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Can Biodynamics Save Terroir? Pt. 2





In the Time of Silenus

“The ancient intuition that all matter, all “reality, ” is energy, that all phenomena, including time and space, are mere crystallizations of mind, is an idea with which few physicists have quarreled since the theory of relativity first called into question the separate identities of energy and matter. Today most scientists would agree with the ancient Hindus that nothing exists or is destroyed, things merely change shape or form; that matter is unsubstantial in origin, a temporary aggregate of the pervasive energy that animates the electron.”

 – Peter Matthiessen, Nine-Headed Dragon River

500 Horns

Preparation # 500: Cow horns filled with cow dung and buried near the Autumnal Equinox

Friedrich Nietzsche reminds us in his 1872 work, The Birth of Tragedy, of the story of King Midas and Dionysus’ Falstaff- like companion, Silenus, by writing this:

“According to the old story, King Midas had long hunted wise Silenus, Dionysus’ constant companion, without catching him. When Silenus had finally fallen into his clutches, Midas purportedly asked him, “What was the best and most desirable thing for all mankind?”  The dæmon stood silent, stiff and motionless, until at last, forced by the king, he gave a shrill laugh and spoke these words: ‘Miserable, ephemeral race, children of hazard and hardship, why do you force me to say what it would be much more fruitful for you not to hear? The best of all things is something entirely outside your grasp: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best thing for you – is to die soon. ‘ ”

The twentieth century rise and solidification of reductionist science, or left brained thinking, as a tool of empire has left planet Earth reconfigured in a degraded manner that’s brought about unsustainable cultural and ecological changes.  Based on the Newtonian revolution of the early-eighteenth century and based on a conceptual understanding of matter where conclusions about the whole are based on a detailed examination of the individual parts   — an act that consistently results in abstract concepts that separate the observer from the observed. Reductionist science, in its current form, is a major contributing factor to climate change, water shortages and reduced availability of arable land for farming and grazing.

This doesn’t mean that advances in Science, Chemistry, and Medicine aren’t considered important – even necessary in some instances – but they shouldn’t be the sole means of observation and have the final word in what’s best for humanity and our planet.

Unbeknownst to most people, the twentieth century was also the incubation period for a uniquely homeopathic and holistic view of science that had deep roots in J.W. Goethe’s combined left and right brained direct experience view, a melding of analysis with synthesis, wherein conclusions about a subject are based on observing in natural time and setting; imagining the way things work in the mind’s eye prior to poking, prodding, and taking apart a subject in order to study it.


Nicolas Joly in his Vineyard

“Fertilizer is a salt. It takes more water to compensate salt. You are forcing growth through water: the plant has to over-drink, so it grows, and carries on growing after the solstice. The process of growth ends up conflicting with the plant’s act of retiring to seed and fruit. The result of this is rot, so you need to counter this with lots of chemicals.”

– Nicolas Joly

Towards the end of his life, in 1928, The Austrian Scientist and philosopher, Rudolf Steiner, who happened to be his era’s foremost Goethe scholar, assented to give a series of lectures regarding recent problems at large farming estates throughout Europe.

The introduction of chemicals and chemical warfare via the First World War left European farms and livestock devastated. At that time in pre-world war 2 Germany, Austria and Poland, if you had an agricultural problem, you sought the advice of the foremost Goethe practitioner, so a group of Farmers desperately turned to Steiner to find a solution to their loss of crop yield and seed vigor, as well as various livestock maladies.

Steiner, exhausted after a life of lecturing and research, wherein he began his  Spiritual Science of Anthroposophy, based on ancient Greek interpretations of the Bible and his own scientific observations , initially declined  to give the lecture, hoping to put it off for as long as possible, but an associate hounded him until he finally agreed. From June 7 -16, 1924, at what is now Kobierzyce, Poland, Steiner delivered a series of eight lectures entitled Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture.  The course was the birth of Organic Farming, as we know it, as well as the seed of what would bear fruit thirteen years later as Biodynamics.

Perhaps the most common phrase people come away with after inquiring about Biodynamics is “seeing the farm as a whole organism,” which is true, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Based in Goethean Science and Anthroposophy, Biodynamics not only goes about sustainably farming without chemicals, it  simultaneously heals the earth through the use of homeopathic applications, called ‘preparations’ used in conjunction with the farm’s compost pile.

“The vine is one of the few fruit trees strictly linked to the season. The vine is dominated by the earth forces. It goes downwards so it has immense strength in its roots and only goes up a little bit. It couldn’t flower in the spring like the cherry or the apple. The more a plant leaves its gravitational forces, the more it can develop its flowers.”

– Nicolas Joly

The eight main preparations are numbered 500 – 508, and act in concert with the compost pile and inter-galactic forces at various times of the year,  aiding in the natural processes at hand by tuning in to these pervasive energies via the planets.  As you may have heard, some of the preparations seem preposterous initially; cow horn stuffed with the dung of a lactating cow and buried at the autumnal equinox, then dug back up in the spring; dried yarrow flower stuffed in a stag’s bladder and hung in full sun over Summer, oak bark in the brain cavity of a sheep, goat, or cow skull…there’s no doubt such images can conjure macabre thoughts, or seem laughably rife with malarkey.

The truth is that when one understands the deeper meanings behind the preparations, an entirely different way of seeing reality becomes accessible.  There’s interconnectedness to the universe that becomes apparent through the lens of Biodynamics that resembles the observations of Plato, Marcus Aurelius, and Eastern philosophies, among others, where the blueprint of reality is laid out in detailed form for the benefit of the whole.  Steiner would be the first to admit there’s nothing “new” about Biodynamics, but that it merely views the world in a manner that was prevalent prior to the Middle Ages.


Frog’s Leap Winery, Napa Valley

“Inspired by the late-nineteenth century Austrian Philosopher Rudolf Steiner and his “anthroposophism’ (a belief in the inseparability of the personal and the universal), Biodynamic agriculture seeks to address any given plot of land as a unified organism, in which all living elements – soil, plant, and animal – are to be mutually self-sustaining. It encompasses such medieval concepts of pruning a vine only during certain phases of the moon, the use of phytohomeopathic cures (like fermented herbal and mineral preparations) in the place of any chemical or artificial fertilizer. Above all, there is an underlying belief that all living energies, from the tiniest microorganisms, are interdependent and therefore sacred and that the soil, the grape, and the resulting wine will reflect this holistic change. While skeptics may deride this as mystical claptrap, many of the world’s most scientific and empirically driven vignerons, from chemist Nöel Pinguet and his Cartesian rationality at his Huet estate in Vouvray, to Dominique Lafon in Meursault and Frédéric Lefarge in Volnay pursue their personal version of Biodynamic Farming.”

Jonathan Nossiter, Liquid Memory

 Biodynamics means bringing life into matter through the rhythmical forces of the universe through the natural processes of day, night, and the seasons.  At the crux of Biodynamics is the belief that behind all matter and universal forces, e.g., gravity, mass, atoms, DNA … there is an underlying, pervasive, and active spirit. The Farmer becomes the medium between these forces and the soil using judicious application of said treatments at appropriate times of the year to the end of creating a healthy biosphere.  The goal is to produce food that completely nourishes the human body and spirit. 1112311x

“Great Savennières offers a spectrum of unusual flavors. Our No. 1 bottle, for example, the 2007 Les Clos Sacrés from Nicolas Joly, reminded us of beeswax, citrus and spice, with a mineral, saline quality thrown in for good measure. Combine this with the floral, honeysuckle edge that I often find in chenin blanc, and a texture that is typically and paradoxically rich, viscous and wonderfully light, and you have one complex, unconventional wine that is a long way from chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.”

Eric Asimov, NY Times Wine Columnist in his article: Savennières, a Demanding Wine Worth the Work. May 21, 2010

Aubert de Villaine, co-owner of famed Grand Cru producer Romanée-Conti in the Burgundy Region of France farms Biodynamically and says this about terroir at his famed Estate, “The Cistercian monks gradually worked the land, attentive to its natural contours and underlying shapes, in much the same way that the anonymous artists at the great Incan site of Machu- Picchu in Peru created their sculptures in relation to the mountains natural rock formations.”

Within Villaine’s statement lie the key to understanding terroir, as it describes a prolonged period of observing and working with a parcel of land without disturbing the natural layout.  Like Biodynamics, terroir operates on holistic levels, taking all man-made and natural factors into account.   Each spot on Earth has its own terroir, or uniqueness.  Oftentimes it’s been stripped away or altered by humans, but it’s still there.   From the perspective of grape-growing, terroir means the right grapes in the right spot, with responsible, prolonged human stewardship that over time has found a way to seamlessly work with the natural rhythms of nature.

Winemaker and Author Nicolas Joly is a madman for the Biodynamic cause, touting its merits frequently and railing loudly and publicly against its detractors.  He produces his prized Chenin Blanc wines Biodynamically and constantly reaps accolades from reviewers for them.   His books on Biodynamics go above and beyond explaining the factors at work in Biodynamics, oftentimes offering erudite observations on such esoteric subjects as solar flares and etheric forces, but its best to taste his wines if you can find them, as they’re the living representative of all that Biodynamics and terroir are about.

The nuance and ageability of the firm and acidic Chenin Blanc grape Joly produces  is the perfect vehicle for Biodynamics to strut its stuff, oftentimes displaying a dizzying array of contradictory smells and tastes; salty and sweet, acidic, yet full-bodied…and yet, the appreciation of his wines have what could best be described as a “cultish” following.


A Nicolas Joly Wine Label

Demeter is the official certifying agent for Biodynamics, and to that end they’ve developed a rigid set of guidelines for the use and labeling of produce considered Biodynamic.  In regard to Winemaking, there are currently several categories of certification that carry affiliated labels meant to separate themselves from commercially produced Wines:  Organic, Made with Biodynamic grapes and Biodynamic Wine.

What’s the difference between Organic and Biodynamic?

In the 1940’s Baron Lord Northbourne a Professor of Agriculture at Oxford who attended the Steiner lectures of 1924 and consequentially practiced Biodynamics at his family’s estate in Kent, coined the term “organic” from Steiner’s referring to the farm as an “organism.” Ten years later an American named J.J. Rodale popularized the term in his publication Organic Gardening. By 2002, organic labeling had grown to the extent that the USDA ruled that a base market definition needed to be implemented, and proceeded to unveil the National Organic Program.

Demeter was founded in 1928 in Europe and in 1985 in the US.  Their certification process goes beyond Organic farming and production by continuing to eliminate any non-organic matter throughout the entire process from production to distribution.

08BD Pyramid

Image Courtesy of Paul Dolan Vineyards, Mendocino, Ca.

Organics allows the accepted practice of utilizing organic fertilizers and pesticides, while Biodynamics insists any fertility issues be resolved from within the farm system.  This is achieved via integration of livestock, the planting of cover crops and legumes (in order to add nutrients to the soil,) rotating of crops, and application of compost applications via spraying.

Other pertinent differences between Organics and Biodynamics include: Biodynamics requiring fifty percent of livestock feed be grown directly on the farm, while Organics allows organic feed to be imported from anywhere in the world.

As the Farm is to be seen as one organism, Biodynamics recognizes the need for biodiversity, insisting ten percent of the total acreage be set aside for this purpose. Coincidentally, Biodynamics insists the entire property be certified, while Organics allows particular parcels or vineyards within a larger unit to become certified. Finally, Organics allows one standard for all product types across the board, while Biodynamic certification is product specific, insisting on minimal manipulation in order to allow the ingredients to speak for the product.


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