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Book Review: Biodynamic Wine, Demystified by Nicholas Joly

wv_2008-05_Bio.jpgReview by Tim Patterson.

Biodynamic grapegrowing and winemaking have gotten a great deal of press in recent years, far out of proportion to the planted acreage involved. Much like the coverage for the adventures of Britney Spears--also wildly outstripping the extent of her creative resume--biodynamics write-ups have tended toward the sensational, even the salacious, emphasizing the ritual usage of cow dung and excursions into pop astrology.

At the same time, there is no denying that the international Who's Who of biodynamic growers and winemakers turns out some mighty tasty wine--Chapoutier in the Rhone, Zind Humbrecht and Ostertag in Alsace, Domaine Leroy and LeFlaive in Burgundy, Nikolaihof in Austria, Sinskey and Araujo in California, the list goes on and on. Chances are these folks are doing something right.

So when, in the midst of this perplex, there comes a book written by a leading Franch practitioner of the biodynamic arts, Loire winemaker Nicolas Joly (somehow Americanized as Nicholas with an "h" for this edition), and it bears the tell-all title, Biodynamic Wine, Demystified, inquiring minds may want to snap it up.

Be forewarned that the book delivers nothing resembling the promise of its title. You might well want to read it, but not in hopes of figuring out, say, what science may lay behind the alleged effects of the phases of the moon on the growing cycle or the soil chemistry findings that validate the cherished cow plops. Very few of the 174 pages of Biodynamic Wine, Demystified are devoted to the examination of practical, hands-on techniques, fewer in fact than in Joly's earlier book (1999), Wine from Sky to Earth. Rather, the purpose of the volume is to advance a philosophical perspective, a central tenet of which is that if there is nothing mystical left to enrich the process of making wine, there's no point in doing it.

The chapter on The Cellar, the longest in the book, is a good example. Judging from the title, you might expect here some explanation of what difference it makes when wine movements are timed to the lunar calendar, or perhaps some tips on avoiding spoilage without the use of chemicals. Instead, we get disquisitions about Euclid and Hippocrates, ramblings about the nature of gravity, electricity and magnetism, an exegesis of the Platonic theory of Forms, a detour into the law of harmonies, and much, much more.

These arguments don't read like anything recognizably scientific (let alone relevant) until we realize that Joly--like Rudolf Steiner, the early 20th century founder of biodynamics, before him--has an entirely different view of what science is. For Steiner/Joly, ancient science was on the right track and medieval science was better yet. But when the Enlightenment hit, bringing rationalism, empiricism, and the experimental method with it, True Science got lost in the shuffle. Perhaps Joly's most dismissive epithet comes when he calls an idea "Cartesian," that is, in the manner of the 17th century French philosopher Rene Descartes--known to history for helping invent the calculus, not for his winemaking skills.

Along the way, Joly does take impassioned swipes at a number of contemporary commercial winemaking practices--the use of cultivated yeast strains that change a grape's inherent aromatic profile, injecting tiny amounts of oxygen to speed up the aging process, or condensing grape must by removing water in order to make a more concentrated wine. All these practices are, for Joly, inevitable outgrowths of adopting the mechanistic, overly materialistic worldview that passes for modern science. He issues a call to return to the winemaking practices of the 1940s and 1950s--a terrifying thought to most anyone involved in the wine industry.

As an exercise in armchair philosophy and amateur intellectual history, Joly's book is a captivating read. He's intensely committed to the positions he argues, and he constantly surprises the reader with yet another excursion into something unexpected. What other wine book (since the 12th century) offers a refresher on The Four Temperaments, Choleric, Sanguine, Phlegmatic and Melancholy?

The fundamental reason Joly is so worked up is that he's convinced that modern winemaking obliterates the power of terroir, the expression of a place in its wines and other agricultural products. He's got a point, and nearly all of the practitioners of biodynamics I've interviewed over the years say that's what got them intrigued by the system in the first place. Biodynamics takes organic farming practices and wraps them as broader conception of the farm / the vineyard as a coherent organism, where inputs and outputs of resources work in harmony. It's a stark contrast to the industrial, agro-chemical model--first sterilize the land, then pump it full of petroleum derivatives.

Signing on for the program in no way requires embracing Joly's ideas about Platonic Forms, nor does it require, according so some prominent biodynamic winemakers, staying awake during Joly's periodic lecture tours. There's the philosophy--and then there's a winery to run.

If you haven't had a Humanities 110 refresher for a while, read this book. If you want to understand the nitty-gritty of natural winemaking techniques in the vineyard and the cellar, keep browsing.

Nicholas Joly, Biodynamic Wine, Demystified, Wine Appreciation Guild, 2008, $24.95 (Paperback).

Tim Patterson writes for several wine magazines, blogs at Blind Muscat's Cellarbook, and co-edits the Vinography book review section.

Comments (7)

Morton Leslie wrote:
05.19.08 at 1:39 PM

Does Joly get into Steiner's science? How spirits appear and act as forces that operate on inorganic objects to give them life? How spirits have three components: plant, animal and human? How Steiner opened a pathway to all other spirits who have ever existed in the past or present universe? How he looked deeply inside his own spirit and found that human beings evolved from primitive beings that lived on the surfaces of the sun, Mars, Jupiter and Mercury? How Nitrogen’s role is “to mediate between life and the spiritual essence?” How Steiner included astrology in his science and the “influence” of the positions of the sun, moon and planets? (though he was particularly troubled by the zigzag motion of Saturn across the sky, showing a pre-Copernican notion of the solar system) He must have explained how Steiner's science depended quite a bit on the forces between the earth and the moon. And in doing so how he rejected Isaac Newton. Certainly if Newton’s gravity was the only force between the moon and the earth, why wouldn’t the moon fall down on us? I mean , gosh isn't it obvious?

Biodynamics, deep thoughts, by deep thinkers.

Andre wrote:
05.19.08 at 5:19 PM

Morton, you are so sarcastic....very nice....I am another one who doesn't give a s#@t to Steiner and his pseudo-science.

Rich wrote:
05.19.08 at 6:43 PM

May the force be with him.

Iris wrote:
05.20.08 at 1:37 AM

Nice review - I was surprised, to read the title of the book - if you know Joly's writings ans interviews, it sounded rather surprising and contradictory:-) - but you explain it very well.

I was always surprised to find the French fascination for those German auto didactic philosophers in the Goethe and Steiner tradition... perhaps it's a question of translation - and anti-clerical laic tradition, which has created a new attraction for mystifying vocabulary and thoughts...

For the cellar work, nothing new - that's perhaps the only news - it's the traditional way, like we do it in our place, according to good old peasants practice (if you have a healthy fruit and join a minimum of hygienic attention, wine will go its way without interference of technology and chemistry, just slightly different every year, because of the always changing climatic influences).

If you really knew about basic facts, you would be more surprised by wines tasting the same every year, than its contrary - that's were technology and chemistry (which means modern wine makers) come into it.

Greg wrote:
05.20.08 at 4:02 AM

There is an old saying; "the best fertilizer is the farmers footsteps". Biodynamics and its funny rituals gets people to spend more time in the vineyard or cellar, which is bound to give positive results. Other than that its a load of cobblers.

David Vergari wrote:
05.22.08 at 10:59 AM

Why are there no comments from the proponents of Biodynamism? The silence is puzzling.

Bee wrote:
06.12.09 at 10:11 AM

Whoa, some people woke up grumpy I see by reading some of these comments. Funny thing is I get the sense that some of these people have not even read any of these books, let alone run a vineyard or farm with these fascinating methods. The silence should not be puzzling, it's just a matter of time spent on a computer or out in the fields in nature being apart of watching these incredible methods produce wonderful wine with true character.............so I've spent enough time on this (some people go through life "closed")......I'm off to nap in the vineyard wearing my cowhorn hat.................tee hee (lighten up people !) Bee

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