As part of our ongoing discussion on green wine, let’s take a look at a growing (and controversial) category: biodynamics. The common understanding, or at least my understanding before I did research, is that biodynamic farming is organic plus. This is essentially true, the question being what exactly the plus is.
While biodynamic farming is popular across the world for a variety ofcrops, here in the US it hasn’t caught on much outside of the wineindustry.Worldwide biodynamic farming is regulated primarily by Demeter, an international agency with branches in many different countries. You’ll find a Demeter certification logo on most bottles of biodynamically grown wine.
So what is biodynamic farming, and how does it differ from organic? To be considered biodynamic, a farm must already qualify as organic. The difference is that a biodynamic farm is treated with a different mindset one that views the farm holistically, as a living organism, and recognizes the forces acting on the farm. From the Demeter USA website:
Examples of such forces include the climate, inherent wildlife of the earth (above and below the ground), the light and warmth from the sun and the focusing of even more distant cosmic influences through the other planetary members of our suns solar system.
…Cosmic influences? Here’s how it all started:
Biodynamics is entirely based on a series of lectures given in June of 1924 by Rudolf Steiner, a philosopher who put emphasis on spiritual science, and the leader of a movement called Anthroposophy. Before organic farming existed, Steiner viewed the use of chemicals as poisonous and destructive, and sought to treat each farm as a self-sustaining organism. I can understand the mindset. He was also passionate about interpretive dance.
In his lectures, Steiner lays out guidelines for basic farming practices based on lunar cycles and the movement of the planets through the constellations (modern supporters of biodynamics point out that they use an astronomical calendar, as opposed to an astrological one). Steiner highlights The Four Temperaments, and says these are reflected in the moon’s travels through the Zodiac, thus different days are ideal for different activities: there are root, leaf, flower, and fruit days. You taste wine on a fruit or flower day. You water your crops on a root day.
I have not been able to find a free biodynamic calendar on the internet, though I have been given many opportunities to purchase one.
Steiner also lays out holistic alternatives to chemicals, called Preparations. Preparation 500 involves burying a cow’s horn full of cow manure over a winter, then digging it up and mixing a small amount of the manure with water and spraying it over soil. Other Preparations include things like valerian flowers, dandelion, horsetail, and quarz crystals. They are used in a homeopathic method, meaning highly diluted in water.
Homeopathy is bunk. It is quackery.
To show both sides, though, here is a video of biodynamics advocate Mike Benziger; at 2:45 he explains the cow horns. By the way, his wines, in my experience, are good.
Last Wednesday, Chicago Tribune wine writer Bill Daley featured an interview with Italian wine producer and biodynamic enthusiast Alois Lageder. In the interview, Lageder makes this claim, Biodynamic wines are more harmonious, more elegant, more expressive of the terroir and more authentic.
Why aren’t journalists asking tougher questions when these claims are made?
Let’s be clear: there are some truly great biodynamic wines, and some of the best producers in the world are using biodynamic practices to produce world-class products. Some producers, such as M. Chapoutier in France, are pushing for scientific studies to advance biodynamic farming to a higher level. I respect that.
Generally, though, the mood is anti-science. I’ve seen many discussions making claims like “some things can’t be measured” and “natural science has a limited perspective.” The debate is often cast in extremes, as though anyone not practicing biodynamic farming (this one of many methods of responsible farming) is a mega-sized industrial polluter spilling out tons of chemicals. What about organic farming, a very similar process, only minus the astrology and homeopathy?
I know that sometimes people crave mysticism; I understand that they desire a spiritual element in life. But I also suspect that a big reason that the term “biodynamic” carries such weight is because most people don’t really know all the details, and assume, as I did, that biodynamic simply means organic plus.
A true, honest conversation begins with an understanding of what that plus really is.