“Wine 101” is sponsored by Gallo Family Vineyards, a proud partner of Mastercard’s Priceless Planet Coalition. For every bottle of wine sold where legal, Gallo family will purchase a tree. The Coalition’s goal is to plant 100 million trees by 2025. Why? Because reforestation helps reduce climate disasters. And let’s face it, trees make Earth amazing. I mean, have you seen the moon lately? To find Gallo Family Vineyards and other wines we talk about, follow the link in the episode description to TheBarrelRoom.com.
On this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers explores biodynamic wine. He traces the history of biodynamic farming, the preparations involved, and how winemakers and vine growers ensure strong vineyards and agriculture during the winemaking process. Tune in to listen to part two of this three-part series.
OR CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and I was recently asked, “You love peanut butter so much. What’s your favorite brand?” I had to think about it for a second. I was like, “What day are we talking about?”
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast. Horns and moons and nettles and earth and biodynamics: What does it all mean? Some people might think it’s weird, and it can sound weird, but it’s pretty cool stuff. Let’s understand biodynamics so we are good with it.
Thing is, here’s where we’re at in our history of drinking culture in the United States. You guys all know about organic wine. After the last episode, I hope you now know even more about organic wine and how it all began. For me, coming up in the wine world, it just so happened that my comeuppance was at the same time as the realization and the dominance of the organic movement. My business partner and I bought a restaurant and opened a wine shop, started doing all that, and then the organic movement happened. It just took over everything, which was great. Everyone was ordering more organic wine, people were understanding what organics meant and all this stuff, and it was cool. Then somebody came to me once and said, “Hey, here’s a wine.” I asked, “Oh, this is organic?” They said, “No, this is biodynamic.” What does that mean? And when they explained it to me, my head was just dizzy. Wow, this is just wild stuff. You’re talking about moons and horns and stuff like that. We’ll get into that in a second. But for us in the wine world, it was brand new. Biodynamic. What is that? It’s this crazy, very intense form of organic agriculture. Obviously, I had to look into all of this and it took me on a crazy journey. It was a lot of fun. I was able to hang out in the vineyard that did biodynamic farming, and I got to see the stuff firsthand. We’ll talk about that in a second. It was really amazing. But the thing about organics is, for some reason, we can wrap our heads around organic agriculture — compost, non-man-made stuff, and all that. When you start explaining biodynamics and biodynamic agriculture to people, it goes from understanding an organic idea to “this sounds like a cult.” It has this almost fantastical realm sound to it, almost like the Renaissance fair or D&D.
The history of this movement is rooted in the mind of one man, Austrian philosopher, occultist, social reformer, architect, and esoterist, Rudolf Steiner. This figure, this human, this man, was just out of this world and ahead of his time. I don’t know what you want to call it, but he was into everything that was about spirituality, science, and the earth. He was also a self-proclaimed clairvoyant. You can get a sense of why whatever he came up with, people would take with a grain of salt. And at one point during the 1920s, when all these farmers were worried about this NPK stuff, he did a series of lectures on his ideas of how to bring nature and agriculture back to the pre-NPK days. This is what’s so crazy about this whole thing. These series of lectures that he did made such an impact on agriculture in general with this whole organic movement. But also, he had never really put these practices into play. He just had ideas about it. When he was done with this lecture, he was like, “OK, now go out and do that. Let me know if it works.” People have been putting these practices into play and have seen results that they think are incredible. This series of lectures really just had a few specifics, and then it kind of blossomed or branched out from there. We’ll use the word “vineyard” instead of “crop” because we’re talking about wine today, wine lovers.
The whole idea is that the vineyard should become a self-sustaining, what they call “farm organism.” Remember, I mentioned that in the previous episode? So your vineyard must be one organism, then it should be treated regularly with nine specific herb and mineral-based biodynamic preparations — we’re going to talk all about that — to apply to this organism, to help feed it, give it life, sustain it, so it has its own strength. Also, all vineyard work from pruning to picking, planting, and even sometimes bottling should be timed with the rhythms of the earth. Specifically timed to the lunar cycle and what is called the astronomical zodiac, not the astrological zodiac, the astronomical zodiac. It’s astronomy, not astrology.
Now, all this predates the organic movement by at least 20 years. And in the 1960s, we started seeing winemakers and vine growers in France start using biodynamic agriculture in wine, specifically in the Loire Valley. It was slow to be accepted by a lot of people because of what we’re about to talk about. In the late ’80s, a former microbiologist who worked for the INRAE, which is basically an international agricultural research organization, said that after testing it, the soils of Burgundy’s vineyards contained “less life than Sahara desert sand.” His name was Claude Bourguignon, and he didn’t really understand how biodynamics worked, but what he did state is that at this point in 1988, winemakers that were using biodynamic practices had better wine quality and also had more life in their vineyards. Again, this is before the organic movement. This is the first indication that this stuff can work if you improve the biomass and ecosystem of your vineyard and make it strong and healthy. Of course, by this point, the organic movement was kind of getting started. It started in 1972, like we talked about, and it gained and gained and gained. As the organic movement became more and more popular, the biodynamic movement — the biodynamic idea — was put on the back burner. Because the organic movement had a global impact, and biodynamics is a little bit different. But because of the organic movement, we were able to bring biodynamics back to the forefront for a minute. Now, it’s part of the whole sustainability thing, which we’ll talk about in the next episode.
But what is biodynamic farming, Keith? Let’s start with the first thing Rudolf said. He said that the farm needs to be one organism, or one farm organism. So the vineyard needs to be one organism feeding off of itself and the natural additions and creating an ecosystem. So to create the vineyard as a farm organism, you have to apply these nine herbal treatments. This is where people start getting a little bit weird. Let me explain to you what these are so that you can get a sense of it, and it won’t sound as “cultish,” if you will. The preparations have numbers, so there’s preparation 500 through preparation 508. Each of these numbered preparations deal with one specific item individually that is then “dynamized” into a nutrient-rich form, which will then be applied to the vineyard with benefits. That right there is the definition of biodynamics. The word “dynamize” has a couple definitions, but it means “to make effective” or “to endow with force.” So you have bio, which is basically earth or biology, and then dynamics, which is dynamizing. You’re dynamizing earth elements to bring back into the earth new, like I said, benefits.
Preparations 500 and 501 are horn manure and horn silica, respectively. So this is what happens. Cow manure is stuffed into a cow’s horn. This is where all of the nutrients from the cows’ hormones are. Also there’s also ground quartz stuffed into a horn. Those horns are buried in the vineyard, where all the life of the vineyard lives for six months to a year, whether over the summer or over the winter. Preparations 502 through 507 — bear with me here — are yarrow flower, chamomile buds, stinging nettles, oak bark, and dandelion flowers. Now, these different items are often packed into animal organs like intestines or placentas or stomachs, and buried in the earth in the vineyard as well for six months to a year. 507 is valerian, which is mixed into water and stirred very rapidly in two directions to dynamize it. And then 508 is what’s called horsetail tea, which is an herbal spray as well. I know that was all very intense.
What’s happening here is different herbs and items are being buried into the earth for long periods of time during multiple moon cycles. If the Moon turns the tides, it also raises and lowers the water table of our planet. So over time, these buried items are interacting with the ecosystem of the vineyard and solidifying into nutrient-rich forms while conforming or symbiotically existing with all that ecosystem. When all of these things have been dynamized, they’re then unearthed and loaded with beneficial microbial nutrients. These items are then used to fertilize and help compost/dynamize itself.
We went through the 500 and 501, that’s the horn manure and the horn silica. When that stuff comes out — I have smelled it — it does not smell like manure. It actually smells like baker’s chocolate. It is amazing and rich, and it just looks rich with nutrients. That is turned into a spray, which is then put into the vineyard as a fertilizer. The silica, it’s quartz, is ground into a very fine dust that actually helps dapple the sunlight through the canopy, encouraging photosynthesis. All the stuff is doing is helping the vineyard naturally. The yarrow and camomile and the nettles and the oak bark and the dandelion, all that is then unearthed, taken out of its other sacs and ground up and used to be put into compost. In organic agriculture, compost is really the best and only fertilizer that is being used. In biodynamic agriculture, it’s the same, but requires an addition of these different preparations to dynamize it even more. It’s believed that these nettle and camomile and oak bark, after months and months underground, are so nutrient-rich, they actually increase the nutrient richness and biomass of compost. And 507 and 508 are also used as sprays.
So this is what’s happening here. The sprays — whether it’s the manure hormone or horned silica, the valerian or the horsetail tea — have benefits. Like I said, the horse manure helps with soil life. The horn silica helps plant strength with photosynthesis and vigor. The horsetail tea is used to prevent fungal disease. The thing about these additions and preparations is that they will work, but they work in vineyards that have been doing this for a while. In the last episode, we talked about how it takes three years to convert a conventional vineyard into an organic vineyard. That organic vineyard, even after three years, is still getting back to health. So a biodynamic farming practice, or biodynamic farming practices, work in vineyards that are already organic. Every biodynamic vineyard is technically an organic vineyard and then some. As I was saying, moon cycles, lunar cycles, and the astronomical zodiac are used for timing. Preparations are often applied to the vineyard at certain times during the astronomical zodiac, and it gets a little bit detailed. Let me give you a quick example that I read in the “Oxford Wine Companion.” Biodynamic farmers see plants consisting of four organs: the fruit, the leaf, the flower, and the fruit. They target these with the preparations throughout the year. OK, here’s the example: “Spraying horn manure on the soil for root growth is most effective if the moon is in front of an Earth/root constellation, which is usually the bull, the virgin, or the goat.” Here is where people think it sounds a little bit weird, but we’re not talking about astrology here. We’re talking about astronomy.
There are 12 constellations astronomical in the astronomical zodiac. As the moon and Earth pass through these constellations, it’s believed that the movement of the Earth happens and then these winemakers or grape growers will apply preparations to their vineyards during these most beneficial times. This would happen in any other agriculture. If you weren’t doing organic or biodynamic agriculture, there is always a schedule of application, even if it’s NPK. This is the biodynamics schedule of applications to agriculture. So that’s biodynamic agriculture, which uses the rhythms of the Earth, the moon, the lunar cycle, along with items that are found in the earth that can be dynamized and put back into the earth with benefits in helping to increase the strength of your vineyard. It’s very similar to organics, just with a little bit more time involved. With organics, you can make compost, and it’s readily available. But within biodynamics, you have to make these additions because it is believed that they have even more benefits for the vineyard. And that’s really it. Those preparations and those applications are what Rudolf Steiner was really talking about.
There are other things that winemakers and grape growers do within the biodynamic organic realm that are not necessarily part of Rudolph’s lectures. For example, there’s a pesticide used called “sexual confusion,” which is an awesome term. Sounds like a band name. What happens is they crush up male insects to dust. They put them in these little pouches and put them in the vineyards. When other male insects of that species come in, all they smell is male pheromones, and it overwhelms the female pheromones, and they peace out. They look to mate somewhere else. It’s called “sexual confusion.” I’ve actually seen it. It’s pretty odd. I haven’t seen the male insects go away. I’ve seen the pouches. It’s pretty cool.
For us in the United States, organic and biodynamic came together to become popular. One of the things that helped this along was a man named Jim Fetzer, who in 2001 created what he called a Mediterranean-style biodynamic vine garden. He had gone to see biodynamic agriculture in Europe, and he basically lost his mind. He was like, “This is absolutely incredible.” So he came back to Lake County, Calif., and he created a biodynamic environment, a farm organism. It’s there to this day in California ,and it looked beautiful. He had the money to make it look nice. So it’s biodynamic, but it’s beautiful, and it really gives people a sense that this can be sexy and great. It wasn’t the spark, but it was one of the things that helped this movement get off the ground in the United States.
Here’s the thing, and I want to wrap up with this: Organic farming and biodynamic farming do not guarantee good wine. Conventional farming does not guarantee good wine. Good wine is made by the person, the human that does these things. Just because you’re doing organic or biodynamic doesn’t mean you’re going to naturally, mystically make a great wine. It does require work. One other thing to know is that the organic and biodynamics have nothing to do with the current natural wine movement. The natural wine movement was born out of organics. It was born out of biodynamics. But it’s a completely different thing. It is a movement that does use organic and biodynamic agriculture, but also allows certain things to happen — like I talked about in the listener episode — allowing certain things to infect a winery that gives wine a certain kind of taste. So, natural wine is not really about biodynamics and organics.
Biodynamics and organics are a way of bringing agriculture and vineyards back from a reliance on man-made fertilizers, back to creating a farming organism. Whether you’re doing organic or biodynamic, that’s what it is. You want that vineyard to live and thrive, you want to walk into it and see insects and cover crops and happy vines. That’s what it is, because happy vines make great juice, and a good winemaker can turn that into beautiful stuff. So that is it. I hope by now you have a good understanding of organics and biodynamics. Next week, we’re talking a little bit more about the sustainable idea and what’s going on around the world. I’ll talk to you guys next week.
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And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.