Book Review: Biodynamic Wine, Demystified by Nicholas Joly

Review 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.