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Dublin, Ireland
Hi, I'm Dermot Nolan, and I became a Master of Wine (MW) in 1997, and resigned from the Institute of Masters of Wine in 2023 after being an MW for exactly 26 years. I opened a wine shop in DĂșn Laoghaire, Ireland, called The Wine Library, which closed in 2018, and this is my personal wine blog. I will do my utmost to be fair and responsible in my posts – please read my Who Pays article in re the ethics of wine trips and writing. I have worked in wine education, retail, and consultancy since 1990. I was a Director of the Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW) from 2008 to 2014 and was also a member of the Events Committee, founder of the Trips Committee, and member of the Governance Committee. Having had problems with potentially libellous comments from unidentifiable posters, I now require that if you post a comment, you must identify yourself properly or it won't be published. Please note that I do not review products or services on request so kindly don't ask. I value my independence and I believe my readers (few that they may be) do so also.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

To BD or not BD...

That is the question; whether tis nobler in the vineyard to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous chemicals, or, to take up preparations 500 and 501 against a sea of troubles, and, by opposing, end them...

Last night's dinner had one great benefit, the chance to talk to Vanya Cullen who is a keen advocate of biodynamics (BD as it's known here) and, as far as I know, runs a carbon neutral winery. We also had Julian Castagna but, forgive me Julian, Vanya's a lot prettier so she gets the limelight! Who says sexism is dead?

BD has a number of principles which include using homeopathic quantities of certain preparations to combat vineyard problems or to encourage vineyard development. Without a doubt, pretty much any vineyard grown BD produces fabulous fruit and the vines appear to be a lot healthier or sturdier than those grown under standard regimes. The question for many is: does BD really make a difference?

In 2007, I attended the annual IMW pilgrimage to Geisenheim where we had a weekend seminar on BD ad organics. We were show a number of trials which being undertaken to measure the efficacy of various BD preps, as well as comparing BD against organic and standard viticulture. Here in Australia Mike Brown of Gemtree is facilitating a similar programme which compares BD against organic against heavy conventional against light conventional. I found these all interesting but as the Scots would say, I hae ma doots!

Some years ago Paul Dolan of Pardcci (ex-Fetzer) said how his compost, which had been sprayed with a BD prep, had a higher earthworm count than an untreated heap and this was "proof" of the benefits of BD. Pondering this later, as an ex-mathematician, I realised that this is nowhere near proof. There is anecdotal evidence and there is statistically significant evidence. Anecdotal evidence is where something happens to you, you mention this to someone else and they adopt whatever position you have recommended on the basis of your recommendation. For wine geeks this means always following Robert Parker or James Halliday or Jancis Robinson MW, for example. Their anecdotal opinions are taken as gospel.

Statistically significant evidence is where you determine, through elimination of variables in the trial and statistical analysis of results whether the result is significant i.e. whether the results show that you have isolated the key determinant of effect and whether it works. For example, if a treatment is no different to a non-treatment then statistical analysis will highlight this. If however, a trial determines that the use of a treatment significantly changed an outcome then that treatment has been shown to be effective. By the way, this effect could be detrimental as much as beneficial.

Now, we know (and we do, regardless of opinions to the contrary) that homeopathy does not do anything - people get better through a placebo effect. For those who say I'm wrong and that their opinion is as valid of mine I should point out that I am not stating an opinion I am reporting medically researched fact. For those of you who want an easy look into this read Ben Goldacre's book "Bad Science" - then stop worrying about getting anti-oxidants into your diet: they are bad for you!

So, given that homeopathy doesn't do anything and that the homeopathic dilutions are only water (check out the BBC Horizon programme with James Randi on the so-called memory of water) what of BD? Well, if Paul Dolan had told me that he had sprayed his other compost heap with water every time he'd sprayed his BD heap, counted the earthworm populations and statistically analysed the results (in any two heaps one will always have more - the question is what difference in the numbers is significant?) and repeated these trials over many years and got consistent results then, and only then, would I take it as proven.

To reiterate the difference between anecdotal and proof bear in mind that a number of people have fallen out of planes with parachutes that didn't work yet survived the fall. That's anecdotal evidence that you might not die if this happens to you. But would you voluntarily jump without a 'chute? No, you have personal experience that falls are dangerous. In areas of life where your experience is limited, though, you tend to rely more heavily on anecdotal evidence because humans value experience highly.

Back to BD. If someone will run a vineyard on BD principles BUT only spray water whenever they would otherwise have sprayed BD preps and then measure that vineyard against a similar BD one, do this over a good many years, do tastings of the wines etc then we might see if the active interventions of BD work.

Finally, who cares? I mean this - if the results (the wine if the bottle) are really all that matters why worry about proof or disproof? Why argue with those mad few who take BD as a religion - a faith? People with faith cannot be shaken by any degree of evidence. if BD makes the happy, why not leave them alone? For those who always seem surprised that scientists use BD, why? They looked at cause and effect (in a broader sense than the narrow viewpoint of BD) and made a logical decision - the results are what I want to achieve so that's what I'll do. Do you know how a computer actually works? If you answer yes then you'd better be a qualified quantum scientist because otherwise you don't! Does it make any difference as to how you use a PC? Of course not.

OK, breakfast has just arrived so sod off you lot and leave me alone LOL

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