Is biodynamic and organic grapegrowing flim flam or fab?

bonterra vineyards

Cover crops used in Bonterra's biodynamically farmed vineyards

Jay McInerney, a wine writer for The Wall Street Journal, wrote an interesting piece last week on the validity of biodynamic grapegrowing. The story — as well as the comments — bring up solid questions about certain practices used in this type of farming. Every winemaker I interview gets the “what do you think about organic and biodynamic farming” question, and it’s met each time with a different set of praises, skepticisms and sometimes insults.

Biodynamic winemaking began with the teachings of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). He viewed the farm as a living system, and emphasized diversity in the vineyards — growing a variety of plants to attract insects and raising animals to provide manure for fertilizer. In order to call a vineyard “biodynamic”, a winery must undergo Demeter certification, a stringent series of steps — including no application of unnatural herbicides/pesticides/fungicides — that must be followed for several years. Proponents claim it revives the land and fortifies the fruit.

Biodynamics also involves applying special mixtures to crops. One concoction is created by fermenting manure in a cow horn over the winter, then spreading it over the vineyard in the spring (this is discussed at length in the WSJ piece). Another method is applying oak bark fermented in the skull of a domestic animal. Diehard biodynamic farmers believe these practices fix problems with pH and salinity, help fight soil diseases, and increase beneficial microorganisms.

Application of these compost mixtures is planned according to the phases of the moon and planetary movement. Biodynamic thinking tries to balance the four influences on the vineyards: water, earth, air and fire, harmonizing the world’s energies with the grapevines. Bizarre? Maybe. But these biodynamic farmers hark from some of France’s most renowned wine estates, like Chateau de Beaucastel in the Rhone Valley. California’s successful, family-owned Benziger Winery started going biodynamic in the late ’90s, a few years behind France. Winemaker Mike Benziger states on his website: “A biodynamic vineyard is free to draw complexity, flavor and character from its roots below and abundant sunshine above. As a result, biodynamic vineyards can produce a totally unique wine with boundless charisma.”

The truth is, there’s no definitive answer for how (and if you follow the naysayers, if) biodynamic farming works. It’s like trying to answer why the moon circles the earth or how earthworms decide where to live. As science investigates further, we may know more but with increasing number of grapegrowers embracing some, if not all, of the biodynamic practices, it may be sooner than we think.

Some wineries using biodynamic practices in their grapegrowing: Quivira, Sinskey, Benziger, Ceago, Bonterra, Pascal Jolivet, Domaine Le Garrigon, Chateau de Beaucastel, Paul Dolan, Bonny Doon, Zind Humbrecht, and Joseph Phelps

Pieces I’ve written about organics and biodynamics:
Howl at the Moon: Biodynamics
Big Daddy Organic: Mendocino
Sustainable Farming

The Wall Street article: Biodynamics: Natural Wonder or Just a Horn of Manure?

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2 comments to Is biodynamic and organic grapegrowing flim flam or fab?

  • Rusty Eddy

    One shouldn’t mention biodynamic without including Jim Fetzer and Ceago Wines (I know you did so in a previous post…). Jim and his family (along with the Freys) led the way in Mendocino County back in the 1980s. And not to take anything at all away from him, but remember that Paul Dolan worked for the Fetzer family when he first caught the organic/biodynamic bug…

  • Taylor Eason

    Rusty: Couldn’t agree more. Haven’t seen many Ceago wines around though? Visited the winery a while back (thanks to you!) but the brand isn’t as visible as it should be, in my opinion.

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