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Voodoo on the Vine 

The origins of the increasingly popular Biodynamic wine are steeped in the occult and bad science.

Wednesday, Nov 19 2008
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In a remote corner of the Benziger Family Winery, you can just barely hear the tour guide's voice from over the adjacent ridge. Sightseers will never be led to this spot, however, and not just for the obvious reason — a series of massive compost piles emitting a smell so powerful it brings tears to the eyes. In this part of the winery, there are things tour guides would rather not explain.

One recent Friday, Colby Eierman, the vineyard's chief gardener, slowly motored his pickup past the piles. Viscous red fluid was slathered over the truck's back flap; with every bump in the road, a bovine nose protruded momentarily from the bed.

The fluid was blood. Only hours earlier it had coursed through the veins of a 1,500-pound animal; now it congealed on the liner of Eierman's truck. The bull's eyes stared serenely skyward while its majestic horns barely fit within the truck bed. A calf's head, shorn of its jaw muscles, bounced around alongside it.

When asked just what was going on, Eierman shot a glance at Jessica LaBounty, Benziger's marketing manager, who closed her eyes and gave a quick nod. The gardener proceeded to explain that the severed heads were a vital ingredient in Biodynamic Preparation No. 505: Finely ground oak bark will be placed into the cows' fresh skulls and stored in a shallow, moist hole or rain bucket throughout autumn and winter. The resultant concoction is then applied, in nearly undetectable quantities, to the gargantuan compost piles; Benziger's promotional literature claims it "stimulates the plant's immune system and promotes healing."

Light-years from the surreal scenes at the Sonoma winery, glasses tinkled and forks hit plates of house-marinated olives in a dimly lit San Francisco storefront. Sharply dressed men and their attractive dates laughed over full pours of red and white at Yield Wine Bar in San Francisco's up-and-coming Dogpatch neighborhood. Nearly half of the 50 wines served that night were grown Biodynamically — a fact prominently displayed on the bar's menu. When asked what, exactly, this means, bar co-owner Chris Tavelli described Biodynamics as "the highest level of organics, you know, organic above organic."

Among those who earn a living selling wine to the general public, this was a typical answer. Those with a vested interest in moving Biodynamic wines almost invariably use the words "natural" and "holistic" — terms that are malleable and vague, but near and dear to every San Franciscan's heart. Its producers and sellers describe the process as "organic to the nth degree," "the Rolls-Royce of organic farming," or, simply, "the new organic."

It's an explanation Tavelli and fellow wine merchants have to make — or, more accurately, not make — now more than ever. Winemakers recently began aggressively marketing their Biodynamic status as a selling point, claiming their product to be both the "greenest" and most distinctive-tasting available. In San Francisco, Jeff Daniels of the Wine Club has added 10 new Biodynamic labels in the last year alone; Kirk Walker of K & L Wine Merchants says customer queries about Biodynamic wines have jumped in the past few years from roughly one a week to more than 30. Dozens of other San Francisco winesellers concur that they've augmented the number of Biodynamic wines they carry by four, five, or even 10 times of late. National chains report the same, and rank San Francisco as perhaps the nation's top consumer of Biodynamic wine.

Clearly, Biodynamic wines' sign is ascending – even if no one involved in making or selling them wants to volunteer information about the severed cows' heads or a bevy of other animal and vegetable preparations that read like a shopping list for Shakespeare's three weird sisters. Also left unmentioned is a reliance upon provably bad science and an unabashed embrace of supernatural concepts such as astrology and even alchemy.

"I do not discuss these things, even with my wife. It sounds kooky," says Luc Ertoran of the SOMA wine bar Terroir, a strong advocate of Biodynamic fare who firmly believes the taste of a wine is affected by the zodiac sign of the day it is uncorked. Adds the Wine Club's Daniels, "I try not to get into too much of the voodoo. It scares the customers away."


Luke Bass and his parents, Sue Porter and Dirck Bass, live on their family winery tucked into the clearing of a redwood forest with 20 acres of stunningly beautiful yellow- and red-tinged vines swaying gently in the coastal breeze. Luke is a curly-haired giant with a linebacker's build; he gestures about the Guerneville farm he grew up on with large hands stained black from crushing Zinfandel grapes (a bottle of the resultant wine sells for $64 at trendy XYZ restaurant in SOMA). There hasn't been a drop of pesticide sprayed at the Porter-Bass vineyard since 1999, and much of the weeding is done by Duke the sheep and his pals. And yet it's not just responsible, organic farming that the family credits for its renowned grapes. They believe the well-being of this winery is controlled by cosmic, supernatural powers that descend from the distant heavens and percolate up from the depths of the Earth.

Luke and Sue sit beneath a tree, scooping up handfuls of ripe manure and packing it tightly into cows' horns. Nearby sit four "sausages" of chamomile wrapped in cow intestines. Both will be buried around the fall equinox and unearthed on the spring equinox after having amassed "etheric and astral forces" – for which the horn serves as an amplifier. The concoctions will then be diluted to form Biodynamic Preparations numbers 500 and 503, respectively. Just half a pound of the manure is considered enough to treat 2.5 acres of land, where it supposedly aids root growth. The chamomile is applied to the compost pile, where it allegedly stimulates growth and stabilizes nitrogen.

Whether you think this is nonsensical depends entirely upon what you make of the foundations of Biodynamic agriculture. The system was essentially delivered whole in 1924, like Athena out of the head of Zeus, out of the head of Rudolf Steiner – a self-professed clairvoyant and occult philosopher from Austria who conceived of Biodynamics during his telepathic visits to the realm of spirits he claimed existed "behind" our material world.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Bio:
Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" is a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly, which he has written for since 2007. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers... more

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