Extract: Biodynamic Wine by Monty Waldin
26 January 2022 by Rebecca in Classic Wine Library, Extracts, Wine and spirits
The origins of biodynamics
Biodynamics dates from 1924 and is the oldest alternative agriculture movement. Biodynamics pre-dated the global organic agriculture movement whose founding organization, the UK’s Soil Association, dates from 1946. In fact the very word ‘organic’ was derived from the biodynamic ideal that each farm or smallholding should always work towards becoming a self-sustaining organism in its own right.
The particular feature of biodynamics – and where biodynamics differs from organics and indeed all other forms of alternative agriculture – is the use of nine so-called ‘biodynamic preparations’. These are made from cow manure, the mineral quartz (also called silica), and seven medicinal plants: yarrow, chamomile, stinging nettle, oak bark, dandelion, valerian and Equisetum arvense or common horsetail. These nine preparations are applied to the land or crops either by being first incorporated into a compost pile or by being diluted in water as liquid sprays.
Biodynamic preparations are used in homeopathic quantities, meaning they can produce an effect in extremely diluted amounts, but they are not homeopathic treatments per se. Their purpose is to make the farm and farmer, its crops, animals and wild habitat, self-sufficient, self-sustaining and socially, economically and spiritually robust. These concepts may seem woolly in our world of smartphones and space exploration, but would have seemed less so to 1920s Europeans coping with the ravages of both the First World War and then its even deadlier successor, an influenza pandemic.
The methods used to make some of the preparations may seem strange initially but are neither high tech, expensive, costly to the environment nor potentially harmful. Anyone, from children to grandparents, can (and do) make these preparations. The biodynamic preparations are not patented so they can never realistically be made purely for profit, and they seem to get good results for farms and vineyards.
Sceptics, however, claim the biodynamic preparations produce no measurable changes to either farm health or crop quality; thus there is no ‘biodynamic effect’. Such sceptics argue that biodynamic winegrowers owe the high quality of their wine either to having a top-quality vineyard terroir in the first place, or that vineyards which improved after ‘going biodynamic’ did so because the winegrower learnt to become extra attentive in the vineyard by following a biodynamic ‘prevention rather than cure’ mindset (e.g. better pruning, recalibrating spray machinery so sprays are more effective), and not because the vines were treated with biodynamic sprays or composts. Nevertheless, increasing numbers of winegrowers are using these preparations which are essential to biodynamic agriculture. Their regular use is the fundamental requirement of Demeter, the non-profit organization which has overseen and certified biodynamic agriculture worldwide since 1928.
The biodynamic preparations were created by an Austrian called Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) shortly before he died. His motivation was to remedy what he sensed was the arrested spiritual development of his contemporaries. Steiner believed the forces people needed to kickstart their spiritual development would come from digesting food imbued with these desirable and necessary forces, and that getting these forces into food required a new way of growing food: biodynamic agriculture. For this Steiner developed nine biodynamic preparations to moderate and regulate biological processes in nature. This is the ‘bio’ part of biodynamics. The ‘dynamic’ part comes by understanding the preparations’ role in enhancing and strengthening forces that form or shape material substance, both on the farm and within both the farmer and the crops. These forces are referred to in biodynamics as ‘etheric formative forces’. Like gravity, they are unseen but have a tangible effect on both soil and on crop plants as well as on the animals or humans who digest those plants. Steiner’s nine biodynamic preparations can therefore be thought of as spiritual remedies for the human being which are administered indirectly through the healing process of the Earth. Biodynamic farmers accept that there is no substance or matter without spirit, and equally no spirit without matter. So the point of growing biodynamic food and drink is not only to provide the substances (vitamins, carbohydrates, protein, fats, minerals) to nourish the human body but also to provide the forces needed to form and nourish the human spirit.
The spiritual side of biodynamics is the one most open to misinterpretation, misrepresentation and ridicule. One common misconception is that apart from encouraging you to start wearing sandals and paying less attention to personal hygiene, growing or eating biodynamic food will also turn you into a religious fruitcake. I discovered biodynamics in 1993 but had struggled to find many redeeming features in organized religion from the age of seven (1974) onwards. I am not a fan of sects. I do consider myself spiritual in the pantheistic sense of feeling my spirit lift palpably when I feel a connection with the natural world. This can happen when standing euphorically on the top of a mountain or, more mundanely, when looking at pigeons fluttering around under the eaves of the railway station my train is about to depart from.
In my experience winegrowers – be they biodynamic or conventional – who come across as fundamentalist proselytizers tend not to make the best wines, often because they are inflexible and unwilling to compromise. This may be fine when churning out widgets on a production line but is not adapted to a product like wine, dependent on the vagaries of nature. Fortunately, the fundamentalist proselytizers tend to be in the minority.
Most winegrowers newly adopting biodynamics start by seeing it as I did initially: as a sensible, doable, interesting, inexpensive tool to produce tastier grapes to nourish the human palate – and if they also provide the formative forces to nourish the human spirit, so be it. Biodynamic ultras argue that this purely ‘substance rather than forces’ way of looking at biodynamics means missing the real reason we should be biodynamic. I would argue that materialistic and only vaguely spiritual people like me – meaning exactly the kind of people Steiner developed his biodynamic preparations for – first have to understand and accept how the biodynamic tool works, and only then can we perhaps appreciate that our spiritual development may have lacked something to begin with after all.
Extract from Biodynamic Wine © Monty Waldin (Infinite Ideas, 2016)
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