First you catch the mouse that’s made a home in your vineyard. Next you skin him, discard the body, and burn the flesh into a wee pile of ashes. Then, when Venus is in the constellation Scorpius, you scatter the ashes over the vines. This will take care of your pesky mouse problem.

Cow horns stuffed with manure and buried in vineyard soil. Chamomile flowers packed into the small intestines of a cow, buried to rot until spring, then made into an infusion and sprayed over the vines. Some strange ritual sacrifice to the Earth Mother? A plea for an alien visit to the vineyards? No, my friends, they are legitimate farming techniques—at least according to the practitioners. Welcome to the wild, wacky (and highly effective) world of biodynamic farming, where far away, in a mere nook of the Loire Valley, one man has embraced it and inspired a movement.

When I worked selling wine at retail, I often knew which wines were organic or biodynamic because our customers increasingly asked for them. But biodynamics was never a concept I’d paid much attention to otherwise. In my own drinking, and in my restaurant work, I never really cared much one way or another—I just don’t see wine through that lens. In fact, I knew very little about biodynamics before researching this article, and was shocked to find that many of my favorite winemakers—like Alvaro Palacios in Priorat, Spain, whom we’ve made t-shirts of to honor—are devoted practitioners of biodynamic farming.

"Here mousey..."

The more I read about the topic, the more questions I had. Biodynamics sounds like a study in biological movement, or a team of androids sent to harvest your grapes. Instead, it’s a radical approach to farming that has gained a solid foothold in the wine world and also sent ripples of heated debate through the community. Converts to the practice are steadfast in its effectiveness, while many scientists remain perplexed or even hostile, demanding proof that its esoteric rituals are more than hogwash or tomfoolery.

Biodynamic farming is essentially a type of organic farming on LSD, but in fact predates the organic farming movement. In 1924, a group of farmers in Eastern Europe, troubled by the current state of agriculture, approached a gentleman known for his studies of the natural world, Rudolf Steiner, and requested his help. Steiner was in his 60s then, and had also devoted his life to the philosophies of metaphysics, epistemology, Christianity, freemasonry, and even movement and drama. His was a brilliant mind that produced over forty published volumes of work and 300 collected lectures in his lifetime. (I feel utterly inadequate as I list Steiner’s fields of study and accomplishments—but he didn’t have a Facebook and Twitter profile to keep up with, or the lure of the NYC nightlife to distract him from his obsessions.)

Steiner listened to the farmers’ fears of the proliferation of artificial fertilizers and industrial-sized operations that were ruining the land, and responded with a series of lectures that would become the basis of “biodynamic agriculture,” a term coined later by its practitioners. At once seemingly simple and intricately complex, the system sees the farm as an organism, and seeks to bring it into harmony. The approach treats the land as a whole, where any problems are symptoms of the overall health of the entire system. Few or no outside materials are introduced into the farm ecosystem, and the methods eschew the use of manufactured chemicals common in industrial agriculture. Animals are an integral component of the practices, and the animal feed is produced on the farm while all manures are returned to it to replenish its soil. The method also stipulates the timing of all farm activities to coincide with the movement of celestial bodies—the moon and planets. And the burning of the mouse skin and the cow horn of manure are two of many natural preparations intended to engage elemental forces and non-physical beings.

For the early 20th century farmers who were Steiner’s audience, these likely seemed like radical ideas. But like many ideas born out of desperation (their land was dying, for feck’s sake!), the farmers gave it a shot, and eventually saw their crops become more prolific, their land more fertile.

The movement spread worldwide. Today, the organization Demeter offers an official certification program for biodynamic producers, and asks consumers “to join their effort to heal the planet by choosing Demeter certified Biodynamic® products.”

Biodynamic farming is particularly notable in the wine industry. One website estimates there are over 529 biodynamic wineries worldwide. While customers see both “organic” and “biodynamic” labels on the shelves, and both avoid man-made fertilizers and harmful poisons, there are differences in these methods. Only biodynamics lets the movement of the planets guide decisions, applies seemingly esoteric treatments to correct abnormalities, and permits native plants to grow among the vines for a flourishing ecosystem.

But consumers might be legitimately confused. Are biodynamic wines any better? Are they better for our health? Do they taste better? I just wanted a nice white with my salmon, and now I have to think about how the grapes were grown?

Vineyards of Nicolas Joly in Savennières

These differences split the wine community. One side wants scientific proof of biodynamics’ effectiveness. The other says the proof is in the health of the vines and the resulting wines, and feel the nuances can never be measured by a gauge or tool, but instead must be perceived intuitively. One such man is Nicolas Joly. Perhaps the most ardent practitioner of biodynamic winemaking worldwide, and the author in 2008 of the book “Biodynamic Wines Demystified,” Joly has been producing biodynamically since 1981. He farms 7 hectares (17 acres) of land known as Coulée de Serrant, in Savennières in France’s Loire Valley—an AC region owned solely by Joly. His white wines, Clos de la Serrant, are often regarded as some of the world’s greatest dry whites, and Joly has become a de facto inspiration for wine producers around the globe, biodynamics aside.

Joly is a study in contrasts. He attended Columbia University and later worked for JP Morgan as an investment banker (don’t try to trace the economic collapse back to him—I’ve tried and he’s clean. Please lower the pitchforks, people). But he left that life in 1977, returning to his family’s wine estate in Savennières. Unwilling to embrace modern agricultural methods and their negative effects on the earth, Joly stumbled on some writings on biodynamics, and soon was burying cow horns. By 1980 he produced the vineyard’s top wine—Clos de la Coulée de Serrant—biodynamically, and by 1984, all his wines were biodynamic. His business card says it all: Nicolas Joly, Gérant de la Société, Nature assistant and not a winemaker. There’s something beautiful in that.

Nicolas Joly plowing with assistant

For those of us who revere terroir above all else, biodynamics might possibly be the ultimate expression of the land, because no longer is only the vineyard’s plot—its inherent somewhereness—reflected in the wine, but maybe also a cosmic, universal terroir as well. Joly describes it this way: “Each fruit is a receptacle of a harmonious world, from which life comes. This life is generated by the enormous solar system, by a macrocosmic organization, which humanity gets farther away from on a daily basis.” Grapes are birthed from forces larger than the earth itself, and bridge the energy of the cosmos.

Many biodynamic wine producers see no need to prove their methods scientifically. They’ve seen the changes for themselves in the flourishing of life in their vineyards, the maturity of their fruit, and the health of their soils. Joly says, “The true-winegrower is he who devotes himself to this understanding of life, and is careful that each of his agriculture gestures does not disturb this vast system of creation. That is what organic is about, letting nature ‘work.’ Biodynamics goes further, profiting from its knowledge of this live energy system to help the vine or plant nourish itself more thoroughly.”

But is this explanation enough for the rest of us? The debate is rifle-barrel hot. The flash point? Proof. Scientific, irrefutable proof. But how do you prove these odd-seeming practices are effective?

Personally, I’m intrigued, but still skeptical, too. I’m not a convert to biodynamics yet. I have to admit: it’s kind of breathtaking in its radicalism and simplicity, and I do find something captivating in honoring the connection with the universe. I wholly respect the intense care biodynamic practitioners take of their land and their vines (I was raised in Colorado, so that respect is inherent in my blood). And the hippy in me loves the rejection of chemicals.

But I have a hard time wrapping my mind around practices like burning the skin of field mice when the planets are properly aligned for mouse eradication, or a farm that runs itself with the farmer in tow as an assistant. Perhaps biodynamics is about connecting with a power so much greater than the mortal coil that we don’t have the ability to understand how it all fits together. I wonder what Venus thinks of Mr. Joly’s wines?  Perhaps we could meet on the dark side of the moon for a glass?

What do you think? Have you tried biodynamic wine and found it somehow—different? How might we measure biodynamics’ effectiveness? Or should we even try?

David Flaherty is the Operations Manager at Hearth restaurant and Terroir wine bar in NYC, where he also runs the beer and bar programs. When he’s not flyfishing, homebrewing, or chasing strikes at the bowling alley, he can be found waxing poetic on wine, beer, and spirits at Grapes & Grains.

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25 Responses

  1. Jake

    Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Domaine Leflaive, Comte Lafon, Domaine Leroy, Michel Chapoutier, Nikolaihof, Nicolas Joly, Domaine Huet, Zind-Humbrecht, Domaine Ostertag, Marc Tempé, Josko Gravner, Domaine de Bellivière, Grgich Hills, Felton Road, Rippon… the list goes on and on.

    These are producers who farm this way because they feel it makes their fruit better. Is filling cow dung in a horn and burying it a little weird? Yeah, but the system as a whole is simple and makes sense. Treating your farm as a self sustaining entity and growing with the cycles of the moon as farmers have for thousands of years.

    On the simplest level, farmers are giving great care and focus to what they’re growing, instead of blanketing everything with synthetic pesticides. I think people focus on some of the specific strange aspects of biodynamics and write it off, when clearly a lot of today’s great winemakers are having success.


    • Not a Sucker

      Oh, the scientists understand it. So don’t try to frame it as a “I’m so smart, smarter than all those ‘scientists,’ just like I’ve always thought!” argument. It’s not that they don’t understand it, it’s that they know it’s bullshit.

  2. Kevin Morrisey

    I drink the stuff every day. Oh, I make it too… at Ehlers Estate in Napa Valley. I could never go back to “conventional farming” after seeing how happy and healthy our vineyards are and how beautifully the terroir shines through in the wines. I don’t think we’re any crazier than the average guy… (of course a little crazy might be a good thing.)

  3. Katherine

    Great piece. I will ponder it over a glass or two.

    In today’s hi-tech world, I’m drawn to a practice that brings it all back to the basics. There’s a purity and romance to this type of farming [yes, cow dung and roasted mouse flesh CAN be romantic].

    That being said, I’m drawn to the technique, but I doubt I could pick out biodynamic wine in a taste test and say that I prefer it over a wine from a “conventional” farm.

    But I applaud diverse methods, especially those which honor the earth and it’s natural balance.

    Cheers and thanks for writing, David.

  4. Taylor

    Great piece. All you have to do is take a walk through a biodynamically-farmed vineyard to know the difference this seemingly wacky but sensible method makes – insects, animals and vibrant fruit all live in harmony there.

  5. Penny

    In Oct of 2006 Matt Kramer, writing for Wine Spectator, commented about Biodynamic Wine making and likened it to an agricultural version of keeping kosher – Biodynamics is an intense form of caring – for the land, the grapes and the wine. I think of it as wine that has been paid attention to.

  6. Doug

    There is a biodynamic vineyard and winery in Colorado, too–Jack Rabbit Hill in Hotchkiss. My opinion has always been that anyone who pays such close attention to the land, the soil and the growing will automatically make better wine than someone who farms with the help of Monsanto–using mice pelts and cow poop or not.

  7. Rebecca Work

    My husband and I have a small vineyard in Sta. Rita Hills CA (called ampelos cellars) which we have been farming biodynamic since 2005. Year after year we have continued to see a real difference in the health of our vines and the quality of wines we are making. An example of this is, in 2008 we had the worst frost in 35 years and many vineyards around us lots 50-60% of their crop. We did not lose anything and yet and employed the same frost protection practices as the others — was this “fate” or were they vines stronger and could resist.

    Several of the biodynamic practices can be explained. Take the burying of the cow horn. Why a cow horn — back in the early 1920’s it was common to use natural vessels for storage such as cow heads, cow horns and intestines. Why does the cow horn have to come from a female cow verses a male cow — the female horn is made with silicon and the male horn is calcium.

    A good book to read that helps in understanding some of the effects the earth has on the plants as well as about the “sole” of the plants is called “A secret Life of Plants” — little dry reading but still good.

    We also believe that sometimes things do not need to be explained and sometimes they just make sense or seems to be the right thing to do.

    “we did not inherit this land from our fathers – we are borrowiing it from our children” (amish proverb)

  8. Todd Trzaskos

    Nicely written piece, and I think this is just the start of the discussion about biodynamics. Just had two dinners recently with Randall Grahm and Bruno De Conciliis respectively, both great winemakers and proponents of biodynamics…was very interested to hear their practical perspectives, on what can be an non-grounded subject. Personally, I am a big fan of holostic thinking, and pre-conventional approaches like eastern medicine and feng shui, which offer systems built on long time tested modalities. Even though I believe that the practice of biodynamic farming, as an extension of non-interventionist agro practices, undoubtedly brings people closer to the land and more sensitive to the daily state of the vineyard (which in turn results in better fruit). I do not have confidence that the specific ‘preparations’ that sprang intact from Steiner’s head, are anything more than his personal synthesis and reproduction of holistic concepts, and as such have more ritual and placebo effect on the vineyard owners than on the state of the vineyard itself. They feel more responsible and so they are. Using manure tea is nothing new, and long pre-dated the introduction of petro-chemicals…we’ve just forgotten that it works. Does blind acceptance of Steiner’s theories lead to better wine though?
    My biggest concern is that the US wine market is very succeptible to story-telling, and studies have shown that perception is dominant…a expensive price tag on cheap wine increases consumer enjoyment. Is the current organic & bioD development in wine, simply a next level sales pitch to differentiate product? Is it the ONLY way to express terroir? Does the biodynamic story and its commercialization threaten small producers the same way in which the industrial evolution of the organic food movement has sometimes marginalized the very farmers that gave birth to it? Will a poorly made Demeter certified wine end up with better press than the quality producer that cannot handle the overhead of certification, or frankly do not care, because they have been making ‘natural’ wine for generations?
    It will certainly be interesting to see how this develops.

  9. Don White

    As far as qualitative assessment of BD wines, “the proof is in the pudding”. I have worked with a couple of vineyards that switched to BD practices after several years of “sustainable” farming(a term I use loosely since only few practice this properly). In all cases the vine health was visually improved drastically (much more important and often overlooked then a vintage quality). And even more noticeable was the health (and smell) of the soil.

    As I heard someone say before, “BD farming is similar to a holistic approach, it is about triggering a response in the plant to defend against a threat, rather then chemically treating the threat.”

    You can’t scientifically prove something that isn’t based in science.

  10. Carolyn Madson

    Is there a website devoted to biodynamic wines and wineries? I would enjoy partcipating in and folllowing the conversation. I would also like a complete list of biodynamic wineries, I could then look for them during my searches for the next great wine find!

  11. mike

    What a load of horn stuffed BS. Do a quick scan of the scores(I know they are not that meaningful) of Ehlers and tell me that there is a major(or minor) trend of improvement since they went “organic” or “biodynamic”. There are so many great wines using our currant low impact methods of farming that it is pretty silly to say that the farm chemical philosophy has a great deal of impact on wine quality. As some one who has farmed many acres in all manners of farming philosophy’s, I would submit that in order of importance, first is site, second is climate, third could be canopy management or water management. Then you get into whether the winemaker screws up or adds to the final product quality. At one point we had 40 acres of biodynamic Chard burn up from Witch potion # 9, but the potion pusher told a crowd that it was “bigger and better”. Believe in something real, hard work,experience, and luck. There are no magic shortcuts, (tho it is kind of cool to dance in the full moon naked while the owls fly by) TateDude

  12. David Flaherty

    As the author, I’m excited to see so many people sounding off on the merits of BD but the last comment by TateDude (Mike) seems to hit the mark for where I stand in the middle of all the debate. In terms of the land, there is no doubt in my mind that the soil improves, the plants thrive, etc, but doesn’t this happen with organic farming, as well?

    As TateDude says, there are so many great wines using low impact methods of farming that these “extra steps” may not do much in terms of bettering the final wine.

    Those of you who adamantly support BD, did you find a massive improvement in the wines themselves? Is there really a huge step up in not noticable differences between organic and BD farming methods?

  13. Eric Crane

    I don’t agree with everything that Steiner preached, but I’m a believer of biodynamics. Thanks for writing a great article.

  14. RichardA

    Is Steiner a “brilliant mind?” I would not classify him as such. He believed some very bizarre matters, and claimed to obtain much knowledge from the spirit world, including concerning biodynamics.

    So, those following biodynamic practices are following a system derived from a man who claimed to have received the system from the spirit world. Not much of a credible source.

    Steiner also made numerous weird claims in his agricultural lectures. For example, he stated one way to combat parasites was by concentration. Sure, “think” away those bugs. He also claimed that some insect were spontaneously created by “cosmic influences.” In addition, he said that plants cannot get diseases, but that they only appear that way due to influences by the Moon.

    Maybe it would be better to call Steiner a comic.

  15. Frank

    I have no doubt that carefully tending the vineyard will produce better wines. On the other hand…

    No one has ever shown that all the stuff about cow horns (which are made of keratin, not calcium or silicon, BTW) has any effect on the quality of the wines. Telling people that the wine is in some way “special” will increase their perceived enjoyment of it, even if it’s mislabeled plonk.

  16. mike

    Frank – Thanks for giving us what I hope are facts on the cow horn thing, I didn’t have time to look it up. Now we will probably be told they are “silicated” or “calcinated” or some such drivel. I have come to find that you can raise the quality of most vineyards by working it, some places however are just “more special” and there you have to be careful not to get in the way or screw it up by trying too hard. Case in point, one vineyard in Rutherford that I didn’t manage had a number of short shoots that the winemaker, like they always do, wanted to drop. I was interested as I knew it was a normally very good wine producer so I asked about it and got my head chewed off by the manager in charge. Later I noticed the fruit was still there and was harvested with the rest. Guess what, one of the best lots of the vintage. The canopy was not carrying too much fruit and was well balanced, had we listened to the winemaker, a lot of wonderful fruit would have hit the ground. Course we could have used my new special #801 (clay powder-honest to God I actually heard this once)to bring the “earth element” into the vines and enhance the load(of BS)Later

  17. David Flaherty

    Nicolas Joly himself was kind enough to write me with some feedback and gave me permission to post his comments. He went into a bit more detail about the mouse extermination techniques but, more importantly, wrote some great insight on measuring the effectiveness of BD….yes, a bit rambly and full of misspellings but what do you expect from a genius!

    NJ: “Last, scientific instruments are for measuring matter :! they make the huge mistake of considering genes as the creator of life while they are only small servant but first visible at the physical level . Like if you take the servant in a restaurant for the cook !!!this is why cristallisations( one chapter in my second book ) used in Bd are so precious you can see there the energetical organisation of life forces in what you heat . And if people were doing that before eating anything they would drasticaly change their habits.

    We do not feed on matter but on the forces which are stuck in it by an incarnation system. And our societes are destroying these forces!!! This is why the climate etc change Scientists should study forces and not matter . and they are not well equiped for that .
    And this knowledge would be very destructive because life on earth is free!!! We are not charged with an invoice for the growth of a tree or the birth of a cow . this knowledge is considerend anti ecionomical …
    Keep going
    Most is in my book ,often misunderstood

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