Voodoo on the Vine

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

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.

Explanations like the one above do not appear in promotional literature promulgated by Biodynamic wineries and are decidedly not used by winesellers to push the product. Descriptions of Biodynamics employed by winemakers, in fact, are almost willfully obtuse. At a "self-guided Biodynamic tour" scheduled to open this week at the Benziger winery, Steiner is described as a "natural scientist" who advocated "the best of old-world farming practices combined with modern agricultural sense." Literature from importer Organic Vintners notes that "Biodynamic farming embraces organic practices and adds an extra layer of care." Among those layers is adherence to an "astronomical" calendar — many in the Biodynamic world adamantly object to the term "astrology."

Luke Bass prepares “horn manure.”
Frank Gaglione
Luke Bass prepares “horn manure.”
K&L Wines’ Kirk Walker attests to Biodynamics’ popularity.
Frank Gaglione
K&L Wines’ Kirk Walker attests to Biodynamics’ popularity.

"We do astronomy," says Philippe Armenier, a French-born Biodynamic consultant now living in Santa Rosa. "It is quite complicated. We work with the planets and constellations. Astronomy is for plants. Astrology is for human beings." Armenier and others are fighting a losing battle with the dictionary — one definition of "astrology" is simply "a pseudoscience claiming divination by the positions of the planets and Sun and Moon" — but they appear to be winning the marketing war. Sellers are loath to explain questionable details about a product that has become lucrative as the desire for "green" fare has spilled into the wine world. Biodynamic vintners have proclaimed their wines — which are usually costlier than their organic counterparts — as the greenest money can buy, a claim many sellers are happy to repeat.

Bill Hayes, the senior wine buyer for Beverages and More!, gushes about how Biodynamic wines have been a growing trend over the past three years. He says he's stocking more and more labels — especially at his Bay Area stores. He has to, he says, if only to keep pace with Whole Foods. Yet when asked to explain the rationale behind Biodynamic agriculture — and whether he believes it — Hayes is at a loss for words. "You have, like, horns and the Moon and everything. ... There's a lot of things going on there. ... I don't want to comment too much on that. I'd get myself into ..." His voice trails off.

Mike Benziger, the founding winemaker at the family label, excuses the vague half-descriptions of Biodynamics vintners like himself have put forth. He notes that drawing attention to its supernatural aspects, such as those severed cows' heads, "freaks people out." In fact, one Biodynamics manual specifically notes, "Explaining the method of production for [Preparation No. 505] is particularly difficult in any public forum and is usually avoided by those representing Biodynamics." Benziger subscribes to that notion, and stresses that the cows were slaughtered for their meat, too. The winemaker adds that he and other Biodynamicists are also practicing responsible organic and sustainable farming — and yet, "when it comes down to it, the most powerful part of Biodynamics is the preparations." So, more than recycling wastewater, avoiding pesticides and herbicides, and enhancing biodiversity, Benziger believes what really matters is the oak bark in cow skulls, yarrow plant fermented in a deer's bladder, and chamomile in bovine intestines, applied to the field or compost piles at the appropriate dates of the astrological calendar.

The valuing of mystical potions over solid organic agriculture may strike many as counterintuitive, but that's because laypeople aren't steeped in the knowledge of Steiner's work, as Benziger is. It's also why the winemaker avoids explaining that Steiner felt Biodynamics was viable only because of cosmic forces from above, spirit beings living in the Earth and air, and his clairvoyant ability to simply know it was so. "One of the things you have to be careful about is overprojecting information to people before they're ready," Benziger says. "Look into history. There have always been initiates, and no one is willing to tell a novice secrets about the way the world works. They'd be blown away. You see the face of God, you die, right?"

By the late 1860s, Rudolf Steiner had seen his first ghost. Many years later, he revealed that as a kindergarten-aged boy, a female specter appeared to him in the waiting room of a railway station. He claimed one of his father's female relatives had killed herself on that very same day. From this moment on, Steiner believed he was able to communicate with the spiritual realm, where "not only external trees or external mountains speak to the human soul but also the Beings that live behind them." Later in life, he would, not surprisingly, urge his followers to read to the dead.

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