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16/01/2009

Friday Forum - Have your say: is biodynamic grapegrowing simply pseudoscience, or is it a recipe for quality wine?

Grape and wine producers around Australia are accepting the musings of the ‘father’ of biodynamics, Rudolf Steiner (1861–1952) as folklore. Organic One Wines co-owner Frank Bonic believes his biodynamically grown grapes from the Billabong Creek region of outback New South Wales “have higher levels of phytonutrients, higher protein levels and increased antioxidants”. Owner of Delatite Winery and Barwite Vineyards in Victoria’s Upper Goulburn region, David Ritchie, says biodynamics is the best cost-saving idea he has implemented in his vineyard. He says that less chemical input has allowed his vines to grow more naturally, and he is “repaid with much more intense and interesting fruit flavours and better structured fruit”.

But biodynamics has its share of sceptics. Wine Industry Journal correspondent PP Bradshaw expressed his concern that biodynamics “does seem based more on metaphysics than on any valid scientific principles”.

Sharing Bradshaw’s view is John Hilliard, of Hilliard Bruce Vineyards of Lompoc in California, USA. Amongst other comments about Rudolf Steiner, Hilliard says: “ Why would I think Steiner is infallible when he has been so wrong on so many topics?” and “It seems that Steiner’s foolishness has to wait to be exposed after the thrill and trendiness of biodynamics wears down.”

John Hilliard tells us why he does not farm biodynamically in today’s Friday Forum. Also, look out for the January/February issue of the Australian and New Zealand Wine Industry Journal for more.

Meanwhile: have your say on biodynamics by emailing " >l

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Why I do not farm biodynamically

By John Hilliard Hilliard Bruce Vineyards Lompoc, California, USA

Before I discuss biodynamic practices, it is helpful to determine what I mean by biodynamics.

I think biodynamics requires belief that Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) was a wise man, because Steiner’s agricultural lectures are the source of biodynamics. So what did this man believe? He believed in Lemuria and Atlantis, but not Darwin’s evolution. He believed there are nine classes of supernatural beings, seven epochs of history, 12 constellations that correspond to 12 parts of the body, and four elements of human temperaments. He believed that the heart does not pump blood and had a very un-Newtonian concept of the planets moving through the sky, not to mention that he pays attention to only seven planets (ignoring Neptune and Uranus, but includes the moon, and is unaware that if I stand next to a vine, my own mass affects the vine somewhere in the order of 60,000 times greater than the moon’s effects on the vine).

Steiner was not much above racial views of his time. Into his preparations he incorporated homeopathy, which was a new approach to healing illness in the late 1700s, offering an alternative to the crude medical practices of bloodletting, purging, blistering, etc. However, we now better understand mechanisms of disease, with Pasteur (1822–1895) and the germ theory of disease and antiseptics and anesthesia. Scientific developments negatively impacted homeopathy, and most homeopathic medical schools converted to conventional medical schools by the 1930s. I wonder if I will see the same fate for biodynamics? Just as homeopathy and astrology have not been a definitively proven treatment for anything, biodynamics has not been clearly shown to have any advantage over organic farming. So I hesitate to fill my website with what has not been proven and looks very much like belief in pseudoscience.

The simplest and easiest question I ask of Steiner is; how did he arrive at these unusual beliefs? How do I separate his agricultural pronouncements from his other obviously wrong beliefs? Did he conduct scientific agricultural experiments? Not one. He obtained his agricultural ideas the old fashioned way, by ‘clairvoyant vision’. I personally try to avoid using clairvoyance in decision-making. Steiner thought his revelation was the only truth and he rejected materialism as a basis for scientific research. This seems arrogant to me. He believed that a spirit world resides around us, and through clairvoyance, he sees truth.

Why would I think Steiner is infallible when he has been so wrong on so many topics? I ask what scientific truth has been credited to Steiner? I don’t know of any. It seems that Steiner’s foolishness has to wait to be exposed after the thrill and trendiness of biodynamics wears down, and the marketing edge that biodynamics offers is replaced with some new way to excite buyers.

Biodynamics gives wine store salespeople, tasting room managers and critics a song to sing. The wine industry claims various reasons for the uniqueness of their wines and these reasons change over time. Years ago, wine excellence came from some illustrious French winemaker. Then the vineyard had an absolutely special terroir. Of course, once every winery’s marketing department starts claiming the same thing, it is time to set oneself apart. The last big thing was to become ‘organic’, whether that encompasses endless trips up and down vine rows burning fossil fuel spraying sulfur or wearing out tractors keeping factories busy. Now, some vineyards are even better than organic: they have been transformed into biodynamic farms. Steiner’s beliefs are adopted and accepted by an educated elite that places bragging rights and marketing on websites before investigation. That is not the way I want to conduct my life. I have seen enough of that on Wall Street and Madison Avenue. I won’t do it with something I love.

Before I go grappling for wine sales, I want to address Steiner’s irrational thought: Rodent control by burning rodent skins and spreading the ashes in our fields? Do I really accept that the horns of animals act like antennas and concentrate cosmic forces into the compounds placed in them? Why stinging nettle and yarrow? Why bury items just so deep? Why this planet and not that planet? Just how does astronomy affect these buried things and why am I supposed to bury them in the first place? The agricultural lectures contain extraordinary statements that I think require extraordinary proof. My experience is to be cautious when confronted with ideas based on mysticism. I don’t believe I should accept as infallible a mystic who rejected experimentation in favour of clairvoyance. I ask myself, ‘Why would that work?’ I am not comfortable with hearing, “Yes, but it works”. That is not good enough for me.

The Wine Industry Journal investigated organic and biodynamic wine in the Varietal Report of its March/April 2008 issue, including a tasting 25 Chardonnay and Shiraz wines. Its sister publication, Australian Viticulture, has extensively covered organic and biodynamic grapegrowing practices over the past year, particularly in the January/February 2008 and March/April 2008 issues.

To obtain copies of these issues, contact Winetitles by telephone, +618 8292 0888 or visit www.winebiz.com.au

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