Biodynamics Is A Hoax…Amen?

Stusmith Over the past few years, one corner of the “Culture Wars” has been dedicated to the debate over the utility of religion and whether or not faith has been beneficial to mankind. Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, all considered “New Atheists” for the new and aggressive way they have gone after religion, have been on the attack while a slew of defenders of the faith have taken up the challenged.

The ongoing debate is a fascinating one that naturally touches on the nexus of science and faith, history, quantum mechanics, epistemology, morals and ethics. But as always, the way this debate is carried out, the language that is used and the characters at the center of the debate are also part of the show.

I could not stop mulling the debate between faith and reason when I was alerted to, and read through, a new blog called “Biodynamics is a Hoax“.

This new blog could have easily been named “Faith Versus Reason”. Anyone familiar with the tenets of Biodynamic Farming and its founder, Rudolf Steiner, should immediately recognize the similarities between the debate over the faith vs. reason and the debate over Biodynamics vs. non faith-based farming. The person behind “Biodynamics is a Hoax” certainly understands this similarity and certainly has a position.

I want to quote Stu Smith, founder and owner of Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery and author of this new blog, somewhat extensively to provide readers with no doubt as to where he stands (as if the title of his blog alone wasn’t enough):

“Yet, after reading Steiner, I conclude that Rudolf Steiner was a
complete nutcase, a flimflam man with a tremendous imagination, a
combination if you will, of an LSD-dropping Timothy Leary with the
showmanship of a P.T. Barnum.  His books, writings and lectures should
be catalogued under “science fiction” because there is not a scintilla
of truth in any of his writings.  Reading Steiner is tough sledding
because it makes no sense in our real world, yet when viewed as
“science fiction” masquerading as some sort of Jim Jones new age cult
you are forced to admit that Steiner was extremely clever and creative
in actually making this stuff up.  Unfortunately, it is quite sad that
someone—anyone—would actually believe in this hoax and profoundly
disturbing that the Biodynamic movement is gaining ground.”

There are a number of extremely smart and successful and deep thinking people who have adopted the methods of biodynamicism that Smith labels “Science Fiction”. Knowing Stu a little bit and having read other things he has written and having some understanding of the commitment and determination he brings to the causes he champions, those biodynamic supporters will need to bring their A-game smarts and deep thoughts with them if they choose to lift up the gauntlet that Stu has thrown down.

But I hope they do pick up the gauntlet if only because I want to see the style with which they swing it.

One of the more sophisticated arguments of the “New Atheists” who have been attacking religion and faith is that religious moderates, who may have nothing more than a passing interest in a faith they adopted perhaps only out of cultural familiarity, give the more dangerous, extreme and fundamentalist defenders of the faith cover for their often easy willingness to follow the letter of their Canon as they blow up human beings in order to find their way to heaven or attempt to shove homosexuals into a moral ghetto crafted with Iron Age philosophical bricks.

Where Biodynamics is concerned, I’m sort of like those religious moderates. I’ve always said that while biodynamics looks very much to me like faith masquerading as science, I nonetheless appreciate that this “farming” method brings the farmer closer to his vineyard—which can’t be a bad thing.

Am I giving cover to charlatans in my laissez-faire view of biodynamics? I just may be. And I don’t like the way that sounds.

So, I’m going to keep reading “Biodynamics is a Hoax” with the willingness to throw off my moderation on the issue and fall into Stu’s “New Atheist” camp on this issue if he can (or wants) to convince folks like me that my shoulder shrugging on the issue may be detrimental in the long run.

If you are interested in the more heady and esoteric debates within the wine industry or if you are interested in seeing how a really good, smart and committed polemicist goes about his business, or if you are interested in biodynamics or even a practitioner, I highly recommend Stu Smith’s “Biodynamics is a Hoax.”

64 Responses

  1. KenPayton - June 9, 2010

    Bio has undergone numerous iterations in the decades since Steiner penned his Ag Lectures back in 1924. My personal belief is that he was looking for a way to answer practical, purely profane questions nagging at him ever since, as a child, he used to watch the farmers work the land near his home. His only real ag. experience appears to have been growing a few potatoes alongside his sister when he was a little boy. Endlessly extolling the virtues of peasant/farmer/rural life in which he played no part, Steiner was never comfortable with the intellectual gulf that separated him from the salt of the earth.
    And make no mistake. Steiner was a very rigorous philosophy student, reading extensively from the terrifyingly profound German philosophical tradition which includes Kant, Hegel, Fichte, and Leibniz. It was only later in life that his spiritualist bent fully emerged. So, understand that Steiner was first and foremost an intellectual. I will not recount his circuitous journey to spiritualism, but I will say it was as adventurous a life of the mind as one may hope to have lived.
    That said, while I do not believe in Bio as codified by Demeter, neither do I embrace Stu Smith’s concept of ‘science’ as a unified whole, especially when it is used like a hammer, not unlike authors mentioned above, to smash all thought unlike its own. General cultural motifs, religion being among them, cannot be understood positivistically, as mere errors of the mind.
    Stu Smith pretends a comprehensive understanding, practices a bit of ‘flimflam’ himself, when he writes that “there is not a scintilla of truth in any of his writings”. I don’t know how many of Steiner’s 1000s of papers he has read, but it is safe to say not many. And this is no mere tit for tat on my part. Rather, it goes to the heart of what he means by ‘science’, and to whether he is able to read in multiple semantic registers. Anthropologists, for example, have often documented how a native’s fantastic creation myth can be understood as an indigenous method of comprehending the processes of the real world.
    I’ve gone on for too long. I will close with the observation that ‘science’ gave us eugenics, industrial ag, DDT, the usual suspect. And, to be sure, it was ‘science’ that showed us the way out of those blind alleys. This is to say that ‘science’ is not a rigid, permanent thing. It is a fluid concept open to new developments. While I don’t believe Bio will ever satisfy its criteria, I do know that claiming to want enlightened debate, as Stu Smith does, he does not appear to bring a spirit of open inquiry and tolerance to his blog.

  2. Andy - June 9, 2010

    Unlike religion, biodynamics is testable — these tests should include (1) Before and after analysis of the grapes for polyphenols, anthocyanins etc (2) comparsion of grapes grown in the same region with conventional, organic and biodynamics methods for similar analysis and (3) chemical, sensory and taste analysis (blind of course) of the wines produced at the winery before/after biodynamics and regionally. At that point we can tell if there are differences and do the difference result in an increase in perceived quality. If there are good/bad differences, then we can investigate to determine the mechanism(s). Just because some of the tenents of biodynamics are hokey, does not mean there are not points of value (think accupuncture). But, I do not think comparing biodynamics to relgion is appropriate because there is no ability to test any religious belief objectively under any circumstance

  3. Josh - June 9, 2010

    Great comment Ken. Science used as a hammer is just as dangerous as any jihad.
    My problem with BioD is that to get attention practitioners position themselves as super organic or some such. They raise themselves up at the expense of others. And that is when I call BS.
    I may enjoy having my grapes blessed, and I may spend my quiet time praying in the vineyard, but the second I try and leverage my spirituality to claim some higher perch for my brand and wines is the second I deserve to be repudiated in the very strongest terms.

  4. Rudy Marchesi - June 9, 2010

    I’m not particularly interested in getting on a soapbox or trying to be a spokesman in defense of Biodynamics, but I do want to share this simple observation. I am a grape grower/winemaker farming 230 acres of vineyards in the Willamette Valley. My main concern is growing grapes and producing wine in the best way I can. In 2003 we started implementing Biodynamic practices with very good results. We have since converted our entire farm to Biodynamic methods and are now Demeter certified. Our vineyards have never looked better, our wines improve every year and I have some of the lowest farming costs per acre in the valley. If this is a “hoax” I’m sticking with it.
    Rudy Marchesi, Montinore Estate, Forest Grove OR

  5. Josh - June 9, 2010

    The problem here is the resolution of our tests and the limits of our understanding. What you suggest might someday be possible, but matrix effects, seasonal variation, site variation and a whole host of other issues confound our ability to make any kind of comprehensive statement.
    And then to try and link these assays to quality, which itself is subjective – well I’m not sure it is so much different than trying to test religious claims objectively.

  6. Tim - June 9, 2010

    Not Sure i’d hitch my wagon to this nut case.
    I tend to respect guys like Laflaive and Romanee Conti
    before Stu – who????????????

  7. Tom Wark - June 9, 2010

    Stu is the founder of Smith Madrone Vineyards and Winery in Napa Valley. He has been at it, successfully, for many years.
    It’s true that a short cut to conclusion is hitching one’s reason to names you respect. However, it’s not always the best way to arrive at a reasonable conclusion.

  8. Jason - June 9, 2010

    Ken said:
    “I’ve gone on for too long.”
    you can say that again!
    “I will close with the observation that ‘science’ gave us eugenics, industrial ag, DDT, the usual suspect.”
    From your education, that was the best list you could come up with for what science has given us?? You should ask your college for your money back

  9. Alice Joyce - June 9, 2010

    Interesting debate, even for those of us outside the industry.

  10. JohnLopresti - June 9, 2010

    I might continue waiting for mention of Heidegger, Mauritain, and gardener Chadwick to appear in the rebuttals, but, having known the un-Bio-D’s Stu-S somewhat, I am more inclined to read some of his new blog’s material. I seem to have noticed resonant impressions at a few sites in discussion of mini-sheep permitted to rub against young grapevines biodynamically. Stu always likes to present a challenge, and probably should have become a senator, or maybe a folksinger if he were from a different age, musical polemics having been rife in onstage professions in that bygone era. I think Stu is more existential and agrarian, and certainly the equal in erudition of many viticulturists and enologists; but my views are perhaps inapposite. So, I guess I will check his blog. On the ranch where I live, the organic approach has become a basic first step in developing tomato and corn terroir, and likely will be the way the zin terraces get mapped and managed.
    If I recall accurately, Stu’s way usually was to cut the hype, and say simply where the truth and value reside; without need to delve into a unified theory of existence, yet appreciative of what life in its entirety, well maintained, has to offer to the attentive person who works the field.

  11. Ned - June 9, 2010

    For me it comes down to this; Farming with harsh concentrated chemicals in ways that are not in line with how nature normally functions is something I don’t want to support. Farming naturally and organically is something I think we need to return to for the life of the planet’s ecosystems. Those who farm need to see returns for their work. There are reasonable fair and balanced choices and there are choices made for bad reasons.
    For some reason in wine BD has achieved an exalted status over well executed organic farming that I think is not deserved or warranted. It has been adopted as a marketing tool, to elevate a producers proof of dedication above that of his merely organic peers. I’d prefer if BD was seen as one possible choice for organic farmers and not as the ultimate one.

  12. Brigitte Armenier - June 9, 2010

    To anyone interested in Biodynamics and thus Goethean science, I recommend:
    1. Arthur Zajonc’s website:
    2. Henri Bortoft’s book: The Wholeness of Nature.

  13. Ed King - June 9, 2010

    I also farm grapes and make wine in Oregon. I have to go with Stu and Ned- BD is a hoax in the sense that there is nothing to the claims that “formula 501” does anything at all for plants. I work at King Estate, where our entire 1000+ acres is certified organic by Oregon Tilth. Organic is totally doable. I understand organic approaches- we don’t use chemical fertilizers, herbicides. And we don’t use pesticides that aren’t approved- for example, we can use sulfur to kill powdery mildew. The synthetics and petrochemical based products clearly disrupt nature- the soil processes that have evolved over eons to provide and convert minerals and nutrients are based on complex interactions and relationships that have holes punched in them by the chemicals. All across the US soils are being degraded and destroyed and the dependence on chemicals and big ag is growing. Our industrial food system is killing us. What we are doing is far from sustainable because when the oil runs out, so will the ag chemicals made from it- but in the meanwhile, the population continues to increase and our ability to feed ourselves locally continues to decline. So- will some cowhorn sprayed into our vineyards and farms save us? With all the interest in feeding the world, all the money spent on ag research across the nation and the world… is there any chance that somehow we overlooked the fact that all we had to do was pray and puff potions and our problems would be solved? Would we accept this hoakum in any other part of our lives? A magic dust to make us all young again? How about a Steiner mixture for our cars? Sports teams? King Estate is certified by the same guy who does the Demeter certs and we asked him- what else would we have to do to be biodynamic? He said- you already meet or exceed the BD standards- so all you would have to do is buy a few hundred dollars worth of 501 from us and spread it around. So, presto chango, King Estate becomes ultra groovy and the press can be informed. No thanks. It is a phony marketing tool, as Ned says. If you look at a table of all the wineries in the world that identify themselves as BD, you will see that many have a blank in the column for certifying agency- this means that many are self-declared BD, under their own supervision and standards. Well, more than once or twice a year, we may be reduced to prayer in this business of growing grapes- so maybe with a little formula 501 we can all be BD. We’re already praying… Ed King.

  14. Luiz Alberto - June 10, 2010

    I think that Clive Coats, MW summarizes it perfectly on his The Wines of Burgundy book: “Sometimes the extremes of biodynamism sound like black magic. But the point is: it works. We should learn not to scoff.”

  15. Voodoo magic - June 10, 2010

    Luiz, Clive (MW is not a university degree so why do they put it after their names?) is not a farmer so why put any stock in what he says? That’s the kind of logic that says that the big rock in my front yard keeps tigers away because, after all, I don’t see any tigers.

  16. Steve Heimoff - June 10, 2010

    I am Steve, NMW [not MW] and I tend to think that biodynamics is a steaming load of cow pie. But like Tom I respect people who practice it. Am I empowering religious nutbags? I don’t think so.

  17. Randy Caparoso - June 10, 2010

    It’s funny that BD practitioners are able to point to succesful empirical experiences (i.e. BD preparation applied = desired results achieved), yet critics (“non-believers”) still go on and on about it in gleefully negative terms. If, in fact, critics can demonstrate to practitioners that BD practices don’t work, I’m sure they would go to the “other side,” grape growers generally being a practical, cash-challenged lot.
    Alas, the reality is that real results are indeed observed from use of various BD preps; as real, it seems, as similar methods associated with certified organic and sustainable metods.
    Virtually all the vintners who utilize BD (certified or noncertified) that I’ve met (which is quite a few) in their vineyards do not do so with the pseudo-religious fervor critics would suggest. I have yet to meet one who regards Steiner as some sort of messiah, much less embrace the man with blind devotion. Accordingly, almost none of them apply each and every suggested prep as a matter of course; but rather, they pick and choose as needed. They may appreciate Steiner’s agricultural contributions, but they certainly don’t light candles each morning. You needn’t love nor admire any man behind, say, a philosophy or political action that you may favor. In fact, you may like the thought or action *despite* the man, which is what you most commonly find among BD practitioners.
    For someone like me — a restaurant wine professional — the proof is always in the pudding: some of our greatest wines in the world are grown with BD methodology. That’s all I care about. Short of pacts with the devil or use of child or slave labor, I can get behind anything (sustainable, organic, “beyond organic,”, etc.) that makes good wine. What doesn’t make sense is knocking something that gets results. And if that’s you, I say: dude, get a life!

  18. Amy Atwood - June 10, 2010

    You and I had an exchange on this exact subject over a year ago. I still find it profoundly interesting. I always reject easy labels but can probably be described as an agnostic. And yet, I am very attracted to biodynamic farming principles.
    For precisely the same reason that I find many religious rituals moving, even though I distrust organized religions for the most part. Does it make for a better person to meditate, confess sins, listen calmly to beautiful music, etc.?
    I feel similarly about bioD. While I might puzzle over the specific applications effectiveness, I am very sure that I want a winemaker who is paying that much close attention to the grapes and in the cellar, with the intention of making a product that comes from that specific piece of land.
    cheers, Amy

  19. Tish - June 10, 2010

    Not real scientific, but last night I had the Pacific Rim 2007 BioD “Wallula Vyd” Riesling (Columbia Valley) and have previously had the regular Wallula from same vintage. The BioD one was way more penetrating and complex.

  20. [email protected] - June 10, 2010

    …anytime someone pays that much attention to their terroir (whether you believe in their specific processes or not) something extraordinary is bound to happen.
    Show me a gardener paying this much attention to their garden and I’ll show you a better tomato tonight in our salad together.

  21. Voodoo magic - June 10, 2010

    Tish, you’re right. In fact, it’s bad science. You’re assuming the only difference was BD? Does the BD wine represent everything that was grown BD? What if you were to learn that 99% of the BD grapes were declassified to the non BD lot? Wine labels only tell you what the producer wants you to know.
    Like other BD wineries, I’m guessing that only the best vineyards were converted to BD. Bingo! The best grapes still make the best wine! Correlation does not equal causation.

  22. Voodoo magic - June 10, 2010

    Why is nobody asking “why” anymore? Is it really good enough to assume that because a label is slapped on something that you needn’t look further? Or is it because some people just want to believe?
    Isn’t life more beautiful when you understand the true nature of things even if it isn’t exactly what you had hoped for?

  23. Sondra - June 10, 2010

    This discussion is fascinating and so typical of the religious have-nots vs those that practice some kind of faith. For grape growers the faith is in how the grapes will fare this year. Why does there have to be scientific proof for one technique being better than another when it comes to making wine. We certainly know that two winemakers using the same grapes can come up with very different results – is that measurable except by one’s sensory experience? How the wine tastes? And we know that two people may rate that wine very differently…
    I am a ‘recovering hard-core scientist’ who engaged in medical research for more than 30 years and had lots of results that could never be explained. In medicine/science these days the concept of ENERGY is provocative and controversial, so much like BioD – how to study it, what is it, if we can’t measure it, it can’t be real….. you know the rant. Finally western science began studying acupuncture, and saw that it was real; numerous studies on prayer showed improved outcomes on those being prayed for…. so science gave us the faith to use these practices, or not. Nonetheless they worked long before science found any reasons. The answer is not always in the science.
    For me, the argument about BioD being religious fanatacism is the same used against organic farmers. They care about the land, the future, and sustaining life. They have faith that their choices are better for the environment. If their practices seem weird and unexplainable, the science lovers say prove it to me. My question to add to this discussion, why is it so important to have a measurable result only in the glass, what about the long term benefits, the bigger picture. Why does BioD result in such a schism?

  24. Ed Lehrman - June 10, 2010

    Maybe it’s a cultural thing in the US and Europe to need to always pursue a “holier than thou” marketing angle. Our producers in Argentina have always practiced organic farming methods or close to it (it helps to be in a desert) yet still can’t understand the US fascination with organic certification and almost never pay to get it. Their attention to detail and care for the land and their wines is about as great as one could want, and the wines show it. But they just roll their eyes at the naming conventions that elevate wine marketing with no additional benefits to the consumer.
    And don’t even get me started on sake producers. If you want to walk the talk, speak with Sudo-san about rice land preservation–he’s 55th generation President of his brewery, Sudo Honke.

  25. 1WineDude - June 10, 2010

    I’m so going to tell on that guy to our invisible space monkey overlords.

  26. KenPayton - June 10, 2010

    It is amusing that beginning with the Neolithic period, from around 9500 B.C.E. forward, through Gilgamesh, Noah, the Greeks, Romans…, wine and other fermented beverages were being produced without the slightest understanding of the science behind the process. The Cistercians discovered terroir absent Geology or Microbiology. Plant and animal breeding for favored traits proceeded well before Genetics. Stu Smith has it precisely backward. Science historically has followed upon successful cultural achievements generations older than the science itself. Science most often follows. It does not lead. From medicinals used by indigenous cultures in the Amazon forest, now eagerly sought by Big Pharma, to the discovery of Stone Henge as an astronomical clock of considerable sophistication; from Cro Magnon elk bone carvings that chart the phases of the moon, to the architectural sophistication of Egyptian pyramid assembly; from terra preta soils, to Chinese fireworks, Scientific understanding routinely comes after the established cultural achievement. And even then, reluctantly. Think of all the soldiers subjected to ‘harmless’ Atomic Bomb radiation. A new medical science of Radiation Oncology was born with the detonation.
    This is not to say that BioD will one day be recognized in the same way. Rather it is to say that the development of science has been built upon culture. Not the other way around. That we still do not know exhaustively what goes on in the center of the Sun does not make it an illusion that is shines.

  27. Voodoo magic - June 10, 2010

    Being a PhD, you should know that scientists don’t claim that if something can’t be measured that it isn’t real. Most of science deals with finding indirect methods of measuring something. Scientists (of which I am one) generally claim that if there is no evidence for a phenomenon, then there is no reason to believe in it at the present time. The door is always open IF evidence surfaces.
    The answer is always in the science. Science is merely a way of looking at the universe. It doesn’t believe in anything and it’s only people that make conclusions.
    The answer to why it’s important to measure something in the glass is that it fosters a culture of critical thinking. Imagine living in world where we still believed that the natural elements where no more simple than air, fire, earth, and water. Or that the universe rotated around the earth (ponder that as you type at your computer).
    We live in a world that is largely based on not having faith in something. I’m sure you would rather your car be built by engineers rather than philosophers. Or that your drinking water is safe because your city hires microbiologists to monitor it, rather than water fairies magically making it safe. Why would agriculture be any different?
    “Why?” is the basis of knowledge and progress. Embrace it.

  28. Voodoo magic - June 10, 2010

    Ken, you can see the sun, but not vortices of energy in the vineyard.
    Yes, wine was made before the causative agent of fermentation was known. So what? Progress is made by thinking critically, not in the knowledge of any specific item. Focusing critical thought is the basis of science.
    You really wouldn’t want to drink wine made with ancient techniques. You do realize ancient winemaking dealt more with masking the vinegar than anything else, right?

  29. Ed King - June 10, 2010

    Never forget the power of the placebo effect. I think it applies to sugar pills and vineyard magic alike. Our subjective perceptions are not to be trusted.

  30. Christopher O'Gorman - June 10, 2010

    Very entertaining post and thread! Count me in on the side of BD as pseudoscience with a little astrology thrown in.
    I love the bit about the dung filled cow horn…
    Perhaps more importantly, though, is the lack of any connection between BD and better wine.

  31. klags - June 10, 2010

    Unfortunately, too many people take Steiner for his word. That is not the point. True, science may not prove biodynamic viticulture to be anything significant at all. However, as a person with a career in the wine industry, specifically sales, I can tell you that biodynamic wines taste better than others, and they also prove that happy grapes make happy wines. The whole point of biodynamics involves healthy soil, allowing micr-organisms to live in symbiosis with the soil, and allowing natural things like grass or greenery between the rows. This promotes healthy vines, careful viticulture, and brings the people closer to the earth. There can be absolutely nothing bad or harmful about that, and this guys is just taking a hard stance on something he doesn’t want to try. It is a big endeavor for winemakers, involves lots of risk, and some faith. While I do enjoy Smith Madrone wines, they are just plain boring when compared to biodynamic wines… they do speak of terroir, but they are nothing more than another winery making wines with ripe grapes. Keep in mind, theres more to wine than what you put in the soil while farming – sometimes harvesting less ripe makes a wine far more interesting than biodynamics ever could. Go figure… and while you’re expliring, taste the biodynamic wines of france and tell me they aren’t some of the most complex and interesting wines you’ve ever tasted. Steer clear of california, its just one big marketing machine. real wine = art, not commerce.

  32. Charlie Olken - June 10, 2010

    So, I asked Olivier Humbrecht about Bio-D, which he practices and likes, and he responded thusly. “The big benefit for me is that I now care much more about my land.”
    So, I asked Randall Grahm the same question. He responded by saying that his belief in Bio-D is akin to religion in that it is a belief that the moon and dung-filled cowhorns make a difference.
    I rather favor the comments made by Ed King. The respect for the land, the concern for the health of the soil, the attention to what one does or does not do in the vineyard is what produces salutory results.
    Frankly, I doubt that Bio-D does any harm, but it is sometimes practiced as if it were a religion that requires belief in all its tenets. That is just silly. Good farming practice that pays attention is what all of these related movements are about.
    The Demeter certification is a marketing tool that some wineries are trying to substitute for judgments about wine quality. I have tasted Bio-D wines that knock my socks off and Bio-D wines from the same producers that are as dismal as all get out.
    But, when I attend Bio-D conferences and hear the practitioners say it is not a religion and then describe it in terms that are relgious, and when I listen to folks I respect like Humbrecht and Grahm and Ed King and hear their comments, I know that Bio-D is too much hype and takes more unto itself than it deserves.
    Love the earth, but you do not need to do it with cow dung in horns and picking practices dictated by the phases of the moon. That is where rationality leaves off and silliness begins, and it is why smart guys like Stu Smith rail against it.

  33. KenPayton - June 10, 2010

    Voodoo magic, I’m amused by your phrase “focussing critical thought”. A logician would fault the sentence as being empty of content. All three terms are metaphysical abstractions at worst, mere metaphors at best. Just how do you ‘focus critical thought’? Sounds a lot like harnessing ‘vortices of energy’.

  34. Charlie Olken - June 10, 2010

    Harnessing vortices of energy? You quoting Randall Grahm again??
    Well, here is Randall on the topic speaking in London recently, “Of course biodynamic just means it’s biodynamic – not that it’s any good – but I esteem wines with minerality and life force and biodynamic seems a particularly good way to get there.”

  35. KenPayton - June 10, 2010

    Charlie, it is in Voodoo’s response to me above, though the word ‘harnessing’ was, it’s true, merely implied.

  36. Voodoo magic - June 10, 2010

    Ken, I’m assuming you’ve never met any person that calls himself a “logician.” Excuse me, but now I have to stuff yarrow blossoms in the bladder of a red deer and hang it in the sun.

  37. Andrea - June 10, 2010

    Wineries that order the dung filled cow horns off the internet…aren’t they supposed to come from the cows you raise on the property? Seems to me the internet ordering takes the passion out of it, so then you have a situation where BD is “used” as a marketing tool.
    Farming is responding to Mother Nature. Your success or failure depends upon how you react to the elements. Encouraging good bacteria, and discouraging bad bacteria, the essence of the BD philosophy, can be acheived by many methods. Not the least of which is an intimate understanding of what is best for your land, using whatever is at your disposal, and being in tune with your ultimate goal and passion. If BD works for you, no amount of bashing by others can or should sway you from your mission. If you think it’s bunk, no amount of persuasion will convert you. It’s a big ol’ world out there, and there is an ocean of wine to choose from.

  38. Drink Me Mag - June 10, 2010

    Hmmm. interesting and frustrating all at the same time.

  39. John Kelly - June 10, 2010

    I have made a career of coming up with explanations for traditional practices that are consistent with my understanding of plant physiology, microbiology, biochemistry and biophysics – practices whose adherents have the most ridiculous and unscientific explanations for. I look upon bioD in the same light. To judge from the results, there is some there there – just not necessarily what the bioD proselytizers are preaching.
    I have seen objective evidence that bioD practices result in higher counts of non-harmful flora and fauna to a greater soil depth than under non-bioD practice. I have seen objective evidence that vines farmed under bioD produce a more extensive and finely-brachiated root system than “industrially” farmed vines. I have seen dismal economics that seem to suggest that the aggregate long-term costs to farm bioD are slightly less than industrial practice. I’d like to see credible evidence that the composition of bioD grapes is significantly and reproducibly different than grapes farmed under other regimes, but I have not.
    I also have not found a bioD wine that I think is “better” – i.e. “more enjoyable” to my palate – than a wine made from grapes farmed “sustainably” or certified organic. In fact I have found the opposite – in the few well-executed side-by-side trials I have had the chance to taste from, the bioD wines have uniformly been more closed-in and “structured” – sometimes to the point of becoming non-varietal. If that is your definition of “terroir” you can have it – I want no part of it.
    Was it Philippe Pacalet who said: “Biodynamics is good for grape juice but not wine.”? I’m in complete agreement. My personal jury is still out on Fukuoka, though.

  40. KenPayton - June 10, 2010

    Voodoo magic, perhaps with enough Yarrow blossom-filled Red Tail Deer bladders we might yet plug BP’s Gulf gusher. Ah… how the science subtending oil drilling bathes us all in glory.

  41. Brigitte Armenier - June 10, 2010

    M. Turinek, S. Grobelnik-Mlakar, M. Bavec and F. Bavec (2009). Biodynamic agriculture research progress and priorities. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 24 , pp 146-154
    Biodynamic (BD) agriculture became the subject of research efforts during the past decades, whereas a part of the scientific community looks at the BD method with skepticism and marks it as dogmatic. Nevertheless, as explored in this review, a fair share of the available peer-reviewed research results of controlled field experiments as well as case studies show effects of BD preparations on yield, soil quality and biodiversity. Moreover, BD preparations express a positive environmental impact in terms of energy use and efficiency. However, the underlying natural science mechanistic principle of BD preparations is still under investigation. In addition, quality determination methods, based on holistic approaches, are increasingly being investigated and recognized. BD farming strives, as manifested in several publications, to positively impact cultural landscape design as well. Summarized data showed that further research is needed and thus encouraged in the field of food quality comparison/determination, food safety, environmental performance (e.g., footprints), and on the effects of BD farming practices on farm animals.
    (Accepted February 20 2009)

  42. [email protected] - June 10, 2010

    I am still on the fence on biodynamics because really what makes a wine better than another? Wine is clearly subjective and not subject to any spiritual laws of the earth. You picked on a certain day or phase of the moon? Might make a difference, might not. You tasted the wine on a planting day versus a harvest day? Skeptical.
    With so many wines out there people are trying to differentiate what makes their wine special and worth the money they are asking. Clearly marketing forces are at work here. If it helped me sell out my wine every year to say that I fertilized my vineyard with compost that was broken down by a species of worm only found on my property and that they worked from the bottom up not from the top down and this makes my grapes better, thus the wine better and people paid more money for it, well then so be it.

  43. Larry Perrine - June 11, 2010

    What is perhaps being missed in all this, is that becoming certified “organic” or “biodynamic” on the west coast of the US, doesn’t require a change in your disease control. Sulfur protects vines from Powdery Mildew. It may be a synthetic, but it is accepted by the National Organic Program regulations.
    However in “rainy” climates (the east coast of the US, Germany, the Loire, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Northern Italy, New Zealand,Switzerland,Austria etc.)Downy Mildew must be controlled. The only fungicide “allowed” by the USDA NOP, and the BD and organic certifiers in the the US and Europe is copper. Even Joly on his website acknowledges he uses copper (but no more than 5 kg Cu/ha/year). Copper is the worst single fungicide one can possibly use on their vineyard or orchard. It concentrates in the topsoil permanently and builds-up steadily over time. It poisons the soil literally, depressing the soil micro-flora and driving out the earthworms. This is clearly demonstrated in the scientific literature. Check out any work by Lukas Van Zwieten of Australia readily available on the internet.
    The link above will take you to a good review article on the subject.
    The point ultimately is that for all those who care so deeply about their soil health and use copper fungicides in order to control Downy Mildew and be certifed “organic” or “BD”, it should make one reconsider. The governing bodies determining what chemicals can be used should be questioned closely as to why an obvious synthetic and soil toxin like copper is preferred over far softer materials that protect against Downy Mildew and are readily available.
    This is a serious matter and for those who practice viticulature on the west coast or Argentina, or Chile, it might be missed since you receive no growing season rainfall and do not get Downy Mildew.

  44. Hans N. Poket - June 11, 2010

    What do you know about Steiner? Do you know he was a follower of a Russian who started out cheating Egyptians in Cairo using seances until she fled Egypt. That Steiner spoke to the dead, extensively, disturbing and loosing friends as a result? Nietzsche’s wife despised Steiner. Steiner’s prominence arrived thru the collapse of the Theosophy movement when their leadership devolved into accusing each other of lies and manufacturing fake spiritual phenomena. Steiner grabbed the reins of the Theosophy groups in Germany in the void left by scandal. I could go on about the pathetic origins of Steiner, but I am certain that Biodynamic believers have taken the time to research his history. I know this because Biodynamic advocates do not eat tomatoes because they have actualy read Steiner’s Agricultural Lectures where he explicilt states eating tomatoes makes cancer worse. Steiner died in 1925 wishing Germany had won WWI and hoping that Germany would again rise up. (Godwin’s law doesn’t apply when one discusses that historical period). Whatever led Steiner to determine that animal horns act as antenas concentrating magic forces into stag urinary organs is beyond my ability to imagine. I do believe that much fossil fuel is burned in Biodynamic vineyards trying to get Steiner’s placebos to activate. Why waste the gasoline and diesel fuel when the whole Biodynamic structure is build by a deluded and self righteous third rate philosopher whose spiritual science is just a solitary seance.

  45. tom merle - June 11, 2010

    Shouldn’t it be relatively easy to determine the merits or not of BioD when it comes to improving the appeal of a the WINE (realizing this begs the question a bit) using the scientific method. Putting aside the affects on the environment wouldn’t an experiment that is then replicated isolate dependent and independent variable so that you control just for the BioD factors involved. Couldn’t you find adjacent plots that possess the same terroir with some very low margin of error, and then compare the outcome, just as we do with studies in medicine. The wine produced in the experiment would involve blind tastings by a variety of wine drinkers to see what emerges.

  46. Voodoo magic - June 11, 2010

    I’m beginning to think that Steiner and L. Ron Hubbard are related.

  47. John Kelly - June 11, 2010

    I’m sure many of us would like to hear how you came to the conclusion that sulfur and copper are “synthetic.” Both are elements that can be mined from the earth in pure form.
    When elemental sulfur is sprayed on vines it reacts with oxygen in air to yield SO2, SO3 and SO4, which act to inhibit the growth of powdery mildew. These oxidized forms of sulfur are volatile or water soluble, and environmentally neutral at the concentrations employed.
    Copper – typically used as copper sulfate – is toxic in high concentrations: it inhibits aerobic metabolism. It does not react easily to produce compounds that don’t shut down metabolism at high concentrations, and does not migrate readily in the soil. When over-used it can build up in soil to concentrations that are toxic to soil flora.
    On the other hand copper is a necessary plant micronutrient (as is sulfur, BTW). Copper is required in the active site of a class of enzymes that metabolize intracellular compounds containing (wait for it…) – sulfur. With the decline in the use of Bordeaux mixture (lime-sulfur/copper) in California vineyards has come increased incidence of copper deficiency in our vines.

  48. Tracy Cervellone - June 11, 2010

    The New Atheism (in and out of the vineyard) is dogma too, pure and simple. Somewhere in between the two camps lies the reality of healthier soils and better wine. Like it or not, wine starts in a vineyard, and ANY belief system that puts the focus on building soil and keeping harmful substances out of the process will generally result in better wine. Not always, but generally. Yes, disclaimer here…I have the privilege of presenting daily some of the best Bio-D wines on the planet: DRC, Leflaive, Felton Road, Kreydenweiss…and, as well, I go out with a range of non Bio-D wines in the same bag…I can firsthand say there is something special going on with the Bio Wines. I can also say there is something special going on with many Non Bio wines, too. My point? Bio seems to help winemakers make better soils and wine, but it’s not the Alpha and Omega. That said, even doctors recognize the placebo effect…and I believe thoughts really do influence outcomes. Anywhere. Granted, I come from a genuinely spiritual, Christian perspective, which makes me immediately suspect in the yes of critics, but the fact is: what’s in the bottle counts. If it’s better, and most of the time they (Bio wines) are: Richer, more layered, better structure, more consistent, more reflective of terroir (another source of irritation to many)and certainly less trace amounts of some potentially harmful substances. Can it be done on a huge commercial scale? Probably not well, if at all. So, we are going to be dealing with the dichotomy for the foreseeable future. Both systems have merit, and a place in our world of wine. I love organically raised local produce, with a free range organic animal prepared with great care, paired with an expensive Bio-D wine, but sometimes a store bought New York steak and loaded baked potato with a great Napa Cab really hits the spot too. No either or for me. Sorry, just calling it like I see it.
    And now, I have to leave… to go out with a bag full of great wines, Bio-D and otherwise. It’s all good.

  49. KenPayton - June 11, 2010

    @Hans N. Poket: Nietzsche never married. He did propose to Lou Andreas Salomé. She declined. But she is probably the one you mean inasmuch as N considered her an equal and would have felt the same way about Steiner (though ‘hate’ is not really the right word). Richard Wagner’s wife, Cosima was also a love of his but I don’t think it’s her you’re referring to. And the vile anti-semite Elizabeth, N’s sister, is, of course, ruled out.
    About Steiner’s death of a mysterious stomach ailment in ’25, there was a lot of post-mortem speculation about conspiracies originating within the Theosophical movement that he was murdered by rivals or sectarians. As far as I know, an authorized, independent autopsy was never allowed by those close to him. To this day the circumstances surrounding Steiner’s death, though probably even now known by someone/group within the Theosophical world, have never been revealed.
    Wishing the Germans had been victorious in WW1 and that the nation would rise again was, tragically, widely shared at the time. Over time, the crushing burdens imposed on the state by the Treaty of Versailles made for a toxic mix of ambitions. However, merely wishing for some kind of restoration would not have necessarily meant that all were Nazis avant la lettre. Before thought became a crime with the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler in ’33, there were many visions of the the nation’s future.

  50. Morton - June 11, 2010

    The observation that soil fertility within certain extremes has an inverse relationship to wine quality is more than just anecdotal. So is the observation that soil fertility promotes larger crops and more vigorous plants.
    Farming that follows a dogma the prescribes a one recipe solution to farming and claims to build soil fertility and vine vigor may account for the disappointing taste in many BD wines.
    Also, the fact that the best wines are either made from exceptional naturally occuring growing conditions or by the cleverest, most inovative winegrowers is more than anecdotal. Absent the former condition, the winemaker is best off if he or she uses their brain, not the cookbook.

  51. Voodoo magic - June 11, 2010

    Interesting how you rationalize the use of sulfur and copper in the vineyard. You use terms like “environmentally neutral” and “toxic at high concentrations.” Personally, I agree, but wouldn’t you be able to say that about any chemical (e.g. DDT)? Seems the million dollar questions is what constitutes “toxic.” Sulfur is indeed benign, but you’d have to admit that even those of us who use synthetic chemicals see the danger in copper. Even Roundup breaks down in the soil.
    Plus, if these chemicals are ok in the vineyard, why are they sacrilege in the cellar by BD standards?
    Not sure I buy the argument that if something comes out of the ground in pure form that it is benign. The residents of the Gulf Coast states might have something to say about that!

  52. Andrew Lazorchak - June 11, 2010

    I love the passion of the discussion.
    If BioDynamics(TM) is a faith that provides a prescribed rhythm, structure, and channel for viticulturalists to bring passion in to their grapes and vineyard – then so be it. There are plenty of vineyard managers that find their own “logic” to achieve a balanced and healthy ecosystem in the vineyard. So however you get results in the vineyard and the bottle, go for it.
    However, I personally feel that when commercially registered Trademarks of a process or name are introduced in an unnatural method (e.g. Meritage or BioDynamic) the brand, potentially, is compromised.

  53. Jim Seder - June 13, 2010

    The dedication to the concept of biodynamic farming (originated in its current form by Rudolph Steiner, a german described by some as a a philosopher and spiritual mystic), seems to lie in its sense of “purity” by vintners and consumers alike. It’s organic taken one step further, incorporating what some might like to refer to as “primitive” rituals such as relying upon principles of astrology and burying animal carcasses to aid in soil nutrition.
    While I am all for reducing harmful agricultural practices that might adversely affect the quality and safety of the products, let’s be straight in that there is no scientific proof nor study that this style of farming yields grapes that is safer nor more refined in quality. You can find outstanding wines that are non-biodynamic as those that are. Be mindful, as well, that biodynamic grapes is NOT the same as biodynamic wine as the philosophy must be maintained throughout the winemaking process.
    What may be an advantage not often cited, is that the principles of organic and biodynamic farming encourage the vintner to pay attention to details that non-organic/biodynamic farmers may not. Such dedication to the vision of ideal health of soils, vines, and grapes can, in the end, only benefit the end product…………the wines.

  54. Lab Theologian - June 14, 2010

    For me, the debate is a side-show. For or against? I will continue to drink the wines I like. Many are biodynamic. Some, like Stu’s outstanding site-specific Riesling, are not.
    The big question is why has Stu Smith — who has a lot better things to do with his time — decided to devote so much energy to this? (although I suppose the comments section here suggest there is much to be interested in here) Does he feel threatened? Does he fear a trend where biodynamic wines will push his off shelves?
    Tom, it seems to me that where your very apt metaphor breaks down is where the problem will start for Stu. I’ve heard about a number of studies underway to examine the practical benefits of bio-dynamic farming in a “scientific” way. This isn’t about God or god(s) or tree fairies. This is a question with an answer… out there.

  55. monkeyboy666 - June 15, 2010

    Maybe it’s a case of the short comings of science and it’s inability to explain the science behind BD at present.
    We can go on about tests and trials and results(there’s plenty out there if you want to educate yourself) – I can see and taste the results of vineyards and wines that are made under BD viticultural practices, but there are those out there that unless it’s confirmed that “science” has given it the OK it’s all hokey.
    Stu sounds like the type of guy that’s the first in line to get his H5N1 flu shot ’cause the government scientists say it’s OK and safe for you. Good luck with that thinking.
    Maybe what Stu doesn’t understand, he fears?

  56. Larry - June 15, 2010

    Sorry. All elemental sulfur used in agriculture is a by-product of crude oil and natural gas refining. It is not mined, except around the edges of volcanoes in Indonesia
    Check out this video.
    Anyone care to buy this mined sulfur?
    Copper is hard-rock mined, creating vast open pits in the ground. The largest excavation in the world is the Kennecott Copper mine in Utah.
    Entire ecosystems destroyed to get copper ore out of the ground. Not copper sulfate, copper ore. It is then put through a massive chemical, industrial process to finally get pure copper. Junk copper is used to make copper sulfate, melting it and reacting it with sulfuric acid.
    In the USDA National Organic Program “rules”, copper sulfate, sulfur and mineral oil are “named” specifically as “allowed synthetics”. All synthetics have to be named in the NOP rules to be used in a certified “organic” program. End of story.
    How do I know? My mother grew up in Copperfield, Utah adjacent to the Kennecott mine. I am a scientist and grape grower. I research the issues.
    Copper sulfate is synthetic. Sulfur is synthetic. Mineral oil is synthetic. Hydrogen peroxide is synthetic. All are OMRI-Product Listed.
    The OMRI General Materials List categorizes them as “synthetic.
    As far as copper deficiencies are concerned. Add some copper.

  57. Dave Erickson - June 15, 2010

    “He said- you already meet or exceed the BD standards- so all you would have to do is buy a few hundred dollars worth of 501 from us and spread it around. So, presto chango, King Estate becomes ultra groovy and the press can be informed.”
    If that’s really true, then “biodynamic” is just another way for somebody to make money. What a shame. I’d been in the agnostic camp (If it makes better wine, I’m okay with it) until now.

  58. John Kelly - June 15, 2010

    Larry – all true regarding the origin of the sulfur and copper used in agriculture. I was being unnecessarily glib in pointing out they are naturally-occurring elements. Please grant that their designation as “synthetic” in the NOP rules is a bureaucratic designation not consistent with the generally recognized use of the term “synthetic” in the organic chemistry sense that applies to most of the synthetic chemicals registered for use in agriculture.
    In our vineyard we do not use a lot of sulfur – we stretch the treatment intervals as long as possible. We don’t have to deal with downy mildew so we do just one application of copper a year, to the dormant vines – this tiny dose is enough to ensure that our vines aren’t copper deficient.
    Voodoo magic – the poison is in the dose. Unless you insist that the precautionary principle must be applied to everything. In that case, the poison is in the mind.

  59. Larry - June 16, 2010

    If your only definition of “synthetic” is that it is produced from a hydrocarbon, then you have missed what the concept of “synthesis” is. It means you transform one thing into another by means of using other chemicals, heat, pressure and catalysts. It is not a bureaucratic definition, it is a scientific one. The common usage of “synthetic” as meaning it was made from oil, is only that. A short cut that bypasses full reality.
    Anybody who thinks sulfur is not a chemical or is a “natural” chemical or an “organic” chemical is fooling themselves. If I have to show you the processing flow chart at an oil refinery to recover and purify sulfur, I will. Since it is easily accessible on the web, I think you can do it yourself, if you really want to know.
    If you use sulfur and copper, you use synthetic chemicals. Just accept it and live with it. Take responsibility for the environmental implications of what you do.
    We all must do that in order to reach a place of sustainability and integrity.

  60. Brigitte Armenier - June 16, 2010

    Dave Erickson, the organic standards do not “meet or exceed the BD standards,” for the only way to start meeting the latter is to start using the whole of the nine Biodynamic preparations.

  61. Dave Erickson - June 16, 2010

    Okay, this is more complicated than I thought.
    500: Fermented horn manure.
    501: Horn silica.
    502: Yarrow blossoms (Achillea millefolium)
    503: Chamomile blossoms (Chamomilla officinalis)
    504: Stinging nettle (whole plant in full bloom) (Urtica dioca)
    505: Oak bark (Quercus robur)
    506: Dandelion flowers (Taraxacum officinale)
    507: Valerian flowers (Valeriana officinalis)
    Forgive me for being a nasty skeptical person, but I still smell “marketing” among the chamomile blossoms.

  62. Larry - June 17, 2010

    Sulfur and copper do not come out of the ground in pure form. Sulfur is not benign, it is toxic. That’s why it is used. It also is hard on beneficials and vineyard workers.
    Sulfur is a by-product of crude oil refining. It is not mined. It does not come out of the ground in “pure” form, except around the edges of some volcanoes in Indonesia where it is locally used in sugar refining.
    Let’s keep things clear, OMRI Product Listed fungicides such as copper products, sulfur, mineral oil and hydrogen peroxide are all absolutely,without question SYNTHETIC.

  63. NoWhine - June 17, 2010

    To all of the above posters,
    I am a simple wine lover. Thank you for all of the energy and thought you’ve put onto this disscusion.
    In my expierence BD hasn’t made a bit of difference in the wines that I’ve tried. There is so much more to getting a good wine into a glass than vinyard practices.
    The wine grower is a craftsman and a scientist. They have to deal with soil, sun and rain, as well as chemicals.
    Then they turn the grapes over to the wine maker.
    The same crop in a different wine makers hands can come up with a very different wine.
    BD loses every time.

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