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Voodoo on the Vine 

The origins of the increasingly popular Biodynamic wine are steeped in the occult and bad science.

Wednesday, Nov 19 2008
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Finally, depending upon the position of the Moon in the Zodiac, the Biodynamic calendar divides the days of the month into four categories: Earth, air, fire, and water. Tasks such as pruning leaves or harvesting fruit depend upon what sort of day it is, and Philippe Coderey, the Biodynamic viticulturist for Bonny Doon Winery in Santa Cruz, said these assignments aren't arbitrary — a fire day will "always" be hotter than an earth day, "even in Antarctica." And yet a cross-check of the Biodynamic calendar for August hanging in Coderey's office with data from the National Weather Service for California's Central Coast region reveals that the average temperature for fire days was 68 degrees. Earth days averaged 71 degrees — and, between the two, the four hottest days were all earth days.

The scientific studies touted by promoters of Biodynamics are often shoddily done, not peer-reviewed, and printed in little-known journals or Biodynamic house organs. Peer-reviewed studies undertaken in the United States, meanwhile, have failed to distinguish Biodynamic agriculture from organic. The most comprehensive analysis to date, a six-year study led by researchers at Washington State University, was published in 2005. It found no significant distinctions in the organic and biodynamic plots, save for more leaves and fewer grapes from the Biodynamic vines. Too high a grape yield can result in watery fruit, so the study presented the low crop-to-leaf ratio as a point in Biodynamics' favor.

Sonoma analyst Leo McCloskey, who measured the grapes' content, however, says it's the other way around. "We measured quality factors – the total phenols, anthrocyanins, tannins, just everything," he says. "What we found is that the Biodynamic and organic grapes were the same." This means that organic vines produced fruit identical to the Biodynamic plants — and more of it — without the benefit of the time-consuming preparations. In short, the organic vines were more efficient. "Biodynamic isn't better than organic, and that gets to unearthing the politics of green in wine," he continues. "This means that Biodynamics is subject to the criticism that it's a form of green marketing."

No less a figure than Jim Fullmer — the executive director of Demeter-USA, the sole American Biodynamic certification agency — admits that "science hasn't proven our efficacy yet." But, like many Biodynamic advocates, Fullmer went on to claim that Biodynamics has deeper meanings the scientifically minded can't appreciate. As Steiner himself put it, "Spiritual scientific truths are true in and of themselves and do not need to be confirmed by experiments."

Science is not on Fullmer's side, but his movement is growing. Demeter-USA certifies roughly 60 vineyards and wineries, the vast majority of which are in California. This is but a small percentage of the business — there are thousands of vineyards in the state — but Fullmer claims 25 percent yearly growth. Demeter-USA's marketing director, Elizabeth Candelario, said that it's hard to keep up with the number of new wineries joining the organization every month. Without any sound evidence that Biodynamics is an improvement over organic agriculture, Fullmer and others say winemakers have simply "seen" the benefits. And while Biodynamic proponents chided SF Weekly's "Western" notions of scientific provability, Demeter has certainly adapted to Western notions of marketing — and licensing. It has actually trademarked the word "Biodynamic," and Fullmer confirmed that the organization has gone to court to squelch unlicensed use of the term. Candelario noted that one of Demeter's board members is Tim Humphrey, a trademark attorney for Clorox.

Criticism of Biodynamics is not rippling through the wine world – winemakers move from job to job with a regularity rivaling college football assistant coaches, and several contacted by SF Weekly were not willing to burn a future bridge, despite feeling that Biodynamics is "wacky" and "a cult."

Some established growers, however, were willing to speak on the record. "Biodynamic folks are taking advantage of the other producers by pretending to be on some higher level in terms of their empathy with the soil and the land," says Peter Cargasacchi of Cargasacchi Vineyards in Santa Barbara County. "A lot of these guys have MBAs and science degrees, and they're out there using Biodynamics as their marketing program. Well, shame on them." Ted Hall of organic Long Meadow Ranch in Rutherford adds, "It's important that people understand that organic farming is a sophisticated, science-based approach not based on a belief system. ... [Biodynamics] is a fad, because it is not based on substance. It will not persist over a long period."

And yet many of the world's most influential wine writers, including Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson, have become enthusiastic supporters of Biodynamics. Its self-proclaimed position as the "Rolls-Royce of organics" has allowed winesellers to win over overtly environmental shoppers, while Biodynamicists' claim to craft the world's most distinctive wines has ensnared connoisseurs. Tyler Colman, the writer of the popular Dr. Vino blog, recalled a conversation he had with the general manager of an exclusive Napa winery. Even though the executive wasn't enthused by Biodynamics, "he said, at his price point, everything is extremely competitive and he didn't want to allow his competitors who were practicing Biodynamics to have any sort of an advantage. He decided to switch his vineyard over to Biodynamic."

Like many in the wine world, Colman judges that Biodynamic wines trend "from very good to great" — though he isn't ready to attribute their quality to Biodynamics. And while there are inexpensive Biodynamic wines, the process tends to be taken up by winemakers skilled and successful enough to move their product for prices that justify the investments of capital and labor in a system that produces lower crop yields than conventional farming and mandates obsessive attention to detail. "We have no problem selling any of our Biodynamic wines, even though they're really expensive," Benziger told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

Demeter's Fullmer says his organization — a nonprofit — is not getting rich off of the spike in Biodynamics; it makes only 50 cents for every $100 of business from its clients. Still, Demeter is a massive international organization with outposts in 45 countries — in Europe, there is even Demeter-certified Biodynamic toothpaste. Biodynamics' American ascent may be best measured, however, via the proliferation of consultants. Over the past several years, the number working in California has increased from two to around a dozen or more. None of the consultants contacted by SF Weekly would reveal their fees, but winemakers said rates of $300 an hour are not out of the question.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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