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04.30.2006

The Deep End of Wine Analysis

Randall Grahm, the founder and owner of Bonny Doon Vineyard, is definitely one of my wine heroes, if only because of his persistence in the face of ridicule and derision when he first attempted to make wines here in California. I also love his sense of humor, and his insistence on making every last one of his wines fun. He approaches the business with what I believe is the right spirit and lack of pretension, and is a champion of the average consumer.

Recently Grahm has also taken up the practice and the cause of biodynamic viticulture. I don't hold this against him (or any winemaker) but at the recent Terroir conference held at UC Davis, he gave a long talk on terroir, biodynamic farming, and a new (to me) way of analyzing wine which he suggests may allow someone to identify a wine which is more "whole" or "dynamic."

In his own words:

"I have always felt that language is highly inadequate to really describe the sensation of tasting a wine, certainly the language that merely breaks a wine down into its constituent components. Maybe a haiku, a spontaneous response, would make for more cogent wine criticism. But it turns out that there is a particular technique called "sensitive crystallization," employed by practitioners of biodynamics, and it offers a different sort of language to talk about wine's aesthetics; it speaks to a vine's degree of connectedness to the soil, to its organizing and growth forces of the wine....It can tell you about the degree of organization of a wine and its life force, speaking directly to its overall harmony and ability to mature and improve. In a sense, it is the glimpsing of the wine's aura, its subtle body, not necessarily obvious from the impression one gathers in the physical realm."
Wheeee. Off the deep end we go.

This sort of thing demonstrates exactly why I have issues with certain aspects of biodynamic viticulture. The process that Grahm is speaking about involves taking wine (or any organic material), mixing it or dissolving it in copper chloride solution and then carefully and slowly evaporating the solution so that a crystalline residue forms.

Grahm goes on: "Sensitive crystallization is not a precise science, at all, not by a long shot. You do a number of replicates and they can all be a little bit different, but you do begin to see recurring patterns that are quite suggestive. "

Here's what the results of sensitive crystallization looks like:

sensitive.crystallization.jpg

So essentially what you do is take a look at this pattern (shown in black and white above for contrast) and...um...draw conclusions as to....the....uh....goodness of your wine and vines.

Or something like that. Its basically like reading tea leaves. This technique of wine analysis shares many qualities of the various preparations and techniques of biodynamic viticulture which pose so many problems for me.

Sensitive crystallization was developed in the early 1930's by Dr. Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, a medical doctor interested in natural food cultivation methods, as a method of ascertaining the quality of various plant and vegetable juices and fruits. So far so good. Except for the fact that Pfeiffer's experiments seem to have been conducted without the use of the Scientific Method, and the fact that he did not use scientific language to report his results, instead opting to describe how the patterns of crystals expressed the "vitality" of the various plants he was testing. Oh, and there's the added fact that in the intervening seventy years, his techniques have never been scientifically or statistically validated.

I have no doubt for a minute any of the following:

1. This process yields pretty crystal patterns.
2. These patterns are different for different wines.
3. These different patterns are most likely the product of real chemical differences between wines.
4. That no one has any frikken idea of the direct correlation between various patterns and specific conditions in the real world or in the wines.

We only partially understand how crystalline structures like the ones shown above are formed from complex solutions containing multiple types of molecules. We certainly are unable to make the leap to demonstrate that certain patterns signify anything quantitative or qualitative about the plants whose fermented fruit juice went into the solution.

I'm sure it's possible and even probable that Graham and many others have used this technique on different wines with remarkable results. Grahm claims that the crystalline patterns from biodynamic wines are distinctly different than those of conventional wines. It wouldn't surprise me if that were the case -- I'm certainly not questioning Graham's truthfulness. But the leap from simple observation of difference to attributed causality is the core problem with the whole biodynamic movement. Sure you get different results in your vineyards when you go biodynamic, but no one has really bothered to pick apart what works, and why.

Instead the whole system is swallowed hook line and sinker. I'll continue to drink biodynamic wines because some of them are good. I'll even look at pretty pictures of wine crystals. But just don't try to convince me that you know what they mean.

Comments (34)

John wrote:
05.01.06 at 8:55 AM

Hey, I tried this and it's crazy! Take a look at this crystal pattern that I did for a Simi chardonnay (after Constellation bought them)

http://api.ning.com/files/1047291?size=large

Jeremy wrote:
05.01.06 at 9:03 AM

Ok. That's f'ing funny.

Alder wrote:
05.01.06 at 10:29 AM

Yeah. Totally excellent. Maybe John can be our resident wine comedian.

Geoff Smith wrote:
05.01.06 at 10:50 AM

Yes, Alder, but you should say that Randall is one of your heroes because (like myself) he is an alumnus of Uncle Charlie's Summer Camp!

Cheers,

Geoff

St.Vini wrote:
05.01.06 at 11:15 AM

Good write-up Alder. I'd read Randall's entire text previously and I'll put together my own summary soon.

I'm no fan of BioD for the reasons you describe and the crystal structures strikes me as similarly incomprehensible.

I struggle with this, because I am a big fan of what Randall has done to make wine fun and accessible. Sometimes, however, I think he has succeeded in spite of himself and that people buy his wine more for the packaging than the (usually) highly-challenging wine contained therein.

Vini

Jeff B. wrote:
05.01.06 at 2:36 PM

For what it's worth, I recently attended the Terroir conference at UC Davis, which, besides being given over to a number of extremely good papers by people like Richard Smart, John Gladstones, Mark Matthews and Paul Draper, half a day was devoted to biodynamics. It was on this day that Randall spoke, and presented slides/info on this very topic. Regardless of the merit (or lack thereof) of Randall's crystalography, it seems rather asinine to be "no fan of BioD"- that's kind of like being "against" blue skies or clean water. No doubt the crystalography bit is far-fetched (which even Randall admitted) but some pretty serious scientists had some pretty convincing evidence on biodynamics re: decreased water use, slightly decreased yield, and improved fruit quality. I understand that Randall is a brilliant sales guy, and that he needs to sell wine. However, "wine crystalography" has NOTHING to do with biodynamics per se, and is certainly not recognized by the Demeter Society; as such, I think Randall is being pretty irresponsible in facilitating the conflation of crystalography with true biodynamics.

Regards,

Jeff

Alder wrote:
05.01.06 at 5:09 PM

Jeff,

I'm against (or more accurately, highly skeptical of Biodynamics(tm)), but not of many of the principles that BioD employs. My problem with it is that to my knowledge no one has done any real scientific validation of the parts of BioD that go beyond basic low-yield, organic viticulture. Yet most people don't distinguish between those standard agricultural practices and what I believe amounts to mostly new-age mumbo jumbo.

Everyone says Biodynamics is great because they can see that using BioD their vineyards are healthier and their wines taste better. Fine. Great, even. But how much of the full Biodynamic prescription actually created those results, and how much of it was a waste of effort and time? No one can answer that question, and no one seems to want to. I tend to believe that some aspects of BioD are just superstitious nonsense, but people insist that these practices all contribute to the final result.

I will be a full blown BioD supporter and champion as soon as I see a proper double blind, scientific-method-driven, peer reviewed piece of science showing that there are statistically significant benefits to the final fruit or wine from:

A) spraying the vines with a mixture of silica and water that has been buried in a cow's horn
B) stirring the solution a proscribed number of times in one direction and then the other before spraying
C) picking grapes only on days computed by the astrological calendar to be "leaf days" rather than "root days"
D) pruning only when the moon is waning

Etc. etc.

To be fair to Randall Grahm, I don’t think he necessary conflated BioD and Sensitive Crystallization. They've been associated with one another before he came along. I believe Pfeiffer comes from the same school of "anthroposophic thought" as Rudolph Steiner, and his methods have been used by the BioD folks for a long time before Grahm picked them up.

St.Vini wrote:
05.01.06 at 5:17 PM

Jeff: I should have been more clear. I'm not "against" BioD. I don't really care one way or the other if a given producer uses it. What I do care about is the insult to centuries of science and to my intelligence to suggest that this stuff works "because we say it does". Employees must only stir the BioD preparations counter-clockwise and be emotionally engaged in the process while they do so.....please!

BTW - I'm all for organic and sustainable farming, but to say the BioD is synonymous with "clean skies" is just asinine. One can be supportive of one and not the other.

For more information on the absurdities of BioD, feel free to click on the little "St.Vini" below this post and search through my blog for my (admittedly excessive) posts on the topic.

Cheers,
Vini

Steve T wrote:
05.01.06 at 7:14 PM

BioD does encompass a lot of complete rubbish, as you point out. However: for me, what's more important is that it's the only organized system of farming that encompasses all the practices I approve of that AREN'T rubbish as well. I'll take the funny hats and mumbo-jumbo if I get the responsible water use and biologic care of the soil. "Organic" doesn't cut it any more; it's been co-opted by agribusiness and can be used by people doing unsustainable farming. You can't do BioD unsustainably, and sustainability is the important thing to me.

But then, I'm a kook who thinks it ought to be illegal to irrigate vines, so what do I know?

The crystal dishes lose me, though. I saw that in Grahm's latest newsletter and rolled my eyes. It's not even "it works because I say it does"; it's "it must be important because it looks like MAGIC".

Alder wrote:
05.01.06 at 8:09 PM

Steve,

Thanks for your comments. Your points are definitely well made, especially the point about Organic no longer meaning what it used to. I just wish some people would stop putting up with the funny hats and create some other movement that leaves out the mumbo jumbo.

Steve T wrote:
05.01.06 at 8:22 PM

Well, so do I. To get back to the dried little dishes, I'd love to see a new "blind tasting" where they rate the dishes, then the wines, and see if any of the same adjectives come up and if "a discontinuity in the peripheral zone" really can be correlated to "a lack of connection with the soil" and whether depth of relief in the branching crystals really indicates minerality. I'm going to guess not. This is pure astrology.

Ben wrote:
05.01.06 at 8:45 PM

While it may be foolish to follow biodynamics blindly, I'd say the same can be said for science. I'm always impressed by how many people take the results of studies using the scientific method as pure truth. Science is far from perfect, and all of its theories continue to mutate. I'd say it's easy to discount the "wacky" ideas like biodynamics, which I would say represent relatively little threat to our wine-drinking I cannot say the same for science, whose methods have brought us many of the modern techniques that are truly (and quickly) changing wine as we know it. I can't say whether these changes are good or bad, but I do know that they have plenty of blind, faithful followers. Agriculture existed long before the scientific method. So did great wine. I would be careful in demanding that it be employed to judge whether an individual's methods are successful. Personally, I plan to drink the wines and make my own decisions.

St.Vini wrote:
05.01.06 at 8:51 PM

Steve: Point well made. One of the problems I have with BioD is that its rules for certification get "squishy". Technically, a vineyard can't be certified unless they have a complete working farm (i.e. livestock) to provide manure to pack into said horn - the "closed system". However, the rules for certification seem to have been bent for vineyards. How is this possible? Doesn't seem any different (in this regard anyway) from the lowering of the organic bar.

Cheers,
Vini

bill wrote:
05.02.06 at 5:52 AM

I am amazed that Steve's comment about not irrigating vines passed without even a cursory reply..now that is an interesting discussion...vine pain for our pleasure..any takers? I know that Vini did one post on the subject but I would love to know more about what everyone thinks.

I asked the wife and apparently this type of crystalline analysis is not limited to wine, but is an accepted form of plant analysis used by the 'rock' sect of bio-d practicioners . Sometimes the results a very pretty though she too isn't sure exactly what one is looking for.. But imagine, a form of analysis that one can hang on the wall afterwards.

One thing that never ceases to amaze me about this debate is how it’s critics tend to lampoon the believers with almost a golf-buddy, ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink,’ (as characterized by the funny hat comment). Look at this as many of it’s adherents do.. with a certain religiosity. And like many tenets of most religious systems, it is pretty easy to make them look ridiculous. Take, for example, Bhuddists and their penchant for ringing bells and their belief that they might come back to earth as a bug. Wacky sure, but they preach non-violence and tend to be nice people. That is what is important, not wether re-incarnation is reality. In so far as the bio-d folks go, if they can help us eliminate the disconnect that our society has with nature by espousing a more holistic perspective, then they are worth their weight in silica, cow horns or even funny hats. Let's be fair... and if we are to lampoon them because of a lack of scientific foundation behind their claims, then let's at least congratulate them on what they espouse that is beneficial to all.

Ironically, our society tends not to listen to either bio-d people or scientists when it comes to the damage that we are doing to our environment. Maybe we just believe what we want, as long as it suits our chosen lifestyle and deep-seeded prejudice.

Let’s continue the scientific research and the comparative tastings. There does seem to be some evidence of certain benefits to soil microbiology that can be linked to following a bio-d regiment, and many of these wines are both unique and fantastic. Maybe there is more but unless we approach the criticism with an open mind and free from prejudiced opinion, we will not serve justice to either bio-dynamics nor the scientific method.

Bill

Jeff B. wrote:
05.02.06 at 8:24 AM

Alder and Vini-

Sincere thanks for your thoughtful, well-reasoned responses. I am more than a bit chagrined, Vini, that I insinuated you were being "asinine"- please accept my apologies. I don't have time now for a full response, but again, appreciate your notes.

Regards,


Jeff

Alder wrote:
05.02.06 at 9:10 AM

Jeff,

No worries. Vini's got thick skin. I think I've probably insinuated worse about him before.

caveman wrote:
05.02.06 at 9:39 AM

Yeah, I've said worse as well...good thing he is like a crocodile (without the tears)...
Bill

Al wrote:
05.02.06 at 1:33 PM

I realize I'm hitting this topic late, but Pfeiffer's M.D. was an honorary one bestowed in regard to his crystallization efforts.
Not their effectiveness, but the efforts he put into it in regard to trying to use it to test blood for pathogens (I think).
I can’t recall the college which issued it, but I want to say it was in New York. He was a close associate of Rudolf Steiner, and wrote a number of pamphlets about soil and his crystallization techniques (some of which are still available), but failed to ever provide evidence that his conclusions of what he saw were accurate when related to the field. Crystals are extremely complex items when made from a sample containing organic matter, minerals, liquids, gases, etc., and it’s very doubtful that a single flowchart to determine results could be formulated in the 30’s through the 60’s when he died.

I think the best way to address sensitive crystallization would be to present crystallized results blindly to the experts, and have them then describe what the soil/wine/whatever was like beforehand based solely on their observations. Having the same person prepare the crystals and then describe the prior sample/sample site is like shooting fish in a barrel: how could you possibly miss? And it's far too easy for someone to project what they want to see into the results.

Now Randall is an interesting character, but for all he claims terroir is, he's lost sight of the fact that he himself produces a wine BLEND from a mixture of both GERMAN and CALIFORNIAN wines. If blending from different countries/continents isn’t the absolute antithesis of what terroiristas hold dear , well , then I don’t know what is.

Al wrote:
05.02.06 at 1:34 PM

BTW, love the "constellation" crystal!
DAMN funny!

St.Vini wrote:
05.03.06 at 9:34 AM

Jeff/Alder/Bill: You guys are mean! I'm taking my ball and going home!

Bill, the adherents to BioD seem like good people. I'm critical of their methods (and implied results), not them personally.

Vini

jd wrote:
05.08.06 at 5:52 AM

While I agree that most biodynamic techniques are pretty wacky, I need to comment on one thing. Pruning during a waning moon is a great technique; the low levels of light equal low levels of sap, which is the least invasive for the plant/vine.

Otherwise I think it's important to remember that Biodynamics are an ancient practice that probably needs some modernization (perhaps there was a very practical explanation for the cow horn/stirring patterns). At least the end result is positive, low impact and environmentally friendly. Wouldn't it be better to be throwing all this debate energy into the topic of pesticides and non-sustainable farming?

Alder wrote:
05.08.06 at 4:25 PM

Jennifer,

Thanks for the comments. I'm not sure I understand your point about the waning moon. Don't sap levels have to do with sunlight? Or does moonlight affect the vines as well ?

phillip wrote:
05.08.06 at 9:25 PM

No, sap levels do not have anithing to do with sunlight. As the moon is waning (coming closer to the earth) it pushes (preasures) the sap down, as it waxes it pulls the sap upwards. This is a very basic part of BD that comes from ancient techinques well before Steiner. As with a great deal of BD though once you start to go a bit deeper a great deal starts to make more sense.
An earlier comment in the blog was that BD practitioners say their wine tastes better, that is not the case, BD wine practitioners say their wines should taste "Of the earth from whence they came", to some people that quite conceivably will not be better. At the very least you wont be putting poison in your body, not a bad start or end to the day.
Phillip

Alder wrote:
05.09.06 at 4:16 PM

Philip,

Thanks for the clarification. I guess I was mistaken about sap movement. Most vineyard managers I've spoken with have always talked about sap movement in the vines as being a function of heat, with the vines being dormant at night and in the early morning, before they heat up later in the day.

Chris wrote:
05.19.06 at 3:40 PM

Alder: "Oh, and there's the added fact that in the intervening seventy years, his techniques have never been scientifically or statistically validated."

REALLY? Il faut vraiment lire ça en anglais pour le croire!

http://www.ensmp.fr/industrie/corss/ccs/SiteWebE/index.htm
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&list_uids=6072180&dopt=Abstract

Alder wrote:
05.19.06 at 4:00 PM

Chris, it's a shame you didn't provide your e-mail address, so you may not know that I've replied to your comment.

But did you actually read those conference proceedings and the scientific papers? I just did. The conclusion of the scientists with regards to the application of the method to learning anything about a foodstuff (or wine):

"It can be argued that a major limitation for a wider application of the method is the lack of standardized methods for evaluating, quantifying and classifying crystallogram textures, on the basis of visual classification, or on the basis of computerized image analysis."

Let me translate: even when we put these images in front of computers to do pattern analysis on the crystals, they can't tell us anything definitive.

Now perhaps your point was merely that scientists are exploring the use of sensitive crystallization as an analysis technique. Fair enough, but my point was not whether anyone who calls themselves a scientist has ever used the method, it is whether anyone has validated the fact that you can learn anything definitive by doing it.

The only proceedings of note out of all the information on the site you sent was that, yes, indeed, the presence of additives as well as the molecular nature of any organic substance seems to have a dramatic influence on the crystalline structures formed using this procedure in controlled laboratory environments, especially when looked at using techniques like Atomic Force Microscopy. I wonder if Randall Grahm has one of those?

Let me point out the obvious: these folks aren't anywhere close to saying what these differences in crystalline forms actually MEAN.

And that's what has never been scientifically validated about Pfieffers work. He claimed that the patterns signified very specific things about the substance being analyzed (and also claimed that he could read them with the naked eye), but no one in the scientific community that I know of has ever found statistical correlations between crystalline patterns and, say, the health or irrigation level of a vine, or the improved life force of biodynamic versus "plain" organic fruit.

By the way, did you see the diagrams of some of the extremely sophisticated laboratory equipment that these scientists feel is necessary to actually do this procedure with any consistency?

Chris wrote:
05.19.06 at 5:10 PM

Alder, I'm here and I read your comment...For Randall Grahm, with this method, it is just the beginning ; before judging him,I think it's better waiting 4 or 5 years... Now I have to go to sleep because in France it's the middle of the night. Sorry for my bad english.

Alder wrote:
05.19.06 at 5:16 PM

Chris,

I judge people like I judge my wines. I like to taste them on release, and then go back to them over the years and see if they change. For now, I think Randall is crazy for pushing this technique. I am happy to revise my opinion over time. Just because he's not drinking well, er, thinking well, right now, doesn’t mean he won’t in the future.

Your English is perfect. I thought you were a native speaker/writer.

Alder wrote:
05.19.06 at 5:19 PM

P.S. After checking out your website I can see why you might have strong feelings about the subject :-)

Feel free to post some information about what you do for your clients and how they use the information. It would be interesting to know.

Chris wrote:
05.21.06 at 1:28 PM

Adler,

Nobody have the property of sensitive crystallization method. Everybody can do it. You can do it in your kitchen if you want ! But to understand what these crystals MEAN, there are no secrets, nothing magic, no divination, it is only necessary to make up a data bank, compare substances which one nature and origin are known - and obtain a random reproducibility of the crystals patterns under the conditions of the lab-.

My clients can use the informations as they want, they are free and responsible. (I hope my english legible…hum… it’s not easy for me).

Goodbye.

Dr. Nina Mihaychuk wrote:
07.13.06 at 9:09 AM

What an absurb dialogue. As one of a handful of doctors certified in the Sensitive Crystallization method, I find it absolutely ridiculous to hear people with no training in the technique to make so many thoughtless comments about it. If I showed you a patholoogy slide, I doubt that you would see a tiny fragment of the information that I would see in it. And- the comment that anyone can make and read crystallizations is absolutely stupid. The fact that people make stupid comments and assumptions about the method is simply a result of their ignorance- not a failing of the technique.

Alder wrote:
07.13.06 at 10:16 AM

Nina,

Thanks for your comments. I'm interested in your work and your background. What body does the certification for Sensitive Crystallization? How do you use this technique in your work?

Chris wrote:
07.17.06 at 3:03 AM

Nina,

I presented my point of view on the method like a personnal discovery, not like an objective truth. Your judgement on my comments wants to convince of the universal and exclusive validity of your personal expériment.

Chris

Dr. Nina Mihaychuk wrote:
07.20.06 at 9:20 PM

I am an Endodontist- (root canal specialist). Took a year off for a research sabbatical at a research institute in Switzerland that is affiliated with two clinics, one, a cancer treatment center, the other a regular hospital tratment center. The research institute is Forschungs Laboratorium am Goetheanum and the clinics are Lucas Klinik and Ita Wegman Klinik.
The research institute certifies doctors in the Sensitive Crystallization Method with either a specialty in blood or plants. I am certified in blood, with training in plants. The plant specialists are hired by governments and pharmaceutical companies and agricultural institutes to do reaserch for them. The Netherlands dept. of agriculture funded a big study while I was there.
The only other certifying body I know of is the Bolk Institute in the Netherlands. The Michael Fields Institiute in Wisconsin has worked with crystallizations, but I am quite sure they are not trained to certify anyone or have a certified person on staff.

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