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

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.


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


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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: