Audio Blog 10: Organic and Biodynamic Wine

organic-do-not-spray1I LOVE the idea of organic and Biodynamic wine (and food for that matter). Perhaps it’s because I was raised by a hippie mom (I knew what macrobiotic meant by the time I was like 5) or maybe it’s because I’m an earth sign (Virgo), but actually, I think it’s because the wines often taste great and they do so without polluting my body or the environment.


Now before I get started on talking about organic and Biodynamic wines, I need to define what they are.


Let’s start with organic:

beesOrganic farming is about keeping soil healthy and controlling vineyard issues by using naturally occurring stuff to fight off vineyard problems. For example, you’ll use compost instead of chemical fertilizer on the soil, and introduce natural predators into the vineyard to eat pests that eat grapes (spiders to eat nasty bugs, hawks and falcons to eat rodents). Any sprays are made from ingredients that occur in nature. It’s back to basics, pre-industrial revolution farming.


This is very simple. But if you live in the United States, our Department of Agriculture can’t help themselves and have to make it complex. So there are three ways a wine can be labeled if it’s organically farmed:

  • 100% Organic has the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) seal. This wine can contain only naturally occurring sulfites (or sulfur dioxide, an antimicrobial substance) in less than 100 parts per million.
  • The Organic label has the USDA organic seal and indicates the wine has 95% organically grown ingredients (the other 5% must not be available organically). The wine has the same sulfite requirements as 100% organic.
  • The Made with Organic Grapes or Made with Organic Ingredients label means the wine contains at least 70% organic ingredients. It can have artificial sulfites added, but it may not contain more than 100 ppm. (It does not have the USDA organic seal.)


This labeling is confusing and contested mostly because the USDA has decided that the use of sulfites (which are organic) to preserve wine prevents them from being organic, despite farming techniques. That means that most of the wines that legitimately are organic because they use organic farming techniques aren’t permitted to use the label. Ask any winemaker and they’ll tell you that it’s difficult, if not impossible to avoid using sulfites – compounds which stabilize the wine and prevent spoilage. It’s complete crap. The wine industry is the only industry that can make a product from more than 95% organic components, and can’t label it organic.


There’s also the issue of cost. Not the cost of the certification, but the cost of maintenance. Organic fertilizers and insecticides are costlier than non-organic ones. Wineries who commit to organic viticulture must maintain a consistent standard to keep their certification in good standing. Their costs are higher and eat into their profit, so it’s a big tradeoff and oftentimes not worth the effort.


Now on to Biodynamic…

biodBiodynamic viticulture is a little out there when you first hear about it. I thought it was totally kooky, until I visited Benziger in in Sonoma Valley of California and saw it at work. Benziger is 100% biodynamic and certified by Demeter, the only bioD certification body in the world and after visiting, I think I can really explain it here in the most practical way.


For background, if you don’t know what biodynamic farming is, here’s a summary (some paraphrased by Benziger’s site):

  • Biodynamic is the highest level of organic farming — it’s organic on steroids.
  • It was developed in the 1920’s by an Austrian dude named Rudolf Steiner. Biodynamic farming views a farm or vineyard as a single living organism. 
  • No synthetic chemicals are used in this type of farming and the land is a closed nutrient system, using homeopathic teas, composting, natural predator-prey relationships, cover crops, and animals that live on the estate to keep a vineyard balanced.
  • Farmers who practice biodynamics pay attention to the tides, phases of the moon, planets in the night sky, and seasons to decide when to do things like thin the canopy of the vine, use those natural teas, and harvest.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know it all sounds kind of out there. It did to me too. So the purpose of our visit to Benziger was to learn the WHY behind all this seemingly strange philosophy.


The bottom line: Biodynamics is actually about making a farm self-sustaining and bringing it into balance with nature after it’s been messed up by human intervention. It’s basically bringing your farm back to a natural state by using only stuff found in nature. 

Here are some practical explanations of why things are done.

First: animals are used in two ways:

  • For manure to enrich the soil: You need fertilizer, and animals do that job easily. Benziger has 1,500 pound highland sheep that spend the entire day eating and making fertilizer for the vineyards. They are off property, since they eat everything in sight!
  • For aeration and weed eating: Flocks of smaller sheep hang out and tromp along the vineyard rows eating weeds and cover crops. Their hard little hooves aerate the land too, so the soil is healthier after their three-month binge from January through March. That’s pretty clever — I never thought of the aeration aspect, but it makes sense now, especially after recently re-seeding and aerating my own yard!


There’s this business with cow horns and burying them with manure and herb blends that I have NEVER downloadunderstood. If you’ve never seen this, pictures of biodynamic farming always show these “preparations” that are made and put into a cow horn and then buried for months. I thought this was just some weird, far-out thing but if you fill a cow horn, which is on the smallish side, with manure and herbs and bury it for 6 months or so, you get decomposed matter that is a great fertilizer for vines. You steep it, like a tea, in water and then spray it on the vine roots. This stimulates root growth and creates healthy vines. The specific herbs are better for the roots than chemical preparations and are good for soil health. I never understood the burial aspect, but I guess the cow horn accommodates the perfect quantity to make a good amount of the tea and the decomposition of the manure means the fertilizer is rich but not overly so.


And on the cosmic stuff – Mick Unti from Unti Vineyards of Dry Creek Vineyards follows this practice and he explained to me in my visit with him that the reason biodynamic farmers follow the moon cycles is because sap from plants flows down and makes grapes more flavorful on days when the gravitational pull of the earth is stronger. You want to harvest on those days to maximize flavor and avoid taking off leaves and extraneous grape clusters then because you will lose flavor into areas of the plant that are being discarded. Makes sense, no?


Similar to organic viticulture, there is a certifying body for biodynamic viticulture. It has strict rules and keeping with code is an expensive proposition. So again, you’ll see many producers who follow biodynamic principles but aren’t certified.


If I may dork out for a second, archaeologists believe wine was first made from grapes as early as 6000 B.C. (ironically, in Iran, which now essentially bans the stuff). For millennia, wine was made with nary a chemical in sight…and it’s been pretty fabulous.


cowhornIn fact, it’s evolved to where it is today without this crazy chemical warfare on the vines we see today. I will concede that new pests and vineyard nastiness have evolved (mold, fungus, etc), but when there are wines in the market that have proven they can make superb wine without poisons, I see no reason for their use. I understand it’s expensive to convert vineyards back to a more natural state. Sadly, it’s cheaper to use polluting chemicals than to farm in harmony with the land. That said, once you destroy the land with chemicals the cost of cleaning up groundwater and restoring vineyard soils is pretty high too, but like politicians, business folks tend to be short-sighted.


800px-organic-vineyard-austria-neusiedlerseeLet’s hope the farmers keep pushing the industry towards better practices that will ensure a future for viticulture. My lofty vision is that in the next 50 years organic and biodynamic viticulture is the norm, rather than the exception.



What do you think about biodynamics and organics? Do you try to buy wines that tout they use these practices or doesn’t it matter to you? Add a comment below and let me know what you think.

  • Peter Twist

    Dear Elizabeth,

    I’m a big fan, and I think this is mostly a typical example of you doing great work spreading wine knowledge.

    Organic food products are, of course, a bit of a contentious issue. I just hope that, at least when it comes to making remarks like “they do so without polluting my body”, you make sure you’re making remarks that are consistent with modern science (ie facts).

    As much as organic marketers push it, there is no scientific consensus that organic food is healthier than conventional. I can link some of the big meta-analysis papers on this topic, or can discuss the various toxicity (LD50’s) of substances used in organic farming vs conventional. There are many pesticides/herbicides used in organics that are much more poisonous than those in conventional. For example “Rotenone” was an organic pesticide pulled off the market cause it turned out it could cause Parkinson’s disease.

    I also owe it to my training in medicine and pharmacology that ethanol is a relatively very toxic substance which indeed pollutes the body. As such, trace amounts of pesticides, herbicides, and the rest that make it into your wine aren’t going to make any difference worth considering. “the dose makes the poison”, of course, and wine in moderation correlates positively with healthy.

    So perhaps there are good farming reasons, or good wine reasons, but I just had to discuss that one minor little aspect of your article.

    Keep up the awesome work!

    • Ian Renwick

      As you allude to, the health benefits are only one aspect of why it makes sense to consider converting to organic viticulture. The (in my opinion) much bigger reason is the benefits to the ecosystem and biology of the soil and neighbouring plants as a whole. Herbicides based on glyphosate are systemic and non-discriminatory, killing far more than the grass-cover and weeds they are intended for.

      Removing the scientific slant and just gearing towards common sense, it seems reasonable to assume a higher quality product will ensue from vines that are grown in an environment that is more biologically diverse and “alive”. Or, at the very least, that you are encouraging a longer, healthier life for the vine by doing so.

      • Peter Twist

        My point was more that health benefits aren’t a reason to go organic, because there are no health benefits. According to multiple metanalysis, medico-scientific bodies, etc.

        I know very little about non-human biology, so perhaps your points are valid, it seems like a good idea to have biological diversity and not expose the vines to damaging stuff.

        My limtied understanding, though, was that herbicides (like glyphosate) aren’t really used in viticulture cause it would damage the vine?

        I think it’s more the fungicides/pesticides that are in question. Except there, I’ve heard about some organic options being less precise than the conventional, like using copper sulphate which kills a lot of stuff, vs our modern targeted fungicides and stuff which really only affect the mildew or whatever?

        In which case I could conceivably see a situation where using the less precise organic methods are actually more damaging to the vines?

        I guess what I wonder is why they need this distinction. It doesn’t affect the consumer’s health, so why should we care besides what tastes better? I guess if there’s less environmental impact for organic that’d be a good reason, but I’m not totally sure that’s necessarily true, per the scientific studies that have looked into it… though hey, not my area of expertise!

        • Ian Renwick

          Having being a winemaker, I can confirm that glyphosate is used systematically I’m conventional Viticulture. It’s applied carefully to not affect the vines, but of course it kills everything it touches on the ground.

          Fungicides are a separate question, but copper sulfate is also used systematically in conventional Viticulture as well as organic. It is still an effective treatment against mildew, no matter whether organic or not.

          As you state, it depends on the methods of use. However, the fact that far fewer products are generally allowed to be applied in organic production than conventional, and that much more manual work is necessary to keep the vines healthy, I’d say your argument that organic can be more damaging is unlikely. It would take fairly gross incompetence by the user to make it so.

          I’m not sure organic was ever solely intended to be healthier purely for us humans. It was intended to be healthier for the environment at large, and I don’t think there’s much to contradict that. I’m not saying all conventional methods are inherently bad and all organic inherently good, but in general, this is most often the case.

          • Elizabeth Schneider

            Sorry to weigh in so late. Glad you two have had a lively discussion on this topic. I have a few points to add:

            1. Totally agree with Ian on the vineyard stuff. There has been work done on sustainability of conventional farming and its effect on soil in the long term. It’s not good. Biodiversity and balance are the only way to long-term success in farming. If we think about the history of things — pesticides/fungicides as we know them are a relatively recent development in the long, long history of agriculture.

            And we are seeing deleterious effects in animal/insect populations and on the soil from this kind of farming. There’s very little evidence to the contrary. I’d love to say that people are moving to sustainable farming and more traditional practices out of a sense of consciousness, but at least in viticulture, it’s more about keeping the vineyard healthy so it will be around in years to come.

            2. On the body pollution bit. This is not a scientifically backed statement at all! I just don’t like the idea of putting synthetic chemicals in me if I can help it. Doesn’t mean it’s healthier, just means that the thought of putting food or wine in my mouth that has been heavily treated with what is effectively poison, doesn’t make sense to me regardless of data to back it up.

            Now, I want to be clear that I put bad stuff in my body all the time — I love candy and processed sugar, and I’m not above grilled cheese with gooey orange cheese or chips or frosted cupcakes or whatever. BUT when I have something that is supposed to be derived from fruit or veggies, I really would prefer that they didn’t have sprays and stuff on them. I guess it’s more of a “choose my poison” sitch.

            Sorry if it wasn’t clear that the comment was based on my own opinion of and feelings towards pesticides/fungicides!

            Great conversation. I love that we care enough to debate these issues!