Voodoo on the Vine

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

Some established growers, however, were willing to speak on the record. "Biodynamic folks are taking advantage of the other producers by pretending to be on some higher level in terms of their empathy with the soil and the land," says Peter Cargasacchi of Cargasacchi Vineyards in Santa Barbara County. "A lot of these guys have MBAs and science degrees, and they're out there using Biodynamics as their marketing program. Well, shame on them." Ted Hall of organic Long Meadow Ranch in Rutherford adds, "It's important that people understand that organic farming is a sophisticated, science-based approach not based on a belief system. ... [Biodynamics] is a fad, because it is not based on substance. It will not persist over a long period."

And yet many of the world's most influential wine writers, including Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson, have become enthusiastic supporters of Biodynamics. Its self-proclaimed position as the "Rolls-Royce of organics" has allowed winesellers to win over overtly environmental shoppers, while Biodynamicists' claim to craft the world's most distinctive wines has ensnared connoisseurs. Tyler Colman, the writer of the popular Dr. Vino blog, recalled a conversation he had with the general manager of an exclusive Napa winery. Even though the executive wasn't enthused by Biodynamics, "he said, at his price point, everything is extremely competitive and he didn't want to allow his competitors who were practicing Biodynamics to have any sort of an advantage. He decided to switch his vineyard over to Biodynamic."

Like many in the wine world, Colman judges that Biodynamic wines trend "from very good to great" — though he isn't ready to attribute their quality to Biodynamics. And while there are inexpensive Biodynamic wines, the process tends to be taken up by winemakers skilled and successful enough to move their product for prices that justify the investments of capital and labor in a system that produces lower crop yields than conventional farming and mandates obsessive attention to detail. "We have no problem selling any of our Biodynamic wines, even though they're really expensive," Benziger told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

Vital ingredients of Biodynamic  Preparation No. 505.
Frank Gaglione
Vital ingredients of Biodynamic Preparation No. 505.
Luke Bass’ Biodynamically grown Zinfandel grapes.
Frank Gaglione
Luke Bass’ Biodynamically grown Zinfandel grapes.

Demeter's Fullmer says his organization — a nonprofit — is not getting rich off of the spike in Biodynamics; it makes only 50 cents for every $100 of business from its clients. Still, Demeter is a massive international organization with outposts in 45 countries — in Europe, there is even Demeter-certified Biodynamic toothpaste. Biodynamics' American ascent may be best measured, however, via the proliferation of consultants. Over the past several years, the number working in California has increased from two to around a dozen or more. None of the consultants contacted by SF Weekly would reveal their fees, but winemakers said rates of $300 an hour are not out of the question.

Bonny Doon's Randall Graham doesn't need a consultant — he hired Biodynamics expert Corderey as his full-time viticulturist. Corderey, a brusque, strapping Frenchman who rolls his own cigarettes, has turned Graham on to the power of sensitive crystallizations. Originally developed by Steiner disciple Ehrenfried Pfeiffer in the 1930s, crystallization is a process in which a dab of material – in this case, wine — is mixed into a copper chloride solution in a Petri dish. It is left in a small oven to evaporate overnight, leaving a residue of intricately formed crystal patterns. Corderey claims the crystals are the tangible mark of the "life forces" within the wines. Boltlike veins of crystals indicate that the vines are young and unfocused, like a child with a short attention span. Denser and more organized patterns indicate maturity and age. He glances up from his computer. "You know," he says with a smile, "I also crystallize people."

Corderey had a co-worker spend the day with a vial of wine in her pocket. He then crystallized the wine from the vial and compared it to a control sample. He would not reveal what he divined from the crystals, but said that he stunned the co-worker by pinpointing "exactly where she was in life." When SF Weekly suggested that someone could merely take a sip of wine, spit it out, and have Corderey crystallize that, he nodded — that could work, too.

"You see this?" he said, gesturing toward a choppy swirl magnified many times on his computer screen. Beneath the crystallization, a label read "2007 Albarino exposed to AC/DC Highway to Hell." Corderey had played the 1979 rock anthem to a glass of wine. He then played Native American music to another glass — resulting in a much smoother, more organized crystallization. "You can see the connection — these people work with nature and not against it."

Not far away, winemaker Graham was attempting to "form a vortex" in a vat of wine by furiously churning it with an oar-sized pole. Doing so would impart "life energy" into the vino. But, try as he might, he just couldn't stir rapidly enough. He confides that one of his fellow Biodynamic winemakers claims, like Steiner, to visit the spirit world. But for Graham, more earthly matters called, namely selling his product. "It would be nice to impart some life force into this wine, but I really need to go impart some life force into my company," he says. "I've got to get on the phone to my distributors and pound the shit out of them."

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