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05.02.2006

Biodynamics From the Horse's Mouth

Several recent discussions here on Vinography have touched on Biodynamics. It's a compelling subject if only for the way it tends to bring out strong opinions. Those of us who like to opine about it don't know as much about it as those who actually practice it on a daily basis, and those folks probably don't know as much as a guy named Nicolas Joly, the owner and winemaker of Clos de la Coulee de Serrant, and the de facto spokesman for the movement. I've missed my opportunity to listen to Joly speak here in San Francisco with much regret and was therefore very pleased several weeks ago to come across this long video in which he introduces, provides background on, justification for, and detailed information about the practice of Biodynamics.

Check it out.

(Thanks to Lesley at Fashiontribes.com for pointing me to it, and the folks at CounterNYC for hosting it.)

I won't editorialize about it, but I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Comments (11)

Tana wrote:
05.02.06 at 7:13 PM

I'm sure the problem will resolve itself soon, but access to Typepad-hosted blogs is spotty tonight. They've been down at least three times in the past couple of hours. Ack.

Al wrote:
05.03.06 at 8:40 AM

Damn! he just goes on and on and on.....

So much of what he theorizes is unsupported that he ends up building a bridge to nowhere, rather than to a deeper understanding of life on earth. Copper is a metal which is sensitive? He always hits some anthropomorphic notes, but man! And the whole ‘frequencies’ & 'contraction' ideas are just plain wrong. Time for him to head back to school for some Physics classes.

He is, as always, entertaining, but essentially remains “a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing...”

05.04.06 at 3:14 PM

Let's face it: the foundations of Biodynamics are dubious but the results are very good. A little bit like the Mormons, no?

Alder wrote:
05.04.06 at 3:37 PM

Steve,

Yes, you're absolutely right, and the analogy with religion is an apt one in some ways, but falls short in another.

For rationalists like myself, it's maddening to look at folks participating in a system of belief and attributing benefits in their lives (or vineyards) to the system without any scrutiny or self-examination of their actions in the system. When we’re talking about religion however, the notion of faith protects people from self-scrutiny and explanation. Faith is, at the end of the day, the opposite of proof.

But here we’re not talking about religion, we're talking about something practical (no matter how sipritually pleasing) like growing grapes and the chemistry (not magic) of making wine. Very different than religion.

It's as if there were a system of brushing your teeth that prescribed prayers to the tooth fairy and rotating clockwise while brushing your teeth. Some people participating might say that the ToothDynamics(tm) system was responsible for their not having cavities. I would say that just the fact that they're brushing their teeth regularly (probably more regularly than people who don't participate in the ToothDynamics(tm) system).

So there's an impasse there.

The only way to actually figure out who's version of reality is more useful is to do studies according to rules (like statistical significance, scientific method, etc.) that both parties can agree on. Otherwise it’s just one person believing in prayer-driven toothbrushing and another believing in good oral hygiene.

Unfortunately very few people involved in the Biodynamic system are willing to entertain the idea that perhaps their cow horns don't really matter, let alone actually put it to a scientific test. Instead they propound this entire system, which as you say, does seem to have good results.

There's nothing wrong with it, of course, and these folks have every right to subscribe to the system that they do. It just seems ridiculous to a lot of people.

Tyler T wrote:
05.05.06 at 9:32 AM

There was a recent paper published in the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture that compared organic and biodynamic viticulture. Unfortunately they did not include conventional viticulture. The only difference in the treatments was the biodynamic preparations and there was no difference in the resulting fruit or wine. I personally feel that you can have good and bad conventional, organic, and biodynamic famers and what's most important is that you are really good and pay attention to detail no matter which you choose. Besides, why should we be invigorating our fertile/vigorous soils (at least in CA - even in the best vineyards). We need less vigor, not more!

Alder wrote:
05.05.06 at 2:32 PM

Tyler,

Any chance that paper is available online ? Can you point us to the link?

Either way, thanks for the comments.

Steve wrote:
05.06.06 at 12:51 PM

On-line access to AJEV is by paid subscription only. However, an abstract summarizing the paper is here:

http://www.ajevonline.org/cgi/content/abstract/56/4/367

For those not versed things statistical -- bear in mind that the reported differences between biodynamic vs. organic could be minscule but still "statistically significant." The magnitude of the difference is what counts, and for that alas, one must obtain the full paper.

A final thought or two -

Many products (health foods, supplements, folk remedies, soaps, cosmetics) have been awash in New Age mindmush and pseudoscience forever. In the last decade or so, savvy marketers have finally recognized and started exploiting the large (and growing) demographic that responds positively to such messages. Any why is anyone surprised when prominent individuals attach themselves to the new belief system de jour? BUT, when they start attaching E-Meters to the vines, it's time to run for the exits...

Re: commonality between biodynamics and Mormonism noted above, I suggest reconsidering in the light of recent revelations of activities within the fundamentalist offshoot of the LDS church. Viticultural analogies abound, but I will leave them to someone more qualified...

05.08.06 at 11:03 AM

Just reading the abstract, it seems the conclusion was that some quality measures were improved in the BD plots. There was no measureable change in soil chemistry or nutritional status of the vine, but some things, like anthocyanin and phenol makeup were improved, as were pruning weights.

That could point to some change in plant growth regulation? It is well known that certain soil microbes can produce plant growth regulators and essential plant hormones. Healthy soil with a diverse ecological system can encourage plant health and production. I attended a meeting for PCA's this winter that touched on certain soil ammendments and the use of tiny quantities of specific compost teas to innoculate soil with a proper population of microbes, producing amazing results. This is not pseudo-science, it is real, and many farmers are turning to these consultants for increased productivity and quality. See my (neglected as of late) blog for further comments:

http://tilth.blogspot.com/2005/12/dirt-on-soil-microbes.html

It is not too far-fetched to think that BD-500 is merely a specific compost tea, that by burying the horn, digging up at a specific time of year when the soil temperature is rising, etc... one is selecting for a certain type of soil microbe. Stirring for an hour one way and then the next, "energizing" the water sounds like a rudimentary aerobic compost tea brewer to me...

Still, it would be great to see some more really careful scientific studies of 'why' it seems to work. Without understanding this, BD will just be alchemy, not mainstream agricultural practice. (Didn't people used to think that moist grain left in a burlap bag in a dark spot for a week would spontaneously turn into mice?)

Jeff B. wrote:
05.13.06 at 10:33 AM

Posted by Alder:
"Unfortunately very few people involved in the Biodynamic system are willing to entertain the idea that perhaps their cow horns don't really matter, let alone actually put it to a scientific test. Instead they propound this entire system, which as you say, does seem to have good results."

Hey, Alder, I really do like your blog, and I'm sure I would enjoy having a glass or several with you sometime; nonetheless, I have to counter your statements on biodynamics one more time. I'd suggest that there is a large, dedicated, open-minded, rigorous and quiet group of viticulturalists, winemakers and scientists who are, in fact, examining their beliefs and the received wisdom of biodynamics, and putting it to the test (water usage, perceived fruit quality, etc.) In the past week alone, I've spoken with a number of growers and winemakers here on the Central Coast who acknowledge that scientific evidence does not yet exist, but who are pursuing additional data points. One of the big issues we face with biodynamics, along with so many other aspects of wine, is that taste is personal and subjective. A question I have for everyone who is sceptical, is what kind of evidence- empirical or otherwise- do you want to see? I'm not being rhetorical here- I'm sincerely curious as to what kind of data biodynamic sceptics are looking for.

Thanks and regards,

Jeff

Alder wrote:
05.17.06 at 10:25 PM

Jeff,

Thanks for the comments. I'm no viticulturalist, but here's some of what I would love to see tested out of the biodynamics realm, in full, peer-reviewed fashion by folks with PHDs, or at the very least, with strict control groups by a scientifically minded viticulturalist:

1. Whether crushed silica mixed with water sprayed over plants actually improves any number of key quality metrics of a vine (time to ripeness, phenolic maturity, etc. etc.)
2. Whether silica that's been buried in a cow horn is quantitatively different in its effect from that which is not.
3. Whether stirring direction or number of revolutions makes changes a biodynamic solution preparation chemically or physically in any measurable way
4. Whether there is any scientific basis whatsoever in plant metabolism that corresponds with the biodynamic calendary of root days, leaf days, etc.

Those are just a few off the top of my head.

Just so you know, I've talked with a lot of winemakers who have gone biodynamic, and asked them questions like "would you ever consider stirring your solution in only one direction" or "do you ever try normal silica rather than the stuff buried in a cow horn?" and most of them give one of two answers. Either that they need to do whatever it is they are doing in order to be certified Biodynamic or that "the system seemd to work, so I just go along with it." I haven't met any winemaker yet who has really been interested in really making the effort to set aside one section of a vineyard that gets appropriately stirred solution and one that gets non-stirred solution, for instance. Of course I can't say I blame them in one respect because they're out there making a living, and they can't waste a lot of time experimenting. But on the other hand I can't believe how many of them are willing to pay for preparations and do all the work required by the system without questioning some of its more bizzare and illogical precepts.

Nicole wrote:
05.23.06 at 6:01 AM

I had the chance to hear Joly speak last week at the LIWSF and it's certainly an exhausting experience. However, I also had the opportunity to taste about 15 biodynamic wines at the fair and, like Steve said, the results are indeed very good.

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