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11.19.2008

The Skeptic's Guide to Biodynamic Wine

The average wine consumer has no idea what it means for a wine to be organic. And when it comes to Biodynamic wines, most wine drinkers have never even heard of them. But that doesn't matter, because an increasing number of the most sought-after, expensive wines in the world are biodynamically produced, which means that biodynamics is one of the most significant modern trends in global winemaking.

The only problem (for those who care) is that biodynamic winemaking involves a maddening, paradoxical mixture of scientifically sound farming practices and utterly ridiculous new-age mysticism. If you want to know just how kooky it can get, you might be interested in a recent feature on biodynamic wine in SF Weekly, which dives into detail on the cow skulls stuffed with oak bark left in a hole; the red deer bladders filled with yarrow flowers buried in compost piles; the proscriptions to burn insects in the vineyards only during certain proper planetary alignment; and the claims that the moon should determine when you put your wine into new barrels.

Of course, if you actually believe in biodynamics, you now hate my guts along with Joe Eskenazi, the author of the aforementioned article which is entitled Voodoo on the Vine.

Joe's angle on biodynamic winemaking will draw criticism for focusing only on the strangest parts of an elaborate farming and winemaking methodology. His (and my) detractors would be justified in complaining at the sensationalism of a few practices, and a few predilections of the methods inventor, while many, even most biodynamic winemaking principles are the same as good old organic farming.

But that is precisely the problem. Most biodynamic farming principles make sense because they are the same as scientifically grounded organic farming (e.g. don't use pesticides; let the sheep take care of the weeds and fertilize the soil; etc.). But then the whole system is undermined by the use of, and rationalization for, special preparations and actions that are not only bizarre in their conception, but explained by the worst kind of pseudo-scientific quasi-religious gobbledygook that you could possible imagine.

You can't imagine how angry this makes me. You see, I love biodynamic wine. Some of my favorite wines in the world; some of the best wines I have ever tasted in my life; some of the wineries that seem to consistently make some of the highest quality wines I have ever experienced are produced biodynamically, and I don't believe this is a coincidence.

This is what Joe Eskenazi did not include in his article, perhaps because he's not fully immersed in the world of wine. While he rightfully points out, with the appropriate level of cynicism, the fact that some wine producers are moving to make biodynamic wine because they think it will sell better, there are many more producers who have been making wine biodynamically for years, even decades without ever telling anyone about it, least of all the people who buy their wine. These winemakers are some of the smartest, most talented folks in the wine industry. The only reason they would possibly be producing wine biodynamically (which Eskenazi's article points out is much more labor, time, and cost intensive than any other farming method) must be that they believe they make better wine that way.

There are two types of people in the world. Those who believe that while science is not perfect, it is the most powerful interpretation that we have found of the world around us, and those who believe that there are better explanations for what we observe in the natural world than science can provide. I am very much a member of the first group. There's a lot we don't know about the world yet, and there are a lot of really interesting interpretations about how things work, but the scientific method produces the most reliable interpretations of what is real and what is true that I know of. I (and pretty much everyone in a first world nation, whether they know it or not) trust my life to that fact nearly every moment of every single day.

And that belief I hold is precisely the source of my unending frustration with biodynamic wine. I think it's good stuff. But I know it's not good for the reasons that the people who make it, and the people who tell them how to make it, say it is. The claims of the philosophy that underlies biodynamic wine growing, and the specific explanations for various prescriptions of the farming and winemaking process are just plain wrong. They can be proved wrong, in some cases simply with a calculator, but in all cases by rigorous scientific enquiry.

Which is why I keep hoping that someone will come up with Biodynamics Lite™: a kinder, gentler form of biodynamic winemaking that throws out all the bullshit, and sticks to the things that science tells us will actually work.

I plan on continuing to drink more and more biodynamic wine, and encourage everyone who loves wine to do so as well. I just hope there is a day when I don't have to roll my eyes a little every time I see the word on a wine label, or bite my fist as a winemaker proudly tells me that the reason I love his wine is due to the fact that he completely avoided the dueling vortices when he mixed his preparation of ground up quartz crystals.

Read the full article in SF Weekly.

My friend Jack at Fork & Bottle has the most complete list of biodynamic wine producers that I know of.

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.