The Science Vs the Fiction Behind Biodynamic Wine – A Talk with Author Monty Waldin
Biodynamic wines have an air of supernatural mystery that tends to divide wine lovers into hard devotees and Mulder or Scully types: those doubtful but who want to believe and those who are skeptics to the bone. It is a topic in which often, opinions outnumber facts and well-researched and educational material that is also engaging and balanced enough not to alienate any reader, convinced or dissenter, is not something you’d find every day.
We had the opportunity to talk to biodynamic wine writer, critic and consultant Monty Waldin, author of Biodynamic Wine, a book published last year as part of Infinite Ideas’ Classic Wine Library. The book, described as “a comprehensive and entertaining guide to the most argued-about green wine-making phenomenon of recent years” is sufficiently detailed to provide useful information to experts, and approachable enough to be of interest to those with a less advanced knowledge of these types of wines.
People differ on biodynamic wines being suitable for vegans, some argue that it is because the product itself is vegan, others claim that the use of animal parts in the farming are enough for it not to be. What’s your opinion?
“The official definition for vegan and vegetarian wine – as far as labeling is concerned – revolves around the winemaking rather than the grape-growing.” Regarding the winemaking, Monty Waldin points our that “animal-derived products like egg whites, gelatin, casein, and isinglass are used in the processing of some (but by no means all) wines–be they conventional, organic, or biodynamic”, however, there are drop out of the wines before bottling. Because traces might remain, “vegans will avoid wines made using any of the above products.”
When it comes to grape growing, he points out that “animals are an integral part of biodynamics. Each farm or vineyard should have a balance between land given to the crops being grown (grain, grapes) and wild habitat and as far as possible animals should become part of the crop-growing process.” In a biodynamic vineyard, sheep might graze the land, horses might be used for ploughing weeds and chickens are good at scratching and pecking the soil.
The particularity of biodynamics is the use of nine so-called ‘preparations’. Three go onto the vineyard as liquid sprays, the other six go onto the vineyard via the compost pile into which they are put as it is built.
There are three “spray preparations, made from quartz/silica (the world’s most abundant mineral), cow manure and a wild plant from the horsetail family.” and six “compost preparations which are made from yarrow flowers, chamomile flowers, dandelion flowers, and valerian flowers, stinging nettles, and crushed oak bark.”
Monty explains that six of these preparations do involve animal organs: “a female cow horn in two cases, and a deer bladder, a cow intestine, a farm animal skull (pig, sheep, cow), and a cow mesentery in the case of the others.” These preparations can either be exposed to the sun or buried in the earth “for set times linked to seasonal and celestial cycles.”
It seems odd to use animal organs like this but biodynamics was developed by Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s in Europe. Many householders (like my maternal grandfather) still kept some of their own animals for meat, milk, and eggs… Butchering would have been done at home and handling animal parts was part and parcel of life.
Rudolf Steiner, a name revered by believers in biodynamics, was the man “who devised biodynamics and gave a series of lectures about it in 1924 (known as the ‘Agriculture Course’)”.
Some people say biodynamics is close to a cult. Is it?
“There can be that aspect to it but when I hang out with biodynamic farmers (who have often been using biodynamics for over 40 years – most wine-growers have less than 15 years of biodynamics under their belts) I feel like I am hanging out with people who have both knowledge and wisdom, two very different things. And wisdom not just of farms, farming, and farm animals, but also of life, the real essence of life and not the triviality of everydayness which is what we are so often distracted by.
I also get the sense that despite being often derided as being a bit oddball these people really understand just how important bees, clean water, fertile farm soil, animal welfare and a biodiverse landscape in which everyone in the food chain can feel they have a stake are. Biodynamics is the best tool I think we have to get out of the mess we are in being the most cost-effective way of taking carbon out of the sky and putting it back in the soil.”
— Monty Waldin (@MontyWaldin) July 14, 2015
Is it possible to make biodynamic wine without believing in the most esoteric parts of its making? Is it common for business-oriented winemakers to “tick all the boxes” while being skeptics themselves?
“Biodynamic wine-growers are a mixed bag. To give you an example. France’s first biodynamic wine-grower Eugène Meyer in Bergholtz in Alsace started in the late 1960s having been injured by a pesticide. His homeopath told him to buy some biodynamic health products to help heal the effect the pesticide had had on his damaged optic nerve. He followed his doctor’s advice, and then converted his vines to biodynamics. The wines (all whites) have a really noticeable backbone or core to them. They are the very definition of ‘food’ wines. This is a pretty much under-the-radar estate. They show how brilliantly the biodynamic toolbox can be used to get results with hard work but without sermonising or esotericism.
In contrast another of France’s pioneering biodynamic wine-growers who was really into the ‘esoteric’ or ‘spiritual’ side of biodynamics and made no secret of the fact when giving speeches and lectures on biodynamics made wines often described in the media as being underperformers, especially since the vines were growing on a really good site. Results, not words, are what count.
There are a fair few wine-growers out there who are not biodynamic at all but who nevertheless will drop the word ‘biodynamic’ into a conversation when in front of the media or with potential buyers eg. professional importers and retailers; amateur wine lovers at wine fairs, but without really knowing anything more than superficial things about biodynamics.
Saying you ‘farm by following moon cycles’ sounds nice but is essentially meaningless. Most farmers are aware of and will sometimes work to lunar cycles even if they spray pesticides.
Following lunar cycles is part of biodynamics but following lunar cycles does not make you biodynamic.
I guess if people are dropping ‘biodynamics’ in to their sales pitch it shows how biodynamic products – milk, meat, Muscadet – are seen as having something extra in terms of quality and nutritive value.”
Is it possible to believe in biodynamics and disagree with the Anthoposophy philosophy?
“I think that would be hard because you can’t have biodynamics without the anthroposophy bit.” Monty explains that anthroposophy is “spiritual science or a way of looking at the world which starts by saying there is no matter without spirit and no spirit without matter”, a crucial principle of biodynamics.
The land on our planet Earth is seen as part of a wider environment and being subject to forces streaming in from the celestial sphere which shape us, our food, our planet and the dynamics of life as we know it.
This is why according to Steiner it is impossible to understand life without considering that everything which happens on Earth is a reflection of what happens outside in the wider universe.
Some biodynamic growers are very anthroposophical, but few make that public.
Monty Waldin believes that “most growers see biodynamics as something which works well in the field” but “your brain must be open first.” He points out that Steiner “was able to think outside the box because he was an anthroposophist”, for example in the way he predicted the bee crisis the world is currently facing, which he emphatises it’s “real and a real danger to our very existence.”
While he points out that “the more you do biodynamics the more ‘anthroposophical’ you get almost by osmosis”, this doctrine is not without criticism. Detractors will point out its subjective nature and lack scientific evidence. Some controversy on this philosophy has also been raised due to principles that nowadays are often interpreted as racist.
Most biodynamic wine-growers are not fully paid up anthroposophists, but that does not invalidate what they do in my view. But it may do for hard-core anthroposophists who (usually) do not drink alcohol because of the risk alcohol poses in interfering with one’s inner spiritual development. I think they have a fair point on that one.
Some winemakers claim that they can’t afford to get a certification. As you said in the book, some avoid it because they have something to hide, but, how much can it cost to become Demeter certified? Would this be a legit excuse for smaller and honest winemakers that follow biodynamics but can’t afford it?
“Certification costs are calculated either by how big the farm/vineyard is or as a flat fee (percentage of turnover)”, explains Monty.
In Europe costs of certification are generally outweighed by the subsidies one gets from the European Union (EU) for going organic. This money helps farmers get through the transition from “chemical” to organic/biodynamic farming.
These subsidies are not available in New World regions such as California, Chile, New Zealand and South Africa, which perhaps explains why approximately “90% of the worlds organic/biodynamic vines are in Europe”.
“By getting certified you make a public commitment that you want to farm in a different, and better, way. It makes your job more than just being a farmer or making money but someone who is prepared to take on a kind of moral responsibility to try and leave the land in better shape that you found it.”
Would the pairing of a biodynamic wine with food that hasn’t been grown organically affect it? Is it advisable to pair it only with organic/bio foods?
“No, and no. Pairing a biodynamic wine with non-organic/biodynamic food should ideally show the differences in the taste, colour, flavour, and smell of our food between the two farming systems, and the extra vitality that biodynamic produce in particular often has.
Pairing biodynamic wine with organic/biodynamic food makes sense simply because of the far higher welfare and environmental standards that organic and especially biodynamic rules impose on food producers, particularly for how farm animals like chickens, sheep and cows are fed, watered, housed and grazed.”
Has it happened that a certified maker looses it certificate? (no need to name manes, but would this be a common occurrence?)
“I don’t know of to many BD vineyards who have lost their certification because they were not obeying the rules. I know of some who have withdrawn for reasons of cost (paying for certification and the time it takes to do the paperwork); or because they felt uneasy working with those biodynamic preparations made using animal organs (cow horns, deer bladders) as sheaths; or because they did not see any marketing advantage.
The latter is perhaps the most common complaint – but is usually made by growers who didn’t make great wine anyway (eg. wines which tasting dirty by being aged in old oak barrels needing a clean), and always struggled to sell it, and thought biodynamics was a magic bullet.”
I read a few mentions on the book where it says that biodynamics were banned during Nazi Germany. i.e. “Pfeiffer helped develop biodynamic farms in Germany (…) not long before the Nazi regime outlawed biodynamics” (p. 103). However, after doing some research on the matter, seems like the relationship was more complicated than that and that there was often sympathy if not support for biodynamics during the Third Reich. Was there a division between biodynamic farmers that got some supported and some exiled?
“I’d suggest looking at original German texts regarding the people involved in biodynamics, anthroposophy, and theosophy from around 1900 to the 1950s. How did what biodynamics meant to people differ between those who stayed (voluntarily or under duress) in Germany from those who fled (eg. Ehrenfried Pfeiffer) or were exiled?”
Do you think that science will eventually prove right many of the empirical finds biodynamic farmers follow? (As it has happened with meditation and some alternative medicine, maybe the explanations of biodynamic haven’t yet met their factual backup, but time will show they’re truth in a material sense?)
“There is already plenty of data out there showing the differences between biodyamic and conventional soils, how vine root systems differ in biodynamics”, Monty explains. For example, biodynamic vine shoots are more erect, biodynamic vine leaves are deeper green, and grapes are easier to ferment.
Are these differences down to the physical nature of the BD preparations – how the cow manure aged in the horn for 6 months to become horn manure ‘500’ turns into pure humus – or are they due to the ‘formative forces’ Steiner said the manure/humus would be imbued with by being buried in a cow horn.
Monty points out that science can’t measure these formative forces and that “frustrates those scientists who want to prove biodynamics is a scam, and it frustrates biodynamic farmers who want to prove biodynamics really does do what it says on the tin.”
What do you believe is the future of biodynamic wines?
“Biodynamics has a very bright future. The UN keeps telling us there is no more farmable land left, farm yields have peaked, we are running out of clean water, natural resources are declining, the population is still rising.
Wine is a luxury crop. Thus wine needs to justify its existence and set an example of how biodynamic, biodiverse land stewardship makes economic, social and environmental sense and providees you a glass of something nice to drink at the end of a long day working with nature rather than against it.”
Is there any successor of Rudolf Steiner? Or to his Agriculture Course?
“No, but he did say his was not the final word, and that through close observation of nature and our relationship with it we’d be able to learn to find a balance between both our physical (food nutrients) and spiritual (brain nutrients) needs and nature’s needs.
No one has really added anything of fundamental significance to the directions Steiner laid out but we do now have the scientific tools to analyse the changes biodynamics confers on soils, plants, animals, food, and wine. And perhaps one day even on humans.”
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.