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08.17.2009

When Biodynamic and Organic Winegrowing Might Not Work

I recently moderated a panel of Biodynamic winemakers for the SF Chefs. Food. Wine event that took place here in San Francisco. We tasted through their wines, and then got down and dirty on Biodynamics with the audience.

At one point someone in the audience asked whether anyone anywhere in the world could produce Biodynamic wine, or whether only some people could. This was a very good question, and one I've often thought about myself more than once.

Biodynamics, for those less familiar with the practice, forbids the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and forbids or extremely limits the use of all other commercial treatments including copper sulfate, for dealing with the various ailments of grape vines. The philosophy of such farming suggests that the first goal would be to tend the ecosystem of the vineyard in such a way that the problems never occur in the first place, and the second, to deal with the problems using completely natural means.

That's all fine and dandy when you're growing grapes in the near idyllic conditions of, say, the Alexander Valley in Sonoma County, but quite another when you're battling mildew in the vineyards of Champagne. Champagne maven Peter Liem takes up this point in a recent article on a newly launched web site about food and wine called Zester Daily.

Peter points out that there's a big difference between the growing conditions of Sonoma County and Champagne. Champagne is France's Northernmost wine growing region, and its climate reflects that latitude in its capriciousness and in its moisture. Which brings us to perhaps the number one reason that there are so few Biodynamically produced Champagnes. In a word: mildew.

Because Biodynamic viticulture dramatically limits or forbits the use of most products that might control downy mildew, growers who do stick to these methods run a huge risk of catastrophic crop loss. Which is why many are choosing to forgo the certification process for either Biodynamic or organic viticulture, and instead, reserving the right to save their crops when bad things happen.

Peter does a great job of teasing out the conflicting priorities of many admirable growers who are dedicated to sustainable wine growing, but pragmatic enough not to want to ruin themselves financially in the process.

In the end, his article is a great illustration of a great Yogi Berra quote: "In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is. "

Read the full article.

Comments (22)

andy wrote:
08.17.09 at 11:17 PM

i remember at OPC 2005 hearing a story about a vineyard that did not get certified because a neighbor's chemical sprays had crossed over onto his property. (i believe they were talking just organic in this case).
I also hear several wineries say they practice organic or biodynamic but feel the paperwork & certification process are time-consuming and costly. Is this a cop-out? Did this issue get discussed?
Going to read the Champagne article now.
Great topic

Greg wrote:
08.18.09 at 12:00 AM

I think in most cases it is better for the vineyard manager to make decisions based on the circumstances, rather than some pre-determined philosophy. The consequences of using too many sprays can be as bad as using too few, but responsible use is very effective.

Grant wrote:
08.18.09 at 5:00 AM

The person in the audience hit upon a good point...what do you do in high disease pressure environments if you want to go down the natural route? By the way, has there ever been a blind tasting where experienced tasters have been asked to pick the difference between organic/biodynamic wines and those produced from vineyards that are sprayed?

Alder wrote:
08.18.09 at 10:38 AM

Andy,

Drifting pesticides were mentioned by my panel as a definite issue. We didn't specifically discuss the certification process, so I can't help you there.

Peter Liem wrote:
08.18.09 at 10:45 AM

Thanks, Alder. The last few summers here in Champagne have been particularly challenging, and although I was a little pessimistic about the state of the vineyards this year when I wrote that article, the recent sunshine has been positive. Let's hope it continues.

What impresses me about Champenois viticulture is how committed the best viticulturists are to quality even in the most adverse conditions. There will always be lazy and mediocre grape growers everywhere, but when it comes to the champagnes that we really want to drink, the viticulture is only getting better. Champagne often gets a lot of flak for its vinegrowing, but I am quite optimistic about its future.

Alder wrote:
08.18.09 at 11:05 AM

Grant,

Thanks for the comments. Regarding your blind tasting, plenty of blind tastings have been done that include Biodynamically produced wines and conventionally produced wines. But the point of specifically engineering such a tasting is somewhat lost on me. Biodynamically produced wines can suck just as easily as conventionally produced wines.

The blind tasting that I would really like to see is 2 wines over a series of vintages made from two halves of a vineyard --- one farmed Biodnamically, one farmed Organically, where the only difference in the wines was the farming.

lagramiere wrote:
08.18.09 at 11:17 AM

Hi Alder, copper sulfate use is allowed in Demeter certification, if not, no Burgundy, Champagne, or any other region for that matter would be able to produce bio-dynamic grapes. You are allowed to use 3kg per hectare per year averaged over 5 years (in case you have a really bad year and might need to treat more, and then subsequently less in other years.) The maximum dose per spray is 500g/hectare. You can take a look at the standards at: www.demeter.net On the side bar under standards click on production. Page 36 at the bottom, item 5 states this information.

Across Europe, but mainly in Germany and Austria, they are doing trials trying to find a way to eliminate the need for copper, interesting trials have been done using clay, but it tends to burn the grapes, hopefully they will eventually find a solution. Obviously it is much, much easier to grow grapes organically and/or bio-dynamically than it is in Champagne or Burgundy, the use of copper is limited but not prohibited.

I'd love to stop using copper all together (bio-dynamic or not), but it's just not possible right now.

08.18.09 at 12:36 PM

(the following is pasted from the facebook comments)

{Everyone wants to put the emphasis on Biodynamics and not on the farmer. We make the assumption that any grower using Biodynamic processes is a great grower and that those that don't are somehow less than capable. If biodynamics does anything, as your post points out, is create a higher degree of risk. If growers are to succeed in this risky situation they MUST PAY ATTENTION. Paying attention IS NOT the sole domain of biodynamic farmers, the rest of us can do so too and don't need to subscribe to a dogma or formula to do so.}

I would also like to address the use of copper and sulphur. Yes it is true both of these products are "organic" and allowable under Demeter certification. 3kg/ha/year is a relatively large amount of copper. Large amounts of copper is toxic to soil microbes and since it isn't very mobile it stays in the soil. The use of these amount of copper, given sufficient time, will result in a dead soil. The same applies to excessive sulphur use as well. So if we are to talk about organics and biodynamics as being 'sustainable' or 'eco friendly' we MUST at some point address this. Is it really safer to use an organic product, though safe in small doses, in large doses than it is to use synthetic fungicides responsibly? Also consider that an organic/biodynamic producer is on the tractor every 7 to 10 days spraying and that grower using conventional fungicides can stay off the tractor for 21 days. Over the course of a season this difference become very significant and when one considers the use of fossil fuels it further deteriorates the arguement that biodynamics/orgainic production is inherently more sustainable.

What about mandates for biodiversity and its relationship to the occurance to vineyard pests? Biodynamics, for reasons of dogma, encourges clean cultivation. This reduces significanly the biodiversity in a vineyard, arguable increasing the incidence of disease there by increasing the need for more pesticides, organic or otherwise.

Statements about organic/biodynamic viticulture being sustainable should be questioned every bit as much as statements claiming they make better wines.

Good farming is good farming, there is not one single organization in the world that certifies that. Organizations like LIVE Inc. in Oregon are at least trying to encourage practices common to good, 'sustainable' viticulture.

08.18.09 at 12:37 PM

From a different POV, selling organic or bio wines can be a risky business for a merchant and winemakers need to be aware of this.
I was talking to Ms. Frei of the Frei family about her marketing of wines without any sulfites or filtration. She admitted to a higher failure rate on the store shelves and they expect to replace in the neighborhood of 3-5% of production annually to retailers.

Remy Charest wrote:
08.18.09 at 3:18 PM

Yes, it's tougher to practice biodynamics in wetter climates. I've had discussions about that with producers in Long Island (Shinn, Channing Daughters, in particular), and they have been understandably reluctant to let go of the fallback position of using the occasional synthetic spray when in danger of losing a whole crop. With time, at Shinn Vineyards, the number of "conventional" sprayings have been going down significantly, though, as vine and soil health improves, and mastery of biodynamic techniques improves as well. Last year, if I remember correctly, there were none.

It's perfectly possible to work biodynamically in wet, difficult conditions. There's a question of knowledge and commitment, there, more than an absolute impossibility, which your post seems to imply, somewhat. The Loire Valley is a hotbed of biodynamics and natural wines, and it can't be said that the region lacks moisture.

In Eastern Canada, where the last two summers have been dreadful, - more than 20 days of rain per month in May and June, last year, in Quebec, for example - some of the best growers have become Demeter certified and are committed fully to biodynamics. Les Pervenches, in Quebec, is purely biodynamic, and so is Southbrook, in Ontario, while Tawse is undergoing certification on its Estate wines. And from what I saw, their vines were holding up just as well as those from "conventional" producers. And more and more producers are moving that way, seeing that the approach does bring positive results.

Biodynamic producers have plenty of resources to deal with mildew and disease. Sulfur, copper, and horsetail, which does wonders against mildew and other fungi-related troubles - . In my yard, I've used horsetail tea to ressuscitate a crabapple tree that, due to apple scab, had practically no leaves by mid-July, and now keeps a full, healthy foliage until the fall. The horsetail worked better than the synthetic sprays that had been sprayed before I went biodynamic on my tree.

Peter Liem's article is indeed excellent, and it describes very well the risks that an organic or biodynamic winegrower faces, when a bad vintage comes along.

Two things should be pointed out, though. One, biodynamics has a learning curve, like any other technique: as you get better at identifying what works (and when) in your vineyard, you get better results. Two, so many of the Champagne vineyards were highly mistreated in the last fifty, sixty years. Restoring soil health and balance - thereby making your vines stronger, healthier and better prepared to resist disease - takes time. As theses factors fall into place, it becomes easier (or not quite as tough) to successfully manage a vineyard biodynamically.

Jerry - I agree on your comment about copper, which must be handled with care. Less sure about the overall impact of synthetics vs another run on the tractor. And very skeptical about your comment about biodynamics reducing biodiversity: I've seen many biodynamic vineyards that, on the contrary, leave a very varied cover and foster biodiversity, which in turns tends to reduce the incidence of pests by natural checks and balances. You'd have to show me evidence of that "clean cultivation" in the biodynamic "dogma" to convince me.

Brigitte Armenier wrote:
08.18.09 at 4:14 PM

“Someone in the audience asked whether anyone anywhere in the world could produce Biodynamic wine, or whether only some people could. This was a very good question”… which could be answered with much simplicity: yes, of course! Aren’t there already biodynamic vineyards everywhere in the world where vineyards are planted?
Now, the fact that “there are so few Biodynamically produced Champagnes” comes as another question. And mildew as “perhaps the number one reason” is correct: a reason, but nothing more than a “PERHAPS number one reason.” An answer, among other possible answers, while practice shows that biodynamic vineyards fare better with fungal diseases than conventional/sustainable vineyards.

Saint Vini wrote:
08.18.09 at 8:58 PM

Brigitte - "practice" shows this?
Hmmmm...the researchers don't seem to come to that same conclusion, as they have shown no differences in soil microbes of any significance.

And Steiner's prescription for mildews was an affront to any person serious about health and sustainability, to wit:
"When he came to the roses, which were not flowering well, and did not look at all healthy (mildew), Dr Steiner advised that very finely divided LEAD be given to the soil." [Agriculture, pg.165, conversation that took place was on or near Whitsun (9 June) 1924...]

Now...can somebody explain to me why a sustainable movement is following some guy who advocated applying LEAD to the SOIL to combat MILDEW?

It's high time people start to look deeper into the dogma behind the movement.
Good night, and good luck...

08.19.09 at 10:12 AM

Remy,

I think there is a clear differnce, in terms of carbon footprint due to fuel usage, between conventional growers and growers using organic fungicides. I am not implying that one is somehow better than the other, I am saying though that Organics/Biodynamics are not inherently more 'sustainable'.

Nor do I imply that a Biodynamic is necassarily devoid of biodiversity. A truely biodynamic farm, growing a multitude of crops with livestock, is a fantastically diverse farm. How many vineyards in the world, and europe specifically will grow multiple crops on it land? Viticulture is almost exclusively a monocultural system and with that poses great risks biologically. Biodynamic and organic viticulturalists are certainly capable and able to have biodiverse sites. I have heard many producers here in Oregon complain about outside consultants pressuring them to clean cultivate, "so that the earth can breath". This suggests to me that part of the assumptions of biodynamics, that the "earth must breath" ( in my opinion dogma ), is at odds with biodiversity. If growers are to follow the advice of thier consultants ( the learning curve and consultants serve as another form of dogma for me ) AND maintain diverse properties they must take additional steps to do so. Again I think biodynamics encourges good farming, but is not itself a guarantee of quality farming nor an exclusive model of good farming. I would speculate that good biodynamic farmers were good farmers BEFORE they went biodynamic.

Dylan wrote:
08.19.09 at 12:39 PM

That's an interesting point you raised, Alder. The only problem is convincing a vineyard to section off their land to try such an experiment between organic and biodynamic. I never gave much thought on climate impact to vineyard methodology, but this makes a lot of sense. If one's vines are too susceptible to issues like mildew you are left with two options to consider: don't farm biodynamic or don't farm.

Chris Robinson wrote:
08.24.09 at 3:05 AM

Congratulations St Vini. What a load of cods wallop all this stuff is. Where does one draw the line between copper sulphate (extracted and processed by an unfashionable and environemntally questionable factory) and a synthesized product like Roundup, the saviour of many a crop producer. Anyone who thinks you can practice total and true bio-dynamics in wine growing is either a liar or living a dream. Any viticulturalist faced with mildew problems will eventually, in one season or another, fall back on some kind of synthetic fungicide. To assume this fungicidal treatment practice is a product of some kind of inferior farming and not the reality of cropping conditions in the localized area is laughable. What we are learning is what the French now admit to "lutte organic" as in Peter's excellent article, which simply means be organic, but be sensible and fit what best is needed when it is needed. We are also learning there is little to show that is better or different in wines that claim to be organic or biodynamic. Is this just a fad? My view is "lutte organic" is the way it will be - and in fact has always been the way with good sustainable farming practices.

Hank wrote:
08.24.09 at 8:08 PM

Chris,

RoundUp a saviour? Sure, go ahead and use it - it will kill your soil microbes, the true source of your fertility. Then you can spend money buying fertilizer just to keep your plants alive. Then, because there's always way too much nitrogen in packaged fertilizers, you'll have all kinds of mildew issues. So you can spend more money buying a synthetic, systemic fungicide, which will get into your plants, the soil and also the wine. Sounds delicious. Not to mention the fact that many weeds are becoming resistant to RoundUp...but don't worry, there's always a stronger chemical to use, and its just a few dollars more per gallon...

I don't practice biodynamics - I too have issues with some of its dogma, but I use zero chemicals in my grape growing and I have very few issues. I must be living a dream! I can promise you, I will never fall back on "some kind of synthetic fungicide". I don't need to.

You cannot be organic and use synthetic chemicals. The two do not mix. Lutte organic is bullshit.

Many of the best wines of the world are de facto organic -the estate may not be certified, or they just don't want to make too much ado about it, but organic they are. And, while its true that there are many bad organic wines, I would wager a guess that there are 100-fold more bad "chemically" farmed wines in existence. At least these organic growers are trying. These "lutte organic" folks are just deluding themselves.

08.24.09 at 10:57 PM

Many of the posts above demonstrate the misunderstanding of what an "organic wine" or "biodynamic wine" means as opposed to "wine made from organic grapes" or "wine made from biodynamic grapes".

Brigitte Armenier wrote:
08.25.09 at 4:17 PM

Hello Hank,
“I don’t practice Biodynamics – I too have issues with some of its dogma.”
Do you mind if I consider your statement as very interesting, for quite representative of a form of present-day consciousness.
On one hand, one finds here an expression of our modern aspiration –and inalienable right—for choosing our individual path out of our very own values.
On the other hand, practice is not practiced. Its field of knowledge and understanding is replaced, “beforehand,” by the supervision of the intellect. Unfortunately, this illusion of “super vision” cannot, by essence, bring the direct experience of the percepts. We are thus left within the limited frame of our own concepts. And what the intellect identifies as foreign to the concepts will be but felt as “dogma”—or similar—. Actually, in so doing, what we are looking at is but a mirror-image of our own imprisonment.
Personally, I do not know any better for going through this imprisonment and conquering the freedom of our time than will put into practice. Isn’t it how we allow the outer right to become inner duty?

sangio wrote:
09.11.09 at 11:06 AM

If biodynamics really worked they would be able to do away with copper and sulfur, but they don't, so most of their potions are really just a way to try and re-create a relationship with their unconscious mind.Bluntly put, that's the way I see it.Organic farming, if intelligently used, on the other hand, even if is a compromise of some sort,( but agriculture IS always a compromise with nature), really should suffice.

Joey B wrote:
11.06.09 at 11:34 AM

In response to the last comment (Sangio)-
"If biodynamics really worked...do away with copper and sulfur, but they don't..." That is a statement more fantastical than most biodynamic practitioners would make about their own practices. I prefer not to get into a religion discussion here, which in fact it could be argued that there is less proof on either side of that debate than this biodynamic one, but just to make a point-
That reminds me of the anti-God statments like "If there really was a God, then there would be no suffering, war, poverty, etc..." So using this logic, I could say after seeing a horrible haircut on someone that barbers don't exist because if barbers really existed, everyone would have their hair cut cleanly. That is ridiculous! What all of these ideas fail to recognise is the overwhelming power of human choice.

Biodynamic farmers/practitioners take a truly holistic approach to the cultivation of the land and the crops they grow. There are plenty of organic farmers who would share many of these concepts, for the modern organic movement as established by Rodale had as one of its key contributors in the early days E. Pfeiffer. Pfeiffer was a biochemist, soil scientist, student of Steiner and Anthroposophy, and he was a pioneer in the spread of Rodales publications and biodynamics in the USA. Therefore, there are many commonalities between the former organic movement and biodynamics. The division between the two has grown most recently since the bastardization of the term organic when the USDA took it over and diluted the method to the extent where today's organics is in many cases an easy way for big factory farms to increase their profits.
Furthermore, if as you say "organic farming, if intelligently used...really should suffice" were true, biodynamics quite feasibly would never even have been presented to us. In case you are unfamiliar with the birth of biodynamics in the early 1920's, it was given only after many months of pleading from farmers and veterinarians of the time for Dr. Steiner to help with the then current state of agriculture. Those farmers even back in those days were noticing a severe decrease in the vitality of their crops and animals. Specifically in the nutritional content of the food stuffs, and the regenerative capabilities of the animals and plants that they were growing. It should go without saying that in Europe of the early 1920's most farmers were what we would call organic today. I seriously doubt that these farmers were using the many synthetic fertilizers and pesticides as we do today. It is precisely because organic farming will not suffice that we have been given the opportunity to choose to practice biodynamic agriculture.

And since I am on a roll here, something for Alder-
I do enjoy your posts, and your continued interest in biodynamics as a topic for discussion, so I wish to thank you for this. As to the point of dividing a vineyard to test the wines over vintages, it really misses the point of biodynamics as a holistic system. Biodynamics when done in truth is an all encompassing practice that one will use on the whole farm. It is not disjointed as organics can be, and so would be quite difficult to split in the way you propose. Demeter certifies farms and facilities not rows or blocks of crops. To do that would be similar to a mother having two children both suffering from some sickness and only choosing to treat one of them with a remedy she knows to work. You can be sure there would be legal implications for such neglect if such an act were made public. Why not take two neighboring vineyards one bd and one organic with similar winemaking styles and compare the wines in this way? Here in Napa that would probably not be too difficult to do since so many of these wines are produced similarly.
If biodynamics didn't work- if the wines didn't consistently rate better in blind tastings (Alder you even have said you prefer many bd wines over non), and the soils didn't retain the chemistry and biology for long term fertility, and if on our own vineyards we didn't see a dramatic increase in the health of some of our older diseased vines that have recoverred since our transition to biodynamics, then I would say there would be reason to discredit this practice. However, this is not the case. As they say- 'the proof is in the pudding', and there is too much proof to the efficacy of biodynamics in terms of quality of product and soil health to deny this method. And for those who say there is no proof, you either haven't practiced the method or have not done a thorough investigation into the subject.
It is an all too human reaction to judge and deny that which we don't understand.

remy hair wrote:
09.30.10 at 4:39 AM

If biodynamics didn't work- if the wines didn't consistently rate better in blind tastings (Alder you even have said you prefer many bd wines over non), and the soils didn't retain the chemistry and biology for long term fertility, and if on our own vineyards we didn't see a dramatic increase in the health of some of our older diseased vines that have recoverred since our transition to biodynamics, then I would say there would be reason to discredit this practice. However, this is not the case. As they say- 'the proof is in the pudding', and there is too much proof to the efficacy of biodynamics in terms of quality of product and soil health to deny this method. And for those who say there is no proof, you either haven't practiced the method or have not done a thorough investigation into the subject.
It is an all too human reaction to judge and deny that which we don't understand.

Alder Yarrow wrote:
09.30.10 at 4:14 PM

Thanks for the comments, Remy. Though proof doesn't just mean trying it. The scientific method has a higher standard than that, which maddeningly many BioD proponents seem to brush aside.

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