There’s a large sign on one of the (many) organic/natural/vegan/I’m better than you for not eating “x” restaurants in Boulder, Colorado reading “biodynamic wine” in huge, bright letters. Boulder, being commonly referred to around Colorado as “25 square miles surrounded by reality”, is known for its unusual and far out ideas in just about every aspect of existence. If it’s found in Boulder, it may not be very realistic, scientific, or true, but it’s bound to be interesting. Such is the case with biodynamic wine.
Winemaking and wine drinking are some of the most storied aspects of human consumption. A big part of the appeal of wine is the narrative that produces it—the culmination of a symphony between ecology, history, and human artistry that results in a nuanced and tasty beverage that just also happens to make you feel fairly great when you drink it (provided it’s consumed within reason that is). There’s even a word for this concept: terroir. Wine drinkers don’t just care about how a wine tastes, they also frequently care about how it’s produced. The better the story, the more appealing the wine to some people—and biodynamic wine has quite the story. Get ready.
First, “biodynamic” refers to an organic agricultural method that sprang from the spiritual philosophy and worldview of a man named Rudolf Steiner. It was first laid out in a series of lectures by Steiner in 1924, and then developed over time by several different agricultural organizations founded to practice and promote the method. Frequently the words “organic” and “biodynamic” are used interchangeably, and although there are many similarities between the two, biodynamics is like organic farming’s kooky half brother that doesn’t have a job and attends Burning Man every year to commune with the cosmos.
- Biodynamics is an agricultural method based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner
- Biodynamics and Organic are similar, but biodynamics is much less science
Both organic and biodynamic farming do not use manufactured pesticides or fertilizers, preferring instead to use more natural methods and additions such as biological pest control, and compost and manure as fertilizers. Both also use the crop rotation method, which helps to preserve soil fertility. All of these methods have been scientifically shown to have environmental benefits such as positive impacts on soil organic matter, reduction in agricultural runoff pollution, and increases in biodiversity. The fundamental underlying idea of biodynamic agriculture is the farm as a living organism, with all the ecological interactions and feedback loops that implies. That makes sense, because although a farm landscape has been manipulated by humans, it is still an ecological system (however altered) and thinking about it that way is just logical. However, biodynamics extends this “living organism” idea off into the cosmos, and that’s where things start to go off the rails.
Biodynamics intends to align agricultural practices and their resultant food products with “cosmic energy”. This “cosmic energy” referred to in biodynamic literature is not defined, so one is left to wonder, do they mean the incoming energy from the sun? Or perhaps they are intending to manage dark matter? In which case I’m sure the folks over at the Large Hadron Collider would love to hear from them. How are these cosmic forces harnessed for the good of growing you ask? Why there’s a bunch of ways! First, biodynamic practitioners use lunar and astrological cycles to determine when to perform certain acts such as planting, harvesting, and the application of biodynamic “preparations” (more on that shortly). Adherence to this cosmic calendar apparently imbues and aligns the farm with the universe. This alignment and imbuement however, cannot be scientifically tested—go figure.
Biodynamic preparations are one the main ways biodynamics differs from just plain ole organic agriculture. There are 8 different preparations, each supposedly having a specific beneficial effect on the plants, the soil, and once again, “cosmic energies”. All of these preparations were described originally by Steiner, and you can bet he didn’t arrive at them by rigorous scientific field trials, instead, he ascertained the ingredients through “meditation”—in other words, he made them up. Biodynamic preparation number 500 for example, involves packing the horns of a cow skull with manure, burying it, then digging it up, diluting the manure with water, and spraying it on fields. The horns of the skull focus and concentrate cosmic energy you see, thus allowing biodynamic wineries to harness the awesome forces of the universe to get you sloshed—presumably the universe has nothing better to do.
- Biodynamics describes a method to fill cow horns with manure to harvest cosmic energies
- Steiner’s preperations came to him through meditation
She blinded me with science
There’s been a recent uptick in the number of biodynamic wineries. There’s even a non-profit organization, Demeter, which “certifies” biodynamic farms, and allows them to use a certification symbol on their products; you can find the symbol on the back of certified wine labels. They state on their website that their membership has tripled in the last three years. According to their description of the program, the certification includes similar requirements to certify organic farms, but also mentions that they’re really aren’t any “standardized” (their choice of quotes) requirements for their biodynamic certification. They don’t mention whether they send someone out to determine if the farmer is packing the manure into the cow horns correctly, or correctly synchronizing their farming activities with lunar and astrological cycles. Presumably this is because it makes them sound less nuts. On the website for those who are already members—the Demeter Biodynamic Trade Association—however, there’s plenty of text devoted to biodynamic’s more kooky aspects.
Sometimes “natural” methods or remedies have what turns out to be a valid scientific reason behind them. Many of our medicines for example, have historical botanical origins. Willow bark was used for centuries as a pain reliever before science allowed us to isolate the compound, salicylic acid, that was responsible for this effect. Farms used manure as fertilizer long before we had a scientific understanding of the nitrogen cycle. As it turns out—surprise!—this is not the case with biodynamic preparations.
A study in 2005 examined the effect of biodynamic methods—specifically the biodynamic preparations—on soil and the quality of wine grapes. Many prior studies conducted on biodynamic methods compared biodynamic to traditional cultivation, which does nothing to elucidate any difference between biodynamic and organic farming, which many studies have already demonstrated is significantly different from traditional farming. The 2005 study found no difference in soil characteristics or grape quality between the biodynamic and organic treatments.
- Your winery can be certified “biodynamic” by organizations like Demeter
- A 2005 study showed there is no difference between biodynamic and organic grape quality
Free to be you and meAlthough some aspects of biodynamic agriculture are just pure silliness—and we didn’t even get into their pest control methods which involve grinding up dead bodies of the offending animal and sprinkling them around the field—there are some positives. The biodynamic method involves careful scrutiny of every aspect of a farm or vineyard and how they interact, so people using this method may notice problems earlier because they happen to be looking more.
The organic farming methods in biodynamics have proven environmental benefits. Many biodynamic vineyards do produce excellent, highly rated wines. Is it worth it to spend extra money on biodynamic wine over organic wine? If wine drinkers in part pay for a good story, then biodynamic wine should be a huge hit. There are few things weirder or more interesting (although not scientific in the least) in winemaking today than the image of viticulturists venturing out by the light of the moon to pack cow horns with crap for the benefit of their grapes. Hey man, that’s love.
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