Michael Lane, the head viticulturist and vineyard manager at Yangarra Wines, had worked for the previous owner before Jess Jackson and Barbara Banke, of Jackson Family Wines, bought the McLaren Vale vineyard. Around 2008, Yangarra’s winemaker Peter Fraser proposed that Michael begin the transition to a biodynamic vineyard. Michael’s training in viticulture and agricultural science hardly extended to Rudolf Steiner’s arcane philosophies but Michael’s attitude to his employer was one of bemusement rather than scepticism… bio- what? Talk to Michael and his ironic streak suggests his ready acceptance of the proposal was based on the (recent) adage that, `He who pays the piper calls the tune’. Michael’s commitment suggests otherwise.
Walk around Yangarra’s vineyards with Michael:
`You need not see what someone is doing
To know if it is his vocation,
You have only to watch his eyes’
W.H. Auden’s poem is insightful here. The journey to create a balanced and vibrant vineyard ecology begins with on-going observation and enquiry rather than a formulaic series of interventions. Michael stresses that beyond Steiner’s spiritualism and preparations there’s a management of attention required that’s often missing in industrial farming.
Biodynamic agriculture begins with Rudolf Steiner’s 1924 lecture series at the Koberwitz estate in Silesia, Germany (now part of Poland) towards the end of his life. The background to these lectures is found in Steiner’s philosophical spiritualism that provides the tenets for anthroposophy – and the basis for sceptical ridicule characterising biodynamism from occult to incomprehensible. While Steiner’s philosophical spiritualism imbues the Koberwitz lectures and their interpretation in biodynamic agriculture, being an adherent of anthroposophy isn’t a prerequisite for either sending your children to a Waldorf school for drinking biodynamic wine.
Biodynamic (and organic) wines have established a significant niche in a demanding wine market. Perhaps this reflects the views and reviews of influential wine writers Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson internationally and Max Allen, James Halliday and Philip White locally. Or perhaps the wines are, for whatever reason, especially worth drinking.
The nature of our society is to seek rational, and preferably ‘scientific’ explanations for phenomena. In this context Steiner’s system of biodynamic agriculture is remarkably polarising. Adherents can be unwilling to question while sceptics, particularly scientists, are inclined to observe, ‘… clear falsehoods, digressions and odd fantasies.’
For example, Steiner does not believe plants can be diseased but rather are impacted by Moon influence that can be counteracted by a homeopathic dose of horse tail (Equisetum arvense) infused into water, massively diluted and sprayed over fields. Such arcane practices can have scientists almost apoplectic. ‘With this list of practices, best described as a kind of agricultural voodoo, we are at the heart of biodynamics.’ Further, peer-reviewed studies of biodynamic and conventional viticulture suggest no measurable differences in the vines, ‘Analysis of leaves showed no differences between treatments … There were no differences in yield, cluster count, cluster weight, and berry weight.’
But perhaps all of this rather misses the point. Soil health and soil carbon is enhanced by retaining all plant material on site, biodiversity is maximised to provide a conducive environment for predators of pests and to encourage a more resilient vineyard ecology, canopy management is prioritised to enhance air flow and ripening, and simple integrated methods are applied to pest and disease control when required while stock are used to manage weeds over winter.
Nevertheless, the sceptics remain appalled, ‘The problem resides in the extension of disbelief in empirical technique … We must confront this problem, not just as wine lovers and wine writers, but also as citizens who do not wish to live in, nor present to our children, a society in which pseudoscience and esoteric fantasies are considered reality.’
I’m trained as a scientist and acknowledge the value of scientific method. However, I’m inclined to Hamlet’s oft-quoted observation that, `There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’
This certainly doesn’t mean that I’m also inclined to accept any pseudoscience or incomprehensible mumbo-jumbo. However, it does mean that I can acknowledge the value of differing perspectives and in certain cases the complementarity of different knowledge paradigms from, for example, traditional ecological knowledge, theology and science.
Yangarra doesn’t emphasise the mystical elements of Steiner’s biodynamic agriculture. However, it does create a healthier environment for staff and visitors, and for sustaining the land for the long term. Michael Lane observes, “The bees are back in the vineyard and the frogs returned to the creeks when we turned the old regime off. Now there are no mosquitos – the insect population is richer and healthier. And more balanced: no bug dominates.” As winemaker, Peter Fraser emphasises the harvest of fruit truthfully expressing the rich geology and mineral elements of the soils characterising McLaren Vale. And even a special energy that Yangarra can’t really quantify or explain.
Perhaps biodynamic agriculture sees a clearer focus on environmental and soil management, perhaps it’s the management of attention rather than rote industrial farming or perhaps Steiner’s tapped into something else we’re yet to explore. I’m inclined to subscribe to Michael Lane’s closer engagement with the vineyard:`How beautiful it is, That eye-onthe- object look.’
A review of the wine isn’t my territory – but they’re pretty good – see: yangarra.com.au/reviews-and-articles
Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 11 February 2014.