The idea of burying cow horns filled with sand in a vineyard is a weird one. What the activity highlights, however, is the energy and conviction poured by so many producers into their many biodynamic practices and philosophies. The thing is, they don't all seem to be doing it for the same reason or to further the same beliefs.
I had the privilege of visiting the Chateau de l'Ermite d'Auzan last week, and discovering not only their fantastic wines, but the sheer tirlessness and zeal which they pour into the arduous biodynamic processes, all the way from growing their medicinal herb garden to leaving parcels unworked for the birdlife. Behind every decision was careful planning and consistent logic.
During the same trip I visited Gérard Bertrand's Clos du Temple vineyard. I've heard some intriguing claims about naked dancing through the vines at night, but all I can confirm is that incredibly meticulous thought is put into every decision, whether it's mule-plowing, barrel choice, or bottling on fruit days.
Stepping away from the vineyard and into the cellar paints a slightly different picture. One is akin to entering into a mad scientist's laboratory or a witch's potion dungeon, whilst the other is, to quote Gérard, "a recreation of the Temple", complete with gold-capped pyramids for fermentation tanks and massive stone pillars. To ascribe the pursuit of (pseudo?)science to one and spirituality to the other would be only a very small step too far I think.
Since those two very different experiences, I was able to visit Castell-Reynoard in Bandol, an estate that is single-handedly redefining regenerative viticulture. Naturally, it is biodynamic, but where Bertrand and the Ermite d'Auzan encouraged quality in the vineyard through human intervention (biodynamic and environmentally friendly, true, but human nonetheless), the approach here is one of laissez-faire optimism and experimentation. Although the wines are excellent, a neighbouring winemaker did wryly comment that this meant 'making mistakes so that we don't have to'. The guiding philosophy is not one of spirituality or science but of the supremacy of nature.
All three of these interpretations all receive the same certification and carry out roughly the same biodynamic activities in the vineyard. Fundamentally however, they're all doing different things for different reasons. Their priorities are all in different sub-genres of biodynamism. The real question then becomes one of expectations - what does the consumer want or expect from their biodynamic wines, why are they paying more for them?
Superficially, this flexibility of approach may seem beneficial to the winemakers. They can do what they want, follow the practices they believe will be best for the environment and their wine, and still get a widely-recognised certificate that doesn't suffer from the specificities of their precise approach.
Long-term, this confusion can only harm sales and trust in the biodynamic brand. If it means everything, it means nothing. Already it is being accused of witchcraft, in part because it is as opaque and mysterious as witchcraft (this is something of course that l'Ermite d'Auzan does a fantastic job combatting), but also because brewing potions at the full moon and then spraying them at fields while claiming spiritual enlightenment is, well... witchcraft.
For further reading on biodynamic viticulture more generally, despite Joshua's lacklustre grammar and academic rigour, his article on biodynamic agriculture's origins is a rather interesting take on biodynamic practices, and it's clear that he represents a not-insignificant chunk of the modern wine trade and consumer body.
As for what biodynamic agriculture does for me... It's no real secret that I'm no great fan of it. Two famous comedy sketches perfectly encapsulate in just a few minutes most of my thoughts about the entire movement. They never fail to elicit a smile from me :)