Thursday, August 25, 2011

Biodynamics: Science or Scientology?

Rudolph Steiner
I thought I'd chat a bit about a workshop (OBV Workshop) I attended in Niagara-on-the-Lake this week.  Organic Biodynamics is a term coined to define the return of vineyard care and vinology back to days before -cides, ie. pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, etc.  Introduced by Rudolph Steiner in 1924 Biodynamics has spawned several offshoots claiming validity in returning winemaking to its organic roots. Steiner's Biodynamics fully implemented appears to be the most comprehensive.

Unfortunately science has not as yet caught up with an understanding of how Steiner’s nine biodynamic preparations (500 - 508) contribute to viticulture and some mysticism associated with certain aspects is unavoidable. Putting this aside there's an increasing number of wineries worldwide that are or have adopted the basis for Steiner's principles. The task of certifying Biodynamics has been taken on by two European organizations, Demeter and a rival called Biodyvin .   

Guest speaker Monty Waldin of Rome, Italy shared the day’s agenda with Southbrook Vineyards' well respected winemaker Ann Sperling and the venue was split between Niagara College and Southbrook. This is the second Niagara oriented event I’ve attended the first being sponsored by the LCBO and presented by almost a dozen wineries claiming practises that promote somewhereness, or terroir, in their wines.  It was held at the Japanese Cultural Centre in North York, Toronto. It seems that interest in both biodynamic and ‘somewhereness’ has picked up significantly this year both largely promoted by Marilyn & Bill Redelmeier, owners of 
Southbrook Vineyards .

Biodynamic horn
OBV Workshop
Monty Waldin  is known for his work in Europe defining the steps for implementing then acquiring Biodynamic certification. I have to say that his address continually lost me. Partly due to a heavily accented and rambling talk and partly with ’horn-hoof’ juxtaposed with a ‘grape vine-root’. This was compounded by describing the influences of astrological and sun/moon phases on vineyard care. Constellation references without foundation in science leaves an engineer like myself in disbelief, however, these are elements of Rudolf Steiner’s original treatise and I shouldn't 'shoot the messenger'. Recent crop ‘before and after’ photos demonstrating the effect of each step (500 through 508) of biodynamics would have been convincing. The OBV Workshop booklet summarized the subject very well.

Biodynamic soil
One claim I found difficult to believe was stated as 'fact' that cows without horns are ‘less flavourful’.  Maybe so?  Horns are sometimes removed early in a cow's life to lessen damage to bovine enclosures or transport vehicles as it moves to the dinner plate. Monty Waldin stated that horns and hooves form a bond that purportedly reinforce a cow’s role that is essential to biodynamics. Horns along with varied parts of a cow are used to sheath organic solubles that are prepared usually over winter or dormant periods. These solutions are then sprayed or located in vineyards at certain times to control a vine's root growth, its canopy form and to protect vines from a rash of seasonal pests. The manure used in step 500 must be from animals certified as not having been fed genetically modified elements. The attached videos demonstrate a few of the biodynamic stages.

Ann Sperling's years in viticulture clearly showed the practicality gained by her field experience and as a widely consulted winemaker. Her considerable hands-on experience easily addressed questions from the audience of approximately seventy. Controlling insects, slugs/snails, fungi, moulds, above and below ground either by interrupting its natural development or introducing natural enemies depends heavily on a knowledge of life cycles from egg or spore to infestation and on daily monitoring of the vineyards. It was evident Ann is committed to a practical implementation of biodynamics. 

In the early stages of acceptance there's still considerable work to convert old ways to new. This applies to all winery staff with a heavy investment by owners.  Biodynamics is a major step and those wineries adopting it should be encouraged in their efforts to change a local industry entrenched in conventional and commercialized practises. As a consumer I look forward to a time when I can look a bottle in the label and be assured the age of -cides is behind us. 

My look at things,


I’ve included a series of videos below to expand on experiences with biodynamics by other winemakers. Hopefully these will encourage you to investigate the benefits of biodynamics as experienced by winemakers at a later stage in their implementation. The difference between conventional and biodynamic can be dramatic. Without question consumers should encourage earlier use of biodynamic principles to enable a natural product in the bottle. 

Paul Dolan on Biodynamic farming & winemaking

Applying the Biodynamic Preparations at Rosnay  (Australia)

Biodynamic Preparations with Mike Benziger  (California)

Monty Waldin - Biodynamic Winemaker (Europe)

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