I have to agree, strongly, with Tom Wark’s take on biodynamic winegrowing from his blog, although I won’t go quite as far as he did in calling it “a hoax.” A hoax is a fraud or, at best, a practical joke–in either instance, it’s something committed by someone on a consciously false basis. I don’t think the practitioners of biodynamism are consciously doing anything phony. I’m convinced they’re convinced of the truthiness of their commitment. In other words, they’re sincere.
But Tom did nail it when he wrote, “Suggesting that Biodynamics is somehow at the forefront of any movement to capture terroir in a bottle is…insulting to many fine winemakers who would never think of adopting Rudolph Steiner’s snake oil…”.
I first became acquainted with biodynamics in some detail when I wrote about Javier Tapa Meza, who then was (and still may be) Jim Fetzer’s winemaker at Ciego Vinegarden, up on the beautiful shores of Clear Lake. It was Javier–a great guy, with a great back story–who first told me all about the cow horns, the phases of the moon, the dung soups and so on.
I was incredulous, and asked Javier all kinds of questions, to which he had ultimately to admit he had no actual proof these things worked. I left that visit thinking that a commitment to biodynamism was more of a religious conviction than a scientific approach to winemaking. That was about eight or ten years ago, and nothing I’ve seen or heard since then has changed my mind.
There are many talented and sincere people practicing biodynamism in California. Mike Benziger, at Benziger Family Winery, is one. They make very good wine, but there are others who profess to practice biodynamism who don’t. And there are dozens, even hundreds of wineries who don’t stick to 100% biodynamic practices that make wine so good, it blows my mind.
So what’s a wine critic supposed to conclude? This: I don’t care how you make your wine. Just make it compelling.
Do I care about the environment? Yes. Do I care about sustainability? Yes. But in the case of wine, I care far more about my actual experience of what’s in the bottle than I do about the political beliefs or agricultural practices of the proprietor. It seems to me that even when wine is made in the “ordinary,” i.e. non-biodynamic way, it’s a pretty clean, green product. Besides, most wine regions have strict local laws concerning runoff, watershed protection, etc., and I know for a fact that growers are loathe to use any chemical insecticides, pesticides or fungicides they don’t have to.
But let’s face it, grapegrowing is farming, and a grower can’t let some religious or spiritual belief prohibit him from saving his crop when mold is about to take it over. That’s the Christian Science way of farming: pray, and hope God rescues your babies. Well, that’s not the way it works.
If there were absolute proof that biodynamic wines are better, I’d be behind this movement. But believe me, there isn’t, so I’m not.
The Napa Vintners asked me to be part of a panel discussion called “I’m Green, You’re Green–So What…or Is It Too Easy Being Green?” They explained that the event was for “communications and PR professionals” at [mostly] Napa wineries, and that in addition to me (as the “respected wine writer”), the panel would include “a well respected retailer” and “a researcher.” In particular, the invitation to me explained, “We are interested in generating a discussion among panel members and vintners about the importance of employing green practices and marketing them to consumers, how it helps market a brand (or not) and what the future ‘green’ trends will be.”
My initial reaction was that it’s a little weird for them to invite me to speak on this topic, since anyone familiar with my views over the years knows that I’m not particularly keen on green. So there’s the irony. It’s sort of the same kind of irony as when I’m asked to speak on matters concerning social media, of which I have never claimed to be an expert (beyond the fact that I have this blog). In fact, in some respects, I’m a skeptic, or at least a debunker of inflated claims, and there are certainly plenty of people who know vastly more than I do about the structure and nature of social media. Yet I get the invitations anyway.
I like the fact that the organizers of the Napa green panel (which is on Thursday, April 29, at Spring Mountain Vineyard) included “So what…” in the title. It indicates that they, at least, don’t approach the whole green-sustainable-organic-biodynamic thing with the kind of breathless hero worship of a tea partier at a Sarah Palin rally. Leave it to PR professionals to be the first to understand that any cause celebre can be used for marketing purposes, no matter how lofty and noble it might inherently be (actually, the loftier, the better).
When I say I’m not keen on green, I don’t mean that I don’t support green practices, in the vineyard and in the winery. I do. How could I not? It would be like being against motherhood. What I mean is that, ever since this organic thing arose in the 1990s and gathered momentum heading into the 2000s, I saw it being equal parts passionate personal belief, on the one hand, and a marketing tool, on the other. I don’t think that’s cynicism. It’s cold, hard reality. When I wrote my second book, New Classic Winemakers of California, I included a chapter on Javier Tapia Meza, the winemaker at Ceago Vinegarden, precisely because I wanted to understand the mindset of people who were completely devoted to biodynamic. Javier and his boss, Jim Fetzer, approach farming with an almost religious tenacity, which I respect; but I still think that some vintners — not necessarily them, but others — believe that if green is good for the environment, it’s also good for business.
I actually don’t think it is. I don’t think very many people make buying decisions based on green. Maybe a small number of Whole Foods types does, but most people buy wine based on other factors: price, label, scores and recommendations, variety type, food compatability, etc. Last December, there was a Green Wine Summit, in Santa Rosa, and while many of the speakers touted the consumer value of green, to me the most salient fact (via Neilsen tracking) was that “’Green wine’ and related topics represents about .5% of all Wine buzz,” buzz being defined by tracking Twitter and other online portals. There’s lots of online discussion of “organic,” “natural wine” and so on, but it’s disconnected with actual buying decisions. In fact, Nielsen found, consumers care about sulfites not because they are or aren’t organic, but because they think sulfites give them headaches; low or no sulfites is the “purchase trigger,” not green in and of itself.
I realize this is a very complicated topic, and one in which emotions and core beliefs are intertwined with fact. But I stand by my own belief that, however true or effective green practices are, from a wine marketing point of view the “So what?” factor currently dominates.