Biodynamic Wine
Revolutionary and better than organic?

By Carolyn Bawden

My husband and I recently enjoyed a pleasant summer evening at a local Oregon winery. The company was good, the food excellent, and the wine fair. As the meal came to a close, the owner rose to tell us about the exciting new direction his winery is taking. Their future wines will rival all others. They are moving beyond organic wine to something even better - biodynamic wine. He told us that biodynamic wine production assists nature in creating balance between the Earth and the universe. And he explained how homeopathic preparations are used to improve the "life energy" in biodynamic grapes and wines.

I will explain how biodynamic wine is produced, the claims made about it, why some wineries are adopting the practice, and what this may mean to wine consumers.

Biodynamic theory and practice
Biodynamic farming is based on the principles of Rudolph Steiner, a German philosopher who created the "science" of anthroposophy in the 1920s. His life's mission was to bridge the gap between the material and spiritual world. Anthroposophy was suppose to attune man with the spirit of the Earth and universe. "Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture" is a series of eight lectures Steiner delivered during the last year of his life to a group of Belgian farmers whose land had been devastated by overuse. The lectures are based on the ideas that 1) the Earth is a living being; 2) the cosmos, Earth and man are intimately interconnected; and 3) man can destroy or enrich his land. Steiner believed the soil and the elements nitrogen, calcium, silicon, and oxygen are filled with "spirit" or "astrality." Plants absorb this spirit from the soil and cosmos. Man, in turn, absorbs this spirit when he consumes the plants as food.

In the 1960s, German anthroposophist Maria Thun refined Steiner's theories. After forty years of personal research, Thun developed a calendar for sowing, cultivating and harvesting. Using this calendar, she claimed, would maximize the cosmic effects and elemental forces on plants. She divided plants into root (earth), leafy (water), flowering (air), and fruit bearing (fire) components and assigned each component three zodiac signs. Under each sign are additional subdivisions for fruit, leaf, root and flower days. The best time for any field work is when the moon moves through the plant's associated sign. Today, gardeners can buy annual calendars detailing appropriate days for any given garden activity based on Thun's theories.

Thun also developed natural preparations she claimed are essential to plants. For example, preparation BD500 is cow horn manure - dung placed in a horn from a female animal, to enhance the feminine primordial forces, and buried in the vineyard over the winter. The horn supposedly captures cosmic energy and transfers it to the manure. The following spring the horn manure is mixed with warm water, seeped for an hour, and sprayed on a "root day" at the rate of 2.5 ounces per acre. This is supposed to "halt winter decomposition and bind energy and vitality to the roots." In the fall, the manure can be applied to cover crops to stimulate seed germination. (10)

Other preparations use silica, yarrow, chamomile, nettle, oak bark, dandelion, valerian, and horsetail. The prescribed quantity of each is minuscule - about a gram either in 30 liters then sprayed over a hectare or added to 10 tons of compost. Preparations must be "dynamised" by stirring the solution in prescribed clockwise and counter-clockwise motions. Silica is prepared by burying it in a cow's horn, this time during the summer so it can absorb the sun's "life force." It is applied during flowering on "leaf days" to enhance photosynthesis, assist micronutrient uptake, improve fruit flavor and color, and protect the plant against disease during the winter when the sun is weak. (1, 10)

Steiner and Thun's farming practices, designed to renew soils and improve the nutritional value of foods, have been further refined into a "holistic biodynamic farm model." All substances, including the eight defined by Thun, should be grown on the farm that uses them, including the animals needed to provide the farm with fertilizer. No insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, or other sprays are to be used on the farm, nor are any additives other than those prescribed, and those must be applied according to Thun's astrological calendar.

The wine makers who use biodynamics
Some in the wine industry embrace the concept of biodynamic wines. They stress their wine is superior because the biodynamic approach takes organic wine to a superior level. Growers adopting such practices also emphasize the environmental benefits of their cultivation practices.

Nicholas Joly of Coulee de la Serrant in the Savennieres region of France's Loire Valley is a leader in biodynamic viticulture. His experience with biodynamics began in the 1970s after he read Steiner's book. He had been using pesticides in his vineyards and noted the toxic effect they seemed to have on the wildlife in the area. Joly emphasizes "living forces" and the "timing of interventions."

"Vines that flower and grow during solstice produce the best wine. By practicing methods to add life to the soil, such as giving the correct fertilizer, proper vine selection, and avoiding poisonous treatments, the wine will catch the harmony of the earth and no further treatment will be necessary in the cellar." (11)

James Millton of Millton Vineyard in Gisbourne, New Zealand, is another proponent of biodynamic wine production. Millton says he does not "adhere to the underlying principles of anthroposophical philosophy, but works with the total overview."

When asked what he thought of the more esoteric principles of biodynamism, he replied, "Esoteric aspects? They give answers to the questions that enlightened 'organic' growers are left with when dealing with the commercial problems the chemical inputs from former practices have created...They are there because of an imbalance and biodynamic activity will help to bring about the balance...The planets? One can read it on the calendar, look at it in the night sky and then feel it, as one's relationship with the land strengthens. The planets are very important and we are most probably the only mammals who do not 'feel' these activities." (11)

When asked if biodynamism might seem odd to the scientifically trained, Millton replied, "We are born with innate abilities. Present education reduces our senses and makes us dumb." (11)

In the USA, John Frey, Mendocino County, California, produced the first certified biodynamic wines. Frey Vineyards is fully self-sustaining, producing its own on-site fertilizer and manufacturing biodynamic inoculations for sprays. (6) Since the late 1990s, however, Mendocino vineyards have struggled with infestations of phylloxera, a flightless insect that feeds on the roots, eventually killing the vines. It remains to be seen what steps organic and biodynamic growers in the area will take to save their vineyards. Jim Fetzer of the Fetzer wines family has long promoted organic and biodynamic production. He recently established the Ceago Del Lago vineyard which "will showcase the biodynamic method of farming." (2)

In Chile, Alvaro Espinoza of Vinedos Organicos Emiliana is using biodynamic practices he learned after spending some time at the Fetzer Winery in California. Since the concept is new to Chilean wineries, he has needed to start from scratch to make all the homeopathic additives. Espinoza initially had difficulty getting red deer bladders, used to ferment some preparations, and some prescribed plants such as yarrow which are not native to Chile. (11)

In Oregon, Cooper Mountain Vineyard is converting to biodynamic practices, primarily, they say, to stop poisoning and begin healing the Earth by using natural processes. "Organic farming is concerned with halting the devastation caused by humans; however, organic agriculture has no cure for the ailing Earth. Biodynamics approaches agriculture to bring about balance and harmony." (3)

Science-based agriculture
Is biodynamic viticulture revolutionary? Are biodynamic practices really better farming practices? Are viticulturists benefiting from the homeopathic applications? Does the alignment of the planets make any discernible difference to the plants as claimed? Maybe any observable benefits stem simply from the extra attention given to plant health that is required to implement biodynamic practices. Or, perhaps this is just a new angle for marketing wines.

Some goals and practices encompassed in biodynamic farming are supported by science-based agriculture. It is widely acknowledged that years of over reliance on insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides have been harmful to humans and animals. We also know that contaminated ground water and soils do not recover quickly. Most agricultural scientists encourage controlling disease and pests with less harmful methods. They promote Integrated Pest Management (IPM) as a strategy to minimize pesticide's impact on human health, the environment, and nontargeted organisms. IPM emphasizes prevention by using good cultural methods, such as cleanliness, clearing away diseased plants and crop debris, analyzing soil components and adding only those needed, monitoring soil pH and treating accordingly, maintaining adequate drainage for plants, encouraging beneficial insects, and planting insect and disease resistant cultivars. Farmers are trained to monitor pests and establish tolerance levels so chemicals are used only when pests are doing real harm.

We know plant growth is related to the seasons through the plant's innate response to temperature and day length. This has been scientifically measured and defined. Labels on most seed packages give planting dates, time to germination, and days to bloom time. Vineyard managers have similar information for their grapes and rootstock, and grape varieties are selected for the climate and soil type in which they are to be grown.

There are problems in vineyards, however. In places, the same fields have been used as vineyards for hundreds of years without correcting for harmful agricultural practices. Organic wine appeared in response to concerns about food additives and environmental harm. Furthermore, wine grapes and the sequence of growing, picking, fermenting, and bottling do not guarantee a wine with a wonderful bouquet or pleasing taste. This is why wines are cellared and tasted frequently to see if all the work and attention have yielded a superior product.

Finally, the philosophy upon which biodynamic practices are based has little evidence to support it. It is unlikely that adherence to rituals timed with an astrological clock will improve grapes or the finished wine product. Minuscule amounts of substances sprayed on plants, while probably not harmful, are unlikely to enhance the plant's health or productivity. A more prudent practice is to analyze the plant's needs and provide them in meaningful quantities. Man's relationship with the cosmos is better left to the philosopher than used as an approach to grape growing and wine production.

The biodynamic wines I've tasted show no discernible differences from regular wine. Some wine growers listed as proponents made good wine before adopting biodynamic practices, so one would expect them to make a similarly good product afterwards.

One should, however, keep an open mind—perhaps the question calls for going out for a little more dedicated wine tasting.


Copyright (c) 2006 Oregonians For Rationality