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Cow Horns, Manure, Mysticism, Planetary Alignment and Biodynamic Viticulture in Virginia and Other Eastern Wine Regions?

“Until an organic product is created to eradicate Black Rot in our region, it is highly unlikely there will be any certified organic or Biodynamic vineyards in the Mid-Atlantic,” noted Christine Vrooman when I asked if she planned to pursue Biodynamic certification in her vineyards at Ankida Ridge. Christine and her husband Dennis are owners of Ankida Ridge Vineyards, situated on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Amherst, VA, and are part of a small group of vintners in the Mid-Atlantic States — Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania — utilizing biodynamic viticulture practices.

Of the more contentious and debated topics in the contemporary wine world, I find the subject of biodynamic viticulture the most fascinating.  Some of the underlying practices — like burying cow horns packed with manure, fermenting yarrow plant in a deer’s bladder, and harvesting based on lunar cycles — along with fervent opinions for and against biodynamics makes for a fascinating study.

Beginnings of a biodynamic prep - cow horns filled with manure. Photo taken at Biodynamics farming conference in Red Boiling Springs, TN. Photo taken by Jeff Weissler, ConsciousWine.com

Sometimes referred to as organic above organic, or even, the Rolls Royce of organics, Biodynamics can be loosely defined as a framework, or philosophy, of farming practices (planting, growing, harvesting) based on the teachings of Austrian scientist, writer, and philosopher of sorts, Rudolf Steiner.  The foundation of biodynamics is eight lectures on agriculture — later published in a book entitled Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture — delivered by Steiner to a group of farmers and his anthroposophical followers in Poland in 1924.

“To our modern way of thinking, this all sounds quite insane” – Rudolf Steiner, Agriculture, 1924

I should note that the intent of this piece is not to provide an encyclopedic treatment of biodynamics (not sure that’s reasonably possible), but instead to provide a cursory introduction for those that may not be familiar with biodynamics and to provide a forum for discussion.

A cornerstone of biodynamics is nine special preparations — three in the form of sprays and six as part of compost.  These natural preparations are made (prepared, I guess) by very specific methods and serve various purposes like pest control, increasing soil microbial life, or used to counter fungal diseases.

A few of the biodynamic preparations include: filling a cow horn with manure and burying over winter (BD prep 500); packing a cow horn with ground quartz mixed with rainwater then burying in the spring and digging up in autumn (BD prep 501); stuffing chamomile blossoms in to the small intestines of cattle then burying in humus-rich soil in the fall and digging up in the spring (BD prep 503); and, placing chopped oak bark inside the skull of a domesticated animal surrounded by peat and burying in the ground where rain water flows (BD prep 505).

Before being applied in the vineyard each of the preparations are diluted and then ‘activated‘ by a special stirring process called ‘dynamization.’  Astronomical influences are also considered in the application of the preparations. (Ed. Note — This is a very rudimentary explanation of the preparations. Some biodynamcists would note two sprays, and seven as compost.)

Dynamizing a biodynamic preparation at Ankida Ridge Vineyards. (photo credit: Christine Vrooman)

Interestingly, even though there are no certified biodynamic vineyards in the Mid-Atlantic region, Virginia is home to one of the leading providers of biodynamic preparations and other products & services to support biodynamic farming — the Josephine Porter Institute (the subject of an upcoming post).  Each of the nine biodynamic preparations can be sourced from JPI.

Biodynamic preparations from JPI before use at Annefield Vineyards. (photo credit: Stephen Ballard)

These preparations and practices along with some of Steiner’s questionable claims — like being clairvoyant, and asserting that our earliest ancestors were ‘jellylike‘ beings called Lemurians — is the basis for much of the controversy, and confusion, surrounding biodynamics.

Given the number of strong opinions masquerading as fact, along with fuzzy supporting science and questionable practices (like fermenting oak bark in the skull of a domestic animal), I’ve stayed in the shallow end of the pool on this subject. Despite some of Steiner’s dubious claims and questionable (read – not fully understood) practices, I do feel there is something to biodynamics  though I’m unable to clearly articulate exactly what this something is.

Of the vintners I spoke with, several acknowledged a certain faith component of biodynamics, but were consistent in their belief that biodynamics has resulted in more attention to detail at the winery and throughout the entire grape growing process and overall improvement in vineyard health.

Ed Boyce, winemaker and owner of Black Ankle Vineyards in Maryland, views biodynamics as “faith-based agriculture,” and believes that the diligence required of biodynamics makes him “think about everything he does in the vineyard and at the winery.”  Ed is quick to add, “biodynamics is not a panacea and does not take the place of basic winemaking principles like careful vineyard selection and canopy management.

Paul Roberts, owner of Deep Creek Cellars in Friendsville, MD and practioner of biodynamics since 2002, takes a similar view and says, “the great value of biodynamics may be the attention to detail in the vineyard that it [biodynamics] requires.” 

Does all of this additional diligence translate in to better wine?  This of course depends on one’s definition of better.  (Ed. Note – By no means do I feel that biodynamic practitioners have cornered the market on diligence in the vineyard.)

I’ve had many excellent wines made from grapes grown in Biodynamic certified vineyards and, of course, I’ve had amazing wines made with grapes from conventional vineyards (and vice versa), and not sure I would/could definitively label one better than the other.

I must say that some of my favorite biodynamic wines — Brick House Pinot Noirs, Zind-Humbrecht Rieslings, and Joly’s Coulee De Serrant to name a few — are stunning in their depth and purity of fruit that I seldom note in other wines.  I concede that my opinion of these wines may be skewed because I know each are produced by devout biodynamic farmers, and that I may not be able to pick them out of a blind tasting when paired alongside similar wines of the same region.

Whether or not the extra attention in the vineyards associated with biodynamic farming results in better wine is certainly open to individual interpretation, but the environmental benefits of using natural treatments like biodynamic preparations in the vineyards in lieu of synthetic pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals isn’t debatable.

Even when biodynamic preparations are used as an adjunct to conventional sprays, the benefits in terms of vineyard health are definitely noticeable according to several vintners I spoke to.  In addition to improved vineyard health and clear environmental benefits, the use of biodynamic preparations could also result in cost savings to wineries (although I wonder if labor costs do in fact go up).

At Annefield Vineyards, owners Stephen Ballard and Michael Leary have incorporated biodynamic preparations in to their conventional spraying regimens and note that they ‘spend about $3,500 per year on conventional sprays and BD preparations would be significantly cheaper.’

Perhaps this is yet another reason for more Virginia, Maryland and other Mid-Atlantic (and East Coast) vintners to consider biodynamic practices.

Beyond the many arguments for and against Biodynamics, does any of this matter to the end-consumer?  I suspect not.

Vintners — if an effective organic preparation to combat Black Rot was developed, would you actually make the substantial commitment necessary to obtain full Biodynamic certification (three years of no synthetic sprays, burying cow horns, and the rest)?  I suspect the reasons may extend beyond the lack of a natural, non-synthetic answer to black rot, but would like to hear from vintners who have evaluated biodynamics.

A special thank you to Stephen Ballard, Christine Vrooman, Ed Boyce, and Paul Roberts for all of the information you provided and for fielding my nonstop questions for this post and the forthcoming print piece.  For reference and additional reading, be sure to check out Stephen Ballard’s series on The Agriculture Course at Bottled Poetry blog (here, here, and here).


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