Letter from Sam Weaver as sent to and published by – World of Fine Wine Magazine.
As a biodynamic producer I enjoyed Benjamin Lewin’s entertaining, lucid and rational discussion”Biodynamics Science or Voodoo”. I would expect nothing less from an eminent scientist.
As a practitioner and scientist myself I am sceptical about some biodynamic activities. I studied microbiology (I have a Benjamin Lewin text book on Gene Expression somewhere in the house). The idea of finding scientific proofs of the value of biodynamic philosophies in viticulture and winemaking is certainly appealing. Like so many biodynamic producers I’d dearly love to see good data. But Benjamin Lewin has hit the nail on the head in his conclusion: Though I’m afraid I’m not about to offer the Churton vineyard for his test.
My biodynamic journey has taken me through a number of different stages. When we started planting our vineyard 13 years ago we could be described as conventional although we used very minimal in puts. We quickly progressed through an organic approach to biodynamics. The appeal was that biodynamics has a more positive approach to agriculture; Bio dynamics implies active biology. As such it is more positive in the efforts put in to create a healthy farm; for example: by producing healthy composts, increasing bio-diversity, using the biodynamic preparations and working with reference to the biodynamic calendar. This is its attraction to many adherents to biodynamics.
As we adopted more biodynamic techniques I’ve had to rationalise and justify these both to myself, our staff and then to the greater wine drinking public. Some of the problems Benjamin Lewin is grappling with I can relate to… all too well. I can rationalise some things reasonably easily. Others I simply suspend my disbelief and see what happens. It’s important to realise that the riddles expressed by Steiner and many other biodynamic advocates must be seen as metaphors. Taking things literally can lead you to some very strange places! Once you’ve crossed that barrier the rational explanations can become easier to understand.
Take preparation 500 or cow’s horn preparation; it’s easy to ridicule of course. How daft burying a cow’s horn stuffed with cow shit at the autumn equinox then digging it up again and seeing its transformation into something else! Here’s my explanation.
Lactating cow shit is a wonderful growth media. Put your growth medium in a porous vessel and bury in the soil in beneficial conditions of temperature and humidity. The porous vessel (cow’s horn, but could be another vessel, others have been trialled) allows for air to be transmitted into the media and allows colonisation of the cow shit by microbes. Dig up after a certain period of time…before summer dries the soil out – spring equinox is good timing. Empty out the contents which have become wonderful humus full of soil microbes that have been selected from your soil. Mix into warm 37 oC water and highly aerate over one hour, biodynamic people call this dynamising. During this time you could see a number doublings of the bacteria. Spread onto land in appropriate warm, moist conditions.
Microbes will grow exponentially if introduced to an environment that is not limited by nutrition or other environmental factors. 50 grams, the homeopathic addition rate per hectare, will very soon become a significant number if the organisms grow exponentially. After just two doublings this becomes 6.25 kg/ha after a further two doublings more than 1.5Tonnes/ha! (Correct me if I’m wrong Prof. Lewin)
World of Fine Wine magazine issue No:39 Page 208 – Sam’s letter in response to Benjamin Lewin’s “Biodynamics; Science or Voodoo”
In my view, despite the apparent absurdity of some of the biodynamic and Steiner suggestions there is an underlying core of rational sense. (Note the word suggestion, biodynamics is not a dogma, it is pragmatic in the extreme, and evolves as knowledge and experience suggests.)
As for bringing in astrology, this is where many people get led a stray. It’s a nice journalistic ruse, but biodynamics has nothing to do with the signs of the zodiac. In biodynamics we consider cosmic forces and astronomy as important, not astrology. The confusion lies in the use of the constellations with astrological names. In astronomy the moon takes longer to pass through Scorpio, a very large constellation, than it does Cancer, a small constellation. This is reflected in the biodynamic calendar by the shorter time that Cancer’s influence is seen than Scorpio’s. In astrology all the constellations are assigned the same time value.
Of course this doesn’t answer the question of how these constellations have an effect on growth cycles, weather patterns and taste perception. It is one of the many boundaries that science has yet to conquer. In my more imaginative moments I like to think that dark matter could provide a simple and elegant explanation but I’m not an astrophysicist and don’t have access to the Large Hadron Collider.
It is true that it’s nonsense for super market buyers to taste only on favourable days. Consumers will be drinking on bad days as well as good. However, if you are selling wine it does make sense to have everything in your favour. Holding your new release tasting on a fruit day is sensible.
As to the justification, I often see a correlation between a fruit day and high atmospheric pressure. Could the change in the way a wine is expressed be due, in some part, to the law of partial pressures? I’m not enough of a scientist to argue it, but it seems plausible.
There is no doubt in my mind that tasting wine is subjective and is highly influenced by suggestion, environment etc. Therefore tasting on what is perceived to be a beneficial day is almost always going to have a positive response.
This leads me to the core of biodynamics. The reason that scientists struggle with the approach is that they want to find causality. Unfortunately dealing with a multi variable, multi dimensional agricultural system such as fine wine production, causality is infuriatingly difficult to pin down. If you use a simple empirical approach you miss so much that is important in the system. Biodynamics for me provides a useful, though not infallible, structure to work within.
Science is very shallow in the number of answers it can provide. And importantly it has no use for emotion. A reason that so many of the world’s great winemakers are biodynamic practitioners is that it helps create a close emotional, spiritual, contact with their land, vines and wines. It is this connection which leads to wines that have real excitement and individuality. Our relationship with great wines works on a similar level. As a wine maker, I may look at the detailed chemical analysis of a wine but that only gives me a very superficial view. In the end what makes a wine truly great and memorable is my emotional response to it.
At Churton, as farmers and winemakers, we believe that biodynamics gives a structural hierarchy to understanding our farm. Microbiology: is the foundation for agricultural fertility; Macrobiology: gives us diversity with all its benefits, not just a monoculture; Cosmic biology: gives us a framework to help understand and work with complex biological cycles (farmers have for millennia planted by lunar phases) and Spiritual biology: encourages the human spirit to have a deeper relationship with the biology we work with. Having a positive emotional link to the farm is hugely beneficial in the quality of work and relationship with the organisms. This enables us to create that detailed way of managing our winemaking from the vineyard up, and allows for real expression of terroir.
The question posed Biodynamics Science or Voodoo? , is meaningless to most biodynamic producers. Of course it’s both; if you choose voodoo as your description of the spiritual nature of the system. That’s the point! Biodynamics does not exclude scientific beliefs it works to include them but it also allows and encourages the spiritual element. It’s this conjunction that makes it so exciting and makes it work.
P.S. Research funding would be very welcome.