A tempest in a wine glass

2010-11-26T00:00:00Z A tempest in a wine glassPAUL FRANSON Napa Valley Register
November 26, 2010 12:00 am  • 

Stu Smith is “shocked and outraged” that UC Cooperative Extension is co-sponsoring a “Shortcourse in Biodynamic Winegrowing” to be held by Demeter USA on Dec. 2 at the Rutherford Grange Hall.

That’s not too surprising. Smith, a vintner and winemaker who is a co-owner of Smith-Madrone Vineyards and Winery on Spring Mountain, has been leading a one-man crusade against biodynamic farming, one so visible that he has been written about in the Wall Street Journal. 

Wine columnist Jay McInerney used Smith and his opposition to the farming protocol to introduce a column on the subject.

Smith’s key weapon is a blog, “Biodynamics is a hoax,” and it has attracted considerable attention from both supporters and opponents.

Biodynamics is a system of organic farming based on lectures German theosophist Rudolf Steiner delivered in 1924. Biodynamics uses many of the techniques of organic farming such as no use of synthetic pesticides or chemical fertilizers, but adds ancient mystic practices like planting and harvesting according to phases of the moon and sun, and discouraging pests by scattering the ashes of others in the vineyard. It also uses integrated farming with animals contributing their part to the process.

The most controversial practices, however, are the mandatory application of  homeopathic “preparations” or potions.

These include ground up silica, certain herbs, and most controversial of all, the manure of a cow buried in the ground at the autumnal equinox, then exhumed on the vernal equinox to be made into a tea and spread over the crops. These potions are supposed to enrich the soil and enhance the growing process.

Biodynamics has been adopted by many wineries and vineyards around the world, some of them among its most respected. They include Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Leflaive, Chapoutier and Zind Humbrecht in France, and Araujo, Grgich Hills, Sinskey, Joseph Phelps and Quintessa in Napa Valley.

There have been few rigorous studies of the results, though biodynamic vintners anecdotally claim the system helps them produce healthier and higher quality crops.

There is wide interest in biodynamics. Demeter USA, the nonprofit American chapter of Demeter International, the world’s only certifier of biodynamic farms and products, is conducting a seminar Dec. 2 at Rutherford Grange to discuss the practice.

Among the speakers are two University of California farm agents, Monica Cooper from Napa County, and Glenn McGourty from Mendocino and Lake counties. 

Most of the other speakers are either from Demeter or biodynamics growers and proponents.

Aside from being offended by the subject, and the fact that two representatives of UC are speaking at the event, Smith is up in arms that Cooperative Extension is co-sponsoring the seminar. 

Smith, who has a master’s degree from the enology and viticulture program at UC Davis, said that extension service should participate only if it’s a balanced and comparative event, not what he considers a sales and marketing event for Demeter.

In addition, he wrote in an e-mail to McGourty, “By UCCE sponsoring this event you (are) giving Demeter and their product, biodynamic farming, the implied support and approval of the University of California.”

He continued, “You are being used by a private company (it doesn't matter that they are a nonprofit), Demeter USA, to gain respectability, promote its message and to recruit clients for biodynamic farming. Your support gives biodynamic farming the credibility that it doesn't have otherwise. It is entirely appropriate for you to attend such an event. It is questionable if you participate in the program and completely wrong to sponsor/host and thus become a promoter of biodynamics.” 

The UC advisors disagree. Monica Cooper, a Ph. D. entomologist who is widely recognized for having a big hand in the successful fight to keep the European grapevine moth from becoming a huge pest in Napa County, said she is attending just as an invited guest and will talk about integrated pest management.

She said, “The IPM techniques that I will discuss include such scientifically validated practices as biological control, pheromone mating disruption, and the use of cover crops and insectary plantings. 

“In many ways, this talk will vary little from talks that I have given at other venues, with the exception that I will not be speaking about synthetic insecticides.”

Cooper added, “It is our responsibility as UC Farm Advisors to represent the scientific community at a variety of venues, and to ensure that we are presenting information on scientifically validated processes. I have little control over what others at any of these events may say, and whether they will be presenting scientifically validated data. I can only vouch for the information that I will provide to the audience, and be present to answer any questions that may arise and participate in discussion.”

Farm advisor McGourty said, “The University of California has among its priorities the support of sustainable farming systems. This includes ways of farming that put emphasis on improving water, air and soil quality, reducing the use of pesticides, promoting biodiversity and conserving habitat, and farmworker safety among many other issues. These are similar goals of biodynamic farming.”

He added, “The mystical aspects of biodynamic farming (i.e., the preparations) remain beyond explanation of reductionist science and we are wise to remain skeptical of their supposed effects until we have more information. But the organization of their farming systems and the practices that they use are well documented to improve soil quality, grow productive crops, reduce the need for petrochemical inputs, recycle farm byproducts in a safe and effective way, and provide a gentler footprint on nature compared to some practices used by conventional growers.”

He also said, “We work with a wide array of cooperators and allied industries that not everyone approves of. I have been taken to task at public meetings because some of my colleagues test chemical pesticides for efficacy.” 

He said he’s also been accused by environmentalists of supporting vineyards’ use of Russian River water, and admits that he doesn’t see eye to eye with the political orientation of all the farm groups with which he works.

McGourty was one of the farm advisors and others who conducted one of the rare studies comparing organic and biodynamic farming.

They reported few differences, though they concluded that the grapes farmed biodynamically had slightly higher Brix (sugar content) and phenolic content. 

However, no differences were found in soil quality and microbial efficiency, plant nutrients, yield, cluster count and weight, and berry weight, and disease pressure was minor in all blocks. That was after only one year, however, and longer tests might prove different.

Meanwhile, the role of the UC Viticulture and Enology Department in the controversy is limited. The farm advisors don’t work for it, but for UC’s agricultural and natural resources headed by vice president Daniel M. Dooley. 

“The University of California doesn’t ‘promote’ any particular way of farming, it supports sustainable farming systems,” responded Pamela Kan-Rice, assistant director of News & Information Outreach for the department.

However, Andrew Waterhouse, the respected head of the department, admitted “I am not a biodynamic believer …  I do not endorse it in any way. In fact, I think it is a philosophy of farming, i.e. a religion, not a fact-based system. However, our advisers are charged with supporting and informing the farmers in their areas. Some are using this protocol, and many are curious about it. I suspect (the advisers) will use the event as an opportunity to point out the lack of scientific support for this belief system.”  

Like McGoutry, he said, “Our role often involves evaluating many commercial products that may help growers and vintners. It is not at all uncommon for us to work with companies to help our stakeholders evaluate the qualities, benefits and problems of many products. Not all products are based on rigorous science, yet some seem to work anyway. We have to be open minded enough to at least discuss and evaluate those products — even if the creator is anti-scientific and some aspects of his system are beyond the pale.”

That’s not likely to satisfy Smith, however; his latest blog discusses fairies in a biodynamic context.

Copyright 2015 Napa Valley Register. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(1) Comments

  1. Epicuria
    Report Abuse
    Epicuria - November 26, 2010 10:47 am
    Thanks for bringing this news item to our attention. Well presented, but once again Stu Smith is 100% right. His gripe is even more persuasive when one reads the quotes of the non believers who are involved with the Extension service. The UC Service, in sponsoring the event, is giving credence to the practice. Let Demeter rent the hall, bring in the disinterested scientists plus their own cultists and even have UC send out invitations to their Extension email list, but that should be it. No sponsorship and certainly no hosting.
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