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.