I was raised in Austin, Texas.

Austin, as in the home of Whole Foods Market, all things natural and hippie. Austin, as in the most liberal city in the state.

“Organic,” “natural,” “holistic” and “eco-friendly” are terms I grew up hearing. And I’m pretty sure everyone has become familiar with the terms “green” and “sustainable” in recent years. However, “biodynamics” and “biodynamic farming” I was not too familiar with; these may not be too familiar to you, either.

I have seen “biodynamics” in print a few times, but the term did not mean to much to me because I really didn’t know what it was. On a recent trip in Oregon, my wife, Lindsay, and I kept hearing references to the biodynamic movement happening among wineries in the Willamette Valley.

Most if not all of the wineries we visited were organic and fully sustainable, which isn’t surprising considering how environmentally conscious Oregon is. But biodynamics is just coming into the general public’s awareness, even in hippie-friendly Oregon.

Upon returning from our Oregonian adventure and conducting some research on my own, I was surprised to learn that biodynamics is not really new at all. The father of biodynamics is Austrian Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). Steiner is credited with creating the first ecological farming system.

hornSo, what exactly is biodynamics, you ask?

Basically, the winemaker puts herbs in an old cut-off cow horn and buries it in the ground. After several months have passed, the winemaker digs the horn up during the full moon, but only if the groundhog has seen its own shadow. Then the winemaker makes a potion of magical tea, sprays said magical mixture on the vines, drinks some of the tea, and holds hands with the field workers around a fire while Pink Floyd plays backwards on an iPod.

I’m kidding.

Well, sort of.

According to Wikipedia, “biodynamic agriculture is a method of organic farming that treats farms as unified and individual organism, emphasizing balancing the holistic development and interrelationship of the soil, plants and animals as a self-nourishing system without external inputs insofar as this is possible given the loss of nutrients due to the export of food.”

In English, this means that biodynamic farming is similar to organic farming, in that it strives to avoid chemicals and pesticides (those “external inputs”) so that the resulting product is as true to its natural environment as is possible.

As explained to me by Bill Hanson, assistant winemaker at Panther Creek in Oregon, in biodynamics, heavy emphasis is placed on composts and manure. Methods that are unique to the biodynamic approach include the use of fermented herbal and mineral preparations as a compost additive and field sprays (teas) and the use of the astronomical sowing and planting calender.

In winemaking, biodynamics is really just optimizing the terroir. If you know anything about winemaking, then you’ll recognize this term and its importance to winemakers. Terroir is the soil the vines are grown in, the weather conditions of the area, and the farming techniques used that make the grapes unique to the vineyard, which translates to the unique identity of the wines produced.

Superior terroir makes superior wines. Biodynamics strives to ensure healthy soil and healthy vines.

So why isn’t every vineyard employing biodynamics and why is it still a hush-hush topic, even in Oregon?

Well, most studies have shown relatively little direct effect of biodynamic practices on the product’s superiority. However, the studies do note improvement to nutrient content of the compost, and field sprays (teas) contain substances that stimulate plant growth.

In addition, much biodynamics is based on faith: Biodynamics is believed to transfer supernatural and cosmic forces into the soil and, ultimately, the wine.

Sounds kind of kooky, right?

You’d be surprised, though, by just how popular biodynamics is, even if it does come across as something a long-haired hippie freak would use to make sure their, uh, “crop” was as stellar as possible.

Today there are 529 biodynamic wine producers worldwide, with more converting to the practice every day. Biodynamics is being used in vineyards in France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Hungry, Austria, Switzerland, Chili, Argentina, Portugal, South Africa, New Zealand and the U.S.

Libra Label

In addition to working for Panther Creek, Bill Hanson, and his wife, Linda, are also making their own wine. Libra Cellars, the Hansons’ wine label, is completely sustainable and biodynamic.

My wife and I got a first-hand look at the process at Bill and Linda’s vineyards.

water tanksThey have massive water tanks that hold water collected from rainfall. Bill connects water lines to the tanks as needed.

The field preparations — or teas, as Bill likes to call them — are a mixture of manure and crushed quartz. This mixture is stuffed inside a cow horn, buried in a compost chamber in the spring and taken out in autumn.

Once dug up, the horn’s contents are mixed with water and sprayed at a low pressure over the vines in order to help prevent fungal diseases. Herbs used in the compost preparations are often used in medicinal remedies.

Some of these herbs are oak bark, stinging nettle, chamomile blossoms, yarrow blossom, dandelion, valerium and horsetail. In a sense, Bill is a modern-day apothecary of the wine variety.

Bill says he is trying to balance the holistic development and relationship of soil, plants and animals as a self-nourishing system. And he manages to make some pretty fine wine in doing so.

We had the opportunity to try their Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, both of which were exquisite. Both of the wines paired very well the salmon Bill grilled outside on the deck over looking the vineyard.

Here, in Bill’s own words, is what Libra Cellars is about:

photo bottles and vineyard• The main thing is that Libra represents balance. … The origin of the word derives from the Latin meaning “balances” or “scales” and it is sometimes referred to as the Balance. The key to fine wine for drinking or cellaring is balance. We put the scales on the back label.

• The sun enters Libra around the Autumn Equinox, when day and night are of equal length. Thus, this is when the Earth and the sun are in balance. … When the sun reaches this point, spring and summer have passed and the harvesters are weighing and balancing the fruits of their labor. Libra represents the zenith of the year and coincides with our harvest.

• The Greek mythology related to Libra is pretty cool. Persephone was the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture or “all things growing.” Libra represented the Chariot that transported her back from the underworld, bringing spring with her. Demeter, of course, is now the name of the official Biodynamic Certification. We also practice biodynamic composting methods and dabble with the spray preparations, so the story is particularly interesting.

• Libras like gentleness, sharing, conviviality and the “finer” things in life … and they tend to be mischievous.

I will do a post and give detailed tasting notes on all the Libra wines when they hit the shelves soon.

Until then, check out some of the biodynamic wines available, and see if Voodoo Vino whets your palate.

MH headshotMichael Humphrey lives in Galveston County and works as a wine salesmen and also publishes the Galveston Wine Guy Blog. Read more at his blog http://galvestonwineguy.blogspot.com

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21 Responses

  1. Meg Houston Maker

    Michael, thanks for this article. At the end, though, I’m left wondering what you really think of biodynamic winemaking. On one hand you’ve presented evidence of its worldwide use, even by two friends whom you likely respect. Clearly there are some who take it seriously. Yet your descriptions of biodynamic practices waffle between genuine and flip, and you close by calling it Voodoo. It’s fine to take that position, but I’d like to understand better why you do.

  2. Wine Guy

    Is this really the best article on biodynamics the illustrious Palate Press can offer. Maybe we can get can Benzinger or Quivira or others to write something meaningful and researched…..you lost me at “Austin, all things natural and hippie” “Austin, as in the most liberal city in the state.” you forgot “OF TEXAS”…..

    You missed the whole real intent of Biodynamics that treats the earth as living organism, and attempts to use natural resources to combat natural problems, say owl nest for birds and rodents. Cow Horns midnight planting fertilizations is a small part not all practice, not the focus.

    “Well, most studies have shown relatively little direct effect of biodynamic practices on the product’s superiority. However, the studies do note improvement to nutrient content of the compost, and field sprays (teas) contain substances that stimulate plant growth.”
    Can you cite some? just curious.

    Palate Press continues to devolve in it quest for quantity content, than quality….is there an editor who proofs anything?

  3. Per-BKWine

    Well, the article avoids some of the worst “voodoo” descriptions that tends to pop up when it is talk about biodynamic vineyards. But it does not give and awful lot of insight into what it really is. And mixes ups some things that don’t really contribute to the clarity. In fact, biodynamic farming is very strictly defined and it is mainly about the preparations (“teas”). If I remember right there are eight different biodynamic preparations, called 500, 501, etc. (Odd, yes.) You might find some additional, more down to earth info on it in these videos:
    Domain Montirius in the Rhone valley:
    and Fattoria Poggerino in Chianti:

  4. Larry Brooks

    I don’t think that voodoo is that harsh a term to describe biodynamic farming any more than describing it as a form of psuedo relegion like astrology is harsh. It’s an accurate description of a belief system that has no basis in fact. Lots of people are relegious, but that doesn’t prove that god exists. Lots of people pray, but I don’t think it makes their wine taste better even if they’re praying to dionysius. No point getting all thin skinned just because you believe in a bunch of baloney – just own it! Be proud of your pre scientific mindset.

  5. NavyDavy

    No added color or acid. Wild yeast fermented and dry farmed…
    None of that is required in organic.
    I’m all in. Science channel or not.

  6. Sondra Barrett

    There are more and more wineries going biodynamic in the US, not simply because its a sales ploy but it cares for the soil and makes good wines. Just consider the big wineries doing this – Grgich, Sinskey, Benziger, all the Fetzers,etc. In my new book Wine’s Hidden Beauty I have a list of all of them.

    Ivo Jeramaz at Grgich said they were ready to tear out some old sick vines when he decided to experiment with the biodynamic sprays. The vineyards improved significantly. Now they are 100% organic and biodynamic.

    I believe many wineries, especially out of the US, don’t even put on their labels organic or biodynamic because of the ‘voodoo’ stigma. Do you really think people would adapt labor-intensive, expensive strategies if they didn’t acheive noticeable improvement in their wines? Maybe not measurable by science standards but then neither is quality.

  7. El Jefe

    In regards to those sick vines at Grgich, perhaps someone should ask how they became sick in the first place? I’d also want to know if they split the vineyard in half so that they had a “control group”. If you don’t have a control you don’t know if the vines would have also gotten healthy through normal care. That’s a story I’d like to know more about.

  8. John Hilliard

    Rudolf Steiner was not a farmer, and never farmed. He made up what are the Biodynamic “preparations” out of thin air. He never tested them. Keep in mind that he gave lectures about many subjects. If you read Steiner’s lectures, not just the agricultural lectures that Biodynamics is based on, you may well come away with the impression that Steiner was delusional (of the grandiose type). Steiner communicated with dead people throughout his life, and was doing so during the week he presented his “insights” that make up Biodynamic farming. Biodynamic farming is great if you love astrology, homeopathy and magic potions, if you can ignore the placibo effect, if you like to pay entrepreneurial consultants fees for hocus pocus, if you do not mind subscribing to studies conducted by parties interested in certain outcomes, and that the preparations involve barbaric practices such as using parts of animals in paranormal sprays. Oh, and it is great for marketing products because you can claim you care about being in balance with the earth.

  9. Joya Vario

    it is still better to adhere on organic farming because the fruits and vegetables does not contain those harmful chemicals..,*

  10. Evelyn Reed

    my sister do believe very much in astrology. maybe the stars might have something to do with our futures-“`

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