Debunking Biodynamics with Stu Smith

Last week Paul and I had the pleasure of hosting Stu Smith, co-founder of Napa’s Smith-Madrone Winery, for dinner. We had been looking forward to this get-together for a while, but recent events in the wine blogosphere added a new sense of urgency to the event. A few weeks ago, Stu started a blog that stirred up a bit of controversy. Called Biodynamics is a Hoax, the blog aims to debunk this agricultural philosophy that’s become quite the cause célèbre in the wine world.

Biodynamics is based on the writings of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. Biodynamics posits that each farm is a self-contained unit, with complex relationships between plants, soil, animals, and even the cosmos. Biodynamics incorporates organic farming (that is, working the land without the use of of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and the like), as well as some more fanciful techniques. This includes the use of biodynamic preparations in the soil, like composted chamomile flowers that have been stuffed in a cow’s intestine and buried underground for the winter. According to Steiner, these preparations bring “forces” to the vineyard, the soil, and the vines so that the soil is ready to “receive energies streaming down from the cosmos and upward from within the earth itself.” (I’m quoting from Monty Waldin’s Biodynamic Wines. Waldin is a well-known and vocal proponent — and producer — of biodynamic wines, and this book provides a handy summary of Steiner’s very, very extensive writings.) Steiner also thought farmers should work the land  in accordance with the phases of the moon.

As you could probably tell from the name of his blog, Smith thinks biodynamics is complete hogwash. Here’s a sample from his introductory post:

“I submit that if you believe in science you cannot believe in Biodynamics, and the corollary is just as true, if you believe in Biodynamics you cannot believe in science.  As you can tell by the title I believe that Biodynamics is a hoax and deserves the same level of respect the scientific community has for witchcraft, voodoo and astrology.”

Stu had long looked askance at the biodynamic movement, but recently felt it was time to go public about his opinions. Fundamentally, he sees biodynamics as an example of Americans turning away from science. Or, as he puts it, “we’re moving into the 21st century by going back to the Dark Ages.”  A graduate of UC-Davis with 40 years of winemaking under his belt, Smith approaches the whole biodynamic endeavor with a healthy dose of Voltairean skepticism. He sees outing biodynamics as his civic duty — and some of his fellow citizens agree. After he wrote a letter to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat last year debunking biodynamics, he says his many of his neighbors and peers thanked him — but when he asked them to chime in publicly, they refused, citing their business interests with biodynamic producers. (And no, he’s not naming names.)

Of course, as the proprietor of a non-biodynamic vineyard, Smith has a vested interest in this debate. For biodynamic adherents to say that their soil, vines, and wines are superior to non-biodynamic ones without research to back these claims is a shot across the bow. Nonetheless, he comes across as exasperated and incredulous, rather than angry or threatened. He couldn’t help but laugh when he recounted some of Steiner’s zanier theories. One of Smith’s favorites: Steiner believed that our predecessors on earth were Atlanteans (yes, as in habitants of Atlantis) who could fly around in air ships powered by germinating seeds. (Check out Atlantis: The Fate of a Lost Land and Its Secret Language on Google Books if you want more.) Of course, you can believe in biodynamism without believing in the rest of Steiner’s wackiness–but the whole germinating-seeds-powering-air-ships thing should at least give one pause.

For Smith, the lack of scientific proof is a major sticking point. Where’s the evidence showing that biodynamic wines are better than non-biodynamic ones? There are many excellent producers around the world that have gone biodynamic, with great results. But are these wines measurably better than they were prior to biodynamics? (As Smith pointed out during our dinner, Domaine de la Romanée Conti made pretty decent wine even before they started experimenting with biodynamic techniques.) And if they are, how do they know what caused the difference? Biodynamic viticulture requires that producers go organic and wean themselves off of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and the like. There’s an abundance of research out there showing that organic agriculture is beneficial to the health of the soil. (See here or here, just for starters.) So is it the organic piece of biodynamism that makes the wines better? Or is it the biodynamic piece — for example, the fact that your compost has been sprinkled with yarrow flowers that spent a year decomposing in the bladder of a red deer stag? (This article from The World of Fine Wine lays out a similar argument.)

I’d add that biodynamics is possibly closely correlated with some other factor that explains high quality. It’s expensive and time-consuming to farm biodynamically, and all that extra time and attention (and money) spent on the vineyard might account for the improvement, rather than the biodynamic practices themselves.

Of course, while it’s undeniable that there are excellent biodynamic wines out there, it’s equally true that there are terrific non-biodynamic wines in the world. To insist that biodynamics somehow has the monopoly on excellence makes no sense.

I admit, there’s something about biodynamic agriculture that’s incredibly appealing–hell, I’ve written here about a lot of biodynamic and organic wines that I really like. See for example, another passage from Waldin:

“Whereas the conventional chemical, and even the organic, approach allow the substances [in the soil] that are missing to determine the substances that need to be applied, the biodynamic approach thinks in terms of living forces in addition to substances. Scientific knowledge of soil chemistry is not completely discarded by biodynamic growers, but they are also looking to go beyond it, using biodynamic compost to release these forces into the soil, the crop, and the farm as a whole.”

Living forces! Who wouldn’t want to drink a bottle of wine that was imbued with living forces? I’m not sure what that means, but it sure sounds good — magical, even. And couldn’t we all use a little magic these days? Especially those of us who devote a lot of time thinking tasting, drinking, and writing about wine (and zero time producing it). Because in general, we’re a pretty jaded lot, and fairly homogenous at that — myself included. Urban, left-leaning, secular. We roll our eyes at people who talk about the power of prayer, but then we speak of making “pilgrimages” to Michelin-starred restaurants and embrace the kind of mysticism that calls for burying a horn full of cow shit in a vineyard because “Steiner saw the cow horn as a powerful captor of astral energy.” (Waldin, again.)

Are many of these wines wonderful to drink? Of course. History is littered with examples of humankind turning away from modernity  in the hopes of returning to a simpler time — to beautiful effect. Think of the Arts and Crafts movement, with its emphasis on the handmade, craftsmanship, and designs and motifs drawn from nature. At the end of the 19th century, it provided a respite from the dreariness of urbanization and industrialization. In many ways, we find ourselves at similar moment, when our yearning for the sublime has us looking for religion in a glass of cloudy, oxidized white wine or loaf of artisanal bread. Biodynamics is a great and quirky story, and one that satisfies our longing for a sense of mystery. Just don’t confuse it with science.

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