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Biodynamic Wine, Mystified (Is BioDynamics A Bunch of Fertilizer?) | 1 Wine Dude

Biodynamic Wine, Mystified (Is BioDynamics A Bunch of Fertilizer?)

Vinted on August 26, 2010 binned in best of, book reviews, wine books
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I have uncovered potentially serious evidence that could possibly refute the recent scientific evidence suggesting that drinking wine makes you smarter.

Specifically, I offer my recent experience reading Nicholas Joly’s essay-like treatise on the hot-potato topic of Biodynamic viticulture, Biodynamic Wine, Demystified. If this is the demystified version, I’d hate to see it mystified.

I received Biodynamic Wine, Demystified as a gift, of sorts, from the lovely (I know it doesn’t sound particularly manly, but he is a lovely guy) Mike Benziger after a recent visit to his family’s gorgeous biodynamically-farmed Sonoma wine estate.

Frequent readers will recall that some of Mike’s comments in my video interview with him caused a bit of a stir and sparked lively comments-section discussion on the topic of soil profiles and biodynamics generally. Those discussions mirrored, in a way, the current love/hate tête-à-tête – ok, and the occasional heated exchange of invective barbs – between biodynamics’ supporters and detractors.

Supports generally describe Biodynamics as having favorable impacts on the vineyard, its grapes, and the resulting wine. for example, Mike Benziger, from the comments to our interview, speaking about why Benziger employ soil analysis and biodynamic farming:

“Commercially farmed soils around the world have become biologically very similar. The use of commercial fertilizers and pesticides over the last 50+ years, combined with aggressive cultivation has homogenized much of the soil life in the topsoils worldwide. Artificial inputs reduce or terminate soil microbiology and thus eliminate points of differentiation from site to site… Vines that grow only in the topsoil that is healthy or not, usually only express the varietal character and don’t express the sense of place that is associated with soils. When commercial fertilizers are overused, there’s no impetus for roots to stretch down deep, because the snack bar is right on top in the topsoil. To express a more complete sense of place, vines need to have deep roots that feed deep down into the regolith and parent material.”

And the counterpoint, from the comments of that same post, from an anonymous commenter who claims to also be a winemaker:

“No doubt that BD has a tremendous feel-good quality that prompts a certain amount of rationalizing. The problem I have with BD is that it is not benign. It makes claims of superiority without real evidence and presents a defense of “there are some things that science just can’t reveal” as a blanket retort. It’s disingenuous and bad for society in general… There are lots of us that make rational decisions about how to do what we do in the vineyard or cellar. But BD says that it doesn’t matter. That all the science that has served us well in the past, in any aspect of life, is wrong. And that rationality is wrong because there’s a way of looking at the universe to reveal a truer truth. You and I cannot see it, but someone can – he’s a clairvoyant named Rudolf Steiner… The wine industry is enough of a dinosaur already, we certainly don’t need a fairy tale to impede real progress. BD exists only in microcosm. Excess wealth and labor usually do produce good results.”

After reading Biodynamic Wine, Demystified, I’m no closer to understanding which viewpoint is right than I was before I’d even heard of the book. Uh-oh…

Let’s start with the Biodynamic godfather, Rudolf Steiner. Steiner is, of course, the founding father, so-to-speak, of Biodynamics – which itself is an offshoot of Anthroposophy, which itself reads like a mish-mash of Buddhism, evolution, and Christianity, with some other aspects of science thrown in for good measure. I’m being kind.

I am certainly happy to entertain that there are fundamental forces at work in nature and the universe that we may never fully comprehend. I don’t think it should stop us from trying, but we have to accept that we might never fully “get it.” But, in my view, the means discovering any of life’s forces / truths eventually lies – at least partially – in the realms of mathematics and science, which are not human inventions per se, but are the language of the universe.  That might sound overly-dramatic but there is general consensus in the scientific world that intelligent life anywhere in the universe would rely on mathematics to reach conclusions about how their world, and the universe as whole, actually “work.”

The trouble I have with Biodynamic Wine, Demystified is that the science appears to be seriously lacking. At times (those times would be “often”), Joly makes pronouncements that are expected to be taken as fact, without offering a shred of scientific evidence or supporting data. The problem is that those pronouncements require some basis in science for most rational people to be willing to accept them. It doesn’t help that such statements are written in what most might consider obfuscated language (I’m being kind). An example:

“These considerations lead us towards a rediscovery of precious laws of resonance and harmony, acting as the bearers of specific, regenerative energies. It is by means of these laws that we can find a degree of release from subjugation to our separate individuality… What is happening here, really, is that human beings or plants are brought back into resonance with the formative plane of energies.”

It’s 150 pages of this stuff. I mean, honestly, what the f—k is this guy on about? Look, I’m not the smartest person you’ve ever met, but I’ve got a Masters degree and I just cannot follow this stuff, presumably because I am way more logical than I’d previously thought.  The trap for me is that once an author starts building on claims that have to be taken on faith but that I cannot accept without some sort of empirical evidence, then s/he has basically lost me for the rest of the argument being built. I don’t think I am alone in this kind of interpretation.

And I want to believe. I desperately want to believe. Having spoken with many BioD winemaking and vineyard properties, I am convinced that none of them are simply going through the motions – they practice BioD because they see favorable results: healthier and more natural farming, higher quality grapes, and better wines. That has to count for something.

Is it possible that I just don’t understand BioD, that I’m simply not yet capable of properly accepting some of the unknown? Maybe. I do believe in possibility (and therefore the power) of things that we might not yet be able to fully understand through scientific study alone. However… all of those mysterious things that have stood the test of time for me have at least had a modicum of grounding in science. Meditation, for example. Several aspects of the way that Buddhism and Taoism approach the world, for another. Those all have some shreds of scientific evidence to support the possibility that they may be onto something.

BioD is in dire need of such supporting science. Or, perhaps I should say that I’m in dire need of such supporting science to help me get a hande on BioD. Which is why I’ve been glued to the excellent series on the science of BioD currently being published by Tom Mansell. So far, it’s fascinating stuff but the results don’t look all that promising for the scientific support of BioD (I’m being kind).

There is one bit of evidence in support of BioD that cannot be ignored, however: the wine. Biodynamic vineyards are producing some of the finest wine in the world right now. The evidence is in, the jury has deliberated – BioD is fully capable of wine greatness. I’ve tasted way, way too many examples to logically come to any other conclusion than “it works and only a fool would deny it.”

I just wish that I didn’t have to feel like some sort of religious zealot when I say that.



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