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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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• 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.

But while it may be logical, it's not true. The equations to calculate the tidal forces the Moon exerts upon the Earth are standard fare for any college freshman taking an astronomy course for nonscience majors. UC Berkeley Professor Alex Filippenko teaches such a course (in addition to his advanced research on supernovae, black holes, and gamma-ray bursts). He calculates that the tidal forces exerted by the Moon upon a one-meter-tall vine or wine barrel are actually around 60,000 times weaker than the tidal forces emanating from a 175-pound man standing one meter away. Incidentally, if a two-pound bunny were to scurry beneath the vine or barrel, it would be exerting 750 to 1,000 times the tidal force of the Moon.

Steiner was on equally shaky ground when he ventured out of the ethereal world of spirits and cosmic forces to make hard claims about nitrogen formation in Biodynamic compost piles through "a hidden alchemy." He was adamant that the potassium in potash and calcium in lime are converted into nitrogen via "transmutation." He made this statement not in the Dark Ages but in 1924, when knowledge of chemistry was highly developed. It actually is possible for elements to transform into one another — but only in the radioactive inferno of a nuclear reaction. One guesses, however, that the notion of "fission in the vineyards" would not be an ideal marketing concept for Biodynamic winemakers.

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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