Updating Biodynamics

biodynamic vineyardBiodynamics is a method of farming that treats the entire farm as a living organism. Developed by philosopher Rudolf Steiner in 1924, it is now being employed by many vineyards throughout the world in an attempt to improve vineyard health and produce better wines. To call your wines “biodynamic”, certification by the Demeter organization is required. It is controversial because many of the farming practices employed by biodynamics are of questionable scientific validity.

For instance, Steiner claimed there are  lunar and astrological influences on soil and plant development and so the timing of when to plant, maintain and harvest your crop is based on both the phase of the moon and the zodiacal constellation the moon is passing through. The timing also depends on whether the crop is the root, leaf, flower, or fruit of the plant. Phases of the moon are also supposed to influence how a wine tastes.

Katia Nussbaum of the San Polino Estate in Montalcino posted a lengthy thought piece on Jancis Robinson’s site about (among other things) biodynamic farming and the need to reconceptualize it for the 21st Century. After a discussion of Darwin, social Darwinism, the microbiome, and new biological models that attribute a level of consciousness to plants, she writes:

Steiner had ideas that pre-dated the organic movement, but elucidated them using the analytical tools and culture of his times and environment. He wrote in the absence of highly powered microscopes and understanding of quantum physics and string theory. He worked through categories and essential truths, through notions of dichotomy, such as the male and female, through astrology and metaphor.

My questions are these:

Why must biodynamic theory fossilise and stick to the original readings of Steiner and his theories of the cosmos?

Can we not use his original intuition and translate it into a modern language to make it more useful to ourselves and our understanding of how vines work and interreact with their environment, to gain a better understanding of how to produce healthier grapes and better wine?

The article is worth a read and Ms. Nussbaum’s plea for an updated biodynamics is welcome.

However, I suspect most winemakers and farmers who employ biodynamics are already on board with her suggestions.

As Craig Camp of Oregon’s Trune Vineyards has often asserted:

The Demeter standard for wines states, “Observation of the Biodynamic calendar is encouraged.” It does not demand only “calendar-specific work days or that “farmers are only permitted to execute vineyard work…on very specific days.” The statements above [ed. in this article not Nussbaum’s] are false and following the biodynamic calendar is not required for Demeter Certification. …If you can’t prune or pick on the ideal day due to weather and practical considerations you know that all of the other work you’ve done will still make exceptional wine.

Two considerations lead me to think biodynamics is being continually updated:

1. As a group winemakers are notably empirical. They make lots of observations and change their practices when something isn’t working. And they have a sustained interest in the science of viticulture.

2. Biodynamics can be time consuming and expensive to implement, especially during the initial conversion of a conventional farm to biodynamics. No one has time and money to waste engaging in practices that don’t make a difference.

Grape farming and winemaking are of course “slow arts”. It often takes years to see the results of an experiment. But as time goes on the question of what works and what doesn’t will be sorted out even in the absence of a grand theory to replace Steiner’s more fanciful notions.

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