At the time of this writing, Biodynamic Wines by Monty Waldin ranks somewhere around 218,311 on the Amazon sales list and has not yet been reviewed by another reader. So in a sense, the fact that I'm writing this now is a labor of love, akin to Mr. Waldin's own passion for Biodynamic wine that spills out of the pages of this book. I stumbled upon BW as I was searching for a reliable introduction. I'll do my best to summarize what I gleaned from the complex subject Monty Waldin so ably describes, but just remember that any errors, imprecision or misstatements about Biodynamic wines that follow in this review are entirely my fault.
If you've never heard of Biodynamic winemaking, it's a combination of strict organic farming, belief in the self-sustainability of a vineyard, an almost religious attitude toward the inner life of soil, and an odd mixture of what sounds to the uninitiated like sorcery, paganism, astrology or hippies gone wild in the use of certain preparations in the vineyard and the timing of their application, all punctuated by a belief that plants respond to cosmic and lunar influences much like the tides. Although it has been around since the 1920's when it was "invented" in a series of lectures by Rudolph Steiner, Biodynamics has languished as a farming practice in the vineyard until relatively recently. In the wine world, it received a boost in France from the adoption by such luminaries as Nicholas Joly (1984) in the Loire, and Olivier Zind Humbrecht, France's first Master of Wine (1998) in Alsace. One also has to suspend at least momentarily the "bunch of kooks" argument when you learn that strict Biodynamics is observed in the vineyards of Domaine Leroy (1989) and Domaine Leflaive (1998) in Burgundy, makers of some of the most expensive, profound, and revered wines in the world.
Monty Waldin has worked on several continents in Biodynamic vineyards and has personally experienced the difference it can make in the health of soil, vines, grapes, and wines. To say he is committed to the practice is an understatement. But he doesn't let his passion for Biodynamics cloud the responsible and meticulous presentation of the case in this book, which could almost serve as a PhD dissertation on the subject or at minimum a primer for getting started. I've never grown anything more ambitious than tomatoes, but there's enough depth in how to apply Biodynamic theory that I think I could give it a shot in my backyard if I wanted to.
Steiner's lectures described the creation of Biodynamic preparations that are added to an organic compost heap almost like homeopathic remedies to prepare it for use in the vineyard. These seriously wacky recipes are detailed in Biodynamic Wines, and include such head-scratching techniques as burying a bunch of yarrow flowers in the bladder of a red deer stag heart for a year before digging it up and injecting it into the compost heap. Another requires grinding oak bark and burying it in the skull of a barnyard animal. Each Biodynamic preparation has its own highly specific reason for being in terms of influencing the health of the soil, stimulating the growth of certain parts of the vine at the appropriate time, etc. Curiously, however, despite the intricately detailed instructions for when various tasks are supposed to be performed in the vineyard, the practice of Biodynamics doesn't require that the grower follow the strictures on timing in any documentable way, and the rules don't appear to really cover winemaking at all. Nonetheless you can imagine that anyone willing to go through the trouble of stuffing chamomile flowers into cow intestines to make 20" sausages and then burying them for six months in an earthworm pot is unlikely to blast his wine with sulfur dioxide to preserve them artificially.
I found myself getting increasingly alarmed as I read through the early pages devoted to the composition of the Biodynamic preps. But then on page 65 I was jolted by the analysis Waldin does. He computes that in the course of a year, the average commercial vineyard uses enough herbicides, pesticides, insecticides, synthetic fertilizers, and other chemicals to equal 142 grams per bottle. Said another way, that's about 5 ounces of toxic chemical slurry in every bottle you drink of non-organic wine. Of course, the chemicals aren't really in the wine, but they are applied to the vineyards, dug into the earth, and sprayed on the vines, so who's to say what really makes it into the grape juice? Add to that the indisputable environmental costs, both in terms of pollutants and the energy expended, and suddenly renewable, self-sustainable Biodynamic farming starts to sound like the perfect solution for a small planet. And if terroir is your thing, what better than knowing all the manure used came from animals living right on the property itself?
As mentioned, the first 100 or so pages cover the history, philosophy, and practice of Biodynamics, including portraits of the most significant figures who have contributed to the theory along the way. The remainder is a painstaking compilation of all the Biodynamic/nearly Biodynamic wineries in the world, with commentary on the degree to which they are faithful practitioners and even ratings for quality and value for the money. Despite his obvious devotion to the subject, Waldin recognizes that Biodynamics are hardly a guarantee of great wine, so a number of the properties get panned when they fail to live up to the promise.
I was floored by the serious scholarship and even-handed advocacy Monty Waldin makes for Biodynamics in this book. I came away thinking it had much more reason for being than I would have otherwise imagined. My next task is side-by-side tastings of Biodynamic wines and their counterparts to see if I can detect a difference. So if anyone knows where I can find a bottle of Chateau Meylet from St. Emilion, the first Biodynamic Bordeaux, please let me know! Bravo, Monty, and thanks.