The Gwyneth Paltrow effect is real. Americans are paying more attention than ever to organic and biodynamic products. More than 80 percent of us buy organic products for our households, and the organic wine market is predicted to grow by nearly 10 percent annually through 2021.
Biodynamics, a moon-centric science whose adherents coordinate agricultural efforts with the lunar cycle, is now gaining popularity within the wine community. Certain wine lovers allege that the position of the moon actually affects the way wine tastes from day to day. Some sommeliers even whip out their smartphones during tastings to consult apps like When Wine, which outlines the best days for drinking wine based on moon cycles.
“The lunar cycle has been tracked and used in agriculture for centuries,” Ryan Arnold, wine director of Lettuce Entertain You’s restaurants in Chicago and Los Angeles, says. “The moon and stars’ position and distance from the Earth certainly affect vine growing and wine tasting.”
I’m all about vineyard sustainability and respectful farming, but the idea of tasting wine according to the biodynamic calendar seems to tiptoe across the line from reality into voodoo. Armed with an in-office tasting experiment, I decided to determine once and for all: Is the idea that the moon can affect the taste of your wine legit? Or is it just a bunch of bullsh*t?
Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner is credited with first teaching biodynamics. But Maria Thun was the one who, in the 1950s, studied the effect that the passage of the moon through different zodiac signs had on farming. Thun divided all days into four different categories: fruit, when the moon travels through fire sign constellations; flower, when the moon travels through air signs; leaf, when the moon travels through water signs; and root, when the moon travels through earth signs. (When the moon isn’t in any of these positions, that period of time is referred to as a “node.”)
Put simply, fruit and flower days are good. Root, leaf, and node days are bad. “Theoretically, wines tend to be most effusive and flashy on fruit or flower days, and tend to be more reticent and bashful on root and leaf days,” says Caleb Ganzer, wine director and managing partner of La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels in New York. While some say that these tasting principles apply to all wines, others believe the effects are amplified in biodynamically produced wines.
“I’ve heard of many of the natural wine producers and tasting organizations scheduling large-scale tastings around these biodynamic calendars,” Ganzer says. Nicolas Joly, often considered the father of biodynamic winemaking, has reportedly refused to open his wines on a root day, even when traveling across the Atlantic for U.S. tastings.
To put theory of tasting according to the biodynamic calendar of moon cycles to the test, I conducted a small, somewhat unscientific experiment of my own. I tasted two wines — the Sulauze “Cochon Rouge” 2015, which is farmed biodynamically, and the Domaines Barons de Rothschild “Légende” Médoc 2015, which is not — on a fruit, flower, root, and leaf day, as specified by Maria Thun’s 2018 calendar.
As a control, I opened a new bottle of each wine on each tasting day, and in an attempt to keep the power of suggestion to a minimum, I had no idea which tasting day was which until the culmination of the experiment.
The first day of tasting both wines seemed to express distinct, almost stinky earth, and the Légende Médoc was particularly green. This led me to theorize that it could possibly be a leaf day. Wrong — it was a fruit day, supposedly the best day for tasting wine.
Day two was my favorite expression of both wines, the Légende Médoc coming across as rich, elegant, and “more expensive,” according to my tasting notes, and the Cochon Rouge having less stink and more pretty, juicy fruit and floral notes. It was — drumroll, please — a root day, the day on which the calendar strongly advises against tasting. I did correctly suggest that day three might be a flower day, since aromas in both wines were high-toned in nature, but that questioning note was quickly followed with the more realistic comment: “Now I’m just making sh*t up.”
Day four was more mellow and muted than any of the others, but the wines didn’t taste bad by any means. I postulated that it might be a root day (it was a leaf day), but really, I just suspected that I had become overly familiar with both wines by this point.
The wines did not show poorly on any of the tasting days, but they certainly did taste different from day to day. Sure, there were discernible differences in both wines from one tasting day to another, but I could not attribute those variations to the positions of the moon. For one thing, my perceptions of the wines had no correlation to the given biodynamic calendar days. And for another, the differences would likely be imperceptible to an average wine drinker, who is not typically on the hunt for variations in taste.
Of course, this experiment was limited in scale, consisting of just two wines, one taster, and one set of biodynamic calendar tasting days. But it confirmed the results of a larger New Zealand study published in January 2017, which found no reliable difference between fruit and root days across tastings of 12 Pinot Noir wines conducted by 19 tasters.
The effect of biodynamics on wine is also somewhat moot, since tasting always involves a certain amount of subjectivity. Bottles are affected by standard bottle variation, humidity, or temperature changes, not to mention the human factor. Health, memory, and mood can all affect a taster’s perception of a given wine — and that doesn’t even take into account the power of persuasion.
“One thing that has a clear impact on taste — beyond our evolution-driven innate preferences, or cultural tastes — are human emotions,” Geoff Kruth, Master Sommelier and president of the Guild of Sommeliers, writes in a GuildSomm discussion thread. “Just like price, label design, expectations, or the environment you are drinking in, if you think something will have an impact on a wine’s taste, then it will!”
Fruit, flower, root, leaf, or node — any day is a good day for popping a favorite bottle. Don’t hesitate to open that much-anticipated Burgundy on a root day, and don’t feel pressured to opt for Champagne over tequila on a fruit day.
But if a wine tastes off to you, perhaps you can blame it on the moon, not your palate. We don’t suggest using that excuse during a Master Sommelier exam, though. It’ll take more than the heavens and the earth to get away with that one.