channeling harry houdini

Friday, February 11, 2011

On Wednesday and Thursday I zipped over to the Tri-Cities to participate in two lively panel discussions at WAWGG (wag). Both provided fodder for many blogs – it never fails to impress me how much there is to learn about wine. But I’ll focus today and next week on a couple of highlights.

The Wednesday morning seminar on Mythbusting was divided into three parts. Part one was on cold soaking, part two on deficit irrigation. Real technical, a lot of charts and numbers and (as Arlo Guthrie might say “circles and arrows...”). Part three was where I was called upon to speak. The panel, organized by grower Jim Holmes (Ciel du Cheval), was asked to debate the pros and cons of sustainable, organic, and Biodynamic viticulture.

Specifically, Jim asked me to address the following:

“Talk about your impressions of viticulture practices as they relate to wine quality (points?). I expect that you don't get much viticulture information when wines are submitted for tasting. But I know that you have given give great scores to Champoux, Klipsun, Ciel which are not organic or Biodynamic, and also score Cayuse highly which is, of course, Biodynamic. Just your general feelings about viticulture practice and wine quality are needed to make this session work.”

Here’s the catch.

Also on the panel were Tedd Wildman (Stone Tree vineyard), Paul Beverage (Wilridge winery) and Stu Smith (Smith-Madrone). Tedd spoke to the topic of sustainability; Paul has recently planted a Biodynamic vineyard in the far western edge of the Yakima valley and focused his remarks on the groundbreaking work of Goerthe and his influence on Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Biodynamic theory.

Stu Smith, as many people know, is the author of a controversial blog (“Biodynamics is a Hoax”). I was ready for anything. But not for what happened.

Following Wildman and Beverage, Smith made the case that Biodynamics does not have a scientific basis, that it misleads and in fact does damage, by steering people away from science and into myth and fantasy. I have not heard him speak live on the topic before, but I sensed that he had toned down his remarks, which were quite respectful and even allowed that there was room for other opinions.

I talked about how the various types of agricultural practices might impact such things as ratings, styles, and trends. Here’s a synopsis of what I had to say:

Ratings: Quite honestly, I track vineyards, and vintages, and winemakers, and wineries, and varietal wines, among many other metrics, but whether or not a wine is sourced from sustainable, organic, or Biodynamic vineyards is simply one more piece of background information. I liken it to details such as the type of yeast used, or the mix of clones, or any of the other minutiae that can be folded into the overall wine story. Interesting, but less important (to me) than things such as brix, alcohol, barrel regimen, blend, vine age, weather, track record of the vintner, etc.

Style differences: Sustainable has not shown me anything specific I can point to in terms of finished wines. Organic is a problem because organic grapes do not equal organic wine. Biodynamic, on the other hand, does seem to me to bring out some specific flavor components. Biodynamic wines in general show more of what some call “the good funk” – an earthy, composty, umami flavor set – at some loss of pure, sweet fruit flavor. When done well, it produces wines of great texture and complexity. Biodynamic riesling, for example, has tendrils of fruit and mineral and blossom that really enhance the complexity. Biodynamic syrahs can have an intense savoryness. That said, when not done well, it can be like drinking rotten seaweed juice.

Tastings: There are no databases of which I am aware that call out these wines as a category, nor do I consider them in that way.

Trends: Personally, I believe in general that sustainable, etc. farming is a very positive trend, as far as the actual stewardship of the land. In terms of wine quality, this is one of the innumerable factors that may well impact the ultimate quality, but it is not flashing neon indicator. I’ve had good, bad and indifferent wines made in all these ways. From a marketing standpoint, the attempt to gain an advantage in wine sales by being “green” or Biodynamic or organic has not worked. The terms are confusing, the qualifications for certification far beyond the interest or knowledge of most consumers. They still buy on price, points, and personal experience. If you want to make this part of your “story” for sales, that’s great. But don’t expect it to work miracles all by itself.

So, there it ended – or didn’t. During my remarks, as I often do, I veered off into a spontaneous rap that touched on the Theosophical era in which Steiner had developed his theories. I acknowledged that there was a lot of woo-woo stuff that could easily be made to look ridiculous, but added that it was important to look at the application of his theories today, not the stuff that he was embroiled in back in the 1920s. And I mentioned that Harry Houdini, the great magician, had also promised to contact his wife from “the other side” after his death.

Well that lit a fuse under Tedd Wildman who, it turns out, is something of a Houdini admirer. He challenged my assumption and said that Houdini had debunked as charlatans the fake mediums (not media!) of his day. And he bet me a beer that he was right and I was wrong.

Who was right? Well, I think I have a definitive answer. And I will post up the details on this blog on Monday. Meanwhile, if you don’t currently own a Ouija board, this might be a good weekend to go out and find one.


Ron Washam said...

I'm no expert on things Houdini, but wasn't his promise that he would contact his wife after he died "if it were possible.?" That's much different.

I also heard that as part of BioDynamics, Steiner recommended you bury Houdini in a metal milk container in your garden. When you dig him up six months later, he's turned into a long string of colorful scarves!

I do have one serious comment regarding BioDynamic versus Organic versus Nonorganic practices in winemaking. Who cares?

Anonymous said...

I LOVE it when the Hosemaster is in the house!!!
~Mrs. G.

Mackenzie said...

Hi Paul,

we watched a wine dvd by Jancis Robinson and there was a segment on a French winemaker "Mimi" I can't remember her last name. Anyhow, she was into BioDynamic farming. Interesting you should mention this. I'm curious. Do you have some recommendations on reading & wineries to watch out for in the North West? Cheers, Mackenzie.

Ron Washam said...

Mrs. G, Thanks! But I must warn you, I do wet the bed.

A. Plymale said...

A hilarious Hosemaster Houdini take!!! From what little I've heard and read about biodynamics, my impression is that the following of the phases of the moon makes intuitive sense at some level, and that the other practices involve the vineyardist spending a lot of time in the vineyard, which could be the real cause of any effect. There was a relevant paper in the scientific literature recently. I'll see whether I can find it.

Anonymous said...

Paul, I thought your take was SPOT On! , While having been, both a wholesaler and retailer, consumers still and I believe always will want the best wine for there dollar. People do care about green and sustainable, but Biodynamic...not really! never kept count, but I have or am close to serving 500,000 wine consumers in my career. Never had I been asked for biodynamic. Merlotman P.S. lol besides Cayuse!

Art said...

I care about sustainable, organic, and bio-dynamic, as do a growing number of wine writers (not critics, perhaps), wine shops, and wine bar owners around the country and in Europe. If I have choice between a wine whose taste I like but which has been made from grapes that have been pimped and poisoned, vs. a wine that doesn't appeal quite so much but is bio-dynamic, I'll take the latter every time. Which leads me to a question for the panel, the answer to which might change my drinking habits: do chemical fertilizers and pesticides used in grape growing actually find their way into the final product?

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