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part 4: Are you certifiable?  


Compost at Bergstrom, Oregon

So far in this series, we’ve explored some the ideas and practices underlying biodynamic viticulture. It’s already clear that the task of nailing down a watertight definition of biodynamics is a fraught one: while there are certain common practices, biodynamics comes in many different flavours. As I explained at the outset, farming biodynamically involves a changed philosophy or worldview, on which agricultural practice is then built. It’s largely caught, not taught. For the most part, winegrowers adopting this method of farming learn it from someone else who’s further down the road than them.

At this stage it might prove useful to ask the following question. If I were a wine grower, what would I have to do differently to become a certified biodynamic producer? Is there a minimum set of criteria I would have to meet? I asked Nicolas Joly what this shift to biodynamics would entail. ‘First you move to organics’, he explained, ‘and if you are confident, then putting in biodynamie would require as little as 6 days extra work in a year for a 15 ha domaine. The problem is moving to the new understanding of nature. Recreating a model takes a bit of time.’

But what about the details? To answer this, we need to take a look at the various bodies who are responsible for certifying biodynamics. Much like organics, there are certain rules that you have to adhere to in order to be able to label your wine as being ‘biodynamic’. By far the largest certification body is Demeter, an international organization formed in 1928, right at the dawn of biodynamic agriculture. Demeter have member organizations who act as certifying bodies in dozens of different countries, all of which fall under the organizational umbrella of Demeter International (who have a useful website).

Anne Mendenhall of Demeter USA explained to me what would be needed to obtain biodynamic certification. ‘The full use of biodynamic methods would be required for two years. That is, you’d need to use the two field spray materials, BD 500 and BD 501, and compost made with the other six BD preparations.’ [See a previous part of this series for an explanation of the ‘preps’.] She informed me that these preparations can be purchased ready to spray, and because of the small quantities involved, are not expensive. Would I have to keep animals on the farm?  ‘Not absolutely, but it is highly recommended that some livestock be integrated. Chickens running in the vines during the growing season and sheep grazing during the winter have been successful. They are there more to provide the astral component of the farm.’  And while most biodynamic practitioners would consider the correct timing of interventions to be crucial to their success, this is not a requirement of the Demeter certification. Mendenhall states that ‘no one has been decertified for improper timing in the USA’.

Interestingly, despite the antipathy of biodynamics and organics to any chemical treatments, vignerons applying these techniques still have to rely on a chemical solution to the problem of fungal disease. Thus I would need to use a copper-based treatment, such as Bordeaux mixture, in conjunction with wettable or powdered sulphur in order to ward off mildew and rot. I asked biodynamic consultant Jacques Mell, who is based in Reims, why this concession is allowed. ‘In vineyards there is no crop rotation. Vines stay in the same soil year after year, so they are living on their own excrement. They become feeble because there is no reviving of the soil, and this weakens them. They are in a state of weakness where they are liable to attack.’

What does this mean? While many biodynamic practitioners would be horrified by the idea, Joly is quite right: it’s not a huge step from standard organic practice to becoming a certified biodynamic winegrower. Of course, the majority of biodynamic practitioners would claim that fitting in with the rhythms of nature and the wider cosmos are critical to the effectiveness of this form of agriculture, but it is interesting that they are not necessary for certification. I suspect many growers of a more scientific persuasion could be tempted to take a pragmatic approach to biodynamie, reasoning that there is a scientifically plausible mechanism of action to its practice if it simply involved the use of the various preparations, without adherence to a cosmic calendar.

Before we leave this section, let’s take a look at a couple of points of controversy with regard to biodynamic certification. One senses that not all well with the current situation, at least in France and the USA. In France, when I recently spoke with Michel Chapoutier he expressed some concerns with Demeter certification of winegrowers. His main complaint was that he felt it was not rigorous enough, in that it was possible to vignerons to be assessed by their chums from neighbouring vineyards who had introduced them to biodynamics in the first place.

Chapoutier is involved in a rival organization to Demeter, called Biodyvin (www.biodyvin.com), who are also certifiying biodynamic winegrowers. While Demeter certifies all kinds of biodynamic agriculture, Biodyvin concentrate solely on viticulture. In the USA the existence of rival certifying organizations has led to a fair degree of acrimony. This was precipitated by the trademarking of the term ‘biodynamic’ by Demeter USA, thus preventing anyone describing their produce as biodynamic unless it was certified by Demeter. [Technically, this sort of intellectual property is known as a ‘certification mark, not a trademark. I was unable to get a clear answer from Demeter International’s intellectual property lawyer as to whether they have any intention of registering ‘biodynamic’ as a certification mark in other countries.] Some people think that they have a purer form of biodynamics and that Demeter is not strict enough; others feel that some of the stipulations made by Demeter certification are too strict.

Other topics in this series 


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