words Claire Adey & Moira Tirtha
photography Ollie Hodgkins

A conversation around biodynamics with a winemaker, a teacher and a farmer.

At some point in your wine drinking journey, you may have been told the wine you were drinking was made with biodynamically farmed grapes, or perhaps seen a little biodynamics tag on your wine bottle. While it sounds great and gives a Mother Gaia one-with-the-Earth vibe, what does it actually mean? 

Biodynamics is a holistic agricultural method that contends working with nature, rather than sometimes against it, can produce better quality grapes. It regards a vineyard as a wholly self-sustaining ecosystem which doesn’t need external inputs such as synthetic fertilisers.

Through the use of compost preparations or cultures, biodynamic practices build soil structure and promote humus (not hummus spelt wrong) growth. Humus is the organic component of soil, formed by the decomposition of leaves and other plant material by soil microorganisms. At its simplest, it’s feeding plants with dead plants (think about the compost that’s hanging out in the back of your garden) and involves the interaction between the plants, soil microbes and minerals. Many consider it a step-up from organics as it creates fertility from what’s already in the farm rather than buying it in.

However, searching “biodynamic farming” can take you into a much more mystic narrative. Where the biodynamic farmer is more kooky dreamer than serious producer. Yes, some biodynamic methods are a bit left field. Prep 500, the main product used in biodynamic farming, involves taking cow shit, putting it in cow horns, burying them in winter, retrieving them in spring and stimulating them in a stirring machine, which releases dynamic forces that allows it to be turned into a spray and used at specific times of the year. Others believe the best composts involve specific animal body parts mixed with carefully selected botanicals. You’ll also commonly hear the mantra: “biodynamic farming uses the moon’s energy and improves grape quality” which honestly just makes us think biodynamics is CoStar for wine nerds.

Like other twenty-somethings who like to make sense of the world through whether or not Mercury is in Gatorade, we were irresistibly drawn to catchphrases like “moon cycles” and “celestial bodies”. Countless internet memes enthuse about tasting wine on “fruit days” (i.e. when the moon is in a fire sign) because the lunar positioning supposedly activates a superior taste in the grapes.

Perhaps the esoterism of biodynamics can be traced back to its founder Rudolf Steiner, of Steiner school fame. Steiner was an early 20th century German spiritual philosopher who took a holistic approach to integrating the spiritual, intellectual and artistic aspects of human experience. He founded anthroposophy (which believes in the existence of a spiritual world accessible to humans) and was a clairvoyant.

Post World War I, like the rest of Europe, Germans jumped on the Big Ag train following the American development of industrial-mass-producing farming but as it turned out, pumping plants full of chemicals to increase yield resulted in the deterioration of land and animal health. The Germans looked to Steiner for a solution and his principles rested on preserving the German landscape. It was an agricultural movement inspired by a deep love for Mother Earth and a longing to tune into ‘spiritually aware peasant wisdom’.

It took a handful of biochemists and researchers to turn his principles into a practical method (s/o to Ehrenfried Pfeiffer). In Australia, the method was reshaped by Alex Podolinsky in the 1960’s to fit Australia’s less forgiving climate. He established the Australian Biodynamic Method and the Demeter standard. It is apparent there was and still is this tension between the mysticism of biodynamic practices and the practicality of its methods.

One person to ask about this is highly respected winemaker John Nagorcka. He and his family run Hochkirch wines in Tarrington, about 3 hours west of Melbourne. He’s known as one of the most unpretentious and down-to-Earth guys in wine. He is a fourth generation farmer, with his family using conventional agricultural methods until they experimented with moving to organics in 1996. Three years later they tried out biodynamic preparations and became Demeter-certified in 2003. John has plantings of pinot noir, riesling, sauvignon blanc and semillon across his 700 acre farm.

The way John makes wine now is pretty simple: “we take fruit, let it ferment and let gravity clarify it and eventually put it in a bottle and that’s fundamentally what we do with everything”. In his early winemaking days, John did what everyone else did in terms of processing and additions. Eventually, he took out everything that he didn’t need and all that was left was the fruit.

This coincided with transitioning into full biodynamic practices on his farm. It’s important to note that you can make a biodynamic-certified wine using additions and corrections. Biodynamic wine, or organic wine, is not a flavour profile and doesn’t lead you to a either a more conventional or left leaning palate. John’s wines are squeaky clean, very well-structured and really delicious. Given how rigorous the Demeter certification is, and how it has a tendency to attract the idealistic, it isn’t surprising that a lot of biodynamic wines have the potential to be really special. John believes that the natural wine movement has been “really annoying all the way through” but he still ticks all their strict boxes. However, what he doesn’t care too much about is labels. For John, what is important about making wine using natural methods is that it places an awareness in the drinker’s mind about how wine is made and how fruit is grown.

Speaking to actual farmers who are ‘doing the biodynamics thing’ we came to one conclusion: the method…works. If you are creating your plant’s own food and improving soil health you will get better fruit. There is mounting evidence on the benefits of biodynamics. And depending on who you talk to you are doing something that is both sustainable and necessary. John for one reckons biodynamic practices are vitally important for the future of farming.

Mark Rathbone runs Save our Soil Australia, and for him, it’s as simple as following a recipe; if you follow biodynamic practices, you will promote humus growth, which means better produce and will also in turn do less damage to the environment. The resulting quality, quantity and cost benefit analysis is better in biodynamic farming. He suggests low-input farming methods like biodynamics produce better tasting food that costs less to produce.

In hearing this evidence one can understand the biodynamics community’s frustrations at the attention garnered by the culture and mysticism, which are really just eccentricities largely ignored by serious practitioners. These eccentricities create a smokescreen that stops people from digging deeper into what is proven principles grounded in study and experience. Considering conventional agriculture’s utilisation of chemicals and poisons to treat issues in the farm, we are met with a paradoxical double standard. We’re seeing proof that Roundup (a Monsanto developed herbicide) causes cancer, yet people question the validity of biodynamics despite it being almost completely natural. Questioning the integrity and legitimacy of these systems has more to do with who has the power to be a knower and whether their knowledge is commensurate with the West’s rational belief system.

Chris Williams is a lecturer of urban agriculture and horticulture studies at Melbourne University. During the research phase of his PHD, he saw first-hand how biodynamics methods work. He expresses his bemused thoughts on biodynamics; ‘if you drink 500, do you get telepathy?’ illuminating the tension between Steiner focused, witch talk and the practicality of what is happening on the farm. He suggests that biodynamics “is more like a kind of thing where if you believe certain things and you follow the practices, then the management that comes with those beliefs produces the results”.

There are a few governing bodies of biodynamics practices. with Demeter having the most streamlined methodology. The spiritual component takes a back seat to creating happy, healthy soil that in turn creates happy, healthy plants. It is a trademark which producers can display if they meet national organic and biodynamic certification standards as well as follow additional rigorous standards of land management. Demeter includes the practical component of demonstrating improved soil structure development so here, the proof is in the humus.

Biodynamics’ cultural narrative of mysticism and moon vibes keeps butting heads with the practicality of its method. What exacerbates this is the lack of academic literature, which feeds the common claim ‘there’s no proof”. Because of the spiritual space it expounds, biodynamics classically falls under the school of pseudoscience. However, keep in mind that psychology and linguistics can also be considered pseudoscience. John sees this system of achieving ‘proof’ as a farming out of responsibility for thinking to other people. It undermines the process of someone making a judgement based on observation, intellect and experience. He honed his concept of objectivity; the need for individuals to focus on their own object facts. He believes much like the fact the sun is in the sky is true, soil structure from biodynamics is true. If you can see it you can believe it. This idea is hard to refute after visiting his site in Tarrington and observing the physical differences of his soil structure

Here, the institutions which govern the very notion of legitimation have to be looked at critically. Science and academia work within a capitalist system. They are largely funded by private money which makes selling goods the central objective. In such a framework the question then becomes who is going to fund research into proving biodynamics? The whole point of biodynamics is that it creates a self-sustaining farm unit. With no external inputs, there is nothing to commodify. There’s a big industry in conventional agriculture that would be kneecapped by a large-scale adoption of biodynamics. Even though agricultural systems which utilise industrialised monocultural cropping are detrimental to the environment, they produce consistently high yields. With our consumer culture always demanding perfect, bottomless produce all-year round, this is the way to make profits. Within a capitalist system, economic growth will always take precedence. But what sacrifices are inadvertently made?

So then, how does one judge something against such a skewed status quo? The dichotomy of nature versus science perpetuates the notion that things must exist at one extreme or the other. The methodology of biodynamics needs to be viewed with nuance. Its practices can exist both within a cosmic framework and be grounded in scientific data.

This notion runs counter to western ideas of truth which disregards embodied knowledge and lived experience. However, in our own search for truth, we are guided by our embodied knowledge, which in this case is taste. Mark speaks fondly of how you can truly “taste the difference” of the watermelons he farms. When we visited John, he spoke about how conventionally grown wines have a harsh and narrow acid which goes right through the middle of your mouth, in contrast to a well-made biodynamic wine having a brisk, lively acid that fills your mouth. Tasting the difference when describing food and wine is a central argument for a push towards small scale, biodynamic and organic farming. That being said, experience determines one’s perception of taste and food production systems provide us with the framework of how we perceive quality. Our palates are used to produce that has been grown in completely controlled environments, which pumps out near identical produce year round. Whilst food grown this way has comparatively little taste, our palates are accustomed to this and the quality difference of biodynamic produce can be difficult to perceive. John had noticed that people amongst his community who eat conventionally grown food are often much less impressed with biodynamic wine. He believes they’re underwhelmed because it’s not what they’re expecting, nor is it what they’re looking for.

John describes a specific difference in biodynamic wines taste, although some say that it can be attributed more to care and quality of time rather than the farming methods alone. Biodynamics encourages this type of thoughtful production, moving away from merely aiming for quantity and into a space that has careful attention at its core. This attention, manifesting in quality and care are the hallmarks of well made products. Obviously that translates so easily into the glass. Wine made this way matters. 

The lived experience of a farmer is very removed from our experience as drinkers. We romanticise winemaking and being a winemaker. The typical wine drinker hasn’t stepped foot in a vineyard or seen how soil changes with the implementation of biodynamics and as a result, miss the evidence. The reality is John meticulously and carefully does his job as a farmer for most of the year. It’s hard, physical work and yet he still prioritises sustainability and working alongside nature rather than against it. There is a widespread call to this kind of action; engage in any piece of new media and you will find it. After the ABC show War on Waste aired its episode exposing the refuse created by Melbourne’s coffee culture, sales in Keep Cups grew 400 percent. There is a comfort in feeling that your actions align with your ethics but these actions still need to be critically analysed. We often harbour romanticised and idealised images of the agrarian life. Truth is, it’s unhelpful to view it in this way, because it further separates us from the reality of where food and wine come from.

Wine is an agricultural product, which is why we believe how it’s farmed matters. It isn’t as simple as saying biodynamics is the way of the future, or biodynamically farmed wine is superior. However, as you start to engage with these systems you gain a literacy that many people don’t know exists. Our obsession with the dualism of right and wrong ways to do things can cloud our vision and stop us seeing the whole picture.

Wine shopping biodynamically doesn’t give you much ethical clout, but engaging in these systems in a bigger way does. Part of learning about biodynamic winemaking is realising that this is much bigger than one farm or winemaker.

The conversation about biodynamics is ever evolving and never static. We’re not trying to claim that there is a right or wrong or that the world of farming exists in a monolith, but rather start to create literacy and understanding of the nuances within a topic. Biodynamics is a great rabbit hole to go down. The next time you pick up a bottle, perhaps look for the little Demeter logo on it. There are countless stories and lived experiences behind every wine and the many conversations around that are ones to get stuck into.

The Church of Biodynamics was originally published in Volume I of Veraison.
Veraison is largely created on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to their Elders past, present and emerging, whose connection to land is far deeper and far more historic than ours.