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harvey steiman at large

A Skeptical Look at Biodynamics

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Dec 21, 2007 12:23pm ET

Some of the world's greatest winemakers say that biodynamics is the secret behind their wines. The list of those who profess to practice this approach to vine-growing is impressive, to be sure. Their number includes Leroy, Leflaive, Zind-Humbrecht, Coulée de Serrant, Huët and Chapoutier in France. In my areas of responsibility, prominent practitioners include Cayuse in Washington, Jasper Hill in Australia, Beaux Frères and Brick House in Oregon.

No question, a lot of wines made by those who follow the biodynamic method are terrific wines. Could it be that biodynamics makes their wines great?

Biodynamics begins with organic agriculture, then layers on aspects of astrology and other ideas, based on the writings of Rudolf Steiner, a German philosopher and mystic. That always struck me as mumbo-jumbo. I have always figured that all that burying of cow horns under the full moon and making preparations of horse tails was just window dressing, anyway. My theory is that the main value of biodynamics is that it forces a grower to spend a lot of time in the vineyard, paying attention to every vine. That has to help.

My friend Ed, who recently retired as a high school biology teacher, sent me a copy of an article on biodynamics and wine from Skeptical Inquirer, the magazine of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, which specializes in debunking pseudo-scientific hokum like UFOs and ESP. The article, by Douglass Smith and Jesús Barquin, both of whom have credentials in both science and wine or gastronomy, surveys the research that exists on biodynamics, and finds it wanting.

Most of the scientific evidence, the authors point out, compares biodynamics with conventional agriculture, rather than organic farming. The biggest, most ballyhooed study, by a Swiss group led by Paul Mäder, purported to show that, over 21 years, biodynamics edged out even organics. But the authors suggest that the study carefully selected what aspects to compare, jiggering the results.

Followers of biodynamics like to show how alive their soils are with insect life and other organisms. A rigorous study at Washington State University specifically compared soils that had been treated biodynamically with identical soils that had been given standard organic treatment. They found no difference. Organic practices are just as good for the soil as cow horns and horse tails. What a surprise!

They also address the issue of what harm it may do to give biodynamics any currency. Who cares if some crazy vignerons think this mumbo-jumbo really works, as long as the wines deliver a fabulous experience when we drink them? In their view, this lack of critical thinking harms society by reinforcing a notion that the occult and pseudoscience are just as valid as something that can actually be proved. I agree. I encounter too much mumbo jumbo and strange beliefs about wine already. We don't need more.

The authors also worry that, as more wine experts buy into biodynamics rather than looking at it critically, a winery can get more money for its products merely because they say "biodynamic" on the label. Caveat emptor on that one.

Is it the biodynamics, or is it just that great winegrowers are farming organically on really good land? My bet is on the latter.

Dana Nigro
New York, NY —  December 21, 2007 1:43pm ET
Harvey, you make a good point about some of the more mystical aspects of biodynamics. I agree that the true foundation of biodynamics is the close interaction the grower has with the property.

To answer your question at the end, I would say that it depends on what your definition of "farming organically" is.

To earn organic certification in the U.S., the USDA only requires that a property be free of synthetic chemicals. The certification does not require growers to go beyond that. (For more on the certifications:www.winespectator.com/Wine/Archives/Show_Article/0,1275,6083,00.html)

They're not required to increase biodiversity on the property, to make it a self-sustaining ecosystem, as a way of improving the health of the soil and controlling diseases and pests--and that's one of the tenets of biodynamics.

Most organic growers do many of those things anyway because they need natural methods to replace the chemical fertilizers and pesticides. They share many practices with the followers of biodynamics, but they don't go for biodynamic certification because they have doubts about aspects of it.

On the other hand, some growers have adopted biodynamics, despite their initial skepticism, because they feel organic certification doesn't go far enough in its overall philosophy. And many growers choose practices not only for quality (always the primary goal), but also for their full environmental impact.

Ultimately, there's more than one way to get to the end goal of great wine. And as Craig Williams and Philippe Pessereau at Joseph Phelps Vineyards, which has been experimenting with biodynamics, put it in my "Wine Goes Green" article (www.winespectator.com/063007), just because a wine is organic or biodynamic doesn't make it great. "Biodynamics is not your silver bullet," Pessereau said. "If you don't have sound viticulture, I don't think biodynamics will bring you all these quality aspects."

Dana Nigro, senior editor
Emily
December 21, 2007 3:38pm ET
Harvey-I ask only that you read one more thing about biodynmics before you come to such judgments. Its called "Biodynamic Wine,Demystified" by Nicholas Joly...If you dont find some clarity within it-- you probably never will.I agree with you that great wine makers from great regions will make great wines. However, Biodynamics is about finding balance in farming and in nature not only to create "great" wines but more importantly to create unique wines (Many times giving the consumer a sense of place)In a world, where James Laube points out that 85%of the wine in the US is coming from seven companies--I think this would be something you would endorse. No one farming biodynamically will claim it is the only method or even the the best method to grow grapes. They will just tell you that it is the most natural way they know to grow grapes and be in touch with the land.And If you can't get behind any of that-- just be happy that they abandon using fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides. I think we have enough of those in our lives already...
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  December 21, 2007 3:52pm ET
Emily, I certainly am happy when growers abandon chemical fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides, and I am all for being in touch with the land, which is exactly why I think the best thing about biodynamics is that the grower must spend more time in the vineyard and gets to know each individual vine. You can also do that without biodynamics, just using good organic farming methods and paying attention. It's the astrology and dubious "preparations" that rankle.
Emily
December 21, 2007 5:19pm ET
Harvey, I am certainly no expert. However, I think "astrology" is showing that you have not read enough about the subject. READ JOLY!!Yes, they farm by the phases of the moon (in some instances) My understanding (and I am a novice) is that the moon's phases gives them a better understading of the water level (water table) in the vineyard. Just as the moon dictates tide it also can effect the water content in the soil. Just as many believe picking at night time is good for certain grapes (acid levels) biodynamics states that farming at a certain moon phase will dictate (more accurately) the water level/table and content on the property. This is just my basic understanding but if you read Joly I am sure he can give the reasoning in more scientific terms.As for the preparations, my understanding is it is just adding recycled natural materials to the soil in hopes to add nutrients. I believe some also help fight the diseases and pests that they can't use chemicals on. Nothing mystical just practical.
Jason Gullion
December 21, 2007 5:32pm ET
Harvey - To be honest, I would have to say that some of the more metaphysical aspects of biodynamics originally left my more rational-minded self a little cold. Cow horns indeed. But that rational-minded side is only a part of who I am as a wine lover. The more I learn about wine, the less it's about numbers and scores, and the more it is about place, and people and approach. Without getting too romantic about the whole thing, I do think there is an alchemy to winemaking, and that there are intangibles throughout the whole process that we cannot quantify. I have no doubt that winemakers at times make "technically perfect" wines from amazing grapes, that nonetheless don't have that certain something. Call it whatever you want--soul, passion, sense of place.What does this all have to do with biodynamics? Simply this, just because we don't understand how something works doesn't mean that it doesn't. I think summing up the success of the great biodynamic vineyards (and their numbers are growing), as simply being a reflection of a more hands-on approach, is an overly easy way of explaining something rather enigmatic. I leave you with this thought. The list of truly world-class biodynamic wineries is getting longer (you named several of them). I think you would be hard pressed to come up with an equally as impressive list of straight organic wineries (though there are some). If the two processes and methodologies are so similar, we should have equally as successful and respected wineries in both camps. While I don't mean to take anything away from the organic producers, there is obviously "something" about biodynamics that seems to more often yield exceptional results.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  December 21, 2007 6:19pm ET
A lot of vineyards farm organically but don't necessarily trumpet it on the label. I suspect that the biodynamic cohort are just getting more attention.

Whenever something is better, there is always a reason, something that can be analyzed and explained. That may be hard to do with biodynamics and wine, simply because there are so many variables. But it's possible. You just have to ask the right questions.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  December 22, 2007 2:48pm ET
Jason - I have to disagree with you. There are far more "great" vineyards that are farmed non-biodynamically. How many 1st Growth Bordeaux are BD? Second Growth? How many of any of the classified growths are? How about Spain? Italy? Austrailia? Oregon and Califonia? It's really only in Burgundy where we see an impressive list... and it's still far from being the majority.

BD is a process. I will grant you that in he hands of certain growers, it works. But it's no guarantee of success. While the growers choose the process they use to best fit their beliefs and needs (BD, organic, sustainable, etc)... sadly, the marketing arm of the wine biz is using BD as a marketing tool. The marketing of BD says BD wines will be the best. And that's something that I think is a HUGE disservice to consumers... especially when respected wine critics (Matt Kramer, Jay Miler) buy into it.

So thanks for this blog Harvey!!
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  December 22, 2007 4:05pm ET
Brian underlines a key fallacy in this discussion. The early adopters of BD in the wine world include some high-profile, extremely high quality producers. They like what it means for their vineyards and wines. That makes it seem like BD = great wines, but that's not logical. Richard Gere, Kate Bosworth, Keanu Reeves and Uma Thurman are all Buddhists, and they are all expressive actors. Would anyone argue that this means that Buddhist actors are better?

I believe that's what they call an "inductive fallacy."
Anton Hicks
San Francisco, CA —  December 23, 2007 12:03am ET
Regarding biodynamicism, how could one not be skeptical given that it¿s greatest proponent and de-facto spokesperson is Nicolas Joly, whose oft nonsensical polemics are entertainingly laced with classist, racist and eugenic commentary? Legitimacy of message aside, the messenger alone is enough to condemn the content. Still, there is much to recommend the central tenets of biodynamicism: listen to the earth and work with the vineyard to do what it needs to do to express its ¿terroir¿. I don¿t think any wine-lover could argue with these core values, even if some of the actual tactics involved are pagan, lack any meaningful scientific merit or logic and can be downright creepy.

Harvey, Brian, I think you¿ve both hit the nail on the head with your comment that the universally acknowledged ¿great biodynamic wines¿ come from vineyards which were always considered to be superlative. While I don¿t doubt that the careful attention which Ms. Bize-Leroy and Mr. Joly have paid to their vineyards has borne great fruit, nonetheless, that the wines from those soils have historically been excellent would seem to indicate that the quality of Joly¿s and Leroy¿s wines no doubt find their roots more in the innate quality of the soil rather than in the techniques used to enhance them. Conversely, I¿ve tasted many a terrible biodynamic wine¿should we blame biodynamic techniques, or should we acknowledge that poor vineyards with bad exposure, drainage and other miscellaneous problems coupled with mediocre wine-making techniques lead to poor wines in general?
Anton Hicks
San Francisco, CA —  December 23, 2007 12:04am ET
(Part 2) This brings up the point that making wines biodynamically is an essentially classist venture. It¿s all well and good to let the vineyard express its true beauty, if you¿ve been blessed with the heredity or cold cash to take a hold of a coveted vineyard that possess such extraordinary character¿even Ted Turner could churn out a decent Montrachet given the chance. But not all things are made equally beautiful and as the world isn¿t comprised solely of Grand Cru level vineyards, should every other vintner not in possession of such a luxury merely shrug their shoulders, sigh c¿est la vie¿, and let the land make mediocre wines? The flipside is highly manipulated, ¿internationalized¿ wines which possess a certain ersatz quality (Roland-wines, if you will). While this isn¿t the ideal either, sadly, I would rather drink something that lacked a true soulful character and reeked somewhat of sameness than something insipid, flawed and wretched.

It¿s easy, then, to have principle when you¿re wealthy and sitting on the best land in the Loire.

One last point about Joly and biodynamicism: I find myself in the unenviable position of tasting a large number of Joly wines every year. When these wines are stellar, they are without peer¿I haven¿t had the privilege of sampling the Coulee of the pre-Joly era, though I¿m curious. Still, it hasn¿t passed the notice of myself or other sommeliers that nearly one in three Joly wines bear a damning flaw of some sort, be it excessive oxidation (high bottle variation), cork taint and various other sundry problems. Which leads me to believe that one in three people trying Joly¿s wines don¿t truly get to savor the greatness of the Coulee vineyard. So who then is doing a disservice to a truly great vineyard by tainting its great wines with an intellectually inflexible, dogmatic approach? Sometimes the greatest evils are perpetrated by misguided people, in their stunted world view, trying to do good.
Hal Howard
Sammamish, WA —  December 23, 2007 2:48am ET
Having tasted a few of the California adherents to this religion's products, I can say with certainty it did not make their product better than the organic or non-organic competition. Most of the wine was mediocre at best. Yet, two weeks later they were featured on the cover of the magazine that owns this site. I guess the publicity stunt is working, they certainty were not featured because of the quality of the resulting product. Sustainability is good and I'm for it, but to give it a mystic label and use it as a marketing stunt is pure genius.
Emily
December 23, 2007 8:52am ET
Is is very clear that NONE of you understand what biodynamics is. Let me try and help;A. Biodynamics IS NOT meant to make better wines. Its meant to create unique wines by making ones property a closed system. Some biodyamic wines are "great" some are poor. The only common factor is the way the grapes were farmed. Harvey if you could undestand just that you would be well on your way...B. The biggest part of Biodynamics it is withholding pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers etc. I think we can all agree this is a good thing. They just don¿t think Organic farming goes far enough so they take it to the next level. Recycling everyting on their property and creating a closed system so the wines show off there terroir. (with good and bad results)C. No winery says "there wine is best or even better because of its biodynamic" This is a fallacy. Find me a winery that markets this way...you can't Biodynamis is not a process to make great wines (although that happens) its a process to create unique and natural grapes.D. Many world class wines are made biodynamiclly. They just don't say anything. Including wines in Bordeaux, Napa, Spain, etc. Its a fallacy to say this is only done in Burgundy. Some of the top producers in the world and the US are going towards this method. See Joseph Phelps...and I can name 50 more world class producersE. There is no mystical aspect to the process. If you research the methods there is science behind all of them. You can't name one process that there is not a logical reason behind. It's the oldest method of natural farming none to man. You may think some of the things are mystical but if you research you will find the truthStop saying Biodynamics are not the best wines Harvey. No one claims they are. Are wineries proud that they are biodynamic, of course. Can they make more money sometimes, yes. People will pay a premium for products with no cancer casuing materials. See Wholefoods
John Felty
Ashaway, RI —  December 23, 2007 11:03am ET
Thanks for the info Emily. I was at Joseph Phelps a few years back when they were making the move towards Biodynamics and I was very impressed. I've also visited Brickhouse in Oregon and was, once again, impressed by the effort that goes into Biodynamics. Emily, could you point me in the direction of some refernce material on Biodynamics for further research?
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  December 23, 2007 12:26pm ET
Emily, I have no quarrel with those who wish to practice biodynamic farming for their own reasons, and I understand that a goal is to create a healthy ecosystem for the vines. No one can argue with that. And whereas organic certification only requires that no pesticides, fertilizers, etc., be used, to have a healthy vineyard the growers must adopt practices very similar to the ones you describe (composting, nurturing the soil, integrated pest management, etc.).

But it's also true that biodynamics has taken on this aura in the wine world of being a better way to make more expressive wines, and the producers are right there saying so when they promote their wines. It's a selling point.

Finally, the five-page footnoted article that I originally cited in Skeptical Inquirer examines the "scientific evidence" behind biodynamics and finds it wanting. They go into great detail on that point.

Where I come down is this: To the extent that growers who use biodynamic practices follow sound farming methods that nurture the soil and create a healthy environment for the vines, I am all for it. The rest? A matter of individual choice.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  December 23, 2007 6:04pm ET
Emily... halftime of the Pats game, so I'll play a bit more :) How many BD growers have a "closed system"? How many of those great vineyards have cows, sheep, and pigs on the property? I may be wrong... but I don't think the Grand Cru vineyards in Burgundy are closed systems.

And if vineyards aren't part of a closed farm system... couldn't you argue that importing manure/compost from other sites defeats one of the core principles of BD?

It's all academic to me... since I really don't care which process is used - since the VAST majority of great vineyards are farmed without the commercial pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers that BD eschews. But I have to ask since the BD crowd seams so insistent that BD leads to more site unique wines (ie shows terroir best).
Yaron Zakai Or
Israel —  December 24, 2007 4:21am ET
Rudolf Steiner was Austrian and not German. I believe that using the word "mystic" serves this article nicely, but he was actually a scientist that tried to apply his logical tools and understanding to spiritualism and prove that it exists:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rudolf_Steiner#Spiritual_science
The Wikipedia site has a nice description of his work and how Biodynamics started.
Where BD is used like a religion - I have a problem as I'm secular. Parts of it make sense and will improve the long term production. Better wines? Who knows, more research has to take place. Until then I wouldn't call it mumbo-jumbo nor I would think that buying a DB wine will improve my chances of getting a better one.
Emily
December 24, 2007 9:36am ET
Brian-By definition farmers who grow Biodynamically have to try and create a "closed/more natural system" in two very different ways- 1. They have to have a certain amount of space around their property. When Demeter comes (the group that certifies) they ask that a property be a certain distance away from any farmer who uses pesticieds. As you can imagine this can be very expensive. Wineries (in many cases) will have to remove rows of grapes in order to create this needed space. Obviosly, in Burgundy where space is very small and VERY expensive other methods (such as retaining walls can be used) However, no matter how you do it the purpose is to close off your property from outside influence.Secondly- Biodynamic farmers try and create a more natural ecosytem. Meaning, if you walk thru the woods behind your house you wont see an acre of just one flower growing. You will see flowers, trees, vines, fruits, bugs, etc. In Biodynamics the farmer tries to replacate this more natural ecosystem. By planing X amount of cover crops per row, by having owl boxes, by using recycled materials, they create a more natural and healthy enviroment for the vines. With the final product being better health for the soil and vines on there property. (becasuse of the more nat and more diverse ecosystem)By doing both things the farmer creates a closed system that is more like a natural piece of land. The wines then (by defenition)become more terroir wines (becuase you remove outside influence and you create a natural habitat of sorts) The final step of which is too not have any materials from outside your property imported. This is almost impossible but farmers try to recyle and compost 90% of the marterial that touches there property, keeping it as closed as possible.Some wineries go as far as to have insectories where they bring in good bugs to kill the pests in the winery. See Benziger as an example. Others, have chickens, cows, etc. There are many!
Emily
December 24, 2007 9:56am ET
Now take a look at the whole picture.1. No pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers-most important thing of bio farming!2. Organic farming taken to another level by composting and recycling 90-100%+ of materials3. Using the natural sciences to help farm and understand the property better4. Closing the system down as much as possible5. Creating a more diverse ecosystem using cover crops, animals, insectiers, etc (not a monolithic system used in traditional farming)6. Knowing and farming your land more intimately Results- Natural wines that show off the unique ecosystem that they are grown in. NOT BETTER WINES just wines that give a true sense of place that otherwise might be impossible to deliver.Happy holidays to everyone!!No more writing for me (unless WS starts to pay) lol
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  December 24, 2007 12:43pm ET
Emily, I appreciate your zeal and willingness to put up with us contentious skeptics without unpleasantness. Happy holidays to you, too.
Ryan Harvey
Scottsdale, AZ —  December 27, 2007 1:06pm ET
I think a point that's being missed with regard to the marketing of BD wines is the "green" consumer market. Yes, if i see a wine is labeled BD, as Harvey stated, I'm apt to believe that those vineyards were probably tended to very meticulously, and as such, may trend toward better quality. But this isn't going to sell me on a wine while i'm poking around a shop for a bottle. I have to assume most of us on this site are armed with a certain amount of knowledge when buying...and that the majority of our purchases are based on prior tastings, reviews, and/or recommendations. As such, random label-shopping represents a very small percentage of our purchases for home, and an even smaller percentage for our stores or restaurants, making the BD label irrelevant as a marketing gimmick.However, for me, it is a factor if i have prior knowledge of the wine. For instance...if i know that Winery X makes a wine that i enjoy equally as much as, say, a Sokol Blosser wine for the same price, but Wine X doesn't practice anything remotely "green" from vine to bottle, then I'm going to buy the Sokol Blosser, as an ecologically concerned consumer. And I may be willing, then, to spend more on the BD/organic/sustainable/carbon nuetral wine than i would on Wine X. Of course, BD/organic doesn't always equate to fully "green," but, and especially with regard to new world wines, the overlap is much more often the case than not. As such, i think the marketing behind the BD label is significantly more influential as a "green" marketing tool than as a brand of quality meant to dupe unsuspecting consumers into believing that the BD label is a mark of excellence and uniqueness. As a footnote, Harvey, I loved the green issue this year...maybe it's time WS runs a regular green "department."

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