Trouble In Paradise?

Right, here’s another post – this time about biodynamics.

On Friday 12th June I took part in (?) two Instagram Chats, hosted by Keith Edwards, who has a great blog, as well as an apparently limitless cellar.  These chats were about biodynamics – the first with a wine blogger and wine lover, Josh Dunning, the second with Craig Camp of Troon Vineyard, a biodynamic producer in Oregon’s improbably beautiful Applegate Valley.

Josh has an excellent blog called Word on the Grapevine and he had recently published a post with his thoughts on biodynamics: on the face of it, a negative post, but certainly not entirely.

Craig Camp wrote an excellent reply in which he addressed many points made by Josh.  This was why Keith ran the two chats.

Since then, Josh has published a follow-up to his original post.

Re-reading the posts, and especially listening to both of them during the chats, they seemed closer than their initial responses might suggest.  Both are interested in the definable aspects, and sceptical of the more outlandish claims.  It is clear that Josh is somewhat more strident in his presentation, though…And his ire is focussed on the more ‘improbable’ elements among biodynamics’ claims.

In the championing of these, I see some parallels with religion, or at least a religious cult.  Natural wine seems to elicit a similar acolyte-type following, and there are die-hards for each who seem to regard anything less than total commitment to all of the beliefs as a dilution and a heresy.  They may be the devout Christians who abstain from sex before marriage, where the vast majority, who might still consider themselves good Christians, do not.  (And, dare I say it, have more fun as a result.)

 

I’m not going to go into the research into how efficacious biodynamics is: Josh and Craig have done that with greater knowledge than I possess.  I’m also not going to go into the more esoteric aspects of biodynamic practices – they mention at least some of those, too, and I find that side of it quite absurd: for example, in a book entitled Nature Spirits: The Remembrance: A Guide to the Elemental Kingdom, there appears the following: “The biodynamic principles incorporate an understanding of the dynamic and responsive quality of the astral-etheric forces in nature.”  Quite…

I appreciate Josh’s wider point about the pseudoscience sometimes invoked – see above – having a more general unwanted effect: namely undermining trust in science and verifiable, fact-based research, followed by fact-based actions based on the results.  Someone wishing to understand the ‘dynamic and responsive quality of the astral-etheric forces in nature’ may seem harmless on the surface, but I take the point that this sort of nonsense can lead to national policy-making bodies deciding that they don’t like the evidence presented to them, and so they can chose their own facts, based on their alternative ‘understanding’.  Which is to say, on nothing.

I will, however, try to give a little context to biodynamics and where it comes from.  It may shed a little light on why it appeared, resonated and has practical, sensible people trying it and using it today.

Agricultural Arts & Crafts.  With added loopiness…

The idea of the farm being self-sustaining comes from another age: here the Piemontese talk about being contadini – this translates as a farmer.  But the meaning is more laden than that: it has connotations of the farmer who has a mixed-agriculture holding: some livestock, chickens, cash crops, fruit, veg, hazelnuts.  They probably make some cheese.  A tenant farmer; a subsistence farmer, even.

In light of this – which would have been the European norm at the time of Steiner – it makes sense for the farmers to try to be self-sufficient and self-contained.  Burying something in cow horn would simply have been, at the time, a way of using what you had on the property.  In a world of financial hardship, where most smallholders would not be classed as wealthy, why would you pay for a container, when you had one available for free?  I’m not arguing that every smallholder in Europe buried stuff in cow horns, or even that they used them as containers.  Rather, when developing the ideas of self-sufficiency, reusing something like this, which you have for free and is natural, appealed to the bucolic, anti-industrial ideals of the early proponents of what became biodynamics.  This is, of course, entirely different from ‘Cow horn is the best container’…

As mechanisation came in, post-war especially, farms began to specialise and perhaps grow into commercial businesses, then industrial ones.  Proponents of Steiner and his thoughts would have seen this beginning to happen and perhaps thought, ‘Why is that property buying fertiliser, or manure/compost, from someone else?  They have their own livestock.’  Or probably, ‘They used to have their own livestock.  If they get it back, they will be in balance again.’  Something along these lines.

This seems like a kind of agricultural Arts & Crafts movement.  Nostalgia for something passing.  But of course, a smallholding with a mix of animals and plants is quite a different from a 50 hectare property growing nothing but grapes: it’s much harder to have enough of your own manure for 50 hectares of vineyards if you have no livestock…

I know a producer here who has vines and hazelnuts.  He makes wine in what was the old stable for the 30 or so head of cattle his family had.  If he had kept cattle to provide manure and horns for preparations and so on, where would he then put them, or make the wine if he kept the cattle in the stable?  Trying to be more and more balanced in the farming, using fewer chemicals, promoting soil health and biodiversity are all laudable.  But tying this to phases of the moon, where certain stars and planets are (a long way away…) and some mystic feeling for astral-etheric forces, the land and the passing of a way of life makes no sense to me.

So why not simply be organic?

In very simplistic terms (very simplistic terms), where organics thinks about the health of the soil and the plants or animals, biodynamics thinks about the health of the entire farm.

These two, highly inter-related, approaches both go to the heart of the notion of terroir, too: something that many biodynamic producers are interested in trying to capture in the finished wine.  Through trying to encourage the best possible health for the soil of each vineyard, via regenerative agriculture and the elimination of chemical pesticides and herbicides, as well as fertilisers, the differences in each micro-climate and each vineyard’s soil composition can come through.  Organics can get you to this point.

When I started in the wine trade in the late 1990s I read several interviews with ‘new world’ producers decrying terroir as a marketing myth thought up by French producers to try to convince the world that their wines were automatically and intrinsically superior.

This was mistaken, though understandable, on a couple of counts: to begin with, being cynical about it, ‘new world’ producers had little or no track-record and not much history: certainly by comparison to somewhere like Burgundy, where Gamay was banned in the Côte d’Or in 1395.  It was in the Australian producers’ interests to say that what really mattered was the competence of the winemaker, not the place where the grapes were grown.  (For example – I’m not singling them out for criticism.)

Without doubt, the competence of the winemaker is very important: I have tried enough wines made by bunglers in my time to realise that even if the place was amazing, they had ballsed it up.  But this discounts that the same varieties grown in different places will give different grapes, never mind wines.  Of course, in most of the ‘new world’, immigrants arriving planted grapes in warm, dry areas, often in relatively fertile soils: why would they plant in difficult places, as they had been forced to in cheek-by-jowl Europe, when they could have their pick of a square-mile of land anywhere from Boston to L.A., Perth to Hobart?  Establish your farm somewhere with plenty of sunshine, little humidity if you could, and don’t worry about a lack of rain – just put in a standpipe and irrigate.

So the land became of secondary importance in terms of what it gave to the crop – be it grapes, avocados, cashews, apples, wheat.

But the notion of terroir applies universally: every patch of land has its own unique terroir characteristics – even central London, for example.  It is unlikely that these are better than Burgundy for Pinot Noir, but a patch of ground in Shoreditch would still impart its imprint on any grapes grown there – in reality, of course, we will probably never find out what that is…

So, all vineyards in the ‘new world’ also have their own terroir characteristics – now being busily explored.  It’s one of the most exciting aspects of wine production in places such as Australia, that the best vineyards for each variety may not yet have been planted…

 

Secondly, I imagine that a lot of ‘new world’ producers set out inspired by great European wines that they had tried.  But in enthusiastically embracing the Crus of Burgundy, for example, many people would have tried wines from vineyard A next to ones from Vineyard B, next to ones from vineyard C and so on, and had the devil of a time noticing that there was much difference.  (And finding a large number of wines simply faulty – spoiled through a lack of hygiene in the cellar.)

Probably a lot of the producers in the 1980s and 1990s who did not think much of the idea of terroir were trying wines from the 1970s and 1980s – probably with a few 1960s bottles thrown in.  After World War II, chemical treatments became commonplace in the vineyards of Europe.  Chemicals were used to combat disease and pests and to clear other crops quickly, cheaply and effectively.  Following a century that included Oidium, Peronospera, Phylloxera, World War I, the Great Depression and World War II, who wouldn’t be ready for a break…?  And if the soil became unproductive?  Well, we have a fertiliser for that.

In the cellar, hygiene and control became touchstones as places such as co-operative cellars began to vinify industrial quantities of wine – it was no longer the share-cropper making some at home for his family and friends: the wine had to be saleable.  Clean everything thoroughly, then bung in a load of sulphur as the grapes came in to kill any unwanted mould, bacteria or yeasts.  This was possible because you could now buy yeast for your wine in a packet.

 

The notion of terroir is based on each vineyard giving its unique character to the grapes.  This character comes not only from climatic conditions, but even more importantly, from the earth itself.  Each plot of land has its own chemical and mineral composition, its pH balance, water retention and so on.  Based on these and the climate, this will give each plot of land its own community of micro-flora and micro-fauna – with proportions of the various things living in it varying accordingly.  This goes also for what is present in a vineyard but above ground – ambient yeasts, for example, on grapes, leaves and stems, that will find their way into the winery and the fermentation if left unbothered.

But the path that most of the wine-producing world took in the second half of the twentieth century was to bother these micro-flora and -fauna: and the bigger stuff, too.  Spraying to eliminate diseases likely killed much else that was living on the grapes clusters.  Spraying to eliminate weeds (or cover crops as we now call them) meant that there was nothing decomposing into the soil, earthworms and other life were eliminated or vastly reduced in quantity and activity.  The vines may not have had enough nutrients, so the growers bought a chemical fertiliser – the same as all their neighbours used, as the salesman had visited them all.  Thus, the individuality of each vineyard had been hugely eroded.

Next, producers were encouraged to kill off any nasties when the grapes were brought in: dose it with sulphur, leave it a day or so and then use a precise, industrially-cultivated yeast.  The same one strain of yeast as all your neighbours are using.  No wonder if people could not taste the terroir.

Now, we want to taste the terroir again – we want to see what the fuss was about in the great European vineyards all those years ago, we want to see how those two hillsides in Applegate Valley differ now.  Organics can get you to this point.

Right, where was I?  Yes, organics, biodynamics and terroir.

From Josh Dunning’s posts, and the chat online, the big bone of contention for him regarding biodynamics is the selling of outlandish claims and practices as though they were facts.  But he also questioned whether there was any real difference between organic and biodynamic results.

From my perspective, it is not the difference in results between these two that is important, but the difference in approach or mind-set.  Where, at its most basic, organic viticulture considers the vineyard, biodynamic viticulture considers the whole farm or winery.  You can reverse all the deleterious effects of chemical treatments, fertilisers and using packet-yeast outlined above simply by being organic.  Why bother with biodynamics, especially given its dubious precepts, if these practices then have no discernible impact on the soil, the grapes or the overall quality of the wine?

It is because biodynamics is about trying to find a balance across the property, as opposed to simply saying ‘I don’t want to spray chemicals on my vines’.  In terms of what ends up in the glass, it’s certainly far from clear that biodynamics will always give a superior result: there are far too many fantastic wines made in all 3 ways to be able to say conclusively that ‘conventional’, organic or biodynamic production gives the best wine.

 

But biodynamics, in particular, considers viticulture as a part of the whole operation of the farm – for the reason I mentioned earlier: when it was first being formulated, most farms were very mixed, and there were relatively few properties that had vineyards and nothing else.  And it also considers the whole operation of the farm, not only the viticultural side.  Straight organics does not – at least on paper.  I suspect that for many biodynamic producers, it is this philosophical difference that is important to them as much as any improvement in the grapes or wine that going beyond straight organics may confer.

 

The lines are blurred, of course, because there are many producers who are organic, or not but nearly so, who incorporate some biodynamic practices.  Then there will be others who also consider the operation of the rest of their property and where viticulture fits in, but who would not consider themselves biodynamic.

 

Upon reading the posts, and hearing both participants, it seemed clear to me that their positions were not actually very far apart: the practical, ideally measurable, was what mattered.  Mysticism, a veneration for Rudolf Steiner and unverifiable claims related to the position of planets and stars were all roundly rejected by both of them.

Josh’s latest post concludes thus:

Biodiversity and soil health markers simply do not require the wasted effort and often destructive anti-scientific narrative of biodynamics. It’s time we either revise what it means to be biodynamic or rein in the erroneous claims of overzealous consultants and regulatory bodies of the benefits of animal organs and the work of 19th-century quacks.”  (His bold emphasis.)

 

Again, I would invoke a parallel with religion here.  To a great many Christians, what it means to be a Christian is to be a humane, compassionate, moral person trying to make the world better, even if only slightly.  (In fact, of course, this applies to most religions, not just Christianity.)  Whether the Eucharist is actually, or merely represents, the body and blood of Jesus; whether you believe in the Virgin Birth; whether you have sex before marriage: these are secondary considerations.  And the first two, at least, have no bearing on whether or how to be a humane, compassionate, moral person trying to make the world better, even if only slightly.  You can be a model Christian without believing either.

Just as it would be incorrect to assume that all Christians believe everything that their theological doctrine prescribes – and proscribes – it is incorrect to say that every biodynamic producer believes in all the guff that Steiner and his followers espouse.

Some do, no doubt, but many, including Craig at Troon, don’t.

What fun!