Biodynamics: Hoax or Heroics? Get Prepared To Hear The Debate!

Vinted on January 14, 2011 binned in commentary, interviews

Like most of you wine lovers out there, I’ve got an odd relationship with Biodynamic viticulture. What I mean is, I know what I think about Biodynamics – and that is, I’ve got no idea what to think about it.

On the one hand, I’ve tasted vibrant, stellar wines from grapes that were farmed Biodynamically.  On the other, I personally have trouble believing anything from a guy who once said that the race of people from the lost city of Atlantis could fly using the power of burned seeds.  That guy, of course, is Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian philosopher who invented the concept of Biodynamic farming. And, yes, he actually did say the thing about the Atlantean seed-powered hovercrafts.

So, I’ve decided to devote the next two Tuesday articles on 1WineDude.com to the topic – specifically, interviewing (as part of my 1WineDude Radio podcast series) two of the leading U.S. figures when it comes to BioD, both of whom are widely respected but sit on complete opposite sides of the BioD fence:

I’ll follow up with a wrap-up of impressions from YOU, the 1WD readers (with a few of my own sprinkled in).  Feel free to chime in with your own thoughts on BioD, BiodynamicsIsAHoax.com, Rudolph Steiner (or the Pittsburgh Steelers, or whatever)!

Hang onto your farming hats, it’s gonna be an interesting (and probably rather bumpy) ride…!

Cheers!

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    Comments

  • 1WineDude


    …and Stu Smith's response to the above Wines & Vines article is at
    http://biodynamicshoax.wordpress.com/2011/01/05/p

  • Amy


    I am sooo glad someone is tackling this! I feel as people who work in the nitty gritty retail end of the wine trade have been loathe to comment on some very harsh shortcomings in some bio-d and natural wines, as well as acknowledge that there are great wines out there that are organic (not necessarily bio-d) that have great consistency and quality despite being noncertified. I cannot wait for the gloves to (politely) come off!

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Amy! I think you will find some gloves coming off in these interviews :).

  • Steve Heimoff


    It's not a hoax, it's a definite set of practices, and I believe that most people practicing it are sincerely devoted to BD's benefits. However this world is complicated. Many practitioners of BD have marketing and PR employees who then decide to use BD as a way to push the wines to greenies and green fellow travelers. That's where the hoax comes in. BD is like religion: people believe in it in their hearts. It should not be foisted on others, nor should it be a factor in marketing, anymore than a politician's religion should be in running for office. Besides, I've known many wineries over the years that claimed to be BD and were anything but! Simply put, they lie! (or stretch the truth) but then again, that's advertising. Finally, what's most important is what's in the bottle, right? Not how it was made; not the philosophy behind it: How it tastes! And I have yet to see any evidence (in California anyway) that BD wines are better.

    • 1WineDude


      Sage and sane words, Steve – and prescient, in that in the interviews you will find many, many comparisons to religious views. In fact, I am growing increasingly convinced that it's that particular aspect of BioD that engenders such strong reactions from people on both sides of it. Cheers!

    • Dave


      I suddenly had a premonition of campaign headlines twenty years from now. Christine O'Donnell in a TV ad in which she decries "I'm not a Biodynamicist, I'm you!" although she dabbled in it when she was younger. Once they believe it in their hearts it becomes a religion or witchcraft.

      • 1WineDude


        Dave – but she didn't inhale the smoking cow horn. Honest.

        :)

  • vinogirl


    Your public is waiting with bated breath…

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks Vinogirl – I expect to see you back in the comments when those interviews are posted! :)

  • Sondra


    Joe, I'm really looking forward to reading your interviews. I had just seen that United Wine & Grape Symposium was offering a debate by Smith and Ivo Jermanez (Grgich Hills winemaker, biodynamic) and was tempted to drive up there to hear it. Not sure why that interests me so much except I find the subject fascinating. What's amazing to me is how polarizing the subject is. Why is that? I've interviewed BD winemakers and know that some won't put that on their labels because of the reputation of weirdness. It's farming by the stars organically with a few strange rituals. Why should we care or demonize it? Eager to read what you will uncover.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Sondra – Stu mentions that debate I think during the second interview. Just to clarify, the interviews are podcasts so you will need to listen to them (rather than read them). Cheers!

  • Dave


    I have sent a written request to Mythbusters to prove or disprove that people can fly using the power of burning seeds. Once the results air on TV I will make my decision as to the validity of Biodynamics and Rudolf Steiner. Until then I will give it about as much credibility as Scientology receives in a theology class.

    • 1WineDude


      Dave – HA!!! That would make for an EPIC Mythbusters episode (for wine geeks, anyway): they could devote an entire month to Steiner's stuff, I think!

  • Julie


    Sounds really interesting – looking forward to the interviews!

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Julie – if you're a wine geek, you will probably find them fascinating listening. Cheers!

  • Todd - VT Wine Media


    Hey Joe,
    While I think that interviews and the Symposium debate will be interesting and entertaining, in the end, I am not sure where they get us…
    I do appreciate that the practitioners of BioD are trying to create a deeper human relationship with the land and the biological processes that give rise to the vine. What dismays me is that the polarized discussion makes it seem like BioD is the ONLY way for this to happen. Aside from the nice folks at Donkey & Goat Winery, in viticultural circles I have not seen any reference to the work of Massanobu Fukuoka ( One Straw Revolution, The Natural Way of Farming). This was a man who actually did grow up on a farm, had training and worked in agricultural science, and returned to the farm to develop, practice, and prove the efficacy of less invasive, non-conventional methods (without Steiner's guidance). I have been studying Fukuoka's work for many years in my own garden, and have often wondered why his methods have not had greater visibility. Does Steiner have a leg up because the wine world is Euro-centric ?

  • Todd - VT Wine Media


    too long winded…
    The BioD "yes/no binary" undermines the reality that we cannot possibly gauge any individual's spiritual connection to their vineyard or winemaking process, no matter what the means of production. Does that connection even matter? Sure it might. Wine sale is much about the story and image, as what is in the glass…and most of us do accept the fact that we and the rest of the consuming public are incredibly susceptible to suggestion and pre-conceptions. Following a specific set of guidelines for the sake of one’s own conscience is one thing. It makes me uneasy when anyone attempts to take a moral high-ground simply for the sake of marketing.
    I have had BioD wines that I have both thoroughly enjoyed, and spat out in self defense.
    The same goes for 'conventional' industrial and small family producer wines alike.
    I'd personally like the general conversation to be more about sustainability on both the micro and macro scales, and the development of a clearer shared definition of what the term means. Within the sustainability concept, I believe there is room for the cohabitation of a number of different methodologies

    • 1WineDude


      Todd – you bring up some great points/questions and some of them are addressed in the upcoming interviews.

      In a lot of ways, I had and have similar questions and set out to get the interviews to help me answer them. I'm going to save my conclusions until after the interviews are posted and the resulting discussions that I'm pretty sure will take place afterward in the comments are finished.

      BUT…. I can tell you now that even after those interviews, I definitely still have questions that went unanswered – both about BioD itself and about why the topic gets debated so fiercely.

      Cheers!

      • Todd - VT Wine Media


        Cool…thanks for the effort that you are putting into this project.
        I'm even more interested now…

  • Robert


    I can only hope (and it may be too much to hope) that this debate will adhere to some basic principles of rational discussion and not flounder around with the usual stock of intellectually insipid unreason that typically accompanies such arguments.

    Specifically, there are at least three basic logical fallacies that almost invariably arise in debates about biodynamics, and it would be really nice if we didn't see them this time:

    1) Arguments from ignorance – "You can't prove it doesn't work, so you should allow me to assert that it does despite my inability to offer any biologically plausible explanation for it."

    2) Confirmation bias – "This biodynamically produced wine is good, therefore the biodynamic preparations made it good." (Discounting other explanations, such as basic meticulousness in growing and production.)

    3) Ad-hominem fallacy – "Biodynamics doesn't work because of some irrelevant fact about Steiner's qualifications as a farmer." OR "Biodynamics works because of some irrelevant fact about Steiner's qualifications as a scholar."

    Debates are fun, but unless they're rational, they're a waste of time and energy. A rational debate would focus (and remain focused) on the explanation for how and why biodynamic practices (and really only those practices that are unique to biodynamic methods, because much of it is just run-of-the-mill organic farming) could or could not plausibly affect the quality of the grapes grown, for better or for worse.

    I doubt any of us are coming to this debate afresh, and it would really be refreshing if this go-round broke new ground. Can we please, for once, see a debate that sticks to the core issue in a rational way?

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Robert – it's not a debate proper, as the interviews were conducted separately. Having said that, I think you will find that all three of those fallacies play some part in the interviews, because they all play a big part in topics like BioD, for better or worse.

      But – I think both Alan and Stu are, at the heart of things, rational in their own ways. It will be interesting to see how you think their arguments pare.

      Cheers!

  • Jeff V.


    Dude-
    Yes, Rudolf Steiner had some very creative ideas. Most philosophers/exoterics do. Should these elaborate ideas in other areas negate Biodynamics? No. That's like saying you don't see the validity in the Declaration of Independence because Thomas Jefferson owned 650 slaves.

    Steve-
    Biodynamics as a marketing tool? Are you kidding? Where exactly is this huge marketing campaign? What wine isle at any major grocery store chain, liquor store chain, or even your neighborhood wine shop has a dedicated Biodynamic section? Really, where is this marketing machine? Conversely, I can go to any of these stores and find plenty of shelf talkers, POS materials, to find out what 'score' a wine received. How something is grown has a lot to do with the quality of 'taste' in my view. So does how many additives are used to make a product or what 'techniques' are used to make the product. However, McDonald's french fries do taste damn good, but I've got concerns about what's in them.

    Lastly, most of the genesis of Biodynamic Agriculture pre-dates 1924 and Rudolf Steiner. Most of his suggestions/connections (this is a major point of Steiner, creating a spiritual connection in things) towards agriculture you can find in how the Mayan's farmed, how the Persian's farmed, how the Indian's farmed, how the Roman's farmed, and for you East Coasters that know about the Old Farmers Almanac, then I'm sure you can see those obvious correlations between our early American agricultural practices and Biodynamics.

    Ask yourself who J.I Rodale (father of US Organics) was inspired by?
    Ask yourself who Lady Eve Balfour was inspired by?
    Look at the connections between what Sir Albert Howard was doing with compost and ayurvedics in India and Biodynamics?

    There are some fascinating connections that we can all learn from.

    Biodynamics/Organics/Sustainability is the 'solution' to a healthy and viable agricultural and cultural foundation. Healthy food creates healthy people. It is as true today as it was 3,000 years ago.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks for the interesting comments, Jeff!
      I do take your point about not holding unrelated ideas against Steiner. On the other hand, one could make the argument that if a person puts forward enough ideas that are completely kooky, it could be cause for concern about the validity of the seemingly-less-kooky ideas; doesn’t mean those less-kooky ideas aren;t without merit, to your point, but I don’t think one could be blamed for being skeptical. Cheers!

  • richard


    I guess the folks at Domaine Romanee-Conti are just misguided…

    • 1WineDude


      richard – I wouldn't know, they haven't sent me any samples… ;-)

  • Rob


    What would be involved is setting up some true blind tasting? You know, no information at all about what you are drinking. If the lights are on you can see if it is red or white, but maybe that too should apply.

    In this corner we have three BDs, opposite 2 critics, and in the other two corners two bums, and three drinkers of only 98+ wines rated by Parker.

  • Wine Walker


    I compare President Obama's nationality with Bio-Dynamics (BD). People want to see the actual Birth Certificate of President Obam to believe he is a natual U.S. Citizen. Likewise people want to see the actual science/scientific proof that BD. Regardless of proof, I and many others accept both concepts. They both exist and both have a history behind them. When you mystify something, there are those are accept and those who reject. However, I believe that the many aspects of BD have a validity based on outcomes. We know about our Four Seasons, but do we accept the "mini-seasons" within each of the Four Seasons being the lunar cycles. We know the moon impacts our tides and certain elements of behavior. The Farmer's Almanac for centuries has used the moon cycles for planting. However, burying cow horns (must be cow and not bull) still needs more scientific proof for me.

    • 1WineDude


      Well, Wine Walker, I do appreciate your point about the mini-seasons. Comparing BioD to a birth cert. is a bit of a stretch for me, though…

  • Wine Walker


    The end result is in the wine. I believe Benzinger and Fetzer wines are better off since there are not only no industrial chemicals in the wines, but they do have their own uniqueness and terroir. I do not believe we should continue year after year after y ear in putting industrial chemicals (i.e. fertilizers, insecticides, and certain fungicides) on grape vines which can be absorbed into the grapes and soils. Those soils become sterile with these bio-killers, eliminating much of the needed bacterial action in the soil!

    • 1WineDude


      Oh – also VG points on wanting our soils/farming to be as sustainable as possible (totally agree) and that the end result is in the wine (also agree). Looking forward to hearing more from you after you've heard the interviews! Cheers!

  • Anton Nel


    I think that the Biodynamic debate will always be an interesting topic to debate. I have mixed feelings about biodynamics as the philosophy behind it is pure esoteric but there may be some truth in the way of thinking. One just have to diffrentiate between BS and what may be the truth.

    • 1WineDude


      Anton – you're touching on **exactly** why I did the upcoming interviews.

  • Mark Cochard


    "burying cow horns (must be cow and not bull) " and must be a bidynamically raised cow.

    I asked a question of Alan York several years ago as he was explaining preparation 501 (Silica prep burried in a cows horn then made into foliar spray). He explained how the silica spray supercharged photosynthesis. Having a botany back ground, I asked if plants get light saturated at 35% of available light, where light is no longer a limiting factor in the rate of photosynthesis, how can photosynthesis be supercharged. He changed the subject. I was not saying something was not taking place I just wanted to know how and by what means.

    He also explained to us that plants can not go inside when it rains.

    • 1WineDude


      Hey Mark – always great to have you stop by!

      Well, the part about the plants is true, of course… I can't promise any scientific answers for BioD fro the interviews, but you're touching on one of the things that has irked me about BioD in that it seems there is ritual attached to it that may / may not actually help some aspects of farming, but they enter the realm of faith because they can't be proven scientifically.

      I am starting to wonder if consumers just ignore all of this because it's too much of a headache to potentially understand?

  • Stevie


    I recently toured Michel-Schlumberger, a biodynamic winery in Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County. The guide put the whole issue into perspective by reminding us of the history: essentially before the Twentieth Century, all wines were "biodynamic" of necessity because the fertilizers, etc weren't developed until then. So of course biodynamics "work." I'd never thought of it quite that way before but it sort of turns the debate on its head.

    • 1WineDude


      Hi Stevie – I've toured M-S as well and it's an impressive outfit. And I do agree that most farming **had elements** of BioD back then, however they certainly didn't utilize all of the aspects of BioD nor were they Demeter-certified ( http://demeter-usa.org/get-certified/ ). So, the debate about the merits of going full BioD and getting certified, etc., is still valid I think.

      I will say that I am certainly a fan of getting feet in the vineyard, farming sustainably, and keeping the vinification as trickery-free as realistically possible once a the grapes have been crushed; and a lot of producers utilize BioD principles to do just that I think. Cheers!

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