Voodoo on the Vine

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

Before succumbing to cancer in 1925 at age 64, Steiner became an internationally known occult figure, wrote books at a Louis L'Amour clip, and delivered an astonishing 6,000 lectures in the last two decades of his life alone. His followers state that 20, 30, or even 50 years are not enough to really understand the man's work. Perhaps — but if you are disinclined to believe in karmic reincarnation, telekinesis, and rewritings of the origin of humanity and the New Testament, all described in painstaking detail thanks to Steiner's supposed clairvoyant ability to literally see the past, significantly less time is required.

Some gems unearthed from Steiner's vast body of work:

• Human beings are as old as the Earth, and our earliest civilized ancestors, the Lemurians, had "jellylike" bodies and could move objects with their minds. Their descendants lived on the lost continent of Atlantis, where their bodies continued to solidify. We are currently living in the fifth post-Atlantean epoch, which began in 1413 and will continue to the year 3573.

Bartender Luc Ertoran serves up to 500 Biodynamic labels.
Frank Gaglione
Bartender Luc Ertoran serves up to 500 Biodynamic labels.
Rudolf Steiner’s portrait hangs above Johnny Cash’s at Terroir.
Frank Gaglione
Rudolf Steiner’s portrait hangs above Johnny Cash’s at Terroir.

• Depending upon how virtuous a life you led, you could be reincarnated in an "ascending" or "descending" race. Steiner believed Africans, Asians, American Indians, and Jews were of a lower level than the Germanic race.

• The passions of men can seep into the inner layers of the Earth and cause geological activity: "There is still this connection between human passions and the passion layer in the interior of the Earth, and it is still an accumulation of evil passions and forces that gives rise to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions."

This sort of philosophizing does not naturally lend itself to farming. Yet, late in Steiner's life, a group of his followers asked him to address their concerns about industrialized agriculture. His 1924 series of eight lectures formed the basis of Biodynamics. The audience was already intimately familiar with Steiner's "spiritual science" worldview — they accepted his notion that he had communicated with the "elemental beings": "Gnomes," who live beneath the ground and push plants upward; shapeless "Undines," who foster budding; "Sylphs," who wither mature plants; and fire spirits, "Salamanders," who imbue seeds with the heat they need to germinate. Within these lectures, Steiner prescribed the nine biodynamic preparations. He also imparted advice such as how to rid a field of mice: A farmer should catch a young mouse, skin it, burn it, and spread the ashes about the field when "Venus is in the sign of the Scorpion." The "ashing" of insects, however, must be undertaken when "the Sun is in the sign of the Bull." This, he told the crowd, was how they used to do it back on Atlantis.

While today's Biodynamic advocates claim they produce vegetables, fruit, and meat that are more nutritious than those of conventional or organic farmers, reading Steiner's lectures strongly indicates that he was concerned not with vitamins and minerals but with food rich in "cosmic forces" and "life energy." Consuming such foods would foster man's "spiritual evolution," a progression toward recovering the clairvoyant abilities and perception of spirit realms enjoyed by our forefathers on the Lost Continent and before.

Not every Biodynamic farmer takes Steiner's words as gospel — Benziger's Eierman said ashing has never worked well for him — though Paul Sloan of Small Vines in Sonoma said he sprayed gopher ashes around his vineyard this month when "basically, the constellations were aligned with the planets and that kind of thing."

Others, however, go further and attribute world-shaping powers to Steiner's prescriptions.

Hugh Courtney is the executive director of the Josephine Porter Institute for Applied Biodynamics, a Virginia nonprofit that makes Biodynamic preparations for farms and vineyards throughout North America. He believes the preparations can bring rain, prevent earthquakes and volcanic activity, and, quite possibly, stave off the apocalyptic "War of All Against All" Steiner predicted would commence at the end of the 20th century.

"After Katrina hit New Orleans, there have been efforts to apply the preparations with a little bit more due diligence in that area, and it has not been hammered since," Courtney told SF Weekly. "The preparations might have something to do with that."


To many, Courtney's assertion that compost preparations and field sprays have staved off a hurricane may smack of the same fundamentalist mindset Jerry Falwell employed in blaming the 9/11 attacks on God's displeasure with homosexuals, feminists, and the ACLU. That said, Courtney could be right: Assigning meaning to the wiles of supernatural beings is not the sort of thing that can be scientifically proven or refuted. Other elements of Biodynamics, however, do cloak themselves in the vestiges of scientific validity — and fail.

"The Moon moves trillions of gallons of water every day in our ocean tides," a placard at Benziger's self-guided Biodynamic tour reads. "If you consider that the human body is about 85 percent water and a plant is 92 percent water, it's logical to assume this movement would have an affect [sic] on us." It's logical enough, in fact, that many Biodynamic farmers repeated this notion to SF Weekly, explaining why they sow their seeds during a full moon, or "rack" sediment off the bottom of their wine barrels during a new moon. "If you seed three days before a full moon, it'll germinate faster and stronger and your plants will be more fruitful," says Sue Porter of Porter-Bass Vineyards. "In the olden days, people used to shut down barber shops before the full moon. No one in his right mind would get a haircut; it'd grow back so fast. People used to know a little bit more." Other Biodynamicists said they do their sowing or racking during "ascending" or "descending" moons, but the theory is identical: There are times when the Moon has a decidedly greater or lesser pull on us, hauling moisture out of the ground and up into the grapes or pulling sediment down to the bottom of a barrel.

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