A ram’s horn filled with manure and buried under the full moon: it sounds like some kind of archaic ritual, but it’s actually a practice carried out by thousands of contemporary winemakers.
Biodynamics is essentially organic agriculture with an esoteric twist. It is based on the theories of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher who viewed each vineyard as a living organism that can and should be maintained in a self-sustaining way; the vineyard is in turn viewed as a part of the larger organism of the Earth itself. Accordingly, agricultural work is aimed at tapping into the Earth’s rhythms, from the biologic to the cosmic level. Biodynamics has increased in popularity throughout the world’s vineyards since it garnered mainstream attention in the 1980s, especially in France and the United States.
Back in May (okay yeah, I may be a wee behind in writing about this; ahem) I had the lovely opportunity to have lunch (at The Marc) with Mike Benziger of Sonoma’s Benziger Family Winery. Mike farms his vineyards biodynamically, but what’s really unique about him is the way he talks about biodynamic practices – completely devoid of the arcane prattle that usually accompanies such discussions. Instead, his is a practical, literally down-to-earth and personally-tested approach, and it was ever so refreshing. He also is such a captivating storyteller I could have listened to him all day long – this is a guy who proposed to his wife in a canoe on Lake Louise, and who just packed up and drove across the continent from the East Coast to the West in the 1970s because he was sick of living in a grubby city. Cool dude.
Admittedly, some biodynamic practices sound a bit kooky. It doesn’t help that for years, much of the literature written about biodynamics presents it as a kind of quasi-mystical endeavour; its adherents are depicted as robed fanatics cavorting through their vines. But even if some of them fit that description – really, who cares? Much of biodynamics is essentially just organics, which has measurable, scientifically–proven benefits. Biodynamics is predicated on an underlying set of spiritual philosophies with which many take issue; I personally believe that the enduring Western dichotomy between spirituality and the rest of everyday life is laughably errant – it’s the same as the division between science and art – not a division at all.
Much like organic agriculture, biodynamics does not use any synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. In many areas of the world, especially France, organic and biodynamic viticulture became popular as a means of addressing the major problems in vineyards razed by decades of heavy chemical use. The extreme and prolonged abuse of these toxins stripped vital nutrients from the soil, weakening the vines and translating to lackluster wines. This led to a major uptake in organic practices as a means of restoring vitality to the vines, which requires the return of life (of all kinds) to the entire vineyard. Mike put it succinctly when he described walking out into his vineyards one day, early in his winemaking career when he still used conventional viticultural methods: the land was dead, silent, devoid of chirping birds or humming insects or anything but the wind rustling through yellowed leaves.
Concocting a variety of natural crop applications is a cornerstone of biodynamic agriculture, from manure “teas” (which is what that ram’s horn is all about) to various other herb-based preparations that are applied to the plants and/or soil. Their purpose is to stimulate microscopic soil processes and vitalize plant growth; adherents of organics and biodynamics often say that they let the soil’s micro-organisms do all the heavy lifting. On a chemical level, this provides the vines with essential nutrients and forces them to send their roots deep underground where they draw up trace elements from the terroir, as opposed to sticking close to the surface where they limp along on increasingly concentrated doses of fertilizer – “vine crack,” as Mike calls it.
Many of these applications have not been scientifically verified as having a real effect on the soil or plants. Part of this is simply due to a lack of formal study; only about 1% of the world’s vineyards are biodynamic (about 2% are organic). Certainly some of the astrological components of biodynamics seem dubious – but then again, why do so many gardeners and farmers still swear by the Farmer’s Almanac?
Proclaim it viticulture’s Holy Grail or denounce it as a load of rubbish; devotees of biodynamic viticulture are just that – passionately devoted to the practice. My approach is eminently practical: just taste the wine and let that be the ultimate test. (Biodynamic wines are certified through the Demeter Association – look for this designation on the label.)
If Benziger’s wines are representative of biodynamic wine as a whole, I’m totally in: his wines are delicious. All of them. Go buy them all now.