Sunday, November 18, 2007

Biodynamic Wine: Skepticism

One of the new catch words in the wine world is "Biodynamic." Producers may boast that their wines are Biodynamic, as if this makes them better or more special. But what does Biodynamic really mean, and are they really better than other wines?

Biodynamic agriculture originated in the ideas of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), a writer and philosopher. He spent time investigating the spiritual world and this led to his development of anthroposophy. This philosophy alleges that that spiritual world is accessible through inner development. Using this philosophy as a foundation, Steiner developed biodynamic agriculture. This was detailed in his "Agricultural Course" of 1924.

Biodynamic agriculture is considered one of the earliest descriptions of organic farming. It treats a farm as an individual organism, with a unified relationship between the soil, plants, animals, and farmer. Everything needs to be in a proper balance. There is a definite spiritual aspect involved.

Though Biodynamics includes organic farming, it goes beyond that. It includes more esoteric items such as using fermented herbal and mineral preparations as compost additives and field sprays. It also relies on using an astronomical calendar, especially the moon phases, to determine the proper times for planting and harvesting.

The term Biodynamic is now used as a trademark by the Demeter association, which certifies farms as Biodynamic. Demeter International is an organization of member countries, each with its own Demeter organization. Demeter International has a set of production standards that all their organizations must meet. The original Demeter organization was founded in 1928 and the the U.S. branch was formed in the 1980's.

But does Biodynamic agriculture make better wine? That is an area of controversy. Obviously those who practice this form of agriculture believe it works. And there have been a few studies that seem to give some support to them. But there are many opponents who question such studies and claim that Biodynamics does nothing more than what can be accomplished through organic farming.

Robert Parker uses Biodynamics in his vineyard in Oregon, which he owns along with his brother-in-law. Jancis Robinson, another leading wine writer, has also supported Biodynamics.

I am certainly not qualified to determine whether Biodynamics works or not, though I will state I am skeptical of such claims. The mystical aspect of their agricultural methods does stretch my idea of credibility.

I recently read a new article debunking the idea of Biodynamic wine in the latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer (Nov./Dec. 2007). It is an interesting article and if you are interested in the topic you might want to pick up a copy. The article is currently not available on their website though it might be in the future.

The article, "Biodynamics in the Wine Bottle" is written by Douglass Smith and Jesus Barquin. Smith has a PhD in philosophy and an Advanced Certificate with Distinction from the Wine & Spirits Education trust. Barquin is director of the Instituto Andaluz Interuniversitario de Criminologia at the University of Granada. In 2006, Barquin was also awarded the Spanish Nationa Prize in Gastronomy for his writings on food and wine.

First, the article examines Rudolf Steiner and his writings on Biodynamics. It states that "They are marked by clear falsehoods, disgressions, and odd fantasies." (p.46). And it points out some specifics. One example is that Steiner claims plants are never really diseased. It just appears that way because Moon influences in the soil are too strong.

Second, the article moves on to a discussion of the research findings concerning the alleged efficacy of biodynamics. Many of the studies have compared Biodynamics to nonrganic farming. This is not an effective study though as most agree organic practices are better than nonorganic farming. And Biodynamic farming is also organic so it would not be a surprise it does better than nonorganic farming. What would be a better comparison is Biodynamic vs regular organic farming. But few such studies have taken place.

There was one such major study, a 21 year old study, that seemed to support Biodynamic over regular organic but the study does have problems. Other such studies have found nothing different between Biodynamics and regular organic.

The article ends with asking whether there is any harm to farmers using Biodynamic practices. It concludes that it is a waste of time, effort and money. And that can lead to higher prices for wine, especially if the winemakers can convince the public that Biodynamic wines are better than regular ones.

The article does provide a number of references, both books and websites, for the information in the article.

I am sure this article is not going to settle the controversy over Biodynamics, but it does add some things to consider. If anything, it points out that further research studies may be needed to prove matters one way or another.

So what are your thoughts on Biodynamics? Do you feel there is a difference in taste in Biodynamic wines? If so, what is the difference? And how do you know it is from the Biodynamics and not just the fact they are also organic?

(Just a quick update: Smith and Barquin have another similar article in The World of Fine Wine that you might want to check out as well.)

8 comments:

GAntoine said...

Great Article!

The notion of Biodynamic practice in a vineyard MUST be clarified and explained to the consumer:
1) Numerous wineries are certified Biodynamics ONLY for a part of their vineyards. In my opinion, having a Biodyanmic Block next to a block conventionally treated is useless.
These wineries wants to use the word " Made with Biodynamic grapes" for some marketing reasons and only for this purpose.
Consumer: Ask the winery if their vineyards are 100 % Certified Biodynamics.

2) Demeter is a certification company that does not respond to any governmental criterias such as USDA (National Organic Program). Because of this total independance, Demeter can make the choice to certify a company at their own will. Some wineries can be enough powerfull to be certified without putting enough effort into it.

3) Research and Biodyamics:
Some universities in US are doing some reasearch about Biodyamics practices in the vineyards. In order to conduct the research, they will need to have a control (conventional or Organic farmed vineyard). The main problem is to find a control who responds exactly to the same criterias such as agrology, exposition, geology, macroclimate interaction, etc...
Conducting an scientifical experiment requires expertize in all the topics named above... Who have the ressources?
Also, research will give numbers and statistics.....
How can a phD scientifically demonstrate that a Biodynamic wine taste better???
Taste is subjective and none scientifical.

My advise: To know what is the result of Biodynamy in food products, just taste a Biodynamic Tomato! This is a product where the numbers of molecules forming aromas are extremely low and therefore less complex in order to detect the difference.

Jack said...

First, you need to allow people who aren't registered blogger users to leave comments, like 99% of blogs out there. By not doing so, you discourage comments on your blog.

Second, I find in some Biodynamic white wines, a purity of fruit that I just don't see in other wines.

Third, why not try a whole bunch of biodynamic wines yourself and you tell us what you think? :) Here's a list of producers I've made. Note it doesn't differientiate between 1) Fully Biodynamic, 2) Biodynamically grown, 3) Some Biodynamic practices (although this is indicated when known).

My list:
http://www.forkandbottle.com/wine/biodynamic_producers.htm

Fourth, I think two the reasons you see more and more wineries switching to biodynamics (even in the US!) is that the vineyard's soil is clearly healthier and biodynamics is very sustainable agriculture - more so than organics.

Fifth, every vineyard owner who grows grapes biodynamically, practices biodynamics differently.

What got me interested in the first place was when I learned about it I was surprised that my cellar had a much higher percentage of biodynamically grown wine that you could have expected.

Richard A. said...

Hello Gantoine and welcome to my blog. Thanks for your comments. I do agree with most of what you have said in your three points.

Hello Jack and welcome as well to my blog. Thank you too for your comments. You do not need to be a blogger to post comments. You only need a Google account, which only takes a few minutes to sign up for.

This registeration helps reduce spam, as well as negative Anonymous comments. More and more of my bloggers are taking such steps.

Thanks for the extensive list of biodynamic producers.

Though a taste test may seem a good idea, I think there are problems with such. How does one determine that biodynamics, and no other factors, is responsible for the better taste of the wine? The taste could be due to many other factors. For a proper test, you would need two very similar wines, one biodynamic and one not. That might be difficult to find.

You stated that with biodynamics a vineyard's soil is clearly healthier. Yet where is the proof of that? The article I mentioned directly refutes such, and cites studies that also refute your assertion.

Now, if each vineyard practices biodynamics differently, then what is the minimum standard? And who determines that minimum standard? Steiner? Demeter? If there is a minimum standard, how do we determine which producers on your list meet that standard?

Thanks to both of you!

Jack said...

Sorry, but I don't believe someone should be forced to sign up for a Google (or LiveJournal) account in order to leave a comment. Tell me, which food and wine blogs make you sign up for Google in order to leave a comment? Send me your list! (Sorry, but I think you're being ridiculous here....but keeping it this way will get you as few comments as possible.)


This registeration helps reduce spam, as well as negative Anonymous comments. More and more of my bloggers are taking such steps.

Yeah, well, live life on the wild side. Others who I've gotten to switch just get more comments - and what's wrong with negative comments? Those can be the best ones. Who's going to bother to do it anonymously?

Thanks for the extensive list of biodynamic producers.

Though a taste test may seem a good idea, I think there are problems with such. How does one determine that biodynamics, and no other factors, is responsible for the better taste of the wine? The taste could be due to many other factors. For a proper test, you would need two very similar wines, one biodynamic and one not. That might be difficult to find.

I didn't suggest a taste test between ones that are and ones that aren't. I was simply suggesting you try a bunch of biodynamic white wines and see what you think. Like a Deiss, a Movia (VB, SB or RG)*, Araujo SB (2005-2006), Joly, Porter Creek chardonnay, etc. The purity of fruit is what is the one characteristic that seems to stand out to me. See if you think so, too.


You stated that with biodynamics a vineyard's soil is clearly healthier. Yet where is the proof of that? The article I mentioned directly refutes such, and cites studies that also refute your assertion.

I live in wine country. I talk to wine makers. I've been to two Biodynamic conferences this year. I read. Too many very smart winemakers/winery owners think this is so. Think about it, why would so many of these guys, like Olivier Humbrecht, M.W., convert to biodynamics and stick with it despite the extra cost, even advocate it, if it didn't give them the benefits they say?

Now, if each vineyard practices biodynamics differently, then what is the minimum standard? And who determines that minimum standard? Steiner? Demeter? If there is a minimum standard, how do we determine which producers on your list meet that standard?

Yes, Demeter has standards - tougher than the USDA Organic standards. Each vineyard is tested every year (the certification lasts only 1 year, btw). You can visit their website for details.

Richard A. said...

Jack,
We will just have to agree to disagree on the Comments issue. Yours is the only complaint I have received on such. And it has eliminated all the spam comments here. I would rather have a few meaningful comments rather than a coule dozen meaningless and inane ones from Anonymous posters.

Tasting some biodynamic wines and seeing if I like them won't prove that biodynamics is effective. There could be many reasons why such wines could be good besides biodynamics.

There are insufficient empirical studies to show whether biodynamics makes better wine or not. You can cite all the anecdotal evidence you wish but it is not sufficient proof. And just because some wine makers choose to do it does not mean it is effective either. There are plenty of other wine makers who don't use biodynamics. Are they all ignorant?

I have read the Demeter standards. They don't impress me. And the international group has minimum standards, but each national group also makes their own standards as well. Not all of the wineries on your least even adhere to the Demeter standards.

If biodynamics does make better wine, then let us see proper studies to prove that it is true.

JacquelineC said...

Wow. Some tenacious commenters here.

Did you see my post on biodynamics? The link didn't make it in to the article, but there's at least one study that showed biodynamic wines beating conventional wines in a blind tasting. It's compared to the famous US-French tasting that put California on the map.

Richard A. said...

Hi Jacqueline:
I have read your post and would be interested in the link to the study. Offhand, I would be curious as to what type of "conventional" wines were put against the bio ones. Were the "conventional" wines at least organic? How is it known that the bio aspect was the primary factor in those wines winning? Could it simply have been the work of better wine makers, and not necessarily the bio aspect? So many questions. :)

Anonymous said...

Interesting dicussion on this page!

To JaquelineC: could you please provide the link you were talking about showing that biodynamic wines beating conventional wines!

thank you very much!

Isabella