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part 10: an interview with Monty Waldin

Monty Waldin is a wine journalist and consultant with a special interest in biodynamic wine. He's written the definitive book on the subject (Biodynamic Wine, part of Mitchell Beazley's Classic Wine Library series), and recently was the star of a reality TV show on Channel 4 (see my review here). I thought it would be worth getting his informed perspective on biodynamics, so I pitched him some questions, which he was kind enough to answer in depth.

JG: Is 'naturalness' a valid and important concept in wine?

MW: It’s the most important thing about wine. Wine for me is food. I drink wine every day. Wine is part of my diet. I am what I eat/drink. So for me it makes sense that wine is made – by that I mean the grapes are grown, fermented into wine and the wine bottled - in as natural a way as possible.

When food is broken down in our bodies part of what we digest – starch, protein, vitamins, even alcohol - is used to build our bodies on a substantive level ie bigger bones.

From a biodynamic perspective when food is broken down it’s not just substances which are being released into our bodies but forces as well. These forces nourish the spirit – our minds, our will.

‘There is no matter without spirit, and no spirit without matter’ as the old biodynamic saying goes.

Biodynamics – which is the oldest ‘organic’ agriculture movement dating from 1924 - came about when a group of central European farmers felt that the industrialisation of agriculture had rendered their soils less healthy, their seeds less fertile, their crops less nourishing and their own health less certain.

The idea was that bad farming had produced bad food, and the bad food had produced bad farmers. And so on.

As a way of improving both the substance of our agriculture/food cycle - better soils, healthier crops - and to give the soils/crops the power to nourish our spirit biodynamic sprays made from minerals, manure and medicinal plants were devised to go directly on the crops and on the soil via biodynamic compost.

Unfortunately, economic and geo-political instability (the Depression, Second World War) would hold back the emerging biodynamic and organic agriculture movements, firstly because post-1945 agriculture was geared to maximum production to cope with austerity; and bomb-making technology developed during the war threw up some useful sidelines in chemical fertilizers, fungicides, pesticides and weedkillers.

It might be too simplisitc to say bad farming won the day – but it did. By the mid-1990s only a few hundred of France vineyards were organic, and only a handful were biodynamic.

We were all given a collective jolt about the bad farming/bad farmers vicious circle when mad cow disease arrived in the 1990s.

Mad cow disease occurred because farmers wanted to maximise milk/beef production. They took cows out of their natural environment, the pasture, and closed them in farming sheds which made feeding/milking them quicker and more cost-effective.

However in such an alien and cramped environment the cows got grumpy and in their frustration would bash into each other with their horns. So the farmers removed their horns.

The cows then got weak, farmers not understanding how important an organ like horns are to a cow.

So it was decided to feed cows who are naturally herbivores their own meat as protein booster.

The cows became ‘mad’ and some humans who’d eaten the meat-fed cows’ meat suffered illness and agonising death.

No certified biodynamic cow has ever suffered from mad cow disease or has had her horns removed or has been force fed her own meat.


Rudolf Steiner (d1925) who came up with the ideas behind biodynamics in 1924 even predicted that if cows were fed their own meat they would go mad.

These two facts alone are enough to convince me that biodynamics is not ‘voodoo’, as some in the press have described it, but something which offers a valid alternative form of agriculture. If you scroll down to my answer to question five you’ll see that I think it is the best winegrowing tool I have ever encountered in 25 years of working in wine.

JG: Does the BD approach follow through from the vineyard to impact what goes on in the cellar?

MW: Biodynamic farmers use nine plant-, mineral- and cow manure-based ‘preparations’. Six of these go in the compost and thus ultimately out onto the soil, and the remaining three are sprayed directly on the vines or vineyard. None are intended for direct use in the winery or to be added to the wine.

However, because biodynamic growers recognise that forces as well as substances are important they try to take account of the position of the sun, moon, planets and stars when performing key vineyard tasks such as winter pruning or even the date for picking the grapes. In the winery key tasks – such as racking the wine off its sediment and bottling - can also be timed according to lunar and other celestial cycles, so yes, there can be a carry through in biodynamic practice from the vineyard to the winery.

JG: Is there a benefit to BD over what can be achieved by organics plus composting? If so, what?

MW: A good organic wine grower may well have better grapes come harvest than a bad biodynamic one. A good conventional grower may have better grapes than a bad organic grower. But a good biodynamic grower has, I think, the match-winning approach for every situation. I always say organic growers take care of what is beneath their feet ie the soil, but biodynamic growers also take care and account of what is going on above their heads by trying to work with celestial cycles. It comes back to this ‘forces are just as important as substances’ notion that biodynamic farmers have.

In terms of science, the six biodynamic preparations which are made from yarrow, chamomile, dandelion and valerian flowers, oak bark and stinging nettle and which are added to compost piles do seem to affect the compost and the composting process. Biodynamically treated composts had higher temperatures, matured faster, and had higher nitrates than control compost piles inoculated with field soil instead of the preparations according to research at Washington State University by Dr. Lynn Carpenter-Boggs, Dr. John Reganold and Ann C Kennedy.

JG: Are there elements of BD that people can adopt and see benefit from without taking on board the whole package of treatments and timings?

MW: I think the most easily achieved and easily understood biodynamic goal is self-sufficiency. Don’t take out of the ground what you are not prepared to or are unable to put back. Ideally a biodynamic wine grower will find space on the vineyard for some farm animals, with cows preferred. The reason is that while a cow needs a couple of acres (one hectare) to live off her manure can, once composted (hopefully with the six biodynamic compost preparations) fertilize around double that. That’s a pretty powerful tool if you want your vineyard to stay healthy, fertile and alive. Some Burgundy vineyards like Clos Vougeot have been farmed continuously for 1,000 years and one possible reason so much Clos de Vougeot – even from the best part of thet Clos and from the best Pinot Noir clones – is a let down is because the soil has been so badly treated it’s almost as if it’s run out of steam.

JG: How did you first get into BD?

MW: I used to make compost as a kid with my dad for our vegetable garden so I was always into the idea that the best veggies come come worm-rich soils and compost is the best tool to encourage worms. When I got into wine as a teenager (I had a big nose and was quite good at wine tasting…) I was always predisposed to organic wines. In 1993 I visited my first biodynamic wine grower, Paul Barre of Châteaux La Grave/La Fleur Cailleau in Fronsac, Bordeaux. A top Bordeaux winemaker had given me Barre’s number and told me to ‘go see him, as he’s doing something which may interest you.’ It was only after I had tasted Barre’s wine that I asked him how he’d managed to much something so distinctive. He took me to the vineyards and asked me what I saw. I replied that I could see vines whose leaves had a very natural colour and sheen and soils which were friable and smelt of the earth. I could dig my hands in. Most of the Bordeaux vineyards I had visited up to that point had soils which resembled cement, due mainly to heavy use of weedkillers and chemical fertilizer pellets and produced wines which needed a lot of winemaking (yeast, enzymes, exaggeratedly hot macerations). Barre didn’t have the greatest vineyard sites but he was producing distinctive wine that realy tasted of its origins. Why was it other Bordeaux estates with much better vineyard sites than Barre were producing banal wines that all seemed to taste as if made to a template? I decided biodynamics was a good vineyard tool – and I haven’t found anything since that has made me change my mind.

JG: How much efficacy can people achieve with just the treatments and not the timings?

MW: ‘Get the nine biodynamic preparations out there!’ is a constant refrain from the biodynamic ultras. The preparations rather than the moon are the key to successful biodynamic farming.

I’d say you need never worry about lunar cycles if you are giving your soil top quality biodynamic compost (containing the six compost preparations) and the three biodynamic field sprays – horn manure ‘500’, horn silica ‘501’ and common horsetail (Equisetum arvense) ‘508’.

However, if you’d gone to all that trouble to make the compost in the first place you’d be almost irresistibly drawn to asking yourself what the moon was doing when it came to deciding when to spread the biodynamic compost – because you’d make its positive effect on the soil that much more powerful if you sprad it during a descending moon period (lasts just over 13 days for every 27 day period).

However if you can’t make biodynamic compost or can’t be bothered with biodynamics at all you can. I believe, get better results in your home garden simply by not ignoring completely what the moon is up to.

Full moon is seen as a time of fertility – more babies statistically are born around full moon – so many old-time gardeners like to sow seeds around full moon. But beware - while you may get big crops/heavier yields because the moon is said to exert a ‘watery’ influence your pumpkins or leeks may weigh a lot, but might be full of water and thus light on taste.

The lunar cycles I work to, in this order and for wine are:

  • descending moon-ascending moon (the descending or ‘autumn/winter’ moon is a good time to prune, plough, spread compost)

  • moon-saturn oppostions which occur once a moon (good when sowing cover crops, planting vines)

  • apogee-perigee (distance between moon and earth; perigee, when moon is closest to the earth, can bring a ‘wintery’ mood to the vineyard)

  • full moon-new moon (when a ‘watery’ full moon and a ‘wintery’ perigee coincide it makes sense to spray vines a few days before as part of a ‘prevention rather than cure’ strategy

  • the sidereal moon cycle (relates to the moon’s astronomical ie physical position in front of twelve constellations, each of which is said to produce an effect on either the roots, shoots, leaves or fruit/seeds of plants. Hence biodynamic wine growers speak of ‘fruit days when the moon is in front of fire signs like Sagittarius, Leo or Aries).

JG: What do you think about Nicolas Joly's views on the effects of electrical currents on wines?

MW: Nicolas Joly has had many interesting ideas on the role biodynamics can play in winegrowing. However, I am not sure he always manages to explain them in the kind of organised, user-friendly way lesser intellectuals find easy to understand. We know water is a conductor of electricity, and as wine is mostly made up of water reducing the effect electric currents may have on wine by, for example, insulating or removing electric wires and powerpoints from wineries do seems to make sense.

JG: Is biodynamics metaphysical, involving a realm outside the scope of scientific physical measurement?

MW: France’s most famous soil micro-biologist Claude Bourguignon always says that he can measure the effect biodynamics has on soil (ie increased populations of beneficial soil organisms, deeper and thicker vine roots) but he can’t measure exactly how biodynamics achieves this. In other words he is not sure the beneficial “forces” which the biodynamic preparations are said to bring are measurable, but he can’t explain why biodynamic soil contain so much more life than organic soils.

If you take some manure from a female cow and fill either your shoe, or an old soft drink’s can, earthenware pot, large glass jar etc and bury it for six months what you’ll dig up will be green and horribly stinky. The manure will have gone back to being the grass the cow ate.

If, on the other hand, you do what biodynamic farmers have been doing since 1924 and bury the manure in the horn from a female cow underground for six months between autumn and spring the manure will have turned into something like the essence of soil (humus). The manure will have gone back to the earth that produced the grass that the cow ate. This is biodynamic horn manure. It is diluted in water and sprayed on the soil to encourage worms etc.

I mentioned above how important the cow’s horns are to her. I also mentioned above how cow manure is incredibly fertile. When a cow digests her food forces are released in her digestion but because she has horns (and hooves) these forces stay in the cow (they rebound off them you could say) and imbue her manure with this incredible power. If you bury this already powerful manure in the horn and bury it when the earth is most alive (which it is in autumn to spring) what you dig up is this incredible ‘horn manure’ which has the power to encourage soil micro-organisms (the soil food web) to reproduce in your soil. And when scientists like Claude Bourguignon come along they’ll notice abnormally high populations of soil fauna, will know that you have been using horn manure – but won’t for the life of him be able to scientifically tell you just why the manure in the horn is such a potent combination. Does a chemical reaction take place between the manure and the horn? No. Does a chemical reaction take place between the filled horn and the soil it is buried in? No. I make around 150 horn manure horns a year. The “trick” if it is that works every time. I have never made good “horn manure” when burying the same manure in glass, plastic or metal containers. So go figure.

JG: Is BD practical for larger companies?

MW: Absolutely – and why shouldn’t it be? Most wine critics in the UK and beyond would consider Chile’s Alvaro Espinoza as among the best if not the best winemaker in Chile. What’s nice about Alvaro is he spends his time largely in the vineyards rather than the winery. “It’s the vineyards, stupid.”

One of Alvaro’s clients, the Concha y Toro side-shoot Emiliana Organicó, now has 600 hectares (1500 acres) of certified biodynamic vineyards spread across Chile’s four main wine growing valleys. This is biodynamics on a massive scale – around five times bigger than anything in Europe. Each vineyard has its own composting programme. Farm animals and habitat breaks (“beetle banks”) are major features on each site to make boring monocultural vineyards more polycultural, more diverse, more interesting and more inherently healthy (‘prevention rather than cure’). Medicinal plants like chamomile and stinging nettle are grown amongst the vines to be used as vine teas/liquid manures. The staff have bought into the biodynamic philosophy because their jobs have become more varied – instead of having to wear protective masks to spray weedkillers employees are asked to visit local fields to collect and then sow seeds of local plants in the vineyard, to help the vineyard become part of the landscape. A vineyard which is part of the landscape, or the habitat, is less likely to be attacked by that habitat’s pathogens. Biodynamics does work on a large scale if, like Alvaro, you do it properly. France’s largest biodynamic vineyard, Domaine Cazes in the Roussillon, is not – despite recent improvements – a paradigm of wine quality. Their biodynamic approach I consider to be rather ephemeral in comparison to Emiliana Orgánico. The proof is in the wines.

JG: What about BD in vineyards where the grower only owns a small section, such as the isolated blocks of vines owned by growers in the top vineyards of the Mosel?

MW: One main principle for biodynamic farmers is their farm becomes a self-sufficient as possible. Obviously, in regions like the Mosel, Champagne, Burgundy and Alsace winegrowers will have vineyards in non-contiguous plots spreading over a dozen villages. This does, in theory, make attaining the biodynamic ideal harder. In reality, when a winegrower converts his plot to biodynamics but is surrounded by other growers who weedkill, for example, the biodynamic grower must lean over the metaphorical garden fence and ask his neighbours if they might possible not use weedkillers on the last few vine rows touching the biodynamic plot. The biodynamic grower won’t always get a polite response, but what we are increasingly seeing is that while initially the presence of biodynamic vineyards may arouse contempt or suspicion, in time it’s the conventional growers who are reaching out and asking questions about how biodynamics works because they can see that biodynamic soils are less likely to compact or erode, that the vines produce better quality grapes (if slightly lower yields) and the vineyard becomes a nicer place to work in. It sounds utopian but if you speak to growers in Alsace, Burgundy and Champagne for example who are converting to biodynamics an overwhelming majority say that they converted to biodynamics because they could see that biodynamics actually worked in vineyards owned by both winegrower friends and rivals.

As a side point this shows that a generation of winegrowers had actually stopped talking to each other, preferring instead to communicate with agricultural consultants and sales representatives offering weedkillers, fertilizers and phytosanitary products which promised miracles in terms of lower vineyard costs and higher wine quality – but which simply have not delivered. Winegrowers know that they are in the results business and that they are only as good as your last vintage.

JG: Do you see any value in trying to reconcile conventional viticulture with BD viticulture?

MW: It’s the only way forward for all farmers. Conventional winegrowers are much more open than they were even ten years ago to “new” or “alternative” practices. Partly this is through legislation, or carrot and stick. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has recently set ambitious targets for French farmers to go organic – the carrot. In New Zealand residents living near vineyards have won damages from winegrowers due to injury caused by exposure to vineyard weedkillers – the stick.

And partly it’s the zeitgeist. The Obamas are growing organic vegetables on the White House lawn, and HRH The Queen is converting the Buckingham Palace gardens into an allotment. For me these are highly symbolic acts of a a new deal for the soil (the producer) and a new beginning for us (food consumers).

JG: If a top Bordeaux property came to you and asked about implementing BD, where would you start them off?

MW: There are three main reasons why no top Bordeaux chateaux have embraced biodynamics successfully. First, Bordeaux is very corporate and shareholders view organics/biodynamics as a big risk especially, which brings me to second of the two reasons, because Bordeaux’s wet/humid Atlantic climate makes organic/biodynamic a tricky proposition unless you are prepared to sacrifice 10–15% volume (yields). The third issue is vineyards can be very large in size, which gives you no margin for error as a biodyanmic farmer.

However, having spent many years working in Bordeaux I’d say that if a top château wanted to get into biodynamics I would essentially follow the template of how I approached working with a ‘classed growth’ style “chateau” in Germany.

The German owners are aristocratic and the vineyards are huge (100 hectares/250 acres) – which means to get biodynamics to work can be a logistical nightmare.

My first year there I basically said: let’s get the basic winegrowing right and, if we can, we can add some biodynamics in when and if we have time. This builds confidence in the vineyard crews who are always, always, always behind on day-to-day vineyard tasks (tractors break down, staff get ill/injured etc.). By ‘getting the basic winegrowing right’ what I meant was: is each and every one of our vineyard plots pruned and trellised in the correct way? If not, how can we get better quality grapes? Does our Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder) work best when grown on single canes (guyot pruning) or on cordons (spur pruning) for example?

Does our soil management (ploughing weeds away or encouraging own own choice of weeds – cover crops like clovers and grasses) make sense? In badly drained vineyards are we leaving every row grassed/cover cropped, the idea being the grass cover soaks up all that excess water from the bad drainage. If that water is not being soaked up we’re going to get big grapes (high yields, no flavour) whose thin grape skins are an easy target for vine pests and diseases. And if we are fighting pests and disease when we don’t need to be, other vineyards are going to get neglected, and they’re going to produce worse grapes than they should, and we are in a vicious circle, chasing our tails.

Stage two was showing how pruning by the moon costs zero euros and can help maximise quality from the best or ‘grand cru’ vineyards while making our least good vineyards at least perform to the very best of their ability.

Stage three was making sure every time we used organic/biodynamic approved anti-fungus disease sprays (like Bordeaux Mixture and sulfur) we blended in some herb teas (mainly stinging nettle and/or common horsetail) to make the sprays less aggressive and more effective. The teas cost a few euros per hectare and by allowing vineyard crews to use two-in-one sprays I was (a) adding nothing to their workload (or burning extra tractor diesel) and (b) building their knowledge/confidence base. Tractor drivers are seen as the lowest of the low but in fact without them 99% of vineyards could not function. If the tractor crews buy into the biodynamic approach you have a much better chance of biodynamics being a success.

And stage four was, having won some credibility, to explain about manure and cows’ horns and so on. When the vineyard crews filled the horns and six months’ later dug up the same horns and could see the ‘biodynamic’ effect for themselves they seemed to say “OK, it works. Biodynamics feels a nice and safe thiing to do.” When they saw the effect biodynamic compost had on opening up the most compact vineyards soils they were completely sold on the idea. Why? Because it made their jobs of ploughing or mowing vineyards much easier. And they had more fun too.

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