There’s no set definition of what makes a wine “natural.” Yet the concept reigns in many coastal cities and even a few Midwestern college towns. Those who choose the less doctored juice have come to expect their wine to mean more, represent something wholesome, something raw and real. Step into a shop specializing in natural wine today and you’ll see lots of different gradations of what natural means. Labels use buzz words like “skin contact” or “unfiltered” or “native yeast” or “wild fermentation.” Some will even claim to be certified organic. Mostly, natural wine as a category is a lot like the wild west — there aren’t too many rules.
Yet there is one symbol — a haloed abstraction of a plant with plunging roots — that indicates the wine is certified biodynamic, that the wine is in fact made according to strict rules. That symbol also represents Demeter, the oldest biodynamic certification in the world, dating back to 1928. It’s a surefire seal of approval for minimally invasive wines, setting boundaries that not only keep wine clean and free of chemicals but help propel a growing industry into the future.
An international organization of more than 60 countries committed to farming organically as well as holistically, Demeter represents a final frontier of natural winemaking. Its where minimal intervention and holistic process are met with rules and regulations. But it also might be furthering a trend around natural wine, one in which an idea or a process is commoditized to make a wine more sellable. Demeter, with its quasi-spiritual outlook, is still a brand, one that is beloved, and according to a 2014 German consumer study, almost as popular as Coca-Cola.
While many are reticent to discuss this aspect of the organization and metrics surrounding cost of entry are largely unknown, Demeter’s existence as a market-valued brand can’t be ignored. The question for the producer, as well as the consumer, is whether to indict it based on its existence as a brand or to embrace it for the cultural and agricultural advancements it’s made and the history it represents.
For all biodynamic farmers, that history begins with Rudolf Steiner. In 1924, Steiner gave a series of lectures in Koberwitz, Germany, now part of Poland. The lectures came to be known as “the agricultural course,” a sort of proto-scientific swan song in which the thinker explicated holistic principles for understanding nature and agriculture. Though Steiner died the next year, the lectures are remembered as the critical culmination of his teachings as applied to farming.
Among the organizers of that course was a young German agronomist named Erhard Bartsch, who, just three years later, co-founded a cooperative in Germany for processing and certifying products of biodynamic agriculture. Called Demeter — for the Greek goddess of grain and fertility — the organization eventually began to catch on internationally. By 1997, representatives from 19 nations formed Demeter International, the first and largest label for the produce of biodynamic farming that met codified standards. Today Demeter comprises more than 5,000 farmers working 180,000 hectares of land across 63 countries — including 20 or so that are producing biodynamic wines.
Biodynamic wines are essentially organic wines — produced without pesticides or herbicides — that are made according to a holistic process. At its core, it’s an anti-industrial agricultural movement that takes into account the interconnectivity of everything, including the stars, the moon, and the sun, considering how humans relate to everything above, below, and around us. Sometimes, it can seem that biodynamics is more of a lifestyle than a style of winemaking. Hardcore proponents even plant and harvest dictated by a special calendar (controversial among some practitioners) of Fruit Days, Root Days, Flower Days, and Leaf Days.
For winemakers globally, but especially throughout the European Union, Demeter functions as a watchdog for adherence to biodynamic standards as well as a congenial, borderless club, connecting winemakers through mentorship and international conferences. But it’s not the only club of this variety. Similar certifying organizations exist in California, Colorado, and all throughout Latin America. Within the wine world, Demeter is also not entirely alone. In 2007, Austrian winemakers Paul Achs, Judith Beck, Claus Preisinger, and others founded the rival biodynamic association respekt-BIODYN, with an emphasis on biodynamic principles as well as individuality in winemaking. All in all, it’s a little younger than Demeter, in both its membership and general approach. Still, the two associations function largely the same way, operating according to Steiner’s now nearly century-old teachings, though with some disparity in how closely those teachings are followed.
Above all, what these organizations offer is transparency. For European nations with well-established wine markets, Demeter certification offers a way to build trust between grower and consumer by guaranteeing that growers farm and harvest crops according to certain standards — including maintaining low copper levels and eschewing manufactured chemicals. As a governing body, Demeter requires producers to work without manipulation in the cellar, ensuring, as the U.S. chapter of the organization puts it, “an unbroken chain of accountability from the farm to the finished product.” But it also involves a spiritual commitment centered on the Steinerian idea of anthroposophy, which postulates the existence of an intellectually comprehensive spiritual world, regarding the farm as a holistic individual.
In some countries, such as Germany, France, and Austria, winemakers see Demeter as more than a mere certification. It is the standard bearer for a group of producers whose main concern is transparency. “In an ideal world, all conventional growers would be controlled and certified,” say Stephanie and Eduard Tscheppe-Eselböck, founders of Gut Oggau, a prominent Demeter-certified winery in Burgenland, Austria. “[All winemakers] should have to prove how much of the chemical treatments, herbicides, insecticides and the like they use. But for the moment, we are not living in a world that requires this.”
While Demeter International does establish wider standards for wine production, most regulations are determined country by country. Among the 63 Demeter national organizations, Austria is perhaps the most conservative in terms of legal protections for wine production and biodynamic farming.
These strong protections exist largely as a consequence of a 1985 wine-doctoring scandal, in which nearly 30 million liters of wine were diluted with diethylene glycol to appear sweeter and more full-bodied. The event ravaged the Austrian wine market, even becoming fodder for pop cultural references, including the driving concept behind an early episode of The Simpsons. Austria rebuilt its farming along models of environmental accountability, with more than 20 percent of Austrian farmers now farming according to EU-organic regulations and nearly 60 wineries operating either biodynamically or organically.
Christian Tschida, whose four-generation family vineyard encompasses 10 hectares of native and traditional varietals, is somewhat of a wine world renegade. With labels boasting names such as “Yummy Yummy,” “Laissez-Faire,” and “TNT,” Tschida has made the choice not to be certified by Demeter or any other organization. He relies on processes that closely mirror those employed by Demeter-certified wineries. “I found out for myself after all these years of making wine that leaving the grapes on their own makes for a better result than conventional winemaking or big market winemaking attitudes,” says Tschida, who despite his maverick inclinations, still believes the current formation of the wine industry, with all its experimental newcomers, is “in a really good way.”
Many Austrian winemakers consider Demeter certification a natural and significant next step. Like Tschida, they’d already been farming biodynamically, including making the so-called “preparations” like the humus-invigorating fermented horn manure Steiner prescribed. As members of the Demeter community, winemakers can connect with others in sourcing or making these and other preps for their vines. “I would say the core of being a Demeter producer is being part of a family that doesn’t stop in the town of Vienna. It doesn’t stop at the border of a country,” said Alex Zahel, whose family owns vineyards within the city limits of Vienna. “I’ve never seen any other club where the commitment is as strong as it is with Demeter. At least among the producers I’ve met who have long been Demeter certified, they do it because they believe in it. It’s not a marketing thing.”
Regardless of whether Demeter really does foster genuine commitment, it’s tricky business having any sort of governing body overseeing something as multifarious and individualized as biodynamics. When I asked the Tscheppe-Eselböcks about this contradiction, they said that the function of Demeter is not so much to oversee standards on a daily basis as to act as a forum for exchange and transparency. “Biodynamics is not a dogma. Every farmer should approach the idea in a very sensitive and individual way because every farm, every piece of land is an individual.” Still, both recognize that although a different recipe must be applied to each vineyard, there are minimum standards which must be met for a winemaker to call his or her wines “biodynamic” and that Demeter plays an essential role in this.
“Biodynamics is not a dogma. Every farmer should approach the idea in a very sensitive and individual way because every farm, every piece of land is an individual.”
The real question, though, is how critical Demeter certification is to the consumer. Tschida says educating the consumer about what goes into a glass of wine is not necessarily first on his agenda. “If you make standards for winemaking, it’s like making standards for art,” he told me. “For me as a winemaker and a wine drinker, I don’t need standards. I drink a glass of wine and I close my eyes, and I see the vineyard, I envision the winemaking process. I don’t need a set of papers in order to enjoy it or to recognize its value.” The value of a good wine, for Tschida, is what you feel in the glass — its vibrancy, its freshness — and if that can’t be felt, then what’s the point of a romantic backstory?
While Tschida’s taste-over-process ethos may not directly appeal to the conscientious consumer, this type of consumption is becoming a key principle for other winemakers. Gut Oggau, for instance, seeks to challenge the consumer to think beyond the glass. “There may come a time when it might be necessary to not only consume for the sake of pleasure, but to consume more consciously,” say the Tscheppe-Eselböcksid Stephanie and Eduard, “…to make sure that the rare land that feeds us is farmed according to a holistic and sustainable approach. The process in the cellar is only a tiny part of the beauty. It’s not the days the grapes stay on the skins or the vats the wine ferments in, but the farming that defines the energy, and hence the quality of the fruit and the beauty of the wine.”
Certification might be nothing more than an extra bit of pressure, ensuring that growers are farming their lands and reaping their harvests as sustainably as possible. But it might also be more than that. In the age of spiritual drinking, Demeter might offer as much to the consumer as to the winemaker, pushing us to understand wine as more than just a libation — a way to connect with the land and with others.