Writing this blog has helped me better understand Rudolf Steiner and clarify the negative issues underlying Biodynamic farming. I’ve always taken offense that the Biodynamic supporters claimed superiority with their “living soils, healthy vines and better expressions of terroir,” and now I realize that they are also claiming that only through Biodynamics can your vineyard obtain its greatest potential and thus result in the most authentic wines. It reminds me a little of the Christian doctrine that only through Jesus can you find salvation. The clear implication is that if you’re not a Biodynamic grower your products are inferior and will always be inferior because you can never reach your vineyard’s greatest potential.
I’ve taken personal offense at these claims and resent anyone claiming they care more about their vineyard’s health, soil and wine quality than I do. But there was something more that I couldn’t identify and it left me unsettled. Personal indignation is all fine and dandy, but I felt I was only half-way there. That is, until recently when I recognized that what was bothering me was the divisive nature of Biodynamic farming. By publicly claiming superiority they, de facto, belittle and ridicule everyone else’s farming methods and wine quality for not being Biodynamic.
I can’t think of a better way to divide our industry than by pitting winery against winery and grower against grower – something I’ve never seen in my 40 plus years in the wine industry.
Here’s a section from my opening remarks at the Unified Symposium that deals directly with this topic:
“Historically, the wine industry has been a friendly industry; we help one another and work together to solve problems – like most farmers do. But that’s not the case with Biodynamic farming: Biodynamic promoters claim superiority and not so subtly put down conventional winegrowers. ”
“Here’s what the Demeter website says under the heading “How do Biodynamic wines differ from conventional wines?”
“The primary distinction between Biodynamic and conventionally grown wines is that Biodynamic grape growing develops the vineyard’s greatest potential – allowing the vineyard to be the best it can be – and then captures that distinctiveness in the bottle. You will often hear Biodynamic winemakers say that their goal is to make the best wine by making the most authentic wine.”
“Here is another quote from the April 2010 NorthBayBiz magazine article written by Kevin Morrisey, the president of Ehlers Estate Winery:
“Does it make better wine? Of course it does – not because it’s certified organic, but because organic and Biodynamic farming is being used. By ridding the vineyards of chemicals, pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers, and by building healthy soil … we grow healthier and more balanced vines which, along with great terroir, gives us better wine.”
And Mike Benziger famously says that “Biodynamics is the Rolls Royce of organic farming.”
What’s next – if you’re not a biodynamic farmer your vineyards are dead and your wine stinks? Is this the future we want for wine marketing – trashing your neighbor and his wines?” I was recently visiting one of my distributors and when this subject came up I was told that they often hear in their Friday morning sales meetings how Biodynamically grown grapes are superior and that Biodynamic farmers care more about the environment than conventional farmers. Nice touch for a once friendly industry!
It’s the “Big Lie” concept all over again that Biodynamic farmers care more for their environment than all other farmers. Biodynamic farmers do not have a monopoly on being environmentally sensitive farmers and I’m sick of hearing this lie from quasi-supporters, that goes something like this “Yes, Rudolf Steiner is a little wacky and maybe even a nutcase, but at least I know that Biodynamic farmers care about the environment and tread lightly on the land, and that’s good.” To me, that’s bunk, because it’s not true! I care for my vineyard, my soil and my environment as much or more than anyone else and I resent those who claim otherwise. But what I really resent is that Biodynamic farming is attempting to divide our industry, an industry that I love and have spent 40 years of my life working in, just to get a marketing edge. That’s shameful.
Stu – love your blog and appreciate all the work you have put in to present to the world – for the first time in one place – what BD is truly all about. BD has a great name (maybe Steiner should have been an add man) but it has gotten a free ride in the MSM for ages now. It’s about time people started to understand what its all about.
Just as in other types of religion, when true believers are challenged about their beliefs, things can get ugly. Fortunately we have rational thinkers like you who are simply providing another form of “peer review.”
That being said, I was a little taken aback by your use of the phrase “natural pesticides.” I understand you farm organically, but if we are here discussing the essence of science and rational thought, I’m suprised you would use this terminology. I mean no disrespect, but while you’re at it, let’s call a spade a spade and discuss the fact that the pesticides allowed for organic viticulture are far from being “natural” in any way, shape or form. Things like microthiol sulfur, petroleum oil, and copper hydroxide do not exist in nature and are synthetically produced in order that we may use them to control disease in our vineyards. The fact is most BD growerrs are also using these same materials.
In many ways, people are just as much in the dark concerning organic agriculutre as they are BD. Most people when asked, believe organic viticulture involves growing grapes without the use of any pesticides whatsoever. So while I repesct what you are doing here, I would also urge you to clarify your position on “natural pesticides” and the fuzzy science involved in justifying the use of certain spray materials while prohibiting others. When you come right down to it – much of this debate (as in BD) is being highjacked by ideology over crtical thinking. I would expect, after all I have read here, that you would want to discuss this.
As for the poster “A” who earlier asked the question:
“Do organic or biodynamic producers use anything that could create a health issue in the final product?”
I have one answer for you –
You’re offended that biodynamic folks think what they’re doing is the best option? Are you doing things as a grower that you think are not your best options? You seem a little too sensitive. No offense intended.
Hi, I just stumbled onto this website and I have one question. My understanding is that Rudolf Steiner spoke out against any type of alcoholic beverage. Why then is anybody promoting biodynamics to grow wine? It sounds totally contradictory to me. Either you agree with Steiner or you don’t, and therefore either way you don’t do wine or you don’t use his methods.
What do you folks think of Permaculture? There are some good people teaching it and they strictly do not teach religion and metaphysics. My permaculture teacher sticks to proven science and thinks biodynamics is total bunk.
I’m sure you growers have all heard of the soil food web and Dr Elaine Ingham. Real science about microbiology I”m sure can benefit any farmer.
As i continue to investigate biodynamic farming, it seem Mr Steiner had roots to some very interesting organizations, including : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theosophical_Society
So we’ll all end up like theses guys:
Thank you for the link. The article would have made Randolph Hearst (SF Examiner newspaper), practitioner of Yellow Journalism, proud. It was a lousy piece of reporting. The headlines want us to believe this man died from Pesticide poisioning when, in fact, they only mention benzene and offered no link between pesticides and the benzene. I’m not denying the connection; I’m just saying that not much can be learned from this article except to terrify people. Benzenze and other solvents like Toluene are nasty chemicals which construction workers, farmers and home owners have often used to deal with our modern world. In the U.S. we have very stringent requirements for worker training, use and registration of pesticides to avoid this type of issue.
Paraquat is a very nasty herbacide that we used in our early years of the vineyard and we were thrilled when Round-up was created and we could abandon Paraquat. I believe that Round-up is safe for the applicator and safe for the environment. Any chemical, benificial or not, when used irresponsiblely can cause harm.
Happy reading about the Theosophy and Antrophosophy societies.
i am new to the biodynamic world, only practicing for the past few years. as much as i love the practice of biodynamics, i tend to agree with this thread that the conversion to become a bd vineyard is motivated by the profitability of marketing a “beyond organic” product. to me bd vineyards have little to do with the goals and theory biodynamics strive toward and, while it seems some actually have good grape results from converting to bd, it is no excuse to vilify those of other persuasions. i have been disturbed with the language i have heard some of the bd viticulturists use to promote and disguise what biodynamics is about in order to appeal to consumers, it just further proves to me its about profit and not practice. in the biodynamics i was taught the goal always to develop and practice ways of cooperation with our land, creatures, and neighbors, its sad to hear this has not been your experience. bd viticulture represents a small part of the bd agriculture movement in the u.s. so i hope you won’t write the rest of us off because of the marketing tactics of a few. no matter the beliefs we hold or practices we use to farm, we should be able to be courteous with each other (and vent our frustrations respectfully). this is one reason i have not been motivated to pursue a organic or demeter certification.
i would also like to say in response to other threads that true biodynamic practitioners should be using scientific methods to form and test hypotheses like the work of maria thun or ehrenfried pfeiffer. in my interpretation, biodynamics uses the beliefs and experiences of our ancestors coupled with the science and reasoning of our modern age to help balance out the failures from both periods. rigorous scientific process cannot control all the variables of our universe and biodynamics allows for imagination to help develop creative processes to solve problems, some of which outside science can verify and some not. it is like any other scientific theory in that way, imagination gives way to mathematical and measurable data, eventually. again, these threads seem to only deal with bd wine and their problems, but i agree with the major complaints against them, to me, they are not behaving like a bd farm at all. i expect criticism and skepticism, i had/have both as well, and with any movement, there is a corruptible element, which this blog is good at pointing out, but i suggest that this is does not represent the whole. maybe this is more representative of california farming pressures.
If more Biodynamic farmers were like you, I would never have started this blog and I would have my free time back. Your reasoned approach to this issue is commendable, and something we should all strive for. Unfortunately, the squeaky wheel gets the grease and it’s those shouting the most outrageous claims that get the media’s attention and thus mine. That puts me in the unpleasant position of having to question the entire Biodynamic farming method, because I can’t discern those in the background wishing nothing more than to be left alone to farm as you wish, (this is where I’d like to be) from those in the front lines promoting their product under the guise of Biodynamic superiority.
You clearly bring critical thinking to Biodynamic farming and I suspect that you will not find the support in Maria Thun’s writings. I wish you all the best in your quest, and if you wouldn’t mind keeping me informed on your progress I would appreciate it.
I agree that in theory, BD is nonsense. But I also think that one must look for the “proof in the pudding”…e.g. do BD wines actually taste better? Here is one such way…. Recently, I did a wine tasting trip thru Lake County and tasted at 3 estate wineries –one farmed organically, one via BD and one converntionally –this was a “natural” experiment in that I did not know a priori what farming method each vineyard espoused. There were 4 of us and I was the only one familar with the differences in agriculture. At dinner, I first discussed which wines we did and did not like. Interestingly, everyone was quite impressed with the concept of BD as advertised at the winery (which was a very nice winery BTW) and bought in fully that BD was “better than organics” as a method of agriculture. Also, everyone agreed that the worst wines were from BD (there were wines with obvious VA, brett and just some funky flavors) and the group was split as to their preference b/w conventional and organic wines. Clearly this is not scientific and there are many other factors at play here…but I found the experience and discussion to be interesting …especially the ease at which otherwise educated, wine loving professionals bought into the hype (until they tasted the wines of course)
Interesting comparison of no value. If you had tasted three wines from the same winery made from the same property and varietal I would be interested in your results. It’s like saying you had a steak from your brother’s house and a burger from McDonalds and a filet mignon from Flemmings and tried to make a comparison because they’re meat.
But I do agree with you that in theory most of BD is nonsense. Planting in lunar cycles though does make lots of sense to those familiar with old farming practices though. Which is why I think some elements of BD works aside from the witchcraft approach.
I didn’t like my comparison idea much either. While your option is more interesting and fun than mine, I not sure there’s any real comparative value with your option either. I think it’s back to the drawing boards for both of us.
A fun experiment with good controls and a predictable outcome (I hope), well done! But, as you said, it’s not really good science, yet lots of fun. I was just talking about this subject while I’m in Washington and we all agreed it complicated to set up a good experiment. Frankly, the more I think about this subject, I more unsure I am of how to proceed. I was thinking two or more winemakers making wine from the same lots of wine, but …. that’s got problems too. Just not not sure! Hell, maybe your way is as good as any I can think of.
While what we did was not specifically designed to be an experiment — it was fun and the most interesting part was the way my otherwise educated friends bought into the concept hook, line and sinker that BD was “better than organics” (even though we did not like the wine). Clearly the best experiment would be same grape/same vineyard split into a BD and an organic plot with blinded, side by side tasting during barrel aging and post bottling done in multiple vineyards and with multiple varietals. I think we can all agree that is not likely to happen. Alternatively, you can take a few wineries in the same AVA, using the same grapes, selling wine at more or less the same pricepoint and compare those wines farmed BD, organic and conventional doing blind tasting outside the winery. That is certainly feasible and could potentially shed some light on the ultimate question of this blog/debate –are BD wines better??
Biodynamics is a very polarizing issue with many growers. There are of course the die hards that preach much like hardcore religious zealots and others that use the general practices. That being said, I’ve always been extremely skeptical of the “benefits” of biodynamics based on the dated methodology. However, after implementing biodynamic practices on several vineyard blocks and monitoring them over several harvests, it was obvious the fruit was more consistent and didn’t vary in quality as much. I’m not saying it made good grapes top notch but there was a better overall level of consistency and never deviated as much as we previously had. It did work in our situation which resulted in the entire property switching to biodynamic farming. I’m not saying it’s a better system overall for everyone but it did work in this instance.
I abhor any practice that dictates “We’re the best and the only way to do things.” Biodynamics included. There are many ways to go about farming and many ways to make wine which makes this industry exciting. If you are truly better than let your wine speak for itself.
Thank you Stuart.
This post is an important point of departure to another level of unreality that dominates the BD world. It is hard to know at what point the Big Lie ceases being a strategic method of elevating oneself at the expense of your breathren by demonizing their work, and becomes an article of faith. A genuine belief in the Big Lie.
I listened with interest to both interviews on 1winedude’s blog. Butter would melt in Alan York’s mouth. He doesn’t understand why people can’t just let the BDers do what they want and leave them alone. No one is trying to recruit Stuart Smith. Nary a negative word was heard from Mr. York. Just a little name-dropping, as in STING, for goodness sake. And all the travel around the world to clients.
No, Mr. York allows his clients to mouth the Big Lie.
I have seen Trudie Styler/Sting’s video on youtube showcasing their BD vineyard.
Check out the whole thing or just go to 4:30 and listen to the winemaker talk about only using “traditional” chemicals (like sulfur and copper). Trudie follows up quickly by stating outright that they use “no fungicides or pesticides” in their vineyard in Tuscany. They get Downy Mildew in Tuscany! If they are organic they use copper, period. The worst possible material to use due to its permanent binding in the topsoil and its proven toxicity to earthworms and soil microflora.
My vineyard operation has been “dead-soiled” by a wine blogger enamored of all things natural. She called me up and requested a visit, tasted my good wines and “dead-soiled” me on her blog because I didn’t have weeds growing everywhere. One application of Round-up and I am a destroyer of the environment.
And all the while, after 30 years of vine work where I pioneered bird netting (when people were spraying repellants), pioneered leaf removal to reduce Botrytis pressure, I thought I was a land steward.
Others in my district have been described by our local BD practitioner as practicing “satanic viticulture”, and another grower being the “evil empire”—to students of Cornell’s Viticulture and Enology program.
Its hard to tell if they truly believe what is not believable or that the need to distinguish oneself in the hot-air wine market is so powerful that they will do it at other’s expense by literally demonizing them.
“Dead, satanic, evil”. Language doesn’t lie.
Larry, copper is a vital micro nutrient and, if difficient, would in fact be beneficial to apply in moderation. This is especially true on calcareous soils with elevated pH which buffers heavy metal toxicity, and may explain why limestone rich areas I’m Europe use copper sulfate with benefit to vine and soil health. Look at much of Burgundy or St Emillion, for example.
On acidic soils the case would be different, as toxicity would be a greater concern.
Over generizations can go both ways, right?
I’ve only got my IPad and can’t find audio- if there is any. I will watch and listen when I return home. I wish I knew how to resound to your comments, but everything I think of seems so meaningless. I know it sounds trite, but I’m sorry and feel your pain – and it’s bullshit!
I have the same issue with the Allan York interview. I think what said was just perfect. I really loved the “I consult on four continents” and the “What’s his problem, nobodies making him farm Biodynamic – it’s like reverse racism.”.
Your point about higher copper bio-availability is acidic soils is correct. However, no one in Europe believes regular copper fungicide use is healthy for vine or soil.
My comment is not an over-generalization, rather is is the commonly held view by scientists in Germany, Italy, France, Switzerland, Austria, Australia, New Zealand, etc. They have restricted copper use legally and would like to phase it out completely.
Many years of research have clearly demonstrated both the extent of soil copper contamination in vineyards and its seriously negative effect on the life of soil micro-organisms and earthworms.
Hence, the near desperate search in the EU for any material effective against Downy Mildew that could be considered “organic”. The European Plant Pathology meetings (Vit sections) are dominated by this search. But to no avail. Which is why copper is still the only “go to” fungicide for “organic” DM control.
Lukas Van Zwieten’s lab in NSW Australia has done the most recent work on the impact of regular copper fungicide use on soil health. Below, I have linked to one of their papers titled “Fungicides and Soil Health: Challenges for the Industry” in which they clearly demonstrate the damage done to soil organisms at levels as low as 34 ppm.
Click to access Fungicides%20and%20Soil%20Health.pdf
Repeated use of copper fungicides over decades leads to copper concentrations exceeding 200, 300, 400 ppm in the topsoil.
A series of primary source papers listed below provide a disturbing and clear exploration of the copper issue.
Belotti, Eduard (1998). Assessment of a soil quality criterion by means of a soil survey. Applied Soil Ecology 10, 51-63.
Delas, Jacques (2002). The Bordeaux Mixture. Risk assessment and sustainable land managment using plants in trace-element contaminated soils. COST Action 837. Fourth WG2 Workshop, Bordeaux, 80-82
Deluisa, A., Giandon, P., Aichner, M., Bortolami, P., Bruna, L., Lupetti, A., Nardelli, F., & Stringari, G. (1996). Copper pollution in Italian vineyard soils. Communications in Soil Science and Plant Analyses, 27, 1537-1548
Merrington, G., Rogers, S. L., & Van Zwieten, L. (2002). The potential impact of long-term copper fungicide usage on soil microbial biomass and microbial activity in an avocado orchard. Australian Journal of Soil Research, 40, 749-759
Morgan, Richard K. and Taylor, Emma (2004). Copper accumulation in vineyard soils in New Zealand. Journal of Integrative Environmental Sciences, 1:2, 139-167
Van Zwieten, L., Rust, J., Kingston, T., Merrington, G., & Morris, S. (2004). Influence of copper fungicide residues on occurence of earthworms in avocado orchard soils. Science of the Total Environment, 329, 29-41
The linked article is excellent. Unlike many reserch papers, this one is both easy to read and understand – oh, and informative too.
This sort of divisive, sneering dismissal of those who don’t follow the dogma is not confined to the Biodnamic farmer. It’s rife in the so-called “natural” wine movement as well, and drives me absolutely nuts. It’s definitely the equivalent of proselytizing (your analogy is right on the money).
It’s one thing to fervently believe you’re doing the right thing and making the best product you can. I’m all for that, even if it involves tin foil hats and prayers to the UFO gods. But the minute you start suggesting that anyone else who doesn’t do that is inferior, my blood starts to boil.
I’ve heard BioD and Natural wine folks refer to any wine not made in that fashion as “poison.”
Made me want to punch them in the mouth. This is truly the ugly part of the movement.
Having said that, there are PLENTY of Biodynamic adherents who are not proselytizing or condescending in any way. They’re great people and can’t be criticized for making wine the way they think is right, no matter how much I have problems with the beliefs and theories that guide them.
You are of course, right on the mark! There are many adherents that really believe in Biodynamic and merrily go on with their head in the clouds and their feet on the soil, and I wish them well, but there are the others – and it’s the others that have fostered this sense of superiority and this division -and Demeter is right in the thick of it.
All too true, Stu. But I doubt that it applies to all BD producers. I would not paint all with such a broad brush. Sure there is plenty of smugness to go around among some true believers, and there are plenty of cynical marketing ploys among pretenders and perhaps some true believers alike. However, I think it is entirely possible that many in the BD movement are so caught up in a “greener than thou” mindset and belief system– which they themselves do not fully understand (because it is about faith, and not science) — that they truely are unaware of the divisiveness fostered by their actions, and the tenor of exlusivity in their zeolous rhetoric. So in that regard, I’m willing to give them a break — or not — on a case by case basis.
A cynic is dangerous to all of us. An honest — however deluded — true believer is more dangerous to himself than he/she is to the rest of us,and therefore deserves some compassion. They just might eventually get over it. The wisest amoung us are those who doubt their faith.
Honestly, I think that biodynamic farming dances a thin line with a religion or spiritual belief. Perhaps this is why they are so adamant that theirs is the best way and all others are inferior. Their practices border on the mystical and therefore I have little respect for the actual farming practices and even less for the culture after having read some of their bold statements which you quoted. Consumers love jumping on the next big band wagon, but I sincerely hope that some will actually do their research.
As a farmer in Kansas, I come at this from a different angle than most posting on this forumn. We often come out to Napa and Sonoma during the winter months for wine, weather and beauty of your area. A couple of years ago, while at at Napa vegetarian restuarant, the waiter proceeded to lecture us in what I felt was a superior and demeaning manner on the superiority of their foodstuffs; they of course had been derived from a biodynamic garden as had most of their wines. I was put off to say the least… I have an agronomy degree plus a lifetime of experience in ag.; didn’t feel I really needed a haughty lecture from some wet behind the ears kid. He did however tweak my interest, and in the course of my reseach upon coming home happened on your blog. Yes, it is divisive, and pure B.H.S. (no pun intended) marketing at it’s worst. While I sympathize with an industry split in a difficult economic environment,( happens in our ag circles too), don’t really think this will work as a sales tactic. There are other “nose in air” antics at work in Napa… I try to ignore and take my buisness elsewhere when exposed to such. Maybe we will come visit Smith-Malone next time out.
Please visit when next you are in the Napa Valley. I don’t know why or where that superior atitude comes from, but it seems prevalent in the wine industry, especially the super premium end of things – and it is very irritating and juvenile.
I’m sick of the stridency and smugness of those who believe that biodynamic farming is the light the way the truth. The proof is always in the tasting. And, whether we deplore this or not, it’s in the market as well.
I import Italian wines that are both conventionally farmed and vinified all the way through BD cert. Guess what? Almost nobody cares. Somms even here in NYC, who strive to be dedicated followers of fashion, buy differently from what they profess, a few precious wine bars excepted.
I hope you continue to call out these sanctimonious and unproven assertions of superiority. I’m sick of faith-based politics and faith-based wine blarney. I might add, to the hangers-on of the wine world, get a life. Or a real job.
Thank you again Stuart for telling it like it is. Our family has been growing grapes in Croatia since the Greeks brought grapes to the island of Hvar in 200 B.C. and in California since 1917. ‘Biodynamics’ is pure marketing b.s.