Terms like “organic,” “sustainable” and “biodynamic” are tossed around frequently these days in all matters of food and drink. Like “new and improved,” such words subliminally convince us it’s a better wine. Of course that’s not necessarily so.
Though all agriculture before the Industrial Revolution was in some sense “organic,” that is to say farmers used no chemicals, the current designations are all to some extent a response to gathering ecological crises. To deny that these crises exist is criminally ignorant; to deny that they are important is morally suspect; to hope that wine drinking has nothing to do with them is infuriatingly narrow.
I wonder how to engage in wine consumption while remaining mindful of what we’re up against. And so I try to keep the ecological impact of what and how I drink close to heart. A wine made from grapes that were not sprayed with fungicides and pesticides is certainly better, from a strictly ecological perspective, than one that was.
Contemporary biodynamic practice does attempt to address the harmful effects of chemical additives – that’s one aspect of it. I have even overheard several wine professionals, desperate to make biodynamics relevant and understandable, describe it as “basically, organics on steroids.” But biodynamics in full is after something much larger than restricting chemicals. It is an all-encompassing agricultural, philosophical, ethical and spiritual system, pointed toward cultivating health rather than treating symptoms.
Biodynamics was developed in the early 20th century by the Austrian educator, farmer and theorist Rudolf Steiner. Steiner’s philosophy of “anthroposophy” led to the creation of Waldorf schools, but also has influenced fields as diverse as banking, medicine and the arts. Agriculture holds special importance for anthroposophy because it so perfectly encapsulates Steiner’s insistence on the intersections between the natural sciences, practical work and a spiritual world, intersections he insisted are real even if not observable. (It should be mentioned, too, that anthroposophy led Steiner to reject alcohol; all biodynamic viticulture carries that asterisk.)
Biodynamics operates from the principles that everything is connected and everything matters. We see quite clearly how our sleep patterns, diet and level of physical activity affect our mood and interactions with other people. Or how the need for survival leads to a desire for comfort, some extra cash and ultimately an unequal economic system. Nothing and no one is isolated, even if it often appears as if everything is.