Voodoo on the Vine

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

But while it may be logical, it's not true. The equations to calculate the tidal forces the Moon exerts upon the Earth are standard fare for any college freshman taking an astronomy course for nonscience majors. UC Berkeley Professor Alex Filippenko teaches such a course (in addition to his advanced research on supernovae, black holes, and gamma-ray bursts). He calculates that the tidal forces exerted by the Moon upon a one-meter-tall vine or wine barrel are actually around 60,000 times weaker than the tidal forces emanating from a 175-pound man standing one meter away. Incidentally, if a two-pound bunny were to scurry beneath the vine or barrel, it would be exerting 750 to 1,000 times the tidal force of the Moon.

Steiner was on equally shaky ground when he ventured out of the ethereal world of spirits and cosmic forces to make hard claims about nitrogen formation in Biodynamic compost piles through "a hidden alchemy." He was adamant that the potassium in potash and calcium in lime are converted into nitrogen via "transmutation." He made this statement not in the Dark Ages but in 1924, when knowledge of chemistry was highly developed. It actually is possible for elements to transform into one another — but only in the radioactive inferno of a nuclear reaction. One guesses, however, that the notion of "fission in the vineyards" would not be an ideal marketing concept for Biodynamic winemakers.

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.

Vital ingredients of Biodynamic  Preparation No. 505.
Frank Gaglione
Vital ingredients of Biodynamic Preparation No. 505.
Luke Bass’ Biodynamically grown Zinfandel grapes.
Frank Gaglione
Luke Bass’ Biodynamically grown Zinfandel grapes.

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."

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