Terms like “organic,” “sustainable” and “biodynamic” are tossed around frequently these days in all matters of food and drink. Like “new and improved,” such words subliminally convince us it’s a better wine. Of course that’s not necessarily so.
Though all agriculture before the Industrial Revolution was in some sense “organic,” that is to say farmers used no chemicals, the current designations are all to some extent a response to gathering ecological crises. To deny that these crises exist is criminally ignorant; to deny that they are important is morally suspect; to hope that wine drinking has nothing to do with them is infuriatingly narrow.
I wonder how to engage in wine consumption while remaining mindful of what we’re up against. And so I try to keep the ecological impact of what and how I drink close to heart. A wine made from grapes that were not sprayed with fungicides and pesticides is certainly better, from a strictly ecological perspective, than one that was.
Contemporary biodynamic practice does attempt to address the harmful effects of chemical additives – that’s one aspect of it. I have even overheard several wine professionals, desperate to make biodynamics relevant and understandable, describe it as “basically, organics on steroids.” But biodynamics in full is after something much larger than restricting chemicals. It is an all-encompassing agricultural, philosophical, ethical and spiritual system, pointed toward cultivating health rather than treating symptoms.
Biodynamics was developed in the early 20th century by the Austrian educator, farmer and theorist Rudolf Steiner. Steiner’s philosophy of “anthroposophy” led to the creation of Waldorf schools, but also has influenced fields as diverse as banking, medicine and the arts. Agriculture holds special importance for anthroposophy because it so perfectly encapsulates Steiner’s insistence on the intersections between the natural sciences, practical work and a spiritual world, intersections he insisted are real even if not observable. (It should be mentioned, too, that anthroposophy led Steiner to reject alcohol; all biodynamic viticulture carries that asterisk.)
Biodynamics operates from the principles that everything is connected and everything matters. We see quite clearly how our sleep patterns, diet and level of physical activity affect our mood and interactions with other people. Or how the need for survival leads to a desire for comfort, some extra cash and ultimately an unequal economic system. Nothing and no one is isolated, even if it often appears as if everything is.
Moment to moment, we tend to take experiences and ideas as self-enclosed events that arise out of nowhere and die in an instant. We consider the next experience or idea that comes along a new one, without history. But were we to write our own biography, we would see how laughably wrong that is. The patient contemplation, over time, of our own activities, emotional reactions, speech patterns and thoughts reveals a life which, however much pain and confusion it contains, whatever gaps our limited brains can’t account for, “makes sense” in some infinitely complicated way.
Biodynamics works like that. It is patient contemplation, over time, of how a system operates. The phases of the moon matter. The composition of the soil matters. Which bugs are talking to which birds, via which worms, matters. A million other things matter. In the wilderness, these million-plus things take care of themselves. The system carries on, adapting as necessary.
Agriculture is different from wilderness because a character walks in who wasn’t originally part of the system. That character – us – is so powerful that, unchecked, he will usually disrupt the system’s capacity for self-sufficiency. We fear and manage the wilderness. But biodynamic farming is an attempt to restore the spirit of connectivity, balance and abiding.
Biodynamic practices include aspects of other earth-friendly approaches: an emphasis on local production and distribution, kind treatment of animals and cultivation of diverse heritage breeds and varieties, in part to promote biological vigor and to act as a self-perpetuating pest-discouragement scheme. But there’s a point at which biodynamics departs from other approaches. Lunar and astrological calendars help determine planting and harvesting cycles. Various preparations are buried in a cow horn, then incorporated into soils. Teas are brewed, which become sprays for vines. “Cosmic forces” are invoked.
There’s a kooky factor, but the number of hard-nosed engineering-type vintners and farmers who have been persuaded to try some of the techniques and then, noticing the improvement in their crops and wines, have become die-hard proselytizers, increases dramatically every year.
What do all the practices, kooky and not, do to the wines themselves? I can say, with absolute certainty but frustrating imprecision: something; something real. We may not (yet?) have the instruments to measure the effects, and the empiricists among you may therefore never be satisfied, but there is something that happens. Each biodynamically produced wine expresses it differently, and more or less obviously. The closest I can come to describing the “biodynamic effect” is a suppleness, a natural loosey-goosey spirit, a fresh digestibility and freedom that signal more directly than non-biodynamic wine a sense that, “Oh yeah, right, this came from a fruit harvested from a plant growing in the ground. It’s truly, literally alive.”
The ecosystem of a wine does not end in the vineyard, of course, since a wine’s existence only manifests when it is drunk. The ecosystem includes us. The same biodynamic calendar that specifies planting and harvesting schedules according to “fruit” days, “flower” days, “leaf” days and “root” days is a model for when and how to drink and taste. As if you wanted something else to consider, right? But many studies, formal and not, have confirmed that most wines (not just biodynamically produced ones) will taste best on fruit days, worst on root days. My own mostly controlled experiments at home have confirmed it. Want to get even crazier? There’s a biodynamically correct direction in which to swirl the wine in your glass: in the northern hemisphere, clockwise. A friend and I compared swirling directions with several wines, blindly, and the clockwise-swirled wines won eight out of 10 times.
Biodynamic wines remind me, first, that wine is alive, and then that I am. (I often forget I’m alive. I’m guessing everyone does.) Everything matters. Every moment you’ve lived that you rushed by, every sensation you’ve squashed by paying attention to something else, was alive and had something to offer. There’s no use in regretting that, but there is use in trying to commit to paying more attention. A wine produced biodynamically can help with that, by coming through more clearly and cleanly, generally speaking, than its non-biodynamic counterparts. Its clothing will be less cumbersome, its signals less muffled.
I’ve attempted here to provide a mostly theoretical introduction to why this increasingly prevalent approach to wine matters. In coming weeks, I will delve into some of the wines themselves, and offer a more practical guide to exploring them yourself.
Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. He can be contacted at: