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Apr 21, 2009 12:27 PM

Biodynamic Farming: Stuart Smith (Smith Madrone) vs. Mike Benziger (Imagery)

Two well-known vintners on California's north coast weigh in on biodynamic viticulture.

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  1. Here are the pieces that set this off.

    Mike Benziger video

    Stuart Smith's letter to the editor

    Imagery Estate Winery
    14335 Sonoma Hwy Glen, Ellen, CA

    Smith-Madrone Vineyards
    4022 Spring Mountain Rd St, Helena, CA

    1. Hey, you gotta love a farming method based on how the Lemurians (ancient humans with jellylike bodies and telekinetic powers) raised their crops on the lost continent of Atlantis. Some of my best friends use biodynamic methods, but they're a little strange. And that's putting it very mildly.

      If you ever see somebody doing surgery on a roadkill deer, it's probably a biodynamic farmer. "In terms of its forces a deer bladder is almost a replica of the cosmos. A deer is involved with forces that are quite different from those of a cow, which are all related to the interior. By putting the yarrow into a deer bladder, we significantly enhance its inherent ability to combine sulphur with other substances." So you pull over to the side of the road, remove the deer's bladder, stuff it with yarrow flowers, hang it from the eaves all summer, bury it for the winter, then dig it up and put it in your compost pile in the spring so that the compost can "inhale the cosmic energy."

      For more:

      To their credit, the biodynamic types do tend to spend more time paying attention to the food they're growing than most other folks. And the quality tends to be better as a result. So it doesn't bother me much that they use astrology to decide when to plant and harvest. If the Scientologists want to grow tomatoes organically and can get Tom Cruise and John Travolta to spend all their waking hours picking hornworms off the plants, I'll be happy to eat the fruit that's produced. But please don't tell me that the tomatoes are better because they're Thetan-free.

      1. The results speak for themselves--many of the best wines I've had in recent years have been labeled biogynamic. Though they're no better than other naturally produced wines.

        In addition to the sustainable and organic practices responsible for the good results, there are some ritualistic elements that could probably be dropped with no ill effects.

        8 Replies
        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          We stopped by Grgich Hills on a quick tasting tour last week and they're quite proud of their recent Biodynamic(tm) certification. I didn't know anything about it and the explanation from the tasting room guy was fairly thin with details though he emphasized the results they were seeing in the vineyards. It wasn't until I got home and did a little reading that the wackiness factor became apparent.

          One thing about ritual, though .. even if burying cow horns on the solstice morning at the compass points of your field doesn't actually have a direct causal relationship to the sugar content of your grapes, just being out there in a mindful state is going to have an effect on your overall relationship with your crop. And that changed relationship might probably have a very large effect.

          1. re: Chuckles the Clone

            Wasting time in a vineyard promulgating cosmic nonsense is not worthwhile, nor does it constitute in any way "a mindful state". If anything, it's taking your eyes off of the prize. True sustainability is a much more worthwhile pursuit, IMO. If you can't get excited enough about your grapes or wine to be out in the vineyard or winery in a mindful state, then you should make mass produced cola instead.

            Practicing Steiner-oriented biodynamic farming and farming to Demeter certification standards are two wholly different propositions. Neither is a good use of time, energy or resources (although exposing biodymanics as a marketing fraud is sure rewarding!).

            1. re: cabking

              Aside from the goofiness, why are they a waste of time and resources? I didn't get the sense from the brief description and small amount of reading that there was time being taken away from anything else that needed to be done?

              Is there actual harm?
              What aspects of true sustainability are not incorporated?
              And what precisely is the fraud involved?

              Does it cost the farms a buttload of cash for certification that ends up in higher prices?

              1. re: Chuckles the Clone

                Wasting time means ashing a gopher instead of erecting raptor roosts and owl boxes. Wasting time means applying homeopathic remedies to the vineyard instead of physiologically useful amounts of organic compost. Wasting resources means following phases of the moon rather than tasting fruit for ripe flavors and balance. In short, aside from the actual areas where scientific sustainability and biodynamic sustainability match up, it is as useful to follow the other aspects of biodynamics as it would be to read fiction on the job. Not acceptable unless you're a book critic or English professor.

                And yes, you do pay more for people wasting time and resources in the pursuit of "goofiness", especially "goofiness" that has inexplicably gained a cache.

                1. re: cabking

                  Right, but I guess what I'm wondering is, are all those "instead of"s actually instead of? Or are they in addition to?

                  There's a spectrum of hocus ranging from carrying a lucky rabbit's foot to, oh I dunno, letting your kid die because the Invisible Sky Wizard doesn't believe in blood transfusions. If the wine does end up tasting ok, how is this not like tossing some salt over the left shoulder?

                  Are there the same issues with USDA organic?

                  1. re: Chuckles the Clone

                    Before becoming certified biodynamic, producers have to go through the same 3-year transition as for USDA National Organic Program (NOP) certified organic farming, so I think that we're talking "in addition to". I'm bothered by the occult associations, but there is something going on. I've talked to grape growers who farmed organically for 10 years, then saw a big improvement when they first introduced biodynamics.

                    1. re: Melanie Wong

                      Anecdotal evidence from uncontrolled experiments coupled with the human capacity for self delusion is exactly how pseudoscience and mysticism survive. There are a multitude of problems with "big improvement" being cited as support for biodynamics. I will list just a few:

                      Was any sort of control used? Did these farmers keep some section of their fields under standard, USDA organic conditions while shifting another portion to biodynamic conditions? If not how do they know any changes were truly attributable to the biodynamic practices; it could have merely been a good year overall.

                      What was the improvement which was big? Were they improvements which were readily quantifiable (and verifiable) such as yield or sugar content or were they more intangible such as "quality of this year's vintage"?

                      Were these improvements measured by an independent, unbiased and "blind" third party? If they are measurable were the differences statistically significant?

                      Human beings have a virtually boundless capacity to see what they want to see and believe what they want to be true. I imagine these growers were predisposed to believing that biodynamics would work. As such they tended to focus more on observations which reinforced their preconception while discounting those which did not. This is extremely common.

                      Carl Sagan wrote a fantastic book called "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark" ( in which he discusses in far greater detail an eloquence than I. I can't recommend it highly enough and encourage people, as Sagan does, to equip ourselves with a "baloney detection kit".

                      1. re: Melanie Wong

                        If somebody goes biodynamic after 10 years of organic farming, it's presumably because they want to produce better grapes. That desire for higher quality may be manifested in a number of ways, not just burying the occasional cow's horn.

                        I posit that people who are willing to try anything to maximize the quality of their wine are going to produce better results than people who are more reserved in their approach. But the fact that only those quality-obsessed farmers will tolerate the silliness of the biodynamic philosophy does not mean that the biodynamic methods actually affect quality.

          2. When grower-winemakers go biodynamic they typically also make other changes, for example not destemming, switching from cultured to natural yeast, eliminating additives such as acid and sulfites, cutting back on or eliminating new oak, and dropping industrial processes such as reverse osmosis and microoxygenation. Such changes have a major effect on the flavor of the wine regardless of how the grapes were raised.

            I don't usually pay any attention to whether wines are organic, biodynamic, or neither until after I taste them, so I most of the time I can't be influenced by that stuff in judging their quality.

            FWIW, Rudolf Steiner suggested that his ideas be tested scientifically.

            3 Replies
            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              I'd love to see a scientific test of this (quoted verbatim from the Wikipedia entry on biodynamic farming):

              "Weeds are combated (besides the usual mechanical methods) by collecting seeds from the weeds and burning them above a wooden flame that was kindled by the weeds. The ashes from the seeds are then spread on the fields, then lightly spray with the clear urine of a sterile cow (the urine should be exposed to the full moon for six hours), this is intended to block the influence from the full moon on the particular weed and make it infertile."

              We're talking serious raving lunacy here!

              1. re: BobB

                Not raving lunacy, just a tradition from the days when people didn't have science to help them understand how the world works.

                Oh, wait. Steiner gave his lectures on biodynamics in 1924. Einstein had already proposed his relativity theory.

                Okay, raving lunacy it is.

                As to the claim that Steiner suggested his ideas be tested scientifically, he also insisted that they arise from "spiritual science," the truths of which are true in and of themselves and need not be tested by experiments. Consistency was not his strong suit.

                1. re: BobB

                  I wonder if it would help to save a few weed seeds and impale them on pikes around the perimeter of the field? As a warning to other weeds.

                  But seriously, if you go through the lunatic gymnastics and get your certification, does the certification also guarantee that other, actual-non-lunatic, processes were followed? USDA Organic certification is getting pretty weak ( etc. ) so crafting a hard-to-co-opt layer of nonsense over actual legitimate organic farming might be a clever idea.