Katherine Cole, Voodoo Vintners: Oregon’s Astonishing Biodynamic Winegrowers. Oregon State University Press, 2011.
You can’t come to Oregon and speak about “green wine” as I did a couple of weeks ago without talking about biodynamic viticulture. The Willamette Valley is a hotbed of biodynamic activity; Demeter USA, the national biodynamic certification organization, is even based here. And now Katherine Cole, a writer for The Oregonian newspaper and several wine publications, has chronicled the movement in her nifty new book Voodoo Vintners.
Black Magic Burgundy
Biodynamic viticulture is controversial – do a simple Google search for the phrase “biodynamic viticulture debate” and you’ll see what I mean. Organic viticulture sort of adopts Google’s motto: Don’t Be Evil. Eliminate chemical fertilizters, sprays and so forth. Biodynamics takes a different and more proactive approach that considers vineyards the way the Gaia Hypothesis thinks of the earth, as a living organism. Just avoiding harm is not enough! If you want healthy grapes you need the entire environment to be healthy and growing, from the dirt and its microrganisms on up.
This sounds good enough, but then there are the cow horns and other unexpected elements of the system. Rudolf Steiner, biodynamic agriculture’s Austrian founder, prescribed certain treatments, sprays and practices that strike many as more black magic than agricultural science. Any recipe that begins with burying a cow horn filled with manure (that’s DooDoo) in the vineyard and involves special stirring instructions for the resulting organic tea to harness cosmic energy before it is sprayed on the vines (VooDoo?) is bound to have skeptics.
Walking the Talk with Alois
Some wine people declare that biodynamics is bogus, a hoax. Others approach the concept with almost religious reverence. We spent an hour walking the vineyard rows with Italian biodynamic guru Alois Lageder earlier this summer and the depth of his faith was hard to miss … or to resist. He’s a true evangelical biodynamic fundamentalist and there are many who share his faith.
So I approached Cole’s book with great interest. Would she argue for the fundamentalists like Lageder or side with the skeptics? The answer is neither – the book is organized around a set of profiles of Oregon wine people rather than a strong central argument.
As you read the book you learn about the history of biodynamics and Rudolf Steiner, its charismatic originator. And you meet some Oregon wine growers who embrace biodynamics, some who reject it, some who’ve tried it and given up and others who like the idea, but will only go part way, It’s an interesting journey because these are interesting people and Cole is a fine writer who takes us into their lives as they weigh the costs and benefits.
Biodynamics and Yoga
All very interesting … but so what? What’s the point? I kept looking for Cole’s argument and I couldn’t find it. Then, going back through the book I discovered that I had missed the thesis, which was stated in the introduction.
For my part, I like to compare BD [biodynamics] to yoga,. It’s a way to strengthen and fortify the whole body, to ward off illness and to maintain health. …
OK, but what about the voodoo stuff? Well, Cole writes, yoga has its mystical side, too.
Yoga is self-contained, holistic. … There is another, metaphysical, aspect to yoga that isn’t much discussed. … It is possible to be a practitioner of yoga without buying into the spiritual side.
That’s true. I used to do yoga exercises but I was only interested in the physical (flexibility) and mental (calm) benefits. I wasn’t looking for enlightenment.
Biodynamic viticulture in Oregon is similar to yoga at your neighborhood studio. Although it’s still a fringe phenomenon, it’s becoming increasing popular and voguish. Many winegrowers are dabbling it it. A small number are devout practitioners.
Having read the book I think Cole’s yoga analogy is a good way to describe how wine growers in Oregon relate to biodynamics — most are pragmatists and do what they think works, although a few also embrace its more mystical elements. This is a book about the people as much as (and maybe more than) the biodynamics they practice [or not]. For all its black magic, in Cole’s telling of the story, it’s still the human element that matters most.
I enjoyed Katherine Cole’s book and I recommend it, but I still have doubts. Is biodynamics really like yoga, a healthy activity but ultimately matter of personal choice? Isn’t there any scientific evidence one way or another that can serve as a guide?
Well, there is a new book that examines biodynamics (and other green wine approaches) systematically and makes a strong argument that goes beyond bending and stretching. It’s called Authentic Wine and I’ll tell you all about it in my next post.
In the meantime, here are some Yoga exercises for wine drinkers (hint: don’t try this at home)!
While I haven’t yet read the book the yoga analogy seems apt for farmers who actively embrace the natural exuberance of their land (clearly we’re not talking about managers who nurse their trucker tans). One almost has to enter into a spiritual communion to make a farm really prosper –a regular commitment to a “practice”. There are clearly both physiological and psychological benefits to glean (farming endorphins?)
My preference is to look at the subject as a spectrum from conventional to biodynamic. You do what you can. I haven’t met a grower yet who’s not looking at “best practices” —wherever they are on that spectrum. At the same time I’m not willing to confine myself to Steiner’s proscriptions just to garner a moniker. I raise sheep and guineas but not cows so why would my prep be more ‘certifiable’ if I used mail-order cow horns and cow manure from a farm in another part of the county (where the cows hadn’t spent a good part of the year munching on my own cover crop)? It’s just fortunate for the whole planet that more people are coming around to the idea that wiser, more ecologically sensitive, integrated, diverse farming is the way to go. For some, economics (think of it as good muscle tone) will continue to be the main driver–for those who dig down a little deeper I do believe that their motivation will continue to be bolstered by something much more powerful.
Robin Goldstein in Wine Trials, and Nathan Myrvold in Modernist Cuisine, both suggest rigorous blind testing. Which is something few if any wine critics do. I suspect that no practitioners of biodynamic wines would consent to participate in true blind tasting. It would be a little difficult, and perhaps expensive. As the evidence piles in I am increasingly persuaded that there is a real difference between OK wines and good wines. Between good wines and the very best wines? It greatly helps if you can see the label and know the price! The implications of that? Obvious.
I was pretty much a skeptic until I spent some time talking to Steve McIntyre.
I’m often puzzled by the ‘scientific’ argument. As if nothing works if it is not scientifically proven. It is extremely shortsighted to believe that ‘science’ is a safety net. There is a long list of agri-chemicals that were at one time deemed “safe” (i.e. proven?) to use on plants, to then find out that “ooops, we were wrong” please stop using DDT. Didn’t they give Dr. Muller the Nobel Prize in Medicine (the science and art of healing) back in the 1940’s? And what kind of environmental damage have these agri-chemicals done? There are also more conflicting reports about the long term effects of Glyphosate based herbicides/pesticides. Wait a minute, didn’t scientists ‘prove’ they were safe? Gee, thanks science!
Have there been any recalls based on crops grown biodynamically? Can anyone tell me which of the Biodynamic preperations that are harmful? Has spraying compost teas killed any human, insect, or animal?
Many of the agricultural practices contained within Biodynamics are centuries old. They pre-date Steiner in fact. Planting, pruning, sowing, harvesting based on lunar/celestial movements is nothing new. Pick up a Old Farmers Almanac….or read up on how Benjamin Franklin farmed.
It’s always best to keep in mind how unique farming is. Each farmer makes personal choices that have a direct result on their livelihoods.
As for “blind tasting”, there was a study done back in 2004:
What’s simple is that everyone can do this. Buy a Biodynamically grown/made wine, buy a comparable conventional wine, taste them blind, make up your own mind. Try the same thing with biodynamically grown tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, eggs….try them with their mass produced counterparts….see which tastes better to you.
It’s plausible that burying a cow’s horn in one’s vineyard will channel cosmic forces…as long as the cow jumped over the moon first.
The reason biodynamics “works” is because biodynamic farmers are obsessed, almost to a fault, with their soil quality and ecosystem. The horns and the festering camomile tea are voodoo. If making an infusion of cow manure and then spritzing on their vines in infinitesimally small quantities is their spiritual practice, then great, as the wines often are. But believing that the one leads to the other is just belief in a different mythology.