Over the Moon: Contemporary Biodynamics & Beyond

I was an easy mark. Early 20s, new to wine, a bit of a punk. Biodynamics appealed to me on a lot of levels. Chemical-free cultivation just made good sense, and the producers were as welcoming as they were passionate. The counter-cultural implications were especially attractive; I loved the idea of a bunch of renegade winemakers sticking it to the man by farming as gently as possible. And when I wasn’t gagging on the image of a yarrow-stuffed deer bladder, I was drawn in by the witchy whiff of the lunar cycles and animal organs upon which biodynamics relies.

When the Return to Terroir seminars and tastings first came to the US in the early 2000s, I hopped a Greyhound to New York and watched Nicolas Joly pound his fist on the podium. At my young age, I had little in the way of resources or connections, so these seminars were foundational to my education. Moreover, they whispered to me that the best wines in the world might be better than works of art—they might even be magic.

That idea stayed with me even as my interest in biodynamics waned, supplanted by everything else I was learning about wine. I remained aware of the movement, and continued to admire many of the wines, but whether someone farmed biodynamically became just one entry in my growing mental database of producers, vintages, wine styles, and techniques. How much new oak do you use? I would ask vintners. What kind of soils do you have? What was the vintage like? Do you farm biodynamically?

Biodynamics had evolved, at least to me, to become something of a green checkmark. Typically a good sign, indicative at the very least of conscientious farming, and often—but not always!—associated with a more natural or transparent style of winemaking. But while the answer to the question do you farm biodynamically used to be binary, over time the responses had become increasingly noncommittal. These days, I’m as likely to hear “sort of” or “maybe” as I am to hear “yes” or “no.” Somehow and at some point, something began to change. If farming were dating, then biodynamics seems to have entered the “it’s complicated” phase.

Better Living Through Chemistry

Biodynamics was conceived in 1924 when Austrian philosopher/doctor/architect/playwright/scholar Rudolf Steiner delivered a series of lectures entitled “Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture.” These speeches were crafted in response to the concerns of a group of farmers that years of chemically dependent farming had depleted their soils and reduced the health of their crops. Just prior to delivering these talks, Steiner had been deeply involved in holistic medicine. This is important because biodynamics can easily be thought of as a kind of holistic agriculture—i.e., the rejection of Big Pharma and the healing of vineyards through the viticultural equivalent of a balanced diet, herbal teas, and, well, prayer.

How and why these lectures became so significant has a lot to do with when and where they were delivered: specifically, Central Europe between the two World Wars.

First, some context. Most of the 19th century was consumed by the Industrial Revolution. This had transformed Europe and America in many ways, but among the more significant changes was the rapid spike in population and the concentrating of that population in urban centers. This meant that fewer farmers were out in the country at a time when there were more mouths to feed than ever. As a result, farm sizes grew and maximizing yields became paramount.

In response to the shifting needs of the increasingly industrial world, technology entered the farm sphere. In the middle of the century, tractors began to supplant plough animals, and German scientist Justus von Liebig, the father of organic chemistry, introduced his mineral theory of plant nutrition. This opened the door to the development of chemical fertilizers, and soon enough, ancient traditions of crop rotation, composting, fallow fields, and biodiversity were being set aside.

For a long time, the nitrates that composed nitrogen-based fertilizers had to be either harvested (guano) or mined (saltpeter), which was limiting. But as nitrates are also essential to the production of munitions, World War I inspired an uptick in research. In 1908, German scientist Fritz Haber figured out how to derive ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen in a process now known as Haber-Bosch.

The ability to literally conjure liquid nitrogen from thin air revolutionized many industries and had an almost immediate global impact. It is also thought to have stimulated yet another population boom, one that was reliant on industrial agriculture. To put things in perspective, a paper published by Nature Geoscience estimated that the nitrogen-based fertilizers derived from the Haber-Bosch process were responsible for feeding 48% of the earth’s population by 2008.

Rudolf Steiner, who was born in 1861 and spent much of his adult life in Germany, witnessed these dramatic changes firsthand. He surmised that monoculture and industrial farming not only disrupted the natural order—necessitating the use of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers, and other chemical interventions—but also made for less nutritionally dense food. In his lectures, he set forth a series of precepts to rejuvenate the ravaged land and restore both the nutritional and the spiritual value to crops.

His lectures, preserved in the book Agriculture, are notoriously difficult to read. The work is Chaucer-like and dense, full of mystical meanderings that can be challenging to unravel (wine writer Alice Feiring likens it to the Talmud). But aside from a handful of specific instructions, what Steiner was generally lobbying for was a return to ancient traditions—practices that include composting, the use of animals (and their parts!), and celestial calendars. What he proposed was not some radical new form of farming, it was a response to the radical new form of farming that had been steadily gaining traction throughout his life.

A Difficult Birth

Contrary to popular belief, Steiner did not single-handedly invent biodynamics. In fact, he died in 1925, not long after delivering the famous lectures. Today’s understanding of biodynamics evolved over the course of several decades, shaped by the work of his acolytes. The relatively quick spread of the movement is likely due in part to the fact that biodynamics was banished from Germany, its country of origin, during the Third Reich, which sent Steiner’s followers scattering.

Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, a biochemist essential in honing the nine biodynamic preparations, escaped to the US and helped establish biodynamic organizations in New York and California. Lili and Eugen Kolisko, who fled to the UK, conducted experiments that seemed to verify Steiner’s belief in planting according to moon phases.

Maria Thun was little more than a toddler when Steiner delivered his fateful lectures, but she went on to make significant contributions to the field. Thun created her own method of small-scale composting and an accompanying spray preparation. She also expanded Steiner’s theories regarding the effect of cosmic forces on agriculture. Per Monty Waldin’s book Biodynamic Wines, “It was Thun who linked the moon’s movement around the twelve astronomically observable constellations not just to the growth of plants but to the growth of particular parts of the plants: namely the root, the leaf, the flowers, and the fruit.”

This theory was eventually extended beyond botany and into the world of wine. Now anyone with a smartphone and a hankering for peasant wisdom can consult the popular app When Wine Tastes Best, which uses the Thun calendar to let you know if your Merlot, Champagne, or carbonic Valdiguié is going to taste more fruity or more…rooty.

Meanwhile, Demeter, biodynamics’ most visible certification body, was established as early as 1928. Three years later, the agency registered approximately 1,000 certified biodynamic farms. Today, Demeter has expanded into 54 countries and counts over 5,000 farms within its ranks. Viticulture represents only a minor portion of that, however. In fact, it’s worth pointing out that wine came relatively late to biodynamics; the first biodynamic vintners didn’t appear in France until the late 1960s and ‘70s. One of the biggest hurdles to adapting Steiner’s theories to viticulture is that vines, unlike other crops, stay in place for decades and therefore can’t be rotated, nor can the fields be left fallow at regular intervals.

The Poster Child

“I joined the family estate in 1989,” Olivier Humbrecht, MW, tells me. “I had finished my studies, and my formal education had never even mentioned anything about organic or biodynamic cultivation.” As he was settling back in to life in Alsace, Olivier noticed some problems in the vineyard. The vines were out of balance and struggling with disease, and the soil was utterly devoid of life. Worse, it had started to smell.

“We saw dead roots in the soil, which is bad,” Olivier explains. “Normally, in a healthy soil, dead roots would be degraded into humus and become part of the earth. But without beneficial bacteria or fungi, instead of decomposing, the roots go through a kind of anaerobic fermentation, which produces CO2 and causes crystallization. This is known as soil inversion, or desertification. And the soil begins to smell septic.” Alarmed, Olivier took soil samples to the local university, which recommended chemical inputs. “We didn’t want to do that, so we decided instead to try to revitalize the soil.” And the best route to rehabilitation, Olivier decided, was through compost.

As the Zind-Humbrecht estate owned no cows, Olivier purchased a big load of manure from a local dairy. He hauled it home, assembled it into a pile, and awaited the transformation. But nothing happened. Stymied, Olivier once again turned to the university. “They analyzed the manure and told me there were too many antibiotics present. That there was no way it would ever ferment.”

Olivier decided to search for an organic dairy, a quest that sent him driving high up into the neighboring mountains. The compost he made from that manure was very good, but one year, it was exceptional. “We noticed a worm count 50 times higher than the year before! I went to the farmer and asked, ‘What did you do to your animals?’ He said, ‘Nothing. I just sprayed preparation 500 on the manure before you bought it.’”

Olivier had already heard whispers about biodynamics and its mysterious preparations. Leflaive, Leroy, and Huet—all friends of his—had started playing around and were enjoying the results. Olivier decided to join the party. He began attending conferences and later hired a consultant. In 1996, he set aside a portion of his family’s vineyards to experiment. “I didn’t understand what I was doing, but I could see the results, and the results were brilliant.” Within a relatively short span of time, worms had returned to the soil and disease pressure was noticeably diminished.

If any doubts remained, the 1998 growing season set them aside. Chlorosis is a difficult condition that often plagues vineyards with high lime content. It is effectively an iron deficiency that interrupts photosynthesis and can wreak havoc with fruit set and ripening. “Chlorosis is a real problem in Alsace,” Olivier explains, “and it tends to be triggered by cold, wet weather like what we had during flowering in ‘98.” Conventional farming dictates fighting chlorosis by adding reductive iron (Fe2+) to the soil, an expensive treatment with notoriously irregular results. Olivier added nothing, and yet his biodynamically farmed vines thrived. “My neighbors’ vines were all yellow, and yet mine were as green as rhododendrons.” Later that year, he converted the remainder of his estate to biodynamics.

Today, Olivier Humbrecht is one of the wine industry’s most vocal advocates of biodynamics. “What is progress?” he asks. “It is a positive evolution. A problem that gradually gets better until it disappears. Well, with chemical farming, there is no progress. You apply a product to fight a disease, and maybe you get through the vintage. But then, next year the problem is worse, so you need more product, different products, or you apply them in different ways. And the problem still gets worse. At some point, you have to admit you are going in the wrong direction.”

In his opinion, biodynamics puts farmers on the offensive—rather than the defensive—position, which gives them the upper hand. Instead of reacting to disasters as they unfold, biodynamics seeks to avoid them through the creation of a naturally healthy vine, vineyard, and farm. “A plant has very powerful weapons inside it. Those weapons are called polyphenols, the tannins, and the plant produces them to fight diseases and fungal infections.” Olivier mentions some experiments that demonstrate the link between biodynamics and elevated phenolics, but then quickly adds that such things are difficult to prove. “It’s impossible to say what it is that works with biodynamics, because it operates as a whole system.”

Even so, the studied and accomplished Olivier Humbrecht, MW, doesn’t require scientific verification to validate his beliefs. The fact that biodynamics works is all the proof he needs. “When your children are sick and anything conventional fails to cure them, and then they drink chamomile tea and it works, you accept it,” he confesses. “Even if you cannot explain it, you accept it.”

The Practice

So, how does biodynamics work? From a scientific perspective, we really don’t know. As Oliver Humbrecht indicates, it’s extremely difficult to measure a holistic system. By definition, holistic refers to something wherein “the parts are intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.” This is incompatible with the typical scientific approach of isolating and evaluating individual elements. So, while some practitioners are quick to cite studies demonstrating elevated phenolics, the efficacy of sowing in accord with lunar cycles, or the increased heat of biodynamic compost, the majority of evidence remains either anecdotal or too entangled in variables to be definitively interpreted.

That doesn’t mean the results aren’t real. And it certainly doesn’t mean that science won’t one day be able to detail why broken-up pieces of oak bark aged in a wet skull naturally limit yields. But it’s safe to say that we aren’t there yet. So, let’s set aside hard science for a minute and try to understand biodynamics on its own terms.

First, fundamental to biodynamics is the idea that a farm is a closed system. Ideally, material on the farm will feed the animals, whose manure in turn will feed the crops. Similarly, pest control is managed via predators, who live on the portion of the farm that is set aside for natural habitat. Furthermore, the farmer should have an intimate relationship with his or her farm and should tend it with intent. All of this leads to something biodynamicists call “farm individuality,” which sounds a bit weird until you think of it as the agricultural version of terroir.

Pigs at Hanzell Vineyards (Photo credit: Debra Peterson)

Steiner also believed in the importance of harnessing cosmic energies. This, he argued, could be achieved in several ways: farming with intent, timing practices in accordance with celestial calendars, and using animal “sheaths” for some of the preparations. Steiner felt that certain animals, especially the cow, boast a high degree of “astrality,” and that the use of their organs was essential for the transformation of the substrate (be it flower, manure, or crushed quartz) into something vital. This practice also harkens back to a time when it was common to use all parts of the animal. As Katherine Cole puts it in her exceptional book Voodoo Vintners, “Bones became flutes; horns and internal organs were the Ziploc bags and Tupperware containers of their day.”

The nine preparations, outlined below, are central to the physical practice of biodynamics. Three of them are intended as field sprays and six are added to compost. To produce the sprays, small quantities of material are added to water and then “dynamized.” This is achieved by swirling in one direction until a vortex forms, then swirling in the opposite direction until another vortex forms, and so on. As with the animal sheaths, this is thought to transmute the mixture and imbue it with a “living force.”

“The real focus of biodynamics is on building soil,” Elizabeth Candelario, President of Demeter USA explains—hence the amount of time and attention given to compost. Author Monty Waldin suggests that Steiner thought not just of the farm but also of compost as a living being, and the preps are meant to represent its organs: “yarrow as the lungs, breathing in cosmic influences, chamomile as the stomach, making sure the mix of elements within the pile and soil are digested and processed correctly, stinging nettle as the liver, its influence being to cleanse; oak bark as the brain, reining in excess; dandelion as the inner body or self of the pile, holding the other energies and influences within the pile together; and valerian as the blood, bringing warmth, stimulating life.”

While some of the above might resonate with anyone who’s sipped chamomile to soothe an upset stomach, the rest is harder for skeptics to wrap their arms around. Which circles back to biodynamics being virtually impossible to “prove.” If not a leap, at the least a broad stride of faith is required to fully embrace the practice.

BD Preps

500: Manure from a lactating cow placed inside a cowhorn and buried during winter. Made into tea and sprayed onto soil in late spring. Supposed to stimulate soil microbial life and encourage root growth.

501: Paste of silica (powdered quartz) and water placed inside a cowhorn and buried during summer. Made into tea and sprayed on leaves in spring at daybreak. Supposed to encourage photosynthesis and ripening.

502: Yarrow flowers stuffed into deer bladder, dried in the sun, and buried over winter. Added to compost. Supposed to aid in the absorption of nutrients from the soil.

503: Chamomile flowers stuffed into a cow intestine, dried in the sun, and buried over winter. Added to compost. Supposed to stabilize calcium and nitrogen. 

504: Stinging nettles buried for a year. Added to compost. Supposed to help breakdown of materials inside compost.

505: Oak bark stuffed inside the skull of a farm animal and stored somewhere moist for the winter. Added to compost. Supposed to raise pH of soil, ward off disease, and prevent excessive plant growth.

506: Dandelion flowers stuffed into the connective tissue of a cow’s stomach, dried in the sun, and buried over the winter. Added to compost. Supposed to aid uptake of silica and potassium.

507: Valerian flowers, pressed into a juice and sprayed onto compose. Supposed to heat compost and add phosphorous.

508: Horsetail plant boiled into a tea. Combined with Bordeaux mixture (copper sulfate) and wettable sulfur and sprayed on vines or soil during the waxing moon. Supposed to fight fungal infections.

Measuring the Immeasurable

Demeter attempts to legislate biodynamics by demanding the following of its members: preparations 500 and 501 must be applied annually, the others are to be employed whenever compost is produced (the US branch requires this at least once every three years); genetically modified organisms are prohibited, as are chemical inputs, with the exception of copper (used to fight mildew) and sulfur (small doses suggested); and, unlike organic certification wherein a single block may be certified, the entire property must be farmed biodynamically, with at least 10% of the land set aside for natural habitat.

Moreover, the presence of animals is encouraged but not required, as is adherence to the biodynamic calendar. Irrigation, where legally allowed, is discouraged. Year-round bare soil is forbidden by Demeter USA; by extension, cover crops are encouraged. It is also recommended that this groundcover be turned into the earth at certain moments of celestial alignment but again, this is not enforced. US members are asked to create a “farm plan” and show consistent signs of improvement, though how this last bit is measured is about as clear as compost.

Ideally, farmers should grow and produce their own treatments, but those without steady access to deer bladders can purchase ready-made preparations (Instant Biodynamics! Just Add Water and Dynamize!) from the Josephine Porter Institute, a large farm in Virginia. They may also buy-in manure, though Demeter USA stipulates that it must come from organic cows and within a 250-mile radius whenever possible.

Once inside the cellar, Demeter offers yet another set of requirements for anything labeled as “biodynamic wine.” Hand-harvesting is recommended; up to 100 parts per million of SO2 is allowed for dry wines (150 for sweet); indigenous yeasts are required except in the case of a documented stuck fermentation; malolactic bacteria, enzymes, and powdered tannins are prohibited; biodynamic yeast hulls, bentonite, and biodynamic egg whites are among the few permitted additions; the use of plastic containers is regulated, as is the final packaging (Tetra Paks and bag-in-box are verboten!); and pumps of a certain shear strength are disqualifying. Demeter USA even goes so far as to make stylistic suggestions. “Oak character should not overpower the wine,” warns the official winemaking standard. Winemakers who scoff at these restrictions have another avenue available, at least in the US. “Wine made from biodynamic grapes” is a significantly relaxed version of the above, though certain limitations still apply.

Demeter, it is worth pointing out, regulates all manner of farms, not just vineyards. They also have different requirements for each of the member countries—though, admits Nicolas Joly, “Demeter USA really does the best job, it must be said.” In fact, in a bid to curtail misleading or casual use of the word, Demeter USA has trademarked the term “biodynamic.” The result is that only Demeter-certified products brought in or sold inside the US can market themselves as such.

Nicolas Joly (Photo credit: Kelli White)

Beyond Demeter, a handful of other biodynamic-certifying bodies have arisen in the past few decades, each with its own set of rules and regulations, though the underlying principles are nearly identical. Biodyvin, currently headed by Olivier Humbrecht, strongly recommends adherence to the Maria Thun calendar (growers are required to keep a farm diary detailing the timing of all treatments) and the wines must pass muster with a panel. Austria-based respekt-BIODYN reaches outside the vineyard to incorporate economic and social sustainability goals; it is also more restrictive in terms of copper usage. These new certification groups are distinct from Demeter in that they are concerned solely with wine and viticulture.

And then there’s the slew of growers and winemakers operating without certification. While some of these loners are effectively practicing by-the-book biodynamics minus the paperwork, others have used biodynamics as a jumping off point and are finding their own ways of—to borrow a phrase from Demeter—healing the planet through agriculture.

The Thought That Counts

“Please excuse the interruption,” Matt Taylor said to me, “but I need to put my intention into this tank.” He reached his arm up, spun the brim of his baseball cap backwards, and rested his forehead against the stainless steel.

I fidgeted in the awkward silence that followed and rubbed my arms to stay warm. It was 4 am and 2010, and I had just driven a silent hour to Araujo Vineyards in Calistoga. Napa Valley’s famous diurnal swing was at its nadir, and the autumn night was brittle with cold. Matt Taylor, Araujo’s head winemaker, had spent the previous six years tending the venerable estate’s biodynamic vineyards. He had kindly agreed to show me around, so I begrudgingly agreed to beat the dawn.

As an atheist, an urbanite, and a killer of spiders, I’ve always been uncomfortable with the spiritual side of biodynamics, but I attended Matt’s meditation with respect. With his football player build and bro clothes, he hardly fit the stereotype of a biodynamic farmer. But Matt Taylor was and remains one of the sincerest proponents of natural, holistic farming I have ever met. And his personal journey with biodynamics has been interesting to follow.

Matt landed at Araujo in 2004, following a stint at Dujac in Burgundy. His initial attraction to biodynamics was the link it forged between cellar and vineyard. “I really wanted to participate in the entire lifecycle of the vintage, from bloom to bottle, as cliché as that sounds.” One of his initial tasks at Araujo was getting the vineyard certified by Demeter. Toward this end, he enlisted the services of biodynamic consultants Matias Baker and Dennis Klocek.

Araujo’s quality was already well established and the estate thrived under biodynamics, but Matt thought he could take things further. To do this, he attempted to “think like Steiner” and rely on observation, intuition, and imagination when contemplating the vineyard. “Calistoga is a hot and dry place. And I wanted to find a way to better retain acidity, fight dehydration, and maintain cane [and] canopy vigor,” he explains, adding, “These are probably issues they didn’t have to deal with in Eastern Europe.”

Together, he and Matias came up with a spray and applied it to one half of an underperforming block, using the other half as a control. “The first year, we saw a difference in canopy vigor and fruit set.” A few vintages and recipe adjustments later, they noticed the fruit started to ripen at lower sugar levels and display better acid retention. “Suddenly, this block went from something that didn’t always make the blend to one of the best parcels on the property.”

Though the use of supplemental sprays is encouraged by Demeter (Nicolas Joly employs milk tea and a crushed amethyst version of 501 at Coulée de Serrant), Matt grew to resent the regulations that were the cost of certification. And while he continued to farm biodynamically post-Araujo, he eventually parted ways with Demeter. “I was working with this one vineyard in Healdsburg, a super sunny site with a lot of vigor. I didn’t want to put 500 on all the property, only select blocks. Same with 501. It just didn’t make sense. But Demeter said I couldn’t be certified unless I used both on the entire vineyard.”

Recently, Matt purchased a pair of vineyards in Occidental. He still farms biodynamically, but on his own terms. And absent certification. “I’m still using the main preps, but I’m using them in a—I don’t want to say different way, but maybe a morphed way that’s more in tune with the land we are farming.”

To him, farming with intention is the most important tenet of biodynamics, and one’s intention for a site ought to be specific to that site. “I like to think of biodynamics as a verb, not a noun,” he explains. “It’s about forming a personal relationship with your vineyard that’s deeper than just showing up and following a rulebook.”

In a Galaxy Far, Far Away

“I’m not biodynamic, but I’m not nothing,” Eben Sadie of Sadie Family tells me as we shudder and bounce our way down rocky dirt roads in backwoods Swartland. “I’m actually really into it. I have a lot of respect for it. But what I’m not into is dogma. Dogma kills the brain.”

Eben studied under Pierre Masson, a well-respected biodynamics advisor, but decided that the lessons didn’t necessarily apply to South Africa. “BD500 is the best thing for the microbial health of soil; it’s a gift,” Eben enthuses. “But what happens if you don’t have chamomile for 503 growing where you live? You buy dried stuff? What’s that doing to your carbon footprint?”

As with Matt Taylor, Eben has adjusted the proscribed biodynamic treatments to fit both the condition of his climate and the plants in his environment. “If you put 501 down here, you’re moving in the wrong direction. It’s meant to bring sun into sun-starved areas, and that’s not us. But we are surrounded by an ocean of seaweed—kelp—so that’s a big part of our program.” He stops and seems to think a bit in silence. “The truth might simply be that late 1800s/early 1900s Germany was a long time ago and very far away from here.”

Dust to Dust

Jason Jardine spent years working at biodynamic properties, stirring the water, spreading the compost, doing the work. As the opening winemaker for Rhys, he developed the vineyards with biodynamics in mind from the start. Later, he did a turn with Randall Graham and his Demeter-certified vineyard, and helped convert Flowers Winery from organic to biodynamic farming. But by the time he landed at Hanzell in 2014, Jason’s views on biodynamics had evolved considerably.

Of Steiner’s many teachings, two aspects of biodynamics resonated most deeply with Jason: the use of the celestial calendar and the idea of the farm as a closed system. Though the calendar is a complex subject, Jason believed in one thing above all: that the relative (synodic) position of the earth, moon, and sun has a particularly dramatic impact on sap flow. “I spent 10 years squeezing rachises trying to see how much sap is in the vine at times of harvest. There is definitely a link between the amount of sap and the phase of the moon, absolutely.”

Jason also believes that sap flow links directly to wine quality. During the full moon, he claims, sap is drawn out into the outer edges of the vine—the tendrils and leaves—whereas it collects in the roots during the new moon. This makes the new moon the most efficient time to irrigate. “Also, sap flow has a big impact on tannin development. If you cut the plant when the sap is up, it creates stress. So, we time our actions—pruning, hedging, thinning—in accordance with sap flow and have seen a more even progression of things in the vineyard. No periods of shutdown, steady metabolism, better ripening of tannins.” He also sees variations in clarity during racking that correspond to the phases of the moon. “Of course,” he allows with a chuckle, “you still find people that think that’s total bullshit.”

While Jason is aligned with mainstream biodynamics when it comes to the use of the calendar, his approach to soil care has set him apart. “I used to be really into composting. The dairy made 2,000 tons of compost for my projects each year.” But buying-in manure began to bother him, philosophically. “If you look back at what Steiner was trying to accomplish in 1924, it was a holistic, organic style of farming that creates a sustainable, closed system. What I realized I wanted to do is create a style of farming where no additions are needed. No fertilizers, of course, but also no preps.”

Jason achieves this by incorporating many different types of animals, including sheep, pigs, chickens, and geese, in the vineyard. But instead of going through the labor of composting their manure, he leaves it where it lay. “We are doing the compositing process through the intestines of our grazing animals,” he says. These same animals also help turn the soil. “Lots of biodynamic literature talks about tilling, about opening up the earth to cosmic forces. We had a consultant and tilled a bunch at Rhys. But I would never do it now.”

Jason believes that while tilling is terrible for soil in most places, it is especially damaging in dry California where the resulting evaporation means the loss of precious water, not to mention the release of carbon. Instead of turning the cover crop into the soil, as both convention and biodynamics would have it, he “crimps” it. Crimping is a process wherein the cover crop is run over with a roller, which breaks the stalks but leaves them in place. The result is several inches of mulch that is rich in microbes, helps conserve water, and doesn’t need to be reseeded every year. “We’ve cut our irrigation by 75% just by crimping. And I think we can even go back to dry farming once we perfect this system.”

Crimping at Hanzell (Photo credit: Debra Peterson)

Between crimping, the use of animals, and timing his vineyard actions according to the moon, Jason feels he has zeroed in on the parts of biodynamics that work best for his farm. “I still do a horsetail tea occasionally, but because we don’t do the nine preparations, I won’t say we are biodynamic,” he says, adding, “I mean, I do the ‘bio’ part and the ‘dynamic’ part, just not the way they are advertising.”

Farming By the Moon

Lunar calendars are not created equal. There are several noteworthy moon “cycles” defined by astronomy:

  • Synodic rhythm: The phases of the moon including full, new, waxing, and waning moons caused by the relative positions of the earth, moon, and sun. This is the basis for the lunar calendar, and one full cycle takes 29.5 days.
  • Tropical rhythm: The height of the moon in the sky with respect to the horizon. The periodicity is 27.3 days, where the moon is described as “ascending” or “descending.”
  • Sidereal rhythm: The orbit of the moon around the earth, which lasts slightly longer than the tropical rhythm. Phases are described by the astrological constellation behind the moon from the perspective of the earth (i.e., moon in Taurus). This is the basis for Maria Thun’s biodynamic calendar.

The biodynamic calendar is distinct from the lunar calendar. Biodynamic practitioners who farm by the moon may rely on one of these calendars, or both.

Farming folklore dating back as far as Pliny the Elder references the moon cycles. Diverse cultures developed moon-dependent customs around the timing of sowing seeds, harvest, and fertility cycles. The Farmers' Almanac website has information on planting by the lunar calendar.

References to the lunar calendar’s effect on seed germination, plant metabolism, behavior and reproductive cycles of animals, and the water content of lumber can be found in the scientific literature. Ocean tides, caused by the gravitational forces exerted by the moon and sun, are a clear example of the effect of the synodic moon cycle. While these effects are not universally accepted by the scientific community, the wide-ranging observations of researchers across many disciplines suggests that it is reasonable that moon phase impacts biological processes.

Thun’s biodynamic calendar is based on sidereal rhythms and claims that plant behavior is organized into fruit, flower, root, and leaf days, called trigons, depending on the astrological sign that lies behind the moon. Fruit days correspond with fire signs, flower days with air signs, root days with earth signs, and leaf days with water signs.

  • Thun performed studies on seed germination, yields, and measurements of certain plant organs to develop her theories, but these studies are not considered credible by the scientific community at large.
  • Extensive work by Hartmut Spiess, in cooperation with Thun, attempted to confirm her results but could not. He observed trends based on the lunar calendar that varied by plant type. He did not observe an effect of the sidereal cycle or trigons.
  • Of roughly 80 studies (many unpublished), more than 60 saw no effect of sidereal rhythms. Language barriers, lack of scientific rigor, and clear biases of some researchers make most of the data unreliable or inaccessible.
  • If trends exist related to the biodynamic calendar, they appear to be much smaller in magnitude than trends related to time of year and day. Because finding these trends in the data requires rigorous analysis, it seems improbable that farmers have observed any such trend in nature.

I Dream of Mimi

Mimi Casteel was determined to rehabilitate the old vines.

In 2005, she left her career as a botanist for the forest industry and joined her family at Bethel Heights. The beleaguered vineyards in question were four patches of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that had been planted on their own roots in the late 1970s, and the vines were slowly losing vitality as phylloxera nibbled at their toes. Mimi felt certain there was a natural solution and was intrigued by all the French biodynamic producers who were just gaining an international voice. A plane and a train later, she landed in Burgundy.

“It was amazing. Everywhere you turned, people wanted to show you the results of their conversion. I came back obsessed and read Steiner five times.” Mimi immediately set up some experiments. She selected three blocks: one to farm as normal, one to farm fully biodynamically, and one she treated with her own tea and compost treatments. “For five years, I built the compost piles. I did the stirring at 3 am by hand. I wanted to do the rigor of the work by myself. And then we would take it all the way to the wine.”

Each year, they tasted the resulting wines blind. “The biodynamic wines were very good,” she allows, “but not as significant as to justify making vortexes at 3 am!” The best wines, she and her family decided, were from Mimi’s own experiments. “And this is when I branched away,” she explains. “Don’t get me wrong, I love the fundamental ideas of biodynamics. But, and maybe this is naïve, but when I came back from France, I thought we would see stuff that would blow my mind. But in France, the vineyards had been decimated by industrial and chemical farming following phylloxera and the wars, and those soils had been worked for millennia and so were weaker to start with. Oregon doesn’t have that history. So there, the transformation was more apparent and dramatic than it was here.”

Mimi’s personal flavor of biodynamics—now practiced at her own project, Hope Well Vineyard—is actually quite close to the original recipe, with certain key deviations. She uses the 501 spray, employs a complex proprietary composting system and teas made with local botanicals, times many of her vineyard practices with the moon, and is extremely committed to preserving wild land and the use of farm animals.

“Animals are essential to creating closed-loop agriculture. They return and recycle nutrients, and keeping them on a farm prevents you from having to buy-in outside materials.” But while many farms, even many biodynamic farms, have and use animals, Mimi approaches the subject a bit differently. “Agriculture itself is fundamentally problematic, because you are working outside of natural systems. And the way agriculture uses animals is not the way nature ever used animals.” The primary difference, believes Mimi, is lack of predators.

“When animals are allowed to be on one piece of ground for an indefinite period of time, they can do a lot of damage. The trick is to keep them moving. You don’t want to give the animals time to think about what they would prefer to eat, because 99% of the time they want to eat the most tender and fragile things and not the aggressive weeds and thorns.” This rapid moving of animals from one section of a property to another is known as “mob grazing,” and it is gaining traction among sustainably minded farmers. Not only do the animals eat the weeds down to the same height, their hooves aerate the soil, and their manure adds nutrients.

Ram at Hanzell Vineyards (Photo credit: Debra Peterson)

As with Jason Jardine, Mimi is more than happy to set aside the tractor in favor of the hoof. “One of the things that always bothered me about biodynamics was how often the plow was invoked.” Tilling is especially problematic for vineyards, she says, because “viticulture is generally planted on more fragile hillside soils.” And above everything else, Mimi believes that soil retention and the regeneration of new topsoil should be the prime directives of agriculture. And she is not alone.

“There’s a whole new category of farmers who probably would have been categorized under organic, but now we call ourselves ‘regenerative agriculture.’ It is not enough to simply exclude chemical fertilizers, or even to say, ‘I’m organic’ or ‘I’m biodynamic.’ The proof is what you leave behind.” By which she means: topsoil.

“I think there’s this concept that, over time, if you are growing a crop, you are taking so much out of the soil and putting nothing back [that] you will eventually need synthetic inputs. But if you are doing it thoughtfully and you employ the foundational concept of biodiversity to manage your farm, not only can you replace what you are taking away, you can build a better bank for the years when you are dealing with less—less time, less water, more heat. The impacts of climate change are real, but the impact is less here on this farm than on farms where you till and have to add in nutrients.”

Meanwhile, the own-rooted vines are officially off hospice and have recovered their place as the centerpiece of Bethel Heights' single-vineyard program.

Practical Magic

I recently came across an article about the Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania. They launched an initiative called the Fresh Food Farmacy in which healthy groceries were given to low-income patients with diabetes. Participants were also provided cooking classes and access to a nutritionist. In a short span of time, most patients lost weight, became more active, and endured fewer complications from their disease. Early estimates indicate the company will save tens of thousands of dollars per patient by avoiding costly medical procedures down the road.

I remember reading this and thinking, “duh.”

Biodynamics, with its holistic approach that champions warding off disease by creating a healthier, stronger plant, boasts a similar logic. Whether you believe in the transformative power of cowhorns is almost beside the point. At least it is for Château Palmer’s Thomas Duroux.

Raw materials for biodynamic "preps" (Photo credit: Bryce Wiatrak)

Like Olivier Humbrecht, Thomas enjoyed a classical education that brooked no such hippie business as organic or biodynamic farming. And yet, after the harvest of 2008, he and the winemaker conspired to begin biodynamic trials on one of their blocks. “In the beginning, we were driven only by curiosity,” Thomas recounts. “We had heard interesting things and tasted some beautiful wines.” As CEO, he felt both a personal and a professional obligation to produce better wines, however strange the pathway. “And by better, I don’t mean more concentrated. I mean a shorter link between the wine and the place where the fruit comes from.”

At first, they were thrilled just not to have ruined the crop. Then they realized they preferred the biodynamic wine. “In 2011, the wine was really fantastic, like never before. We said hmm, maybe something is happening in terms of quality, precision, and terroir.” In 2013, they moved to convert the entire estate, and by 2018, they were Demeter certified. For Thomas, the decision was all business. “We don’t consider it a religion, and our knowledge of Steiner is limited. What we have more than anything else is good common sense.”

That said, Thomas has internalized at least some of the teachings. “My background was science—I thought of a plant as a living thing that needed nutrients, and my job was to give it what it needed.” He continues, “I’m now convinced the future is not in chemicals. It is somewhere else.” One of the things he likes most about biodynamics is that it seems to get back to the beginnings of agriculture, before industrial farming took everything askew. “It’s not about the moon or the preparations or these exotic things. And it’s not about dogma. It’s a restoration.”

You Gotta Have Faith

As with so many biodynamic farmers, Ted Lemon of Littorai Wines has his own ideas of which aspects of the practice are the most critical. And spirituality is at the top of the list.

“I struggle with people who practice biodynamics who might turn to a somm or a journalist and whisper, ‘Say, this stuff really works, but I don’t know about the spiritual part.’” For Ted, the whole foundation of biodynamics is predicated on spirituality. “None of what Steiner presents has any logic without the spiritual dimension. In fact,” he asserts, “my concern is that vineyards that are farmed without the understanding of the spiritual content will fail, because it’s not spiritually honest.”

His feelings on the subject extend to include employees, and he actively educates them in the philosophies underlying the daily tasks. “I would never ask anyone on our staff to think like me,” he reassures me. “It’s more like, here are the ideas, here are the principles, and if you think this is working, then all we ask you to do is struggle with the ideas, and where that takes you is your own personal path.” Interestingly, he finds that acceptance of biodynamics sometimes follows cultural lines. “In our case, many of our workers are from rural Mexico and had a grandmother or grandfather who farmed or gardened according to the lunar cycle. It’s really the American interns raised in the Western intellectual tradition for whom it can be more of a struggle.”

Ted also feels that the preparations are essential to biodynamics, but doesn’t necessarily believe in using the Maria Thun calendar. “The whole leaf/fruit/flower/thing is formulaic, and that is inherently problematic,” Ted explains. “Now, instead of relying on the intuition of the farmer, you have to consult a calendar.” He feels that this goes against farm individuality, which is inextricably bound to the farmer. “Steiner talks a great deal about rhythms, and how critical rhythm is for a plant and for farming. But while I believe the use of preparations should be universal, how you time them should really depend on you and your farm.”

Ted’s fidelity to classic biodynamics appears to be such that he could easily achieve certification. But he doesn’t want to. For as little as he likes the idea of a calendar telling him when to do what, he seems to like the idea of an inspector telling him what to do when even less. “I cannot reconcile myself to Steiner’s vision of the individual farmer’s responsibility for the farm with the idea of an outside inspector coming in and telling you to spray preparation 500 two more times instead of building bat boxes. That doesn’t make sense to me.”

“Also,” he continues, “it is entirely possible to be certified for 30 years and never make a single preparation. That really doesn’t make sense to me. You should be actively involved in the creation of the preps.” Ted also believes that no one should be able to monopolize a concept. “The US is the only country in which the word ‘biodynamic’ is trademarked. And yet Steiner gave his ideas to the world for free. For me, that’s a moral issue.”

Messaging in a Bottle

Ted’s reservations regarding certification are valid, and they are shared by many. One of the most common complaints is that certification puts undue burden on the virtuous. As Eben Sadie so passionately put it, “It’s crazy. People who farm organically get audited. But meanwhile, you can farm with as [many] chemicals as you want and no one says anything. They are checking in on the wrong guys!”

Even so, there are just as many arguments in favor of certification. Put most simply, certifications can function like seals of approval, shortcuts for the busy consumer whose brain is likely too full of other things to worry about a producer’s personal position on 501 in Mediterranean climates. But there are deeper levels, too.

“It’s cost prohibitive and a lot of work,” expresses Mimi Casteel, “But I’m happy to be held accountable; this is so important to me and my children. I want them to get it.” Mimi is certified organic and an active part of the conversation as to whether “regenerative agriculture” ought to have its own certification. Her hesitation stems from the worry that having too many or seemingly competing programs will add to consumer confusion and can cause “a snake pit of disagreement between people that are really rowing in the same direction.”

Demeter USA at least tries to make things easy by integrating the criteria of existing programs such as California Certified Organic Farmers and Salmon-Safe so that these certifications are implied under its mark. But even with third-party verification, the complicated nature of wine and lack of tasting criteria means that it’s nearly impossible to draw a through line from the bottle to the glass based solely on the proclamations of the label.

And then there’s the issue as to whether a philosophy-based system of cultivation can or even should be regulated. Especially one that promotes farm individuality and free thinking.

Pity the conscientious consumer! Farmers can live up to the highest ideals of their certification. Or they can farm organically and choke the vines with sulfur. Be considered sustainable and spray synthetic weed killers. Follow biodynamics to the letter and drown the wine in oak dust. Make so-called natural wine from fertigated, overcropped vineyards in the Sacramento Delta. Or, they can operate minus any accreditation or movement, make thoughtful wines, and leave the land better off than when they got there.

As someone who cares about the environment, I’m thankful for biodynamic (and biodynamic-adjacent) farming. And as someone who cares about wine, I’m pretty happy with it, too. So, whether you view biodynamics as a philosophy, a recipe, good sense, or nonsense, at the very least, it’s progress. It’s a work in progress. It’s complicated.

Special thanks to GuildSomm Technical Writer  for her assistance in researching this article.

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  • Great read! So thorough. Hopefully as this becomes more normative in the vineyard it will become more acknowledged within general agricultural practices as well. I strongly believe that how we treat our soil & microbial systems for the next 50-100 years will make or break the planet. 

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