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Postmodern Winemaking

 

Biodynamics and the Limits of Rationalism

January 2011
 
by Clark Smith
 
 
The same modern science that ushered in an era of sound winemaking has left us in the tall grass when it comes to producing soulful, transformative wine styles to excite today’s competitive market. Modern agriculture also has left many winegrowers dissatisfied about the dangers that chemicals may present to workers and the environment.

Postmodern winemaking respects the fundamental mysteries of nature and the human soul. Excellence sometimes requires us to operate outside the shallow waters currently illuminated by science and wade into territory where formulas fail.

Varietal purity and sterile bottling may be fine for Riesling, but you need more game than that to play in the Cabernet big leagues. We move into the shadows in three degrees. Some phenomena are merely obscure; we know the questions but not the answers. In other areas, we have not developed language to articulate the right questions. Finally, in some important areas, organized knowledge may be fundamentally unobtainable.

Newcomers to postmodern methods are often disturbed by our high reliance on the human palate over lab-generated numbers. Because we lack tools and information, for example, to measure reductive strength, minerality or colloid shapes, today a strictly analytical approach cannot succeed. We know what the issues are, we just haven’t conquered them.

In other cases, entire fields of scientific study are yet undeveloped. Examples include the geometry of emotion,1 the study of complex systems interactions2 and the non-analytical chemistry necessary to investigate the diversity created by phenolic polymerization.3

I believe areas of fundamental mystery exist for which science can never provide useful answers. Theory can prescribe musical chords, but it cannot explain why a major chord is cheerful and a minor chord is melancholy.

Every high school student knows the historic roots of science’s battle against superstition and mythology, and ever since Galileo, we have grown increasingly suspicious of myth and accustomed to testable, verifiable assertions.

But we are kidding ourselves. The slice of experience within our grasp is small. Winemakers need to delve into the shadowy realms where soulfulness hangs out, and a reliance on rationality bars access to much of our experience. We must be able to perceive without understanding.

Instinct, patient observation and pragmatic trial and error have always guided pioneers in both science and art. Theory comes later as a device for organizing our findings, masquerading as explanation. To navigate uncharted realms, we must often let go of the comforting props of plausibility, logical extension of theory and statistical testing.

The advent of Biodynamics is a great case in point. It is plain from Stuart Smith’s lively forum BiodynamicsIsaHoax.com4 that the subject boils a lot of blood on both sides. Just as the ACLU saw fit to defend the rights of skinheads to march, and as flag burners challenge Americans’ depth of commitment to the principle of free speech, so Biodynamics tests our true mettle as trained scientists.

My goal in this article is not to defend Biodynamics. It sounds nuts to me. But so does the String Theory of current vogue in particle physics. Instead, I’d like to talk about what it means to behave like a real scientist in a time of uncertainty. Many approaches to validating or debunking these practices seem worth looking at:

1. Assess its historical foundations.
2. Conduct controlled experiments.
3. Evaluate product quality.
4. Observe long-term survivability.

In addition, science has always relied heavily on the credentials and integrity of researchers. Heavy hitters are always taken more seriously. When Nobel prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling told us to take more Vitamin C, we simply took his word for it.

A disturbing number of great minds representing some of the most established brands appear simultaneously to have totally lost it. Never mind Tony Coturri, Randall Grahm and other fringe elements. What has possessed Maison Chapoutier, the Benziger Family and Jim Fetzer to bury the horn?

Dubious origins
Maybe Biodynamics’ short-term survival doesn’t really count as evidence of its validity. After all, winegrowing is more fertile ground for extreme experimentation than most other realms of agriculture. Not only does an interesting story boost marketing, but any actual quality improvements easily compensate for yield reductions.

Biodynamics founder Rudolf Steiner does have a track record that can be examined: He started the Waldorf Schools. Whether you like their approach or not, they have withstood the test of time. Critics of Biodynamics usually prefer attacking Steiner’s specific credentials as an agronomist. This doesn’t take much effort, since he had no farming experience and there is no evidence that he conducted experiments to back up his theory and methodology.

But this doesn’t prove that his system doesn’t work. Steiner’s ideas did not grow and thrive based on their innate sensibility. Biodynamic viticulture got started well after World War II, decades after Steiner’s death.

It’s not as if any truly rational system of farming exists today. The sustainability of conventional farming is in serious question, and the motives and methodologies of Monsanto and Dow scarcely bear close scrutiny.

While the efficacy of pesticides and fertilizers are well tested through experiment, what’s missing is the impact, both direct and indirect, on the whole ecology as well as the resulting wine’s quality. Modern science simply isn’t very good at modeling complex systems.

More fundamentally, systems don’t need to be rationally derived in order to work. Former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan’s defense of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” which places laissez-faire capitalism above communism’s central planning as a preferred organizing principle, stands today as prevailing economic theory.

Darwin’s vision of life itself as arising purely by natural selection from chance events was initially proposed as an argument against the theory of inheritance of acquired traits previously proposed by Lamarck. Darwin argued that innovations are generated entirely at random and survive only if they provide benefit. Origins don’t relate to results.

In any case, there is no great likelihood that we will ever reduce agronomy to testable first principles. À la Darwin, all Biodynamics needs to do in order to be valid is to survive and thrive.

Different language, same words
Steiner’s language, with its leaf days and root days, its quartz preparations and sensitive crystallizations, is part of what drives Davis-trained enologists crazy. Although the words are English, the system they construct addresses an entirely different view of reality.

The Chinese system of medicine sounds peculiar to Western ears. For the Chinese, the liver is not an organ but a whole system within a web of systems comprising a whole organism that can be nudged towards wellness. Its theory centers around correcting imbalance rather than fixing specific pieces.

Meridians and acupressure points cannot be said to exist or not exist any more than a chromatic scale exists in music, except in the musician’s mind and soul. The question is whether this way of thinking and working produces useful results for artful expression between humans—not whether it exists, but whether it communicates.

The poetic language that Biodynamics practitioners employ sounds quasi-scientific. “The preps impact the energy force,” says Oregon Biodynamic farming consultant Philippe Armenier. “They impact the soil and change the energy field of the plant.”

Armenier’s energy isn’t the stuff of Maxwell’s equations. Word confusion is the common stamp of paradigm shifts. It took physics most of the 1920s to figure out that Bohr’s and Schroedinger’s disparate theories of the electron were really just metaphorical attempts to use Newton’s particle and wave concepts in a realm where they don’t quite apply.

The affront scientists feel when alternative philosophies co-opt their language ignores the reality that many terms were recently stolen and altered by modern science. “Energy” is a very old word that was synonymous with vigor until Newtonians got their hands on it in the late 19th century. Don’t get me started on a similar recent language heist around the word “planet.”5

Do you believe in magic?
Biodynamic consultant Alan York does not seem like much of a crackpot when presenting Biodynamics’ four principles:6

1. Create a closed system of nutrients and natural resources base to the greatest practical extent. Become aware of the waste stream and capture and transform it into a fertility stream.

2. Creating biodiversity on the property. Monoculture undermines a property’s ability to resist adversity. Balance the success of various life forms in an ecosystem so outbreaks of disease are generally held in check.

3. The preparations, two field sprays (one on the soil and one foliar) and six compost preps. These support and maintain life forces. Life comes from life. However, life loses vitality and loses the ability to bring forth life. The preps aren’t fertilizers, but they are supportive of life processes such as sprouting, growing, flowering and fruiting.

4. Promotion of a holistic system that focuses on the interaction of all living things. We try to avoid acting against a specific problem, because when we do so, we produce unintended consequences. Instead, we try to work towards enhancing the robustness and health of the whole environment for the benefit of the whole ecology.

This is mostly good common sense. The problematic, emblematic aspects of Biodynamics are those darned preparations. Think about it. Without them, Demeter certification is not available. It’s an open question how much certified Biodynamic growers really believe in the preps. By analogy, you can’t get admitted into the Catholic Church unless you drink the wine and chew the wafer, but does that cement a firm belief in trans-substantiation?

Long-time practitioner Tony Coturri thinks Steiner reestablished for us an intuitive relation to agriculture by articulating his clairvoyance of our deep connection to nature. The horn ceremony reminds us of that connection.

I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt to Matthieu Chapoutier of the Rhône Valley when he says, “Where the Biodynamic method is innovative is in its use of scientific knowledge to reach the best quality by knowing when the vine needs something, and what it needs.” Sooner or later, Matt needs to put up or shut up, but perhaps we owe him a decade or two of experience in the system. In the meantime I appreciate his commitment to some sort of standard of proof.

Beyond the almighty consumer
One year into this column it’s high time to confess that, pretty much without exception, I adore winemakers. This is a special industry. Nobody with a lick of sense is in this game for the money. Our individual visions lead us all down different paths, and the consequences of each dream get shaken out in the marketplace, Darwin-style.

Putting it that way makes our passions sound saner than they are. Yet George Bernard Shaw told us, “Nothing is ever accomplished by a reasonable man,” and our industry seems bent on proving it. Something about winemaking encourages exploration, and our knowledge progresses largely through risky, outrageous experiments. In part, that’s just good business. Wineries are constantly called upon to generate new media-worthy stories.

But there’s more to the story. “If every California grower were required to live with their family in the middle of their vineyard, you’d see a lot more organic farming,” says Tony Norskog of Orleans Hill.

Scoring Steiner
A report card for Biodynamic winegrowing is pretty hard to come by. It would be difficult to invent a methodology more zany than the 501 prep, in which cow manure is buried in a horn between the autumnal and vernal equinoxes and subsequently applied in minute dilution to foliage. A conventional double-blind controlled experiment might test its efficacy by measuring pruning weights, anthocyanins production and insect populations.

But enthusiasts like Randall Grahm caution against such experiments. “You have to look within the whole system implemented over several seasons. It requires a leap of faith. Vines farmed Biodynamically have generally appeared muc h healthier (apart from the years when they haven’t).” It’s fair to say that we would not try to test, say, a new carburetor design disconnected from the rest of the engine.

Are the wines any good? That’s surprisingly difficult to say, because it depends on your definition of “good.” In surveying thousands of wines at AppellationAmerica.com, my finding is that Biodynamic wines operate under different quality rules, and like other label information such as appellation or varietal, it is helpful to know that the wine is Biodynamic before tasting it.

Personally, I like these wines. The Biodynamic flavor profile has a higher tolerance for microbial defects such as VA and aldehyde, but it holds the wine to a much higher standard in terms of flavor interest, distinctive character and minerality.7 A perfect 10 for a conventional Merlot destined for Safeway might be denied typicity status as a Bio wine.

Long-term prospects
Given a couple decades of practice, we might begin to ask if Biodynamic vineyards have achieved commercial viability. What irks Stu Smith and others is that consumer curiosity is buoying up these experiments, allowing them a competitive edge. In my view, this only partially levels the playing field for brave souls such as Grahm and the Benzigers, who are diving out of an economic airplane with the hope of knitting together a functioning parachute on the way down, and I wish them all the publicity updraft they can conjure.

We never ask an existing life form whether it is valid. If it exists, it must be viable, at least for now. One compelling reason Biodynamics is succeeding is that its restrictions and mysteries appeal to the consumer.

Monsanto’s petrochemical farming probably isn’t viable in the long term either, but nobody is calling it a hoax. There is a faith that, should problems arise, we will have the wit to deal with them. This has proven to be the case, except when it hasn’t. The built-in difficulty is that through a kind of natural selection, we are left with just the unsolvable problems. The Biodynamic practitioners have gotten off that bus a little earlier than the rest of us.

How little we understand how little we know
Any honest appraisal of scientific endeavor reveals that faith-based intuitions guide research at every turn. We believe in inferential statistics, randomized block experimental designs and medical risk factors, and we worship rationalism like a deity. In the clash of Biodynamics and science, there is plenty of faithful adherence to doctrine on both sides.

In 2010 we were confronted in California with unprecedented mildew pressure that challenged the Biodynamics farmer, and the outcome will be illuminating. I find it rather creepy, however, that the so-called scientific crowd on Stu’s blog is cheering for a Biodynamics disaster. Sorry, boys, but a real scientist doesn’t take sides or delight in the misfortunes of those with differing points of view.

Stu Smith’s blogged response to a commenter’s olive branch was, “What’s the harm and who gets hurt? Well for one, you do, if you accept the fantasy called Biodynamics, which is a make-believe world with no earthly connection to our functioning, real, material world. I don’t want to live in a society that can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality.”

Who does? But here we are anyhow. Objective truth is a child’s myth, and the nature of reality is a question the profs will always dodge. Science isn’t much of a security blanket. The more it illuminates, the more darkness is unconcealed. We hope that gaining expertise in our chosen field will give us comfort, but the opposite occurs as we realize our ignorance in ever greater depth. It makes us humble, not smug.

At the core of true science is a sense of awe and wonder. Besides the apparent benevolent intentions of its participants, I am attracted to the experiment of Biodynamics because of its intractability to conventional scientific practices. In coming together Biodynamics will benefit from scientific scrutiny, but more importantly, science itself may be induced to learn how to ask better questions.

Clark Smith is winemaker for WineSmith and founder of wine technology firm Vinovation. He lectures about an ancient yet innovative view of American winemaking.

 

 

    REFERENCES
     

     
  • 1. This requires an entirely new science for which Manfred Clynes coined the term “Sentics” in his 1978 book of that name.
     
  • 2. The Quark and the Jaguar, Murray Gell-Mann, 1994.
     
  • 3. To describe polymers, each of which is chemically unique, we need breakthroughs in physical chemistry that will enable us to characterize the properties of systems beyond individual moieties. We cannot predict skiing conditions by looking at electron micrographs of individual, unique snowflakes. We need to differentiate powder from slush.
     
  • 4. biodynamicshoax.wordpress.com
     
  • 5. planetplutowine.com/planetpluto/home.html
     
  • 6. Counter Wine Bar video series: youtube.com/watch?v=CMH_Hq2ZcuQ
     
  • 7. See “Speculations about Minerality” in the November 2010 issue of Wines and Vines
 
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LATEST READER COMMENTS
 
 
Posted on 01.04.2011 - 10:07:21 PST
 
Clark's comments are some of the most intelligent, well considered, even handed ruminations I have yet encountered on the subject of biodynamics. Many organized religions have beliefs or rituals which might be considered superstitions yet the religions themselves sometimes inspire people to become better human beings. Clark's conclusion that there can be little harm in supporting the biodynamic experiment and monitoring it with a scientific lens is more than reasonable. What if burying the horn isn't any more directly responsible for healthy vineyards than prayer is for healthy people? Science has shown that people who pray are actually healthier than people who don't. Is it the prayer itself or the ensuing approach to life that is responsible for the benefits? Does it matter? Must science exclude ritual in a quixotic search for purity?
 
Scotty in Sebastopol
 
Sebastopol, CA USA
 

 
Posted on 01.11.2011 - 12:57:38 PST
 
The article on Biodynamics is a masterpiece.

A literary masterpiece, as well a most clever apologia for Biodynamics.

Thank you

Agustin Huneeus
 
agustin
 
san francisco, CA Gabon
 
 
 
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