Praying Hands at World of Pinot Noir

I admire those grapegrowers and winemakers who employ organic and biodynamic methods of grapegrowing with the goal of making better wines and being better stewards of the land. I admire them the same way I admire the bagger at the check out line who makes the extra effort to double bag my groceries if my purchases are hefty enough to cause an accident on the way back to my car under single-bagged conditions. And I admire them the way I admire those who say grace at the table in a genuine, rather than rote way.

But I've never felt like the conscientious bagger or those who earnestly say grace at dinner believe they are ethically or morally superior to those who would rather single-bag my goods or simply want to dig into the meal in front of them without any heavenly communication.

So why is it that when I read the words of or listen to the evangelists of organic grapegrowing or biodynamic grapegrowing I feel like I'm being told they hold the moral and ethical high ground? That they are better than the rest of us.

It's that feeling that I came away with at a seminar on Organic, Biodynamic and Sustainable Farming Practices that was presented at World of Pinot Noir. Five American and one Austrian grapegrowers and winemakers sat on the stage and essentially described how they were doing the right thing.

They talked about their responsibility to the planet, about leaving the land in good shape for their descendants, about the spiritual nature of the organic/biodynamic approach to grapegrowing and they talked a little about the benefits to the wines that are eventually produced by using organic or biodynamic techniques.

I should be clear about a few things that I think are undisputed:

1. Organically made wines or wines made from organically grown grapes are not better tasting, longer lived or higher quality than wines that have no connection to the rigors of organic approaches.

2. Biodynamic farming is based in part on a mystical notion that has little with and no grounding in science or research.

3. Organically grown grapes produce are likely to produce healthier soils for grapes to grow in

4. The judicious and careful use of a few chemicals here and there in the vineyard, if not overdone, can be a winemaker's and grapegrower's  best friend and do very little harm to the environment.

I don't have anything against organic farmers. I believe them when they tell me that they have, in large part, turned to organic farming because they feel a responsibility to the planet and they think it makes their land better suited to grape growing. And I appreciate Richard Sanford of Alma Rosa for admitting that "It's very hard to make a qualitative evaluation of wine before and after conversion to organics".

But what makes me really think is when I hear Biodynamic growers apologize for what are truly the loopiest of the requirements of the Biodynamic Religion, yet continue to insist that they are making better wine and hint that they are doing more than others to preserve and extend their spiritual nature of Planet Earth.

Many will justify their own ordination into the Biodynamic creed and others will justify this cult by explaining that "anything that gets a grower closer to their land and vines is likely to result in better wines because they better understand their environment." Hard to argue with that. And I'll even buy that.

But in the end, there remains the same sort holier than thou attitude among these folks that I think needs to be pointed out for the fraudulent attitude it really is.  The suggestion is that if you aren't farming organically, if you are using any pesticides or herbicides at all, no matter how little, you are making unauthentic or perhaps immoral wines. And this comes from folks who have no problem displacing the natural environment that once existed where their holy vineyard not sits. It comes from winemakers who have no problem putting their wines in oak casks made from trees that were planted where a different ecosystem existed before oak-for-barrel trees once sat. It comes from winemakers that extend their carbon foot print as they ride their machinery around their vineyard.

Grow your grapes organically. Put on your tin foil hat and become a member of the congregation of the Biodynamic. But let's not pretend you are making better wines than others and let's surely not suggest, insinuate or even hint, that you are holier than me or your neighbor who kills pests with things other than other pests.

23 Responses

  1. Randy Watson - March 7, 2009

    Based upon my previous environmental science research pertaining to this matter, I would have to agree that pesticides when used in moderation can be very helpful. Using them this way won’t cause environmental damage, make the wine toxic, or alter its taste.

  2. Randy - March 7, 2009

    Somebody got up on the wrong side of the bed in their hotel room I think…
    Seriously though, the brand of biodynamic smugness you describe is the same as those who drive a Toyota Prius thinking they are saving the planet.
    I was going to provide the argument of “anything that gets the grape grower to spend more time in the vineyard will make for better grapes” until I saw that you acknowledged that. So what I’m left with is the analogy that conventional farming is akin to a nuclear arms race in the ecosystem. The more chemicals used, the more resistances are built up, and back and forth until you leave things pretty barren.
    Relying on things like the natural predation of pests by other critters rings true in my mind and my heart. It doesn’t mean I wear a tinfoil hat (just ask The Boss, as she drinks that Kool-Aid double-fisted with a grin on her face), just that I see common sense.

  3. Gretchen - March 7, 2009

    I have always been confused by seemingly rational adults who believe whole heartedly in biodynamics. But then I have never been about to understand Rudolph Steiner’s educational theories either. Mostly likely because his ideas are written in the driest and most dense prose known to man.

  4. KenPayton - March 7, 2009

    For many years now there has been a system-wide failure of supervising federal authorities, the USDA, EPA etc., to vigorously promote and perform proper scientific research into chemical pesticides and herbicides. Or to enforce the results of existing research. The political process of review is such that big ag has successfully hijacked meaningful scientific work at every turn. They employ an army of lobbyists and private labs to game the system.
    Unlike the apple or bell pepper, wine grapes cannot be washed before use or during the Crush. What persists on the grape from the vineyard stays on the grape, and into the bottle.
    As far as the hypocrisy of displacing the natural environment in favor of a vineyard it is important to note both the scale of this activity undertaken by the organic and biodynamic winegrower versus that the larger grape producing concern, conventional in the main, and also the cultivation or reintroduction of local biodiversity that often accompanies organic/bio practice.
    ‘Natural’ environments are hard to find these days. Hundreds and hundreds of non-native species of plant and insect have been introduced into Cali in its long environmental history. Who would not willingly cut down a eucalyptus in favor of an oak? Who would not willingly clear their land of invasive grasses, pampas grass, for example?
    In any event, the questions and answers are not so simple.

  5. Thomas Pellechia - March 7, 2009

    The questions and answers indeed aren’t simple. Just the simple concept of planting and managing acres of vineyards that the globe would not have created on its own is in itself an intrusion on the natural order of things–that fact alone makes exposes as pretension as well as presumption the holier-than-thou attitude of anyone, including the terroirists.
    I’ve come to the conclusion that its best not to debate the unanswerable, but to drink the wine in front of me, if I like it, and to hope that I like the next wine that I have in front of me–always mindful of its level of honesty.

  6. KenPayton - March 7, 2009

    Hi, Thomas P. No doubt it is best not to debate the unanswerable. But how to implement a sustainable land management program is not unanswerable. Neither is whether this might be better for the environment, the field worker, and consumer.
    The crux of Tom’s complaint, it seems to me, is the attitude of those who chilled their presentation into these matters with a rhetorical style that effectively froze discussion, at least for him.
    As for pretension and presumption, you find that everywhere.

  7. MasterGrape - March 7, 2009

    I think the sad truth is that those holier than thou speeches actually do increase sales. That attitude made organic and “agriculture biologique” in vogue. I know from first hand experience that a lot of French exporters and wholesalers will jump on a half-decent organic wine but they still hesitate on a great conventional wine in the same price range.
    Doubly tragic since the “bio” label in France only regulates the field and has absolutely no stipulations about what’s done in the winery.
    Triply tragic because synthetic products are in some ways less harmful to the environment than organic treatments. I’m friends with a lot of bio and biodynamic and it’s cool what they do. But I also tease them relentlessly when they talk about how natural it is to do it their way and not rely on factories and industry (when I know for a fact they are not mining for sulfur and copper, the two products which they apply to the vines most often).

  8. AC - March 7, 2009

    …as long as those holier than thou types sell directly and don’t sully their commerce by sending it through the dreaded three-tier channels.

  9. Kathy - March 8, 2009

    I am a biodynamic fan. A friend, who does not make enough wine to sell commercially-out of choice-decided to make his 3 ha vineyard biodynamic. It is a lot of work. However, in the six years so far, there has been a dramatic difference in the basic health of his vineyards and in the wine taste. One could argue he has just gotten better at what he does. Maybe.
    This doesn’t apply to organic, which I think is less “correct” though more easily identified and therefore easier to follow USDA rules.
    BTW, “biodynamic” has been trademarked in the US by Demeter so we are all breaking trademark by not calling it Biodynamic by Demeter. There are reasons for this, apparently having to do with trying not to go the way of the generously vague USDA rules re “organic,” and an attempt to keep cosmetic companies from using the word (besides requiring all “Biodynamic” farmers to use only Demeter products). The trademark applies to any and everything you could think of (t-shirts included).
    But, it is now a brand-not a concept, nevertheless.

  10. Thomas Pellechia - March 8, 2009

    But Ken,
    in saying this:
    “But how to implement a sustainable land management program is not unanswerable.”
    you don’t address when I said this:
    “…the simple concept of planting and managing acres of vineyards that the globe would not have created on its own is in itself an intrusion on the natural order of things…”

  11. mydailywine - March 8, 2009

    It does appear that Tom primarily took offense at the attitude he perceived.
    And providing a counterbalance to wine world elitism is one my personal crusades.
    However, the assertion that chemical fertilizers and pesticides might not be as harmful to the soil and surrounding ecosystem as organic farming alternatives begs dissension.
    I think we can all agree that wines made from organic or BioD grapes are not necessarily better tasting, although that might be true sometimes.
    But I do seek out these wines for the same reason I seek out free range, organic feed chickens. Call me crazy, but I have lost the desire for battery raised chickens shot full of antibiotics.

  12. Chicago Pinot - March 8, 2009

    Tom, I heart you and I heart Fermentation, but I have to challenge you a little here.
    We may be in agreement about the “holier-than-thou” attitude of some of the winemakers you describe. But I kept thinking about your love letter to one Alice Feiring a few months ago.
    I read her book, and I periodically check out her blog. I am in agreement with much of what she says, but can you admit there is a similar Dr. Laura-esque moral authority in the way she makes her points?

  13. KenPayton - March 8, 2009

    Hi again, Tom P. Hope your weekend has gone well. I got a sunburn!
    I wrote a piece some time ago that sought to place Steiner’s biodynamics in the larger drama of his life, to put it diplomatically. And I recently assembled a group of interviews from diverse, knowledgeable individuals around the subject of vineyard soil and its travails so that they might provide my readers an intellectual counterweight to both spiritual dogma and laissez-faire indifference to viticultural as actually practiced.
    Too few consumers actually understand just how demanding and rigorous it is to grow grapes. A little happy talk in the tasting room, a few notes on the bottle, just a bit of science-speak for the wine geek (and to intimidate the uninitiated) pH, acidity, RS, ‘gentle extraction’, ‘hand-made’, you understand, happy, reassuring talk is all most folks want. And a good bottle of wine!
    More to the point, all agriculture is an intrusion on the ‘natural order of things’, in a very limited sense. Because the natural has many meanings. It is just as natural to drown as it is to save yourself. It is just as natural for a group to starve as it is to plant a field of wheat and domesticate an animal to save that same group. It is just as natural to die of cancer as it is to find a cure.
    Natural does not mean ‘what the world does without us’. The natural is not the exclusion of humanity. That is a nihilistic fiction. The natural means biological, atomic, chemical and physical processes. We are made of these processes, no less than the swan, the yeast, the grape, or the sun. And we try to understand them.
    That’s really all I have to say! Cheers.

  14. Thomas Pellechia - March 9, 2009

    Sunburn in March? Obviously, we live in two different worlds…
    “…all agriculture is an intrusion on the ‘natural order of things’, in a very limited sense. Because the natural has many meanings.”
    Exactly my point, which is why all the hyperbole concerning how one grower does this and another does that amounts mainly to philosophy.
    Mind you, I hate the use of petro-chemicals in anything that winds up going into my stomach, but I also know how to grow grapes, and I know that at every step of the way the process is interventionism–no getting around it, unless you are a fool with a lot of money to burn.
    The problem Tom addresses really has to do with the interventions that some accept and those that others do not. And all those who accept one over the other seem to have a tendency to speak of their acceptance as a form of religion.
    Add to that, are the people who’ve never grown a grape in their lives telling the rest of us how it should be done and who should do it…

  15. dfredman - March 9, 2009

    I attended the same seminar on Friday and found it interesting that the most evangelical of the speakers were Richard Sanford and Jonathan Pey who were there representing the organic way of viticulture. They were extremely passionate in their belief that organic farming can affect not only grapes but society. Jeff Virnig had a bit of that in his talking about biodynamie but he and Paul Achs (the Austrian mentioned in the original post) spoke more about how it worked for them in the vineyard and without adding any moral, ethical, or sociopolitical baggage as to whether you sprayed with Roundup or not in the vineyard. Surprisingly, they were NOT the most strident or forceful advocates of their methods, seemingly preferring to describe what they do, why they did it, the results of their change to biodynamie, and then leaving us in the audience the opportunity to think about whether or not biodynamics are a good thing.
    Meanwhile, Harry Peterson-Nedry and Susan Reed (the sustainable farmers) allowed as to how it would be nice to be growing organically or biodynamically but that the realities of having to grow consistent grapes precluded them for signing on to something that would prevent them from producing the best quality fruit on a consistent basis. Their lutte raisonée approach works best for them, even though they lose the marketing edge.
    As one of the panelists commented, “if you THINK that you’re growing better grapes using organic, biodyamic, or sustainable methodology, then that’s the program you should follow.” That being said, I felt that Sanford and Pey were a little overbearing, but not in a bad way. I admire their passion for what they’re doing and like the way their wines have benefited from their efforts (the same holds true with the PNs from Achs and Sinskey). It was made clear by everyone that to farm in any of these ways adds to the cost (dollars and time) of farming but that it yields benefits.
    It was a thought-provoking panel, although it was a bit of “preaching to the converted”, judging by the overall mien of the audience.

  16. steve - March 9, 2009

    You were at a Pinot event enough said.

  17. KenPayton - March 9, 2009

    Much of Cali was bathed in sunlight yesterday. Lot’s of sunburns, I’m sure. I was in a Central Coast vineyard talking with a winegrower, ironically enough.
    About your reply to my brief comments about the concept of ‘natural’,
    “Exactly my point, which is why all the hyperbole concerning how one grower does this and another does that amounts mainly to philosophy.”
    Your initial point seemed to be that a vineyard is ‘an intrusion on the natural order of things’. From that notion I drew the conclusion that you understand winegrowing, ag in general, as ‘unnatural’.
    My point was that ‘natural’ means many things. For example, DDT does one thing on a crop, lethally interferes with a pest’s ‘natural’ biology, but it also has cascading consequences for other life forms. This is true of any broad spectrum pesticide/herbicide. Colony Collapse Disorder may well have to do with not one but a number of pesticides working in lethal synergy.
    Further, many studies, easily found on the net, clearly definitively demonstrate pesticides/herbicides, many used in vineyards, have a negative ‘natural’ effect on fish, soil microorganisms, other insects, fowl, humans, etc. All of this is beyond dispute, it is part of every grammar school curriculum, every gardener’s experience. So to say that it is simply a difference of philosophy between what one grower does vis a vis another is inaccurate.
    Organic and bio folks, and sustainable farmers, all have productive contributions to make on these subjects. But it is not philosophy. It is practical experience, science, and a well-intentioned view to the future that animates producer discussions. Of course, in the case of Bio there are metaphysical considerations linked to their activity. But as Tom W suggests, whatever works is good, and if it also helps the environment, it is better. Bottom line, no grower wants to destroy their livelihood or the environment!
    ‘Interventions’ in any vineyard are numerous, true enough. But, again, that does not make them ‘unnatural’. The efforts, in some approaches, are designed to maximize ‘natural’ processes. Others steer them along narrower paths. The idea behind organic growing (not necessarily the USDA’s definition of it) is to work to enhance these processes as a biological whole. Biodiversity, earthworms, predatory insects, flourishing populations of microorganisms and fungi, and many more dimensions, are some of the ways growers promote a healthy vineyard.
    We all want the same thing, a livable world for our children. This terminological skirmish is quite beside the point!

  18. Thomas Pellechia - March 9, 2009

    “This terminological skirmish is quite beside the point!”
    Quite true. But to me, Tom’s kernel was this comment:
    “…(they) insist that they are making better wine and hint that they are doing more than others to preserve and extend their spiritual nature of Planet Earth.”
    To me, that’s beyond terminology and into a philosophical attitude, if not evangelical. All they need do is to explain what they do in the vineyard, how it works, and what the return is, and dispense with the chest pounding and derision of others.
    If their wines show results equal to or better than other methods–gravy.

  19. Jack Everitt - March 9, 2009

    Gee, it’s always sad when a “wine writer” runs out of things to write about and so hits the bottom, and writes the bashing biodynamics article. I had thought better of you, Tom.

  20. Jack Everitt - March 9, 2009

    Score: 50 Pts. Fails reality check.
    You know, Tom, I bet you believe in God, right? Probably the Christian god, too, right? Whatever…
    So, how is it not extremely hypocritical of you to diss another’s mysticism when I bet you would be offended if someone dissed yours? Or do you not believe in a mythical being with super magical powers? Perhaps not you, but quite a few people on this planet base their reality on such a being! (Queue nods on the right and laughs on the left.) In fact, Biodynamic mysticism is so minor in comparison to the mysticism that more than half the people in our country say they believe. Hmmm…this seems to make you the King of Hypocrites. Time to change your blog name to Fermented?

  21. Sgt. Sassafras - March 9, 2009

    Love this quote:”I am still, thank God, an atheist.”
    [inserted to cool these folks down]

  22. organicmac - March 9, 2009

    At least those who don’t practice Biodynamics don’t have to pretend to know it. The principal backbone to Biodynamics is healthy soil biology. Steiner, in his time, had no way to understand that his composting and interpalnting encouraged specific bacteria and fungal content in the soil. Unfortunatly his “mysticism” in explaining this process has done more to alienate the masses than cultivate them. While yes the “mysticism” is completly scientificaly unfound, soil biology is not. The practice of growing out those specific strains of bacteria, fungus and protoazoa is extremly cutting edge science. As our world around us becomes fallow and overfarmed this is the science that will regenerate our overfarmed soils. The premis behind Biodynamics is where this science stems from.
    At the end of the day if a winery can say that they are sustainabley organiclly farming their ranch and producing fruit that is of equal quality or better than their previous methods than undeniabley organic farming is superior.

  23. Dylan - March 12, 2009

    mydailywine couldn’t have said it better. Organic farming should not carry an attitude, but, as he said, organic farming has its purpose. What’s important here isn’t moral high ground, but that we always leave behind a healthy ground.

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