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Blog: Anne Krebiehl on biodynamic v conventional viticulture

Published:  02 December, 2011

What was billed as the "Grape Debate" between Dr Richard Smart, viticultural luminary, co-author of the seminal book 'Sunlight Into Vines' and proponent of 'conventional' viticulture and Monty Waldin, author, consultant and torch-bearer for all things biodynamic ended up being a disappointment.

What was billed as the "Grape Debate" between Dr Richard Smart, viticultural luminary, co-author of the seminal book 'Sunlight Into Vines' and proponent of 'conventional' viticulture and Monty Waldin, author, consultant and torch-bearer for all things biodynamic ended up being a disappointment.

Chaired by Anthony Moss MW, Research and Development Director at the WSET, the proposal to be formally debated was "Should the UK wine trade promote organic and biodynamic wines?"

Waldin was the first to state his case:  initially recounting how his interest in biodynamics began he went on to explain that the stated aim of biodynamism was self-sufficiency of the farm, meaning the complete circle of putting back into the land whatever you take out of it.  He stressed the importance of livestock.  Addressing the chief criticisms usually held against biodynamics he admitted that copper and sulfur were the "Achilles' heel" of organic and biodynamic viticulture but that biodynamic farmers' target was to eliminate them.

Concerning the labour-intensity of biodynamics he said "we need to get more people onto agricultural land," making a wider point about unemployment and a disaffected, unhealthy society.  Moving on to the alleged "unscientific" approach of biodynamics Waldin said "you scientists should be able to tell us why horn manure has so many more microbes" and that "people are converting [to biodynamics] because they see that it works."  "It's not a perfect system but it goes into the right direction," he concluded.

This would have been Waldin's chance to make a reasoned, coherent and convincing case for biodynamics, unclouded by the mystical and spiritual aspects that usually undermine the entire proposition for the skeptical; after all, he has access to enough examples, case studies and facts which could have backed up his points.  If he took for granted that everyone already knew the exact differential in microbial soil population between conventionally and biodynamically farmed land, the potentiating antifungal effects of salycilic acid contained in horsetail and yarrow, the immune-stimulant properties of formic acid in nettle, he was mistaken.

To him, perhaps, these points seem redundant or too obvious, but debates are won by clearly stated logic and fact.  Even if most of the audience was on his side, he should have taken the trouble to present more than anecdotal evidence and to formulate concise points.  In a way he seemed almost embarrassed to be there.

Smart, who had come dressed in a lime green shirt and tie to underline his "green" credentials opened by saying that he was "a little aghast that so many oppose my point of view." Stating that he did not really care whether people farmed biodynamically or organically, he pointed out that his real issue was the "implicit bias" against people who practice "conventional" viticulture and that they had been "disadvantaged in the market place because they are not biodynamic or organic." He quoted a former student of his who had asked to remain anonymous as saying "It's about time someone stood up for conventional viticulture," but he did not present the audience with hard facts, either.

Slurring about biodynamics "I basically think it's a lot of PR," and stating that the three premises on which the UK trade promotes biodynamic wines, namely "that the wines are better, the wines are better for you and the wines are better for the environment," "were all arguable" without properly arguing them was not good enough for an audience who had paid £35 each to listen.  Complaining that the press does not applaud conventional farmers who used 'recycling sprayers' (making application of agrochemicals more precise and less wasteful) seemed a petulant complaint, considering how much is being written about lutte raisonnée.

It really seemed that both men had failed to bring along their best arguments.  They touched on carbon footprint, pesticide residues, irrigation, over-production, e-coli bacteria and the industrialization of the organic movement, but even as they responded to each other's initial statements did they lack focus.  Neither man lived up to his billing.  When it came to audience questions, which ranged from consumer engagement, accumulation of agrochemicals in soil and "irresponsible" winemaking, Smart often refused to engage with the arguments, skirted questions and responded with a sort of affected ennui.

Both Waldin's and Smart's failure to engage and present clear, concise and backed-up facts prevented them from getting to the real meat of the subject:  Is biodynamic viticulture a viable alternative for all winegrowers?  What is its real carbon footprint?  What can biodynamic farmers do in the face of a terrifying predator that infects whole swathes of vineyards with Flavescence dorée against which there is no cure (a hot topic in the Médoc)?

Should wine be promoted because it is good or because it is biodynamic?  No real answers were forthcoming.  From such distinguished speakers I would have expected more.  Quite apart from muddying the waters by lumping biodynamics together with organics, the evening was a missed opportunity for both sides.

The Grape Debate - Smart vs Waldin at the WSET -- Anne Krebiehl for