being a preparation which consists of ground- up silica crystals buried in a cow horn over a winter, dug up in the spring, diluted in water and sprayed directly onto the grapevines); the planting of complementary crops and use of crop rotation; and consideration of the earth’s magnetic fields and celestial cycles in making farming decisions.
In fact, a dedicated biodynamic calendar is widely available, indicating which days are best for working in each of the four biodynamic elements of fruit, root, flower, or leaf, based on the location of the sun, moon, constellations, and other factors.
It is this last component which drives many critics of biodynamics to fits of apoplexy.
Even Steiner recognized that some people would have difficulty accepting his theories, as he allowed in 1924 that “to our modern way of thinking, this [biodynamics] all sounds quite insane.”
Regardless of whether one feels that biodynamics represents a nuanced understanding of the vital life forces at work in the cosmos, or thinks it is merely irrational nonsense, the fact remains that many highly-regarded wine producers–including Zind- Humbrecht in Alsace, Nicolas Joly in the Loire Valley, Domaine LeFlaive in Burgundy, and Araujo in Napa Valley- are strong proponents of biodynamic principles.
These producers follow the biodynamic calendar, working the soil on root days, working with the grapevine’s canopy (or leaves) on leaf days, and, perhaps most crucially, harvesting the grapes on fruit days.
A perfect ripe cluster of sustainably-grown Sauvignon Blanc, ready to be made into wine.
What, then, are these- and other- wineries finding in biodynamic methods? What is it about biodynamics that produces better grapes? More to the point, does it result in better fruit?
While one can find mountains of anecdotal evidence both pro and con regarding the effect of biodynamics on wine quality, the reality is that by its very nature, biodynamics doesn’t readily lend itself to empirical assessment.
Some wine drinkers may perceive positive differences in biodynamic wines, while others scoff at the very notion. Given the nearly infinite number of variables inherent to producing wine (variation in weather from one year to the next, for example, and even variation in the ripeness of grapes within a single vineyard row) it is literally impossible to conduct a controlled experiment in which the only difference between two wines is that one has been produced biodynamically,while the other has been produced conventionally.
To The Winemakers
Reflecting that even as I was much better informed about biodynamics, I was no closer than when I started to understanding whether it produced better wines than other methods, I decided to spend some time in the Santa Ynez Valley, speaking with several experienced winemakers, each of whom proved to be thoughtful, articulate, and–quelle surprise- opinionated on the matter.
Mike Roth, winemaker at the soon- to-be certified biodynamic Martian Vineyards in northern Santa Barbara County, believes that employing biodynamic practices makes a very positive difference on grapes and wine. While touring the Martian winery facility, I asked Roth if he felt that following the biodynamic regime to the letter–what with with its burying of cowhorns and all–made a difference in quality.
His immediate response?
“Absolutely. You don’t have to use a lot of something for it to make a difference. The celestial portion of biodynamics makes a lot of sense to me; I’ve found that our wines definitely taste better on a fruit day.”
On the other hand, Nick de Luca, a 20-year veteran winemaker and proprietor of Ground Effect wines in Santa Ynez, feels differently:
“Biodynamics does both too much and too little”, he said, adding, “biodynamics, like conventional farming, assumes that man knows better than nature, and, with both, there is a feeling that you constantly need to be doing something. Neither of these methods gives you enough time to sit and watch your vineyard. At this point in my career, when I’m in doubt, I don’t do anything.”
de Luca then quoted with obvious admiration the late, influential Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka, “There is no time in industrial agriculture for a farmer to write a poem or compose a song”.
Brandon Sparks-Gillis and vineyard manager Cesar Rojas, carefully removing any leaves or stems from just-harvested Sauvignon Blanc grapes.
Finally, Brandon Sparks-Gillis of Dragonette Cellars in Los Olivos, answered this way: “The true spiritual elements of biodynamics shouldn’t be judged” he stated.
Fruit Quality First
“My problem with biodynamics is that it has become so tied to a dogma that when you follow it, you can’t see your nose despite your face, and you lose sight of the original intent, which was probably to be in touch with the seasons and rhythms of nature.
Biodynamics has become incredibly formulaic. That said, Dragonette does work with the biodynamic calendar when possible; for example, we will harvest on fruit days if the stars and the flavors align, but fruit quality and the flavor of the grapes will always take precedence for us. ”
Hand-harvesting sustainably-farmed Sauvignon Blanc for Dragonette Cellars from Vogelzang Vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley.
Hmmm... Three respected winemakers, three wildly divergent responses to the same question.
Passion and Commitment
Even more striking for me, however, was the passion, commitment to quality, and bloody-minded attention to detail each of these winemakers puts into his wines, whether or not he employs biodynamics.
While clear answers to the question of whether biodynamics is truly beneficial to wine quality may be few and far between, my foray into the world of biodynamic winemaking did convince me that biodynamics, while certainly warranting additional research, is an ecologically-conscious, organic, relatively low-carbon- footprint means by which to produce some pretty great wine.
And I think we can all drink to that.