Overcoming the Stigma of Biodynamic Wines, Taste, and Practices: A Guest Post by Giordana Sobel

Hello readers!  I am currently on my maternity leave spending some quality time (and little sleep) with my brand new son! Enjoy this guest post from today’s featured author!


 

The following is a guest post by Giordana Sobel. Giordana is a wine professional, living and working for a biodynamic winery in southern Tuscany. Originally from New York, she has been living abroad for the past two years, fully immersed in glasses of wine.

Shrouded in mysticism, doubts, and a bad reputation, describing a wine using the “B” word typically leaves a consumer with a skeptically raised eyebrow and a lot of questions about what is involved in the process and why a company would operate this way. So, let’s start from the beginning and try to discover what is it about the “B” word, a.k.a. biodynamics, that leaves people with such a bad taste in their mouth — sometimes quite literally.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Paul Miller

Photo courtesy Flickr user Paul Miller

Seemingly overnight, biodynamic wines have become the latest fad in the wine industry. While it appears to be a new trend, it has actually been around since the early 1920s. First proposed by Austrian philosopher and scientist Rudolph Steiner, biodynamic practices were proposed in response to a group of farmers in Germany. These farmers were starting to see their fields, crops and livestock deteriorating in yield and quality after WWI, which had introduced synthetic products for treating the fields, and they wanted to help restore the natural balance of their vineyards. The biodynamic practices that were introduced are based on a philosophy that the world’s ecosystem demands paying attention to the natural order, including phases of the moon and the position of the sun as they affect microorganisms in the soil and plant receptiveness.

So. What is biodynamics?

Biodynamics is an approach to agriculture that focuses on ecological, social and economic sustainability. It uses a series of preparations to treat the soil, leaves, and compost and each preparation has a specific purpose and reason. The preparations are used during different times of the year and, depending on how strict you want to be, during different phases of the moon.

In general, biodynamic farming focuses on making a plant healthy on its own by strengthening its natural defenses and ability to accept nutrients and vitamins. It’s proactive, instead of reactive. It’s like going to the gym when you’re 25 years old and eating healthy instead of taking Lipitor at 50 for the rest of your life once you realize you can’t make it up the stairs anymore and have cholesterol levels off the chart.

With that explanation, why are people still against biodynamics? Ignoring the marketing side of it and focusing on the practice, here’s what I’ve heard so far:

  • It’s not scientifically proven or this sounds a lot like magic/voodoo.

– True, but not as much anymore. While it’s hard to quantify if it really makes a difference if plants were watered while the moon was in Venus or not, certain studies have definitely proved that biodynamics have created healthier soils. Studies have shown that biodynamically treated composts had higher temperatures, matured faster, and had higher nitrates than control compost piles inoculated with field soil instead of the preparations according to research at Washington State University by Dr. Lynn Carpenter-Boggs, Dr.

Photo courtesy Flickr user theamaria

Photo courtesy Flickr user theamaria

John Reganold and Ann C Kennedy. The same researchers found that the soil on Biodynamic farms has higher soil microorganism activity and more diverse soil life. Biodynamic soils have been tested against non-organic soils and they showed greater disease suppression, a decrease in compaction and added organic material. Even growers have said their vines are less stressed, respond to disease better, can uptake minerals more efficiently. PLUS, I like to argue that that no one has proven that biodynamics doesn’t work. Bam!

  • You kill animals to get the parts that are required for the preparations. (List of preparations and explanations. I won’t bore you with that here).

– Yes, animal parts are used for the preparations, but if you think about it, does it really even sound biodynamic/organic/sustainable/good practice to be killing animals for their parts…?? Doesn’t it seem much more likely that these animals were killed for their meat (hello, you probably eat hamburgers!) and then the spare parts were given to biodynamic farmers? Just a thought here.

  • Biodynamic wines taste like crap…literally.

– Can’t quite argue this one actually. As soon as you hear that a wine is natural/organic/biodynamic, it typically gives an impression of a wine that has aromas of cow manure with notes of sunburnt hay and flavors that come right from the stables themselves. Not exactly a pleasant picture. I will say, however, that this impression is outdated. As biodynamics has become more popular, the technology has improved along with it. Finding ways to apply biodynamics on a large scale and being able to make wines that have fruit, floral and the “good” earthy notes and more importantly, is healthier for you, is becoming less and less rare. I encourage you to keep trying and asking sommeliers for recommendations. They are out there!

 

7 comments for “Overcoming the Stigma of Biodynamic Wines, Taste, and Practices: A Guest Post by Giordana Sobel

  1. Dingo
    March 4, 2016 at 12:31 am

    Calling Rudolph a scientist is a bit of a stretch. Still sounds like voodoo.

  2. March 4, 2016 at 9:48 am

    Part of the “stigma” with biodynamics isn’t the methods. It’s that the certifying organizations allow viticulture/winemaking to evade the rules.

    In the U.S. and Europe, for example, Demeter allows wineries to engage in monoculture, but doesn’t allow it for other biodynamic agriculture. They also allow vineyards/wineries not to keep livestock, also required for others seeking biodynamic certification. In an e-mail exchange with someone at Demeter USA, she admitted that this was strictly monetary — wine is a high-profile product and getting more wine certified biodynamic was good for the brand.

    Demeter USA has a lock on using the word “biodynamic” on the label sold in the U.S. This means that importers of wines certified biodynamic in other countries (also likely by Demeter) have to pass further scrutiny and pay for Demeter USA to determine that their Demeter counterparts elsewhere did their jobs correctly. They also require a cut of U.S. sales from foreign-produced wines labeled biodynamic.

    • March 29, 2016 at 4:14 pm

      I’m not sure who you talked to Tom, but as managing director of Demeter USA, and someone who has spent more than twenty years in the wine business, I would like to comment on some mis-information you are putting out there. First of all, unlike annual crop production, vines are immovable, and vineyard land is especially valuable, so you don’t have crop rotation in vineyard production for obvious reasons. That being said- many of our Biodynamic vineyards are raising other crops, including grains (Preston Vineyard), fruits and vegetables for local restaurants (Quivira), olives for olive oil (DaVero), etc. You are correct that wineries can obtain an exemption for keeping animals- from an animal welfare standpoint we don’t want folks who don’t have the experience/ facilities to properly care for them be required to do so. But again- there are a lot of animals beginning to be raised in Biodynamic vineyards: highland cattle, sheep, chickens, goats, ducks, and more. Monoculture is turning to polyculture exactly because of the adoption of Biodynamic practices in the wine business. Your statement above that someone at Demeter USA told you that we only allow vineyards not to keep livestock so we can get their money is as untrue as it is insulting.

      In terms of Demeter having a “lock” on the certification mark BIODYNAMIC- it is absolutely true that in order for a wine, or a vineyard, to be referenced as Biodynamic in the marketplace it must be certified by Demeter. We do this to insure the integrity of the term- which is based on a comprehensive agronomic standard democratically administered to by over 22 countries around the world- otherwise it would have the same meaning as “sustainable”, “green”, etc. We charge one-half of a penny on each dollar of sales. That’s $.005.

      So for anyone who is reading this- should you be interested in learning the truth about Biodynamic certification, I’d recommend reading the farm standard that defines it. It is a beautiful agronomic standard that is unparalleled in its focus on soil health and product quality. Please visit: http://www.demeter-usa.org/for-farmers/farm-processing-standards.asp

  3. March 5, 2016 at 2:55 pm

    Quite compelling and informative. There are delicious wines from biodynamic wineries readily available today. We should support these efforts.

  4. WineKnurd
    March 6, 2016 at 3:30 pm

    While I am not in any camp regarding biodynamic vineyard practices, there really shouldn’t be a line drawn as either biodaynamic or not. Biodynamic is only one of many practices that will achieve a more robust vineyard ecology as opposed to no / chemical treatments, though a certification as biodynamic is only one of a handful of practices that require the vineyard to pay in order to be “certified”. It is a marketing tool that many of the wineries in the world do not need. There are many studies posted on here and in other literature that compares factors such as vine root depth, microbial activity, diversity of ecology, etc., between many types of vineyard practices, with many of them showing greater levels of “ecological health” than a biodynamic practice (even some chemical treatments). None of these generally make it to a label or a shelf talker though. My point is that biodynamic isn’t better than or worse than other practices, it is just one of many ways of vineyard management. Believe it or not, bad wines can be made from any vineyard, and the converse is true.

  5. Wine sicentist
    March 9, 2016 at 9:05 pm

    biodynamics is the homeopathy of winemaking, both are based on a philosophy that completely lacks scientific evidence. When you look carefully at what is involved on biodynamic preparations you realised the nonsense of this approach. It probably made sense on the early 1920s but we have progressed a lot since then.

  6. HHGeek
    March 26, 2016 at 10:16 am

    “Biodynamics is an approach to agriculture that focuses on ecological, social and economic sustainability. ”

    – pretty sure that’s the definition of IPM, isn’t it? I’ve yet to see any literature that suggests BD is anything other than more expensive per kilo of yield than other farming methods, not less.

    “PLUS, I like to argue that that no one has proven that biodynamics doesn’t work. Bam!”

    – damnably hard to run a scientific trial that incorporates other phases of the moon. So any trial will be, by necessity, limited in scope.

    NB I have no problem agreeing that BD practitioners can have good results, but that’s because I believe that anyone who puts in the effort for BD viticulture is liable to be someone with intense attention to detail who’s prepared to put in the hours. I.e., the character of a good farmer.

    Out of interest, where else has the author worked in vineyards / studied viticulture, and for how long?

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