I just finished an interesting read, Voodoo Vintners: Oregon's Astonishing Biodynamic Winegrowers, by Katherine Cole. Biodynamic winemaking, sorry, grape growing, is very trendy nowadays and quite controversial as many of its practices seem wierd and silly. Cole's treatment is admirably open minded and I recommend it to anyone interested in just what the fuss is all about.
The practice, in my opinion, breaks down into two parts. The first half is all about refusing chemical and biological fertilizers and insecticides while embracing older and more traditional methods of vineyard management. An example of this is using natural compost as fertilizer. Another really cool one is to keep an area near the vineyard as an "insectary" where one can see what is being attracted to the area and what they are eating. Then one can plant cover crops they will like more than grapes, or encourage predators like bats and owls to control population growth. Creating and working with an ecosystem rather than trying to destroy everything that isn't your crop is a solid idea that many have latched onto without embracing the more idiosyncratic ideas of biodynamics.
Healthy soils are the key here, and that makes sense. However, the idea goes against lost of conventional wisdom that vines need poor soils to produce really great grapes. If the vines struggle to survive, the saying goes, they will put more energy into grapes and less into producing wood and leaves. This is where a focus on Oregon and Pinot Noir is perhaps a failing of Cole's book. Pinot vines are naturally low in vigor, that is they tend not to produce much wood. If one were to look at Angelo Gaja's vines in Barolo, by contrast, the case for biodynamics looks pretty thin. The Nebbiolo vines that make up his $300 wines grow like weeds and he has to keep the soil in a constant state of nitrogen deficit just to control them! Also, Oregon Pinot vineyards tend to be grown on thin soil hillsides that were once pine forest or hazelnut orchard, rather than say, the rich benchlands of the Napa Valley floor. Where the soil is already good, composting and fertilizing is just silly. Some great estates of Bordeaux, for example, spread manure once only every 14 years.
The second part of the book is a fun look at the crazy parts of biodynamics. It's father, Rudy Steiner, was a mystic who believed in gnomes and spirits, among other things. One important part of his teachings was based on homeopathy, where
The low concentrations of homeopathic remedies, often lacking even a single molecule of the diluted substance, lead to an objection that has dogged homeopathy since the 19th century: how, then, can the substance have any effect? Modern advocates of homeopathy have suggested that "water has a memory"—that during mixing and succussion, the substance leaves an enduring effect on the water, perhaps a "vibration", and this produces an effect on the patient. source: wiki.So this is where Biodynamics takes a decidedly crystal-humming tone. They mix homeopathic preps in tubs that are shaped like a pregnant woman's belly and erect sculpture-looking things to channel energy and who know, attract gnomes? Drive gnomes away?
Does it produce a great grape? Sometimes these wines are better than others in their class. I've sure tasted some awesome biodynamic wines, and in my personal opinion that can be attributed to close management of ecosystems rather than mystics. It's sauce for the recipe, that's for sure, and a fun read.