This kind of cultishness drives Aaron Pott crazy. Pott is a winemaker and consultant (formerly for Quintessa) who is planting his own vineyard. He studied at both UC Davis and the University of Burgundy and worked at two chateaux in Bordeaux, so he is familiar with New World and Old. He first encountered biodynamic farming in France and learned more when Quintessa expanded its biodynamic program. He calls many biodynamic preparations “ludicrous” and “medieval.”
The problem, he says, is that Steiner wrote little on grapes (just half a page in his agricultural lectures), and his knowledge of farming was based on his experiences in chilly Central Europe–entirely removed from the climate of Napa and Sonoma. Many of the preparations aim to encourage ripening of grapes, whereas in California, overripening is the concern.
Pott doesn’t dismiss biodynamics altogether. “The tenets I like,” he says, “are those things that say–the way Steiner actually said–‘Look at everything that’s around you. Use preparations that work. These are things that work for me in the middle of Germany.’ You see what’s naturally occurring on your farm and use those techniques.” Pott crushed leaves of the agave plant, whose interior stays moist in the desert, and sprayed them on vines to prevent sunburn–and “lo and behold, it worked.” Why don’t others adapt Steiner’s philosophy to such pragmatic effect, and discard what is clearly unsuitable to their own climate? He shrugs. “Why don’t Christians follow the teachings of Christ?”
In the end, it comes down to faith. Scientific studies comparing organic and conventional farms have shown that organic farms have better soil quality, according to John Reganold, a soil scientist at Washington State University. But studies comparing the soil on biodynamic and organic farms show “mixed results,” he says. He has compared soil from adjacent biodynamic and organic vineyards and seen no difference; and although a chemical analysis of grapes revealed some differences, in a blind tasting of merlot wines from those vineyards, wine tasters were stumped. Still, Reganold is an advocate: “Biodynamic farmers observe and are in contact with the crop more often than conventional growers.” And, of course, he likes that biodynamic farmers care so much about the soil.
If biodynamic means only that the soil the grapes were grown in will be better for generations to come, that’s all right. “There’s no money in winemaking, let me tell you,” says Jim Fetzer, whose family stayed in property development and grape growing after selling its winery. The money is in the land. Given the undisputed benefits biodynamic farming has for the life of soil, maybe it’s a good investment after all.
Corby Kummer is a senior editor at the Atlantic and the author of The Joy of Coffee and The Pleasures of Slow Food.