Voodoo Vintners: Oregon's Astonishing Biodynamic Winegrowers
by Katherine Cole
"Voodoo Vintners" Explores the Strange World of Biodynamic Winegrowing
A review by Angie Jabine
During my years at Northwest Palate magazine, I read a mountain of wine-marketing literature, and it was puzzling how often I saw the term "biodynamic winegrowing" without ever learning what it actually entails.
Now that Katherine Cole, who writes a wine column for the Oregonian, has described it in detail in Voodoo Vintners: Oregon's Astonishing Biodynamic Winegrowers, I think I understand why. The term "biodynamic" may sound scientific, and its purpose -- to promote soil and plant health -- is admirable. But it's hard to explain actual biodynamic practices as anything but, well, voodoo. Take the Preparations, a series of soil applications that are central to all biodynamic farming. Here's how a few of them are made:
Preparation 500: Pack a cowhorn with manure from a lactating cow, bury it underground all winter, and dig it up in the spring. Add small quantities of the manure to water in a vessel shaped like a pregnant woman's belly. Stir for an hour, alternating clockwise and counter-clockwise. Spray this mixture on soil to encourage root growth.
At this point, even the organic farmer, who fertilizes with organic compost and regards synthetic pesticides and herbicides as poison, is asking, "Why would you DO that?" The answer, writes Cole, is simple: because it results in terrific wine grapes. (Full disclosure: Cole wrote several chef profiles for Northwest Palate during my time there.)
Preparation 501: Pack a cowhorn with ground quartz, bury it underground all summer, dig it up in late fall and save it until spring. Mix a tiny quantity of the quartz in water. Spray it on foliage to promote photosynthesis.
Preparation 502: Gather yarrow flowers in summer, stuff them in a deer bladder, hang the bladder to dry in the sun until fall, bury it all winter, then dig it up. Add the yarrow to the compost pile to enliven nutrient absorption.
A key moment in her portrait of this tiny but growing contingent of Oregon winegrowers comes in July 2001, at the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville. Legendary French winemaker Lalou Bize-Leroy had been enticed to pour her wines for a crowd of connoisseurs, who found them gaspingly delicious. As their eyes rolled back in their heads, Bize-Leroy read to them in heavily accented English and then rapid-fire French about Rudolf Steiner and the application of biodynamics in her vineyards. She may have been unintelligible, but the wine spoke for her. Four Oregon vintners in attendance that day subsequently went biodynamic.
If extraordinary flavor is the point of biodynamic winegrowing, Steiner is the cause. Born in 1861 in what is now Croatia, Steiner was a brilliant, charismatic philosopher, mystic and scholar who is probably best-known to Oregonians as the founder of Waldorf education. Though never a farmer himself, in 1924 he gave a series of eight lectures titled "Spiritual Foundations for the Revival of Agriculture" to a group of German farmers disenchanted with the industrial age. These farmers, along with agronomist Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, who tested and developed the Preparations, began what Cole calls "the first anti-industrial, anti-chemical agricultural movement." Decades before the organic farming movement began, these Steinerians founded Demeter, the first certification program for biodynamically grown crops -- which now has its U.S. headquarters in Junction City.
So what's the difference between organic and biodynamic farming? The former is largely based on demonstrable facts about soil microorganisms and their role in soil and plant health. The latter is based on Steiner's agriculture speeches and essays, which waver, writes Cole, "from the general to the specific, from the tangible to the otherworldly and weird, as in 'gnomes, undines, sylphs and fire spirits are actively involved in plant growth.'" Biodynamic farmers -- following traditions that date to the dawn of agriculture -- time their plantings and harvests according to the phases of the moon and stars.
Cole walks a fascinating tightrope in Voodoo Vintners. On the one hand, she's very generous about treating biodynamic farming as a quasi-spiritual practice that somehow, often and with help from the weather gods, seems to work. But she also faces its many contradictions head on. One of them, oddly enough, is that Steiner was a teetotaler who believed that drinking impedes spiritual development. Another is that biodynamic farming is ideally a closed-loop system in which the farmer's raw materials are all onsite, but many of Oregon's "BDers" mail-order their all-important Preparations from a Virginia-based biodynamic supplier.
Cole also surveys the agricultural research on biodynamic farming and learns that the longest study comparing organic and biodynamic methods side by side (in a California merlot vineyard, from 1996-2003), found virtually no differences in soil, vine, or grape quality or output between the two.
Even so, she's clearly in sympathy with the biodynamic enterprise. Like the Portlander who rides his bike every day, rain or shine, the biodynamic winegrower is a stubborn sort who courts disaster in hopes of creating a miracle. If you think biodynamic wine sounds like the latest snake oil, you'll find plenty in Voodoo Vintners to confirm your impression. If you want a knowledgeable, engaging, boots-in-the-field introduction, you couldn't find a better guide than Cole.
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