Columns by John

John Brown has been a wine and food columnist in West Virginia since the 1980’s. His regular columns appear in the Charleston (WV) Gazette-Mail under the title Vines & Vittles and in The State Journal - a statewide business weekly

Sustainable wine-making? I’ll buy it. But biodynamic is balderdash!

Sustainable wine-making? I’ll buy it. But biodynamic is balderdash!
The Willamette Valley is an area in Oregon that produces exceptional pinot noir.Okay, so we all know artists are a bit “out there” or they wouldn’t be able to create the amazing works they produce. In an otherwise mundane, complex, stressful and boring existence, artists provide a break from normalcy and present unique perspectives on the world we all share. I love art- even if sometimes I don’t understand a painting, a treatise, a photograph, a bit of music and, yes, even the metaphysical ramblings of some wine makers.

At the recently completed IPNC (International Pinot Noir Celebration) in Oregon, the title and theme of this year’s event was “Sustainability Without Sacrifice.” This theme was touched on in every IPNC symposium. In layman’s terms, it means you can sustain and indeed improve the vineyard by using more organic methods of farming. For example, instead of using conventional herbicides and other man-made chemical in the vineyards, sustainability depends on using what is in nature to produce the best end product.

So far, so good. I can buy-in to the sustainability way of doing things. I can even imagine that the wine produced from a vineyard farmed in this manner can be superior. But the level after sustainability is something called biodynamics. If sustainability is a practical – if somewhat retro- manner of growing grapes, biodynamic farming is part mumbo-jumbo, part voodoo and part snake oil. I ain’t buying this sack of potatoes!

But first more about sustainability. Some of the more recognizable components of sustainability are using natural fertilizers, composting and the cultivation of plants that attract insects that are beneficial to grape vines. Sustainability practices in the vineyard also extend to actions you would not suspect have a relationship to the quality of the vine such as providing areas for wildlife to flourish and allowing weeds to grow between the vines. It also involves using bio-diesel for tractors to reduce emissions and doing everything to limit the carbon footprint in the vineyard. Ultimately, sustainability broadens to encompass the whole eco-system surrounding the vineyard so that all the natural elements work in harmony and in a natural way.

Ted Casteel, an owner of Bethel Heights Winery in the Willamette Valley (and a fellow who produces my favorite pinot gris in Oregon), views sustainability this way: “It’s maintaining biological diversity and ecological balance on the whole farm, minimizing the use of 'off-farm' inputs such as fungicides, synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and diesel.”

Hey, I’m with you, Ted -- who wants to sip pinot noir that has nuances of Co2?!

But the biodynamic vineyard movement – which seems to have gotten its start in the Burgundy region of France – is sustainability on steroids! It involves some things that are downright looney. It can include practices such as stuffing cow horns with manure and burying them in vineyards over the winter, fermenting flowers in stags’ bladders, and timing these unorthodox methods of farming with the phases of the moon and the location of the stars in the night sky. Holy Wicked Witch of the West, Batman!

Anyway, a few of the presenters at the IPNC conference actually tried to make sense of this type of agricultural wizardry. Fortunately, most of the wine makers I spoke with privately about biodynamics were as skeptical as me. Some expressed concern that those pushing biodynamic farming were actually harming the acceptance and credibility of sustainability. Others described biodynamics as nothing more than a cheap and confusing marketing ploy.

The purpose of this rant on biodynamics is simply to alert you to the latest wine scam. It is being used by the enemies of ordinary wine drinkers to confuse and make the wine-making process more complicated and mysterious than it already is. So, repeat after me: sustainability is OK, biodynamics is balderdash!

In fact, the next time some label boasts of the biodynamic farming methods used to produce the wine, I’m going to buy a bottle of the stuff, take it to a gentlemen’s club, give it a lap dance, then bury it this fall in the nearest landfill under a quarter moon. I’ll check back next spring and report to you on the results.
Wines to please both the carnivore and vegan!
Oregon Feeds the Beast!