10: an interview with Monty Waldin
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.
Is 'naturalness' a valid and important concept in wine?
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.
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.
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.
is no matter without spirit, and no spirit without matter’ as the
old biodynamic saying goes.
– 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.
idea was that bad farming had produced bad food, and the bad food
had produced bad farmers. And so on.
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.
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.
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.
were all given a collective jolt about the bad farming/bad farmers
vicious circle when mad cow disease arrived in the 1990s.
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.
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.
cows then got weak, farmers not understanding how important an organ
like horns are to a cow.
it was decided to feed cows who are naturally herbivores their own
meat as protein booster.
cows became ‘mad’ and some humans who’d eaten the meat-fed
cows’ meat suffered illness and agonising death.
certified biodynamic cow has ever suffered from mad cow disease or
has had her horns removed or has been force fed her own meat.
Steiner (d1925) who came up with the ideas behind biodynamics in
1924 even predicted that if cows were fed their own meat they would
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.
Does the BD approach follow through from the vineyard to impact
goes on in the cellar?
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.
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.
Is there a benefit to BD over what can be achieved by organics plus
composting? If so, what?
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.
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.
Are there elements of BD that people can adopt and see benefit from
without taking on board the whole package of treatments and timings?
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.
How did you first get into BD?
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.
How much efficacy can people achieve with just the treatments and
‘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.
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
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).
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
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.
lunar cycles I work to, in this order and for wine are:
moon-ascending moon (the descending or ‘autumn/winter’ moon
is a good time to prune, plough, spread compost)
oppostions which occur once a moon (good when sowing cover
crops, planting vines)
(distance between moon and earth; perigee, when moon is closest
to the earth, can bring a ‘wintery’ mood to the vineyard)
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
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).
What do you think about Nicolas Joly's views on the effects of
electrical currents on wines?
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.
Is biodynamics metaphysical, involving a realm outside the scope of
scientific physical measurement?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Is BD practical for larger companies?
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.”
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.
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?
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.
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.
Do you see any value in trying to reconcile conventional viticulture
with BD viticulture?
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.
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).
If a top Bordeaux property came to you and asked about implementing
BD, where would you start them off?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Other topics in
2, what is biodynamics?
3, who is doing it?
4, are you certifiable?
5, an audience with Nicolas Joly
6, Alvaro Espinoza, biodynamics in the new world
7, biodynamics in action - a visit with James Millton
8, the consultants
9, bringing together biodynamics and mainstream science
10, interview with Monty Waldin