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.