HORSE SHOES AND HAND GRENADES

November 30, 2010

Here’s an update on my effort to get UCCE to withdraw its sponsorship of the Shortcourse on Biodynamics.  The cast of characters includes:

  • Dr. Monica Cooper, Farm Advisor for Napa County
  • Glen McGourty, Farm Advisor for Mendocino County
  • Pam Kan-Rice, Assistant Director, News & Information Outreach, University of California Agricultural and Natural Resources and gatekeeper to Dan Dooley, V-P of ANR and thus head of the UC Cooperative Extension. 

 V-P Dooley never responded or even acknowledged receipt of my emails.  I’m not sure he saw my email because it was redirected to Pam Kan-Rice.   As his gatekeeper, Ms. Kan-Rice was very nice and responsive to my inquiries, and while it took some time for her to get it, she gave the impression that she finally understood the issues and cared.  Of course, that’s her job.  She is also the only one that I actually spoke with.

 In a Nov.17 email I asked Ms. Kan-Rice if UCCE had ethical guidelines governing sponsorship of events.  Yesterday, Nov. 29 I received the following email:

  “Dear Mr. Smith,

I am writing in response to your query about UC policy on sponsorship. UC policy prohibits us from endorsing or sponsoring commercial products and services. The intent of UC Cooperative Extension cohosting the meeting on Dec. 2 is to encourage the exchange of science-based information and ideas, not to endorse a farming system.

We recognize that there can be a fine line between collaboration and the appearance of sponsorship. After having some administrators look at the meeting flyer, we can see how one might misconstrue the intent of UC Cooperative Extension’s participation in the biodynamic farming meeting.

While we will honor the commitments we have made, we intend to make UC Cooperative Extension’s role clearer in the future. Because we collaborate with non-UC groups and organizations on several events and activities, UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources  is working on developing a set of guidelines to clarify the issue for its employees.

Thank you for bringing this issue to our attention. We appreciate your support of UC as a UC Davis alumnus and UC Cooperative Extension stakeholder.”

Sincerely,

Pam Kan-Rice

Getting close is only important in horse shoes and hand grenades.  It seems like I got close, that UCCE at least has a document that prohibits sponsoring commercial products and events similar to this shortcourse.  It also sounds like they needed to dust off that document and actually read it to understand what it said.  And, of course, there was the sop that they are working to update the document…. 

 It’s clear to me that this is the end of it with UCCE and that there was nothing to gain by continuing to argue the merits of the case.  The wagons are circled and the organism needs to be protected  at all cost.  Continuing with the clichés, call it a Hail Mary pass if you will, I did try one last time with the following email.

 Over the next 36 hours I will update you on both Glenn McGourty and Monica Cooper’s correspondence.   BTW, I will be attending.

My response to Ms. Kan-Rice the same day:

Pam,

I’m pleased that the University has an ethics policy that prohibits sponsorship of commercial products.   Your characterization that I and others might have “misconstrued” that this Shortcourse in Biodynamic Farming is anything other than a blatant sales and marketing event for Demeter USA, a private company, is disingenuous. 

It’s clear that the University refuses to acknowledge its mistake and to take responsibility for its actions.  It’s not too late to assert the moral leadership the University of California promotes in educating our youth and cancel your sponsorship of this event. 

Stu Smith


A Tempest in a Wine Glass

November 28, 2010

On Friday, November 26, 2010 The Napa Valley Register ran A Tempest in a Wine Glass, an article by Paul Franson on my dust-up with the University of California Cooperative Extension over their sponsorship of the December 2nd Biodynamic workshop.   It is an excellent and balanced article.   I’d reprint the article but it seems that may be an infringement of their copyright.

Stuart Smith


WHAT DO FAIRIES AND BIODYNAMICS HAVE IN COMMON?

November 21, 2010

 

In the November 7 New York Times was the obituary of Geoffrey Crawley, the Englishman who proved the Cottingley Fairies were a hoax.   The Cottingley Fairies have a great deal in common with Biodynamics.

 In the summer of 1917, two young girls in England, cousins Frances age 10, and Elsie age 16, liked playing by a stream near their home which annoyed Elsie’s mother because they came home dirty.  The girls said they played by the stream because of fairies, and to prove it,  they borrowed a camera and made five photographs of cardboard cutouts of fairies.  While Elsie’s father thought the photos were fakes, the mother did not, and in 1919 the mother went to a Theosophical society meeting on “Fairy life” and showed the photos.  Edward Gardner, a prominent member of the Theosophical Society, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (yes, the creator of Sherlock Holmes) became convinced that the photos were real.  The controversy continued into the 1970s until Geoffrey Crawley both proved that the photos were fakes and got the cousins to admit it was all a lark that got out of control. 

Here’s the connection and the parallels with Biodynamics.  Rudolf Steiner was the leader of The Theosophical Society from 1902 until 1912.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the rock star of his era for his creation of the Sherlock Homes stories; he wrote an article defending the fairies as real.  On one of his many visits with the girls Edward Gardner brought Geoffrey Hodson, a clairvoyant who saw many, many fairies.  Both Gardner and Conan Doyle went on to write books supporting their belief in the Cottingley fairies and two Hollywood movies were made about them.

 So there is the parallel to Biodynamics: Rudolf Steiner and Theosophy, the support by world famous people, field confirmations by eye witnesses and the “scientific proof” of the photographs, what more could you want?  

 Yet it was all a hoax, just like biodynamic farming is a hoax.  Unfortunately, Rudolf Steiner didn’t fess up before he died. 

Stuart Smith

 


WHY IS UCCE PROMOTING BIODYNAMIC FARMING?

November 16, 2010

On December 2nd there will be a “Shortcourse on Biodynamic Farming” at the Rutherford Grange Hall, Rutherford, Napa Valley.  What has made me spitting-mad is that the event is being sponsored by both Demeter USA and the Napa CountyUniversity of California, Cooperative Extension (UCCE). 

Two speakers are employees of Demeter USA—the Executive Director and the Marketing Director—three Biodynamic consultants, 11 wineries that farm Biodynamically, one organic farmer along with two UC Cooperative Extension Folks—Dr. Monica Cooper, Director and Farm Advisor for Napa County and Glenn McGourty, Farm Advisor for Mendocino County.  With seventeen out of 20 speakers directly involved with Biodynamics, this is clearly a marketing, promotional and sales event by Demeter USA, with no pretense of a balanced program.  No one is supporting conventional or sustainable agriculture and no one is presenting an alternative viewpoint to Biodynamics.  This is not a balanced presentation and UCCE should not be a sponsor.

 It would be ethical for UCCE to sponsor an event that discussed the various farming paradigms, a compare and contrast if you will, that would include advocates for all the various methods of farming.   I see no issue with UCCE agents, scientists or Farm Advisors attending any Biodynamic sponsored event. However, being a speaker or panel member at this event is essentially an endorsement of Biodynamics—-remembering that the entire program is devoted to Biodynamics. 

On November 7, I sent an email (see below) to Dr. Monica Cooper and Glenn McGourty. I copied Dr. Andy Waterhouse, of the Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis, and forwarded a copy to Dan Dooley, Vice-President of UC Agriculture and Natural Resource, which is the controlling agency for the Cooperative Extension. 

What are your thoughts?  I’ll share what the responses have been with my next post.

Stuart Smith

Email addressed to: Monica Cooper and Glenn McGourty, 

“I am shocked and outraged that UCCE is sponsoring the “Shortcourse in Biodynamic Winegrowing” to be held on December 2 at the Rutherford Grange Hall. I am requesting that UCCE withdraw its support from the event and that you cancel your appearances. 

 Why and when did UC Davis and UCCE begin promoting Biodynamic farming?  You are being used by a private company (it doesn’t matter that they are a non-profit), Demeter USA, to gain respectability, promote its message and to recruit clients for Biodynamic farming.  Your support gives Biodynamic farming the credibility that it doesn’t have otherwise.  It is entirely appropriate for you to attend such an event, questionable as to your participation and completely wrong to sponsor/host and thus become a promoter of Biodynamics.  Clearly this event is intended to be a promotional sales event for Demeter USA.  Biodynamics is trade-marked by Demeter and all money required for certification flows into Demeter’s bank accounts.  Following a link from the UCCE website I found the fact sheet for the event that claimed “You’ll get a practical hype-free introduction to Biodynamic principles and practices for framing and winemaking from experienced vintners who have put them to the test” and yet hype is all that Biodynamics is – there is not one shred of evidence, one peer-reviewed replicable experiment proving the efficacy of Biodynamic farming!  I know many of the speakers and all they can muster for proof is an anecdotal “I know it works, because I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”    Ed Weber and I had many conversations about just this type of Biodynamics hype and I have no doubt that he would be as horrified as I am that UC Davis and UCCE has any involvement with this program. 

The UCCE website lists a Mission Statement and above that in large and bold type is “Bringing UC research to Napa County” – so let me ask, what UC research do you have that supports Biodynamic farming?  Have you read Rudolf Steiner’s book AGRICULTURE, do you know that he hated modern science and that he created the concept of “Spiritual Science” which cannot be challenged and is based on intuition and perception?  I created biodynamicsisahoax.com  to provide an alternative view to Rudolf Steiner and Biodynamic farming. 

 Biodynamics is the antithesis of what the Department of Viticulture and Enology has stood for since its creation by the California State Legislature in 1880.   I had the good fortune to have had Dr. Winkler sign my General Viticulture textbook.  I studied under professors such as Lloyd Lider, Jim Cook, Harold Olmo and Mark Kliewer. I was the Department’s first teaching Assistant for Professors Amerine and Singleton.  The California premium wine industry has gone from a tiny industry 60-70 years ago to world pre-eminence because the industry ignored European reliance on tradition and embraced science.  U.C. Davis, staffed with scientists, did the basic scientific research to find the truths of Enology and Viticulture. They used science and the scientific method to test old assumptions and new theories and then offered up their results for peer review. They taught their students what they had learned in their research and as importantly they taught their students how to think critically and evaluate research. California wine quality soared.  Your support for Biodynamic farming is a repudiation of everything the Department has stood for during these last 130 years. 

 How do you reconcile the following quote by Rudolf Steiner and the UCCE’s fundamental role of continuing education to industry professionals of the “scientific principles” that underlie growing grapes? 

The following are direct quotes from Steiner’s book AGRICULTURE, page 128, lecture six, on disease control, originally given on June 14, 1924:

         “Let us assume, however, that the Moon’s influence is too strong, that the soil is overly enlivened.  In this case, the vitality works up too strongly from below, and something that should occur only in seed formation starts to happen earlier.  When the vitality is too strong, it doesn’t reach all the way to the top; its very intensity makes it start working lower down.  Thus, because of the effect of the Moon, there is insufficient force for seed formation.  The seed incorporates a kind of dying like into itself, and through this dying life a kind of second ground-level is formed above the level of the soil.  Although there is no actual soil up there, the same influences are present.  As a result, the seed, or the upper part of the plant, becomes a kind of soil for other organisms.  Parasites and all kinds of fungi appear – blights and mildews and the like…  Direct perception reveals what I have just described.”

         “So what should we do now?  We need to relieve the soil of the excessive lunar force; we need to find some way of reducing the water’s mediating capacity, of giving the soil more earthiness of the water that is present does not absorb the excess lunar influence.  We accomplish this – though outwardly everything remains the same – by making a fairly concentrated tea out of Equisetum arvense, which we then dilute and use as a kind of liquid manure on the fields where we want to combat blight and similar plant diseases.”

 DISCUSSION FOLLOWING LECTURE SIX, page 134:

 QUESTION: “Can these methods for alleviating plant diseases be applied to vineyards too?

STEINER: “I can only say that I am convinced that the vineyards could have been protected (from Phylloxera devastation) if people had gone about it in the way I have indicated.”

QUESTION:  ‘What about downy mildew?”

STEINER: “That can be treated just like any other blight.”

 When you support/promote a course in Biodynamics you are also validating the foundations of Biodynamics which, in this case, are the teachings of Rudolf Steiner.  Please minimize the damage you have already done and immediately withdraw your involvement with this project. 

I look forward to your response.”

 Stuart Smith

 CC: Dr. Andrew Waterhouse, Chairman, Department of Viticulture and Enology.


Wall Street Journal – “Biodynamics: Natural Wonder or Just a Horn of Manure?”

November 10, 2010

Harvest is over, and I’m finally back.  It seems like harvest went on forever, we finished last Thursday, November 4.  Of the 36 harvests I’ve worked 2010 was the most difficult and clearly the most stressful.  There were late spring rains, a cool summer, weeds up the …., heat spikes, sun damage, 6 ½ inches of rain in late October, more sun and then more rain.  The Chardonnay and Riesling are both through fermentation and are excellent.  The reds are either still fermenting or are going through ML – too earky to tell.  How good or how poor will the vintage be?  Overall, I think the wine quality will be better than any of us have any right to expect. But only time will tell.

  Below is a very good article on Biodynamics by Jay McInerney that appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

 http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304410504575560463995629960.html?mod=WSJ_LifeStyle_Lifestyle_6

  •  ON WINE
  • OCTOBER 23, 2010
  • Biodynamics: Natural Wonder or Just a Horn of Manure?

By JAY MCINERNEY

Burly, heavily bearded Stu Smith has been tending his vineyard atop Spring Mountain with his brother Charlie for more than 40 years. The Smith Brothers have gained a quietly loyal following for their Smith Madrone wines, despite eschewing such Napa conventions as new French oak, irrigation and Robert Parker raves.

Stuart, the more loquacious of the brothers, has been known to complain about the high alcohol and the high prices of many Napa wines. Recently he has directed his contrarian streak at a fashionable new target: biodynamic viticulture.

Biodynamics is a system of organic agriculture based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, the German theosophist, specifically on a series of lectures he delivered to farmers in 1924. It uses many of the principles of organic farming—no pesticides or chemical fertilizers—but goes further, relying on practices like planting and harvesting according to solar and lunar cycles and combating pests such as moths and rabbits by scattering the ashes of their dead brethren.

Some of the most revered domains in France practice biodynamic viticulture, including Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Leflaive, Leroy, Chapoutier, Coulée de Serrant and Zind Humbrecht, and in recent years the system has been gaining converts in California. Araujo, Benziger, Grgich Hills, Sinskey, Joseph Phelps and Quintessa embrace it in Napa and Sonoma.

Last year Stu Smith created a local stir when he published a letter in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat charging that “biodynamics is a hoax and deserves the same level of respect we give witchcraft.” He has continued his assault on a website, Biodynamicsisahoax.com.

“Rudolf Steiner was a complete nutcase,” Mr. Smith writes, “a flimflam man with a tremendous imagination, a combination if you will, of an LSD-dropping Timothy Leary with the showmanship of a P.T. Barnum.”

In order to demonstrate his point, he quotes Steiner at some length—something which he claims proponents are reluctant to do. (And there’s some wild stuff to quote, about ghosts and the Lemurians, the jellyish beings who inhabited Atlantis.) The most emblematic and controversial practice of biodynamics is the practice of burying a cowhorn stuffed with manure at the time of the autumnal equinox. On or around the spring equinox, the horn is disinterred, the manure diluted in water and sprayed on the vineyard (This mixture is known as BD 500). Mr. Smith quotes Steiner about what the practice is meant to achieve:

“You see, by burying the cow horn with the manure in it, we preserve in the horn the etheric and astral force that the horn was accustomed to reflect when it was on the cow. Because the cow horn is now outwardly surrounded by the Earth, all the Earth’s etherizing and astralizing rays stream into its inner cavity. The manure inside the horn attracts these forces and is inwardly enlivened by them. If the horn is buried for the entire winter—the season when the Earth is most inwardly alive—all this life will be preserved in the manure, turning the contents of the horn into an extremely concentrated, enlivening and fertilizing force.”

In my experience, Mr. Smith is correct that most biodynamic proponents would rather talk about results than quote Steiner, with the notable exception of the voluble and erudite Nicolas Joly of Coulée de Serrant, whose devotion to the practice I wrote about in my last column. Robert Sinskey of Sinskey Vineyards in Carneros is a case in point.

In 1990, Mr. Sinskey told me, he and his winemaker, Jeff Virnig went to look at one of their Carneros vineyards that was in decline. At the time, they had been practicing “clean farming” (i.e., nuking the competition, blasting the soil with herbicides and pesticides). “One look at the soil told us that life was out of balance,” he said. They couldn’t penetrate the surface of the soil with a shovel, so they broke it up with a pick. They couldn’t find any earthworms in the ground, and there was little humus (organic soil matter such as decomposed leaves and other plant material). Up until then, they had been trying to kill off anything in the soil that might compete with their vines, and to add back anything the vines needed by applying fertilizers. “We had, in essence, sterilized the soil,” he said.

They applied their first BD 500 prep (the cow-horn manure tea) to the vineyard the following year. “The microbe-rich concoction jump-started life,” Mr. Sinskey said. “Within a few years, the soil rebounded with microbial activity, earthworms and mycorrhizal fungi. The original vineyard that motivated this journey turned around to become one of our favorite sites and produced one of our most distinctive wines.” I can vouch for the fact that recent vintages of that vineyard’s Pinot Blanc are very fine indeed.

The obvious question for biodynamic producers is whether organic farming, which eschews herbicides and pesticides without reference to Steiner or to cosmic forces, would produce similar results. A research paper entitled “Soil and Winegrape Quality in Biodynamically and Organically Managed Vineyards,” published in the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture in 2005, compared organic and biodynamic practices and seemed to find little difference. But most of the certified biodynamic practitioners I have spoken to over the years, none of whom were obviously certifiable, started with organic farming and moved on to biodynamics. And all of them profess to have seen superior results and healthier vineyards under the latter regime.

Jeff Dawson, who works as a biodynamic consultant with Araujo and Quintessa Vineyards in Napa, believes that the fact that Araujo’s Cabernet ripened well ahead of its neighbors’ this year is “a tribute to biodynamics.” (A nonbiodynamic neighbor of Araujo insists that Araujo’s vineyard site is warmer than most.) Mr. Dawson became interested in biodynamics after working at a biodynamic garden at Fetzer Vineyards in Mendocino and observing the superior quality of the produce. He studied Steiner and his disciples and eventually ended up creating a biodynamic garden for Steve Jobs. Stu Smith will be rolling his eyes at this point and insisting that there’s no scientific basis for the claims of biodynamics. And he’s right. There isn’t.

Mr. Dawson paraphrases Steiner when answering the charge that there’s no scientific basis for biodynamics. “Science has cast its net on the world of nature. That net is not fine enough to catch all the aspects of creation.” Many proponents seem to believe that science will eventually catch up with the claims of biodynamics, particularly with regard to the influence of the solar and the stellar systems on the behavior of plants and animals.

The minimal claim to be made for biodynamics, it seems to me, is that it fosters a more intimate approach to the land, and that its products are less likely to contain the toxins that have for many decades been commonly employed in conventional agriculture. Then there’s the question of the quality of the congregation. Domaine Romanée Conti and Domaine Leroy, to take just two examples, are widely acknowledged to be among the greatest wineries on the planet. Many people want to belong to the same club, even though critics like Mr. Smith would argue that these properties were already great before they made the switch. Biodynamics certainly dovetails with the inescapable new green consciousness. Whether it is a manifestation of a new holistic approach to nature or a crock of preparation 500, wine lovers will be hearing the word more often in the years to come.

  2008 Zind Humbrecht Riesling Alsace, $21.95
Anybody who thinks she doesn’t like Riesling should try this one, apple cider with a buzz, medium-bodied and off-dry, a great introduction to one of the world’s finest producers.

2007 Robert Sinskey Vineyards Pinot Noir Los Carneros, $34.95
Translucent ruby in color, a ripe, well-balanced Pinot redolent of red fruits, drinking beautifully now. A terrific value. Buy it by the case.

2007 Domaine Leflaive Bourgogne, $45
This is a junior Puligny Montrachet, like Grace Kelly as a teenager, crisp, bright with ripe fruit, zingy acidity and a stony core that reverberates on the finish.

 

2005 Grgich Hills Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Estate Grown, $45
Deep purple with an nose of crushed berries. One the best cabs in years from a pioneering Napa estate that recently made the switch to biodynamics.

2009 Smith Madrone Riesling Napa Valley Spring Mountain, $27
Not biodynamic, but classic. Very light straw color, green-apple nose, with a citrusy vibrancy on the palate leading to a slatey, minerally note suggestive of a great Mosel.