The subject of biodynamic practices in wine is a divisive one. For every person who rhapsodises about the claimed transformation in soil health and growing conditions, there is another happy to dismiss biodynamics as cultish mumbo-jumbo. But, from a purely business point of view, just how viable is it?
Half the world apart, Seresin Estate in Marlborough, New Zealand, and Château de Pommard in Burgundy are both managed biodynamically, but their experiences offer a contrast that illustrates some of the difficulties of biodynamic agriculture, and why more widespread adoption remains unlikely.
Seresin, established by cinematographer Michael Seresin in 1992, has been farming biodynamically since 2006 – a move based more on Seresin’s gut instinct than on any particular business model. He quotes Burgundian vintner Anne-Claude Leflaive: “If you can grow grapes and make wine without chemicals, why not?” but also acknowledges that “biodynamics is not good for the bank balance”.
At one point, Seresin reckons, the estate was the biggest biodynamic vineyard in the world at 140-160 hectares, but this has been diminished by events: Seresin sold his Tatou and Noa vineyards after they were impacted by spray run-off from neighbouring properties. “I could see us losing our organic classification, and that would be the end of who we are,” he says. “If we lost that, I’m out of here.”
The long term perspective
Château de Pommard’s Clos Marey-Monge vineyard doesn’t have that problem. Claimed as the biggest “monopole” vineyard in Burgundy at 20 hectares, it is encircled by a two-metre-high wall. “It was too good an opportunity to miss,” says owner Michael Baum of the decision to go biodynamic.
Baum, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and serial investor, has owned the domaine with his wife, Julie Carabello, since 2014. Winemaker Emmanuel Sala began eliminating chemicals from the vineyard 12 years ago, and conversion to biodynamics has been a five-year project, culminating in a hoped-for Demeter certification later this year.
While Baum acknowledges the difficulties and cost of going biodynamic, he argues that there is a sound long-term business case for doing it, based on his belief that inorganic inputs weaken the vine’s root structure, leaving it less able to resist and manage disease. “In the short run, it’s a lot more labour,” he admits. “We’re ploughing everything by horse, but then again that’s cheaper than tractors.”
He says that it makes economic sense when looked at long term. “I don’t have to pull out vines after 30-40 years. I don’t have the downtime of maybe 10 years before I can use the vine in production [when replanting]. With a longer-term time horizon, there’s a very strong economic case for biodynamic farming.”
Château de Pommard’s management is also based on what Baum describes as a “multi-faceted business model” that encompasses hospitality, events, tourism and wine education. “We’re thinking about Clos Marey-Monge in the next 100 years,” says Baum. “Whether it’s vine planting, or buying a horse: does this feel like it would be a good decision in 100 years’ time?”
Short-term cost savings
Such a perspective demands a level of funding – and patience in terms of return on investment – that will be arguably unrealistic for most wine businesses. In Marlborough, the reputation of Seresin’s wines commands a price premium that makes biodynamics feasible, if difficult.
“We don’t have the cost of agrochemicals, and that’s pretty steep,” says Michael Seresin. “When we started, you would see these sly old buggers working out whether it would cost more to buy the agrochemicals.”
Most have been unwilling or unable to take the risk of biodynamic farming. Almost 30 years after Seresin Estate was established, there’s a “little national community” when it comes to farming organically, but next to nothing when it comes to biodynamics, Seresin says.
It isn’t helped, he reckons, by the rigours of certification: hosting inspectors for three days to a week and having to allocate three members of staff to deal with them. “Being certified is a pain in the arse.”
Seresin remains passionately driven when it comes to biodynamics, but ask him how growers can be persuaded to adopt the practice more widely and he shakes his head. “I don’t know,” he says. “It’s going to be bloody difficult.”