I suppose my outlook on Biodynamics is similar to my outlook on lots of things- it's fine to have a core set of values and beliefs, but if you adhere to any set of credences too rigidly, you can go off the rails... And I think that's where I fall on Biodynamic viticulture.
If you aren't super hippy dippy, you may be wondering what Biodynamics is. I'll give it to you in a nutshell, and provide some links to where you can find out more if you're curious. Bear in mind, I'm no expert on the subject, I'm just going with what I already know.
Biodynamics is an agricultural approach founded in the early 1920s in Austria by Rudolf Steiner (who also helped found the first Waldorf Schools. An interesting, probably brilliant, and kooky man.) It views agriculture from a holistic standpoint, treating soil health, plant growth, and livestock as all part of the same big ecosystem (that's the part I really like.) The goal is to let each of those elements feed the other, with limited interruption by humans and no synthetic chemical use.
So, for instance, in a biodynamic vineyard, you would use no synthetic fertilizers (only tea treatments made from manure,) no synthetic pesticides (some oil-based treatments for mold and fungus are ok, as are some other tea-brew concoctions. Bugs and rodents are kept away by encouraging other animals to hang out in the vineyard and eat them!) You'd also likely plant a cover crop to help with re-introduction of nitrogen and other nutrients into the soil, and would have critters like chickens running around eating bugs and fertilizing the soil with their droppings. Actually makes a lot of sense here, right? Well, yes and no. First, this is only really practical in drier areas where rots and molds aren't a huge issue. I'm not saying it can't be done, but the risk of total crop loss is pretty high if you try to do Biodynamic treatments in really wet areas. Scientifically, oils and tea sprays don't work as well as synthetic chemicals. They just don't.
There is scientific evidence to support the idea that the manure teas and fertilization efforts of Biodynamics are very useful, and obviously low-environmental-impact options. Vine nutrition stays pretty much as well balanced on a Biodynamic plan as on a conventional nutrient addition plan. They do a good job! Hooray!
Furthermore, if you're in a low disease and pest area, why not give Biodynamic treatments a whirl? You don't need to be putting nasty chemicals on your plants, so why taint the soil, expose workers to toxins, and mess with an already pretty good system? No reason!
Now... for the stuff I don't really buy wholeheartedly... Biodynamics also has some kind of unusual practices- practices that seem more like religious doctrine than anything, because in many of the scientific journals I've read, there's no science to back them up. (And I like science.) For example, rather than planting, watering, harvesting, pruning, etc, based on a calendar year or on what's actually physically happening with the vine, Biodynamics uses a lunar cycle. Yes, they plant, prune, and harvest according to the cycle of the moon. For real.
Another of the more offbeat practices involves packing a cow horn full of manure and burying it in the vineyard. Now, you can argue that as the horn breaks down, it releases silica into the soil- which, it does- but only in the small area directly surrounding the horn, not into the larger vineyard block. Seems more a superstitious ritual than a scientifically backed agricultural approach.
I think Biodynamic certification also doesn't make sense for many small growers. The rules and regulations regarding Biodynamic certification are even more strident than those for Organic certification because the list of no-no additives is a lot longer. For small wineries, simply taking the time to follow protocol and keep up with the necessary paperwork can make Biodynamics (and Organics) cost and time prohibitive.
"So," you may ask, "why do it?" Well, there's the obvious, selfless, altruistic reasoning of "because I want to leave the planet a cleaner place." And, that's valid for a lot of people. I love the idea. If we all did it, can you imagine what a pristine, healthy, lovely planet we'd have?
But, as so many of us aren't really that nice, why else would a person practice Biodynamics? Well, some wine producers believe that by not messing with a vine's nutrient balance very much, and by not using pesticides and synthetic chemicals, you're allowing the natural soil, sun, and water to affect the flavors in the berry- you're allowing a truer expression of terroir to shine through the fruit.
As you may know, I'm not 100% on the terroir hype bandwagon either, however, I can actually see how this may be true. If you're a regular reader, you know I have a soft spot for small, craft producers who don't aim for a generically uniform product from vintage to vintage- I like that grapes are different from year to year, from season to season, based on weather, disease, water, etc. That's life! We're all affected by these things and I don't think wine should necessarily pretend to be unaffected. By not messing with your vines through chemical additions, you really are giving yourself over to nature in many ways (even though Biodynamics does advocate for a schedule of manure additions.) The grapes will be different from year to year, even from vineyard block to vineyard block. Terroir will be allowed to shine through.
And that, to me, is the difference between the mom-and-pop joint, and the big corporation, right there.
Ultimately, I guess I'm not 100% on team Biodynamics, and if it were my vineyard, I can't imagine I'd go all the way to obtain certification. However, there are enough awesome elements of it that if I lived in the right place, I think it'd be great to try out the elements that work, and to toss the bits that don't (pretty much my mantra on life.)
Any questions? Deeper insight into Biodynamic viticulture or farming? Throw them my way in the comments!