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Biodynamic wine has roots in pseudoscience, but the proof is in the bottle

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In 1924, a group of farmers in Central Europe became concerned about the declining health of their soils. They blamed the increasing use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides in modern industrial agriculture and sought to restore a natural balance on their lands. So naturally, they asked a philosopher for help.

In a series of lectures, Rudolf Steiner outlined what became known as biodynamic agriculture. The Austrian native was a disciple of Goethe and advocated what loosely translates as “spiritual science.” (Steiner also created the Waldorf system of education.)

Steiner argued that a farm should be viewed as its own ecosystem with a rich biodiversity rather than a monoculture. Fertilizers and treatments for crops should be natural and drawn from within the farm, rather than using synthetics from outside. Planting and harvesting should be timed to take advantage of the gravitational effects of the sun and moon.

Biodynamics preceded organic agriculture (though both started as throwbacks to preindustrial farming). Today there are various organic certifications with differing standards, but essentially organic and biodynamic practices eschew synthetic fertilizers and chemicals and emphasize soil health. Biodynamics differ by its emphasis on the farm as a living organism and the source of its own fertilizer, as well as its reliance on the lunar calendar.

Because of those aspects, biodynamics has been ridiculed as pseudoscience, voodoo agriculture and several unprintable descriptions. Its most famous “preparation” involves stuffing cow horns with manure and burying them throughout the farm in the fall, then digging them up in the spring to make a tisane — a not-exactly-herbal tea — to spray on the crops to promote vigor. Other preparations use chamomile and stinging nettle. The biodynamic calendar, with its reliance on the phases of the moon and root, flower, leaf and fruit days according to where the moon is in the zodiac, conjures images of hippie communes.

And yet, some of the world’s most renowned wineries are biodynamic: Domaine de la Romanée Conti and many others in Burgundy and Château Palmer and Château Pontet-Canet in Bordeaux. Biodynamics is almost de rigueur in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where my favorites include Brooks, Winderlea and Soléna Estate. And it’s immensely popular in Austria, where organizations such as Respekt-BIODYN promote biodynamic viticulture.

Biodynamic Federation Demeter International, named for the ancient Greek goddess of agriculture and harvests, is the leading certification body; based in Darmstadt, Germany, it certifies 7,067 farms worldwide, including 1,439 wineries. A French organization called Biodyvin certifies wineries in Europe, and currently has more than 200 members.

“The visibility of biodynamic farming depends on the country,” Clara Behr, spokeswoman for Demeter, said in an email. “In Germany or Switzerland people are familiar with all sorts of biodynamic products …, but in other countries such as France or Italy the most known biodynamic product is wine. In Latin America, Demeter coffee, bananas and chocolate are also known, whereas in the U.S. most people know only biodynamic wine.”

Asked about the controversial aspects of biodynamics, some winegrowers shrug and point to the results.

“I don’t understand it, but it’s been a fascinating journey,” says Laurent Montalieu, whose NW Wine Co. owns 1,200 acres of vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette and Umpqua valleys. About 200 acres are farmed biodynamically, including at his family winery, Soléna Estate.

“I believe in it,” he says. “It’s obliged me to be as gentle as possible to the earth and to make sure I’m going to pass the property to my daughter in better shape than when I took it on. That’s rewarding in itself.”

Several years ago, Montalieu gave me a tour of a biodynamic vineyard in Willamette Valley’s Yamhill-Carlton district. The most obvious difference compared to a nearby vineyard farmed more conventionally was the cover crop between the rows that lent an air of untidy rowdiness. I recall Montalieu pointing out more subtle influences, such as a healthy sheen on the vine leaves and how, even on a scorching July day, the leaves seemed to be lifting toward the sun rather than drooping from the heat.

In our recent conversation, Montalieu said he noticed differences in the soil, too. “The soil is … less compact, so the root system can go deeper,” he said. “So we get a better expression of the sandstone and siltstone subsoil we have here, and that helps me make a wine with a better sense of place.”

And he compares the biodynamic preparations to homeopathic medicine. “Just as a stinging nettle tea can stimulate your digestive system, it seems to energize the vines,” he says. “And the chamomile tea will calm vines that are too vigorous. It’s not a placebo effect — something is definitely happening.”

Alexander Zahel adopted organic viticulture when he took over his family’s vineyards on the outskirts of Vienna, in 2005, and turned to biodynamics because of its rigor and emphasis on biodiversity. He achieved Demeter certification for his vineyards in 2018. Zahel told me biodynamics has made the vines less vigorous, which resulted in grapes achieving ripeness and concentration with lower sugar levels. That means lower alcohol in the finished wines.

“The wines are more individual, with good complexity and texture but without being so full-bodied as they were 15 years ago,” Zahel says.

Austria’s Demeter branch requires growers to share experiences with the various preparations in small groups. Zahel said the exchange of ideas creates a sense of community “and gets us away from the more esoteric, howling-at-the-moon hocus-pocus stuff.”

More recently, Zahel became the first European winery to receive the new Regenerative Organic Alliance certification, which has been described as biodynamics without the pseudoscience. Like biodynamics, the regenerative certification focuses on soil health and biodiversity, but it also adds a social dimension — for instance, considering how an enterprise treats its employees. It also has bronze, silver and gold tiers to inspire companies to improve.

Zahel said the Regenerative Organic certification will attract companies and wineries interested in improving their stewardship of the land but perhaps put off by biodynamics’ more esoteric qualities. But he doesn’t expect the discipline to become obsolete.

“There will always be a niche for those who love the spiritual aspects of biodynamics,” he says.

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