The mainstreaming of Biodynamics

Jim Fullmer, Demeter Exec. Director of Demeter USA

It wasn’t too long ago that Biodynamic® was considered fringe but according to the turnout at a recent joint Demeter® USA and University of California Cooperative Extension Short Course in Biodynamic Winegrowing in Rutherford, it is becoming mainstream.  Demeter USA is the US arm of the international Demeter organization which sets standards for – and certifies – Biodynamic producers and products.  According to Demeter USA Marketing Director Elizabeth Candelario, a few years ago, 20 farmers might show up to a seminar like the one held last week but on that day, there were nearly 200 growers, vintners, retailers, sommeliers and other tradespeople in attendence, with a large number of young people in the room. 

Beginning with Candelario’s introduction “Biodynamic Farming Enters the Mainstream” and in various presentations throughout the day, speakers revealed reasons why adoption of Biodynamics is increasing. 

Candelario said that Biodynamics – the higher, holistic version of organics – is the “next evolution.”  Organic products have been growing 20% per year in supermarkets and is now core to product lines of retail giants like Walmart.  Being “sustainable” and “green” are no longer enough to distinguish a producer in a competitive global market.  Today there are 4,200 certified Biodynamic producers in 43 countries with Germany the leader with 10% of total farmland certified Biodynamic.  In terms of wine, there are over 360 certified Biodynamic vineyards around the world covering about 20,000 acres, with France leading the pack.  The U.S. is No. 2 with 75 producers certified or in transition, representing a growth rate of 15% per year. 

The increase in Biodynamic farming is part of the wider shift to sustainable practices.  Ginny Lambrix of Truett-Hurst Winery said that organic systems sequester 18-19% carbon and also require lower inputs than conventional farming.   Glenn McGourty of UC Cooperative Extension cited a study comparing the greater vineyard organic matter of 5,900-17,900 kg/ha under organic farming with greater soil friability and biomass, vs. the 3,600 kg/ha achieved under conventional methods. 

For Barbara Steele of Cowhorn Winery in Oregon’s Applegate AVA, Biodynamics was a natural lifestyle fit with her 20-year practice of homeopathic healing.  Cultural lifestyle was also the reason why Mike Grgich was so receptive to his nephew Ivo Jeramaz’ recommendations to switch to Biodynamics to improve the health of their vines, as Mike grew up in Croatia with natural farming. 

Pioneers like Benzinger Family Winery and Paul Dolan of Mendocino Wine Co. cited Biodyamics as being core to sustaining a long-term family business as Biodynamic farming results in healthier and longer-lived vines.  Benzinger provides incentives to his 50 grower partners to farm naturally, resulting in a doubling of Demeter certifications since 2006.  Dolan said we were raised in a “reductive system” where individual maladies are treated vs. the whole body and where a pill is the solution.  He compared this to conventional, petro-chemical farming which focuses on the plant and not the life around the plant.  He questioned the viability of such a system to raising children where instead of fixing individual behavior, one instead needs to raise them in an environment that “entices them” and hope they fully express themselves. 

All the vintners present at the seminar converted to Biodynamics to make authentic and high quality wines, with as little manipulation as possible.  David Bos of Grgich Hills Estate said they do less green thinning now and find that they can achieve higher yields of 3.5-4 tons/acre with higher quality, allowing them to re-direct fruit to their premium Yountville Selection cabernet sauvignon.  Their sauvignon blanc wine, Essence, is more aromatic without using esther-enhancing yeasts. 

One of the ongoing signs that Biodynamics is becoming mainstream is the greater comfort with which vintners are putting the Biodynamic or Demeter certification mark on the label.  Even today, certain vintners refrain from labelling their wines organic/Biodynamic for fear of being labelled too ‘granola’ or ‘alfalfa sprouts’, or being associated with some poorly-made wines in the past.  Mark Beaman of Mendocino Wine Co. said they label such wines Biodynamic to be “transparent” with consumers and to give them a chance “to taste authenticity before authenticity is lost.”  Ivo Jeramaz of Grgich said they have nothing to be ashamed of.  Rodrigo Soto of Benzinger said “the rules of commerce have changed” and that labelling is a way to differentiate themselves.  They all agreed however that the labelling itself doesn’t automatically translate to sales – the quality must be there.  

Ultimately, Biodynamic wines are becoming mainstream because consumers demand it.  As consumers become more informed about where our commercial food comes from as reported by mainstream media as well as by Oscar-nominated documentaries like Food, Inc. and NYT bestsellers written by Michael Pollan, the purity of Biodynamic products are becoming less “kooky” and more attractive than the scarier mass-produced alternatives.  After all, according to Ginny Lambrix, organic farming began at least 9,500 BC when domestication of wheat was first recorded and that we’ve had only 100 years of petro-chemical farming.  What would you choose? 

For more information on Biodynamics, check out the Demeter USA website.