Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Into the mystic

Agricultural scientist John Gladstones is a demi-god in Australian wine circles. A thesis he wrote in the 1960s helped to inspire the establishment of the Margaret River wine region, and his 1992 book, Viticulture and Environment, is regarded as a seminal work. Given Gladstones’ status, his new book, Wine Terroir and Climate Change, will no doubt be read as gospel. Appropriately, it tackles some very big themes.

Like a one-man IPCC, Gladstones has waded through the climate literature and concluded that not only is global warming not as bad as we’ve been told, but climate variability is natural, none of it’s caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gases, and the next few decades are likely to be cooler.

In other words, don’t panic.

This is a view that will no doubt provide succour for many - despite the fact that it contradicts the work of almost every other scientist involved in wine-related climate research.

I’m sure many people will also agree with Gladstones’s stand on organic and biodynamic, or “BD” viticulture. Being a natural-BD-wine-loving old hippy, of course, I don’t.

Gladstones supports the pragmatic, quantifiable aspects of organics - improving wine quality, for example, through composting. But he dismisses biodynamics, with its homeopathic preparations and following of lunar cycles, as “nonsense”: “rituals” practiced by “true believers”. And he warns, gravely, that because BD is founded on the ideas of controversial philosopher Rudolf Steiner - “medieval superstitions that science has long superseded” - adopting BD in the vineyard is but one step away from practicing witchcraft or sacrificing virgins: “[It is] an unhealthy retreat into irrationality and mysticism, such as the world has too much suffered from in the past. [It has] no valid place in an enlightened 21st century.”

I think he’s missing the point. He’s not asking the human question: if there’s no place for mysticsm and irrationality in our oh-so-modern world why are so many of us attracted to biodynamics? Could it be that we feel dissatisfied with the too-rational approach to grape growing and winemaking? Could it be that we are yearning for greater depth, beauty, and even spiritual nourishment from the wine we drink?

Ironically, Gladstones himself answered these questions two decades ago in Viticulture and Environment: “Post-industrial man is instinctively returning (to wine) as a remaining link with the natural world,” he wrote, “as an antidote to the barbarity of his mechanistic surroundings. Quality in wine is an artistic goal in its own right. Like other artistic goals to which humans aspire, it is a civilizing influence. The world needs such influences.”

Indeed we do. Even if they’re irrational. Or a bit mystical.

(This article was first published in The Weekend Australian Magazine on 6 August, 2011)

No comments:

Post a Comment