Skepticism

Biodynamic Wine: My Favorite Pseudoscience

It seems every one of my skeptic-leaning friends has a pseudoscience for which they have the teeniest bit of sympathy. Whether it’s because they used to believe it, because they understand the appeal, because they hate the way skeptics have approached the topic, or perhaps all three, I’ve found almost all of us have at least one “guilty pleasure” hiding in our bookshelves behind the Tim Minchin albums.

Biodynamics is mine.

Attendees of the “Worst Pseudoscience of All Time” debate at last year’s SkepchickCon heard my rant about biodynamics––a low-hanging fruit (pun intended) from the wine world that’s delightfully ripe (pun also intended; I promise I’ll stop now ) for criticism from any science-minded individual. It’s a “holistic” farming method derived from the spiritualist movement of anthroposophy that is typically described as something like “ensuring the farmer has maximum control of all inputs into the farm ecosystem.” Jamie Goode’s writing is the gold standard in wine journalism on this topic, so check it out for a full explanation; I’ll only touch on the highlights here.

Biodynamic farming includes the following practices:

  • Burying “preparations,” including cow manure fermented in a cow horn and flower heads of yarrow fermented in a stag’s bladder, in your vineyard
  • Planting and harvesting according to the astrological calendar
  • Paying for specific biodynamics certification for your label––and then passing that cost on to the customer through higher prices

If all this is sounding like the homeopathy of the vineyard to you (and in fact, biodynamic preparations are to be used in “homeopathic quantities,”) you wouldn’t be wrong.

My overarching problem with biodynamics is its tendency to perpetuate a “natural” wine narrative that I find problematic: as with food and medicine, the term “natural” is of limited use and much harm in the wine world. Wine is not a “natural” product; even the most “natural” wines are fermented through a process that requires human intervention at the very least, and probably a temperature-controlled cellar, man-made oak barrels for aging, and the monitoring of stability throughout maturation by addition of sulfite and other winemaking tools.

Biodynamics practitioners are often the worst offenders in this particular logical fallacy. In referring to their wine as “natural” or part of the “natural wine movement,” they imply that 1) other wines are somehow unnatural and 2) there is a “natural” way to make wine at all. Sometimes they modify the term “natural” to mean “minimal intervention,” but the above practices don’t sound minimalistic to me.

Yet anyone who’s shopped for wine with me knows that I do not boycott biodynamic wine. In fact, there are biodynamic producers among my very favorite wineries: Southbrook of Niagara, Ontario, and Shinn Vineyards, of Long Island, New York. My favorite local wine retailer keeps a fine selection of biodynamic wines in stock, as well as tech sheets and printed-out importer’s guides explaining more about how they were made, and I read them with interest.

I don’t think I need to emphasize how much I don’t believe in astrology or magic and how aware I am of the realities of “organic” farming––you’re reading this on Skepchick, after all. But there is something intangible that I do value in wine production: sense of place, or as wine writer Matt Kramer puts it so beautifully, “somewhereness.”

I like my wine to tell me where it’s from, in the same way that I like my music to tell me a new story and my fiction to take me into someone else’s head. And when a winery farms biodynamically, it follows a regimen that forces the winemaker and growing team to be so obsessive, so attentive to detail, and so focused on telling the story of their particular site that their wines can’t help but show the results. At worst, biodynamic wines are overpriced and underwhelming products that perpetuate the mythology and pseudoscience that already permeates an inaccessible and privilege-drenched industry.

But they have never, ever, ever bored me.

When you farm biodynamically, you cannot ignore your vineyard. You cannot assume that mistakes in the vineyard or cellar will be rectifiable with the addition of sorbate or glycerin. You cannot assume that people will buy your wine because of its name-brand recognition. You are probably working with indigenous yeast rather than a lab yeast you can select for whatever temperature you want to ferment and whatever flavors you want the wine to ultimately show. You cannot rely on being cheaper than the $6 tempranillo next to your bottle in the store.

On the other hand, you’re attracting wine geeks and snobs with money to spend by calling your wine biodynamic, and you’re probably fooling plenty of people into thinking your wine is somehow healthier to drink. It’s fair to ask whether wine growers’ and makers’ time might be better spent practicing techniques that have been scientifically proven to be effective, and I’ve tasted hundreds of wines that were fascinating and expressive and unique that were not farmed biodynamically.

So I’m not going to stop my gentle teasing for biodynamic producers, and I’m never going to get behind the idea that any one wine is more “natural” than another. But refusing to leave the term “natural wine” unchallenged doesn’t preclude me from tasting the finished product, any more than expressing my problems with the term “cruelty-free” stops me from selecting vegan food options.

Biodynamic wines don’t seduce me because I think there’s any science to back up what they do (read my friend Tom Mansell’s thorough and excellent analysis for the most science-based take on biodynamics I’ve found). But I’ve had enough of them to know that they usually have something to offer in exchange for the rigorous schedule and pampering they demand of winemakers and growers, and when I can afford it, I’ll admit that I will probably always be curious what that is.

juliagulia

juliagulia

juliagulia is a wine professional and freelance writer with an interest in social justice. She has been known to drink Grenache with PB&J.

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2 Comments

  1. August 13, 2015 at 3:52 pm —

    Well… I see so many errors with that article. First of all this is directly from wikipedia ”Studies have compared biodynamic farming methods to both other organic methods and to conventional methods. Most studies have found that biodynamic farms have soil quality significantly better than conventionally farmed soils but comparable to the soil quality achieved by other organic methods; the decisive factor is likely to be the use of compost and manure.” So majority of the studies say it works, you cannot dump it to ”pseudoscience bin” just because it doesn’t really fit conventional ways. Does that mean really ”cosmic forces” or ”magical powers” improve the quality of soil? Well… probably not. But as a ”skeptic” and ”pro-science person”, the question that has to be ”why, why does it work?”. It seems like it’s probably linked to use of compost. Since there are tons of crazy composts used in it, and it seems to work just do a chemical and biological research to find out which one does work and implement it to conventional ways (not the cosmic force part though). THIS is the correct way to do skepticism, instead of ”It doesn’t seem so traditional and logical, just dump it” pseudoskeptic type of mentality, use ”Does that work? If it works, which is the key part of it and how can it be implemented to conventional ways?”. Believe me, pseudoskepticism hurt humanity as much as pseudoscience.

    • August 13, 2015 at 5:49 pm —

      Michael20, given your concern about “the correct way to do skepticism,” I think you could benefit from a little more skepticism when approaching phrases like “significantly better” and “most studies” on Wikipedia. If you read the articles I linked by Tom Mansell you will find an excellent summary of the research done on biodynamics, and you’ll find that while biodynamic farms often have very good soil quality, no direct causation has been found; we can’t jump to “Why does it work?” until we establish that it does. Furthermore, biodynamics rests on principles like astrology and homeopathy that no skeptic would consider to be anything but pseudoscience.

      Things do not get to be “science” until they are proven by the scientific process to work or be true. (If I’m sick and I pray for a cure and I get better, that doesn’t make prayer a science.) If there is a scientific explanation for many biodynamic farms producing excellent wine, that does not make biodynamics itself science; as I mentioned, factors that could play a part in making good biodynamic wines include the self-selection of obsessive viticulturists and the fact that biodynamic farms often have extensive financial resources. Furthermore, if you read my post, you’d know I spent the entire thing discussing how I don’t “just dump” biodynamic wine despite the lack of direct evidence for biodynamics’ efficacy.

      I don’t disagree that hyperskepticism has the potential to be harmful, but I also don’t think you were reading carefully.

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