Voodoo on the Vine

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

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.


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.”

“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.

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.

• 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.

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.


Finally, depending upon the position of the Moon in the Zodiac, the Biodynamic calendar divides the days of the month into four categories: Earth, air, fire, and water. Tasks such as pruning leaves or harvesting fruit depend upon what sort of day it is, and Philippe Coderey, the Biodynamic viticulturist for Bonny Doon Winery in Santa Cruz, said these assignments aren't arbitrary — a fire day will “always” be hotter than an earth day, “even in Antarctica.” And yet a cross-check of the Biodynamic calendar for August hanging in Coderey's office with data from the National Weather Service for California's Central Coast region reveals that the average temperature for fire days was 68 degrees. Earth days averaged 71 degrees — and, between the two, the four hottest days were all earth days.

The scientific studies touted by promoters of Biodynamics are often shoddily done, not peer-reviewed, and printed in little-known journals or Biodynamic house organs. Peer-reviewed studies undertaken in the United States, meanwhile, have failed to distinguish Biodynamic agriculture from organic. The most comprehensive analysis to date, a six-year study led by researchers at Washington State University, was published in 2005. It found no significant distinctions in the organic and biodynamic plots, save for more leaves and fewer grapes from the Biodynamic vines. Too high a grape yield can result in watery fruit, so the study presented the low crop-to-leaf ratio as a point in Biodynamics' favor.

Sonoma analyst Leo McCloskey, who measured the grapes' content, however, says it's the other way around. “We measured quality factors – the total phenols, anthrocyanins, tannins, just everything,” he says. “What we found is that the Biodynamic and organic grapes were the same.” This means that organic vines produced fruit identical to the Biodynamic plants — and more of it — without the benefit of the time-consuming preparations. In short, the organic vines were more efficient. “Biodynamic isn't better than organic, and that gets to unearthing the politics of green in wine,” he continues. “This means that Biodynamics is subject to the criticism that it's a form of green marketing.”

No less a figure than Jim Fullmer — the executive director of Demeter-USA, the sole American Biodynamic certification agency — admits that “science hasn't proven our efficacy yet.” But, like many Biodynamic advocates, Fullmer went on to claim that Biodynamics has deeper meanings the scientifically minded can't appreciate. As Steiner himself put it, “Spiritual scientific truths are true in and of themselves and do not need to be confirmed by experiments.”

Science is not on Fullmer's side, but his movement is growing. Demeter-USA certifies roughly 60 vineyards and wineries, the vast majority of which are in California. This is but a small percentage of the business — there are thousands of vineyards in the state — but Fullmer claims 25 percent yearly growth. Demeter-USA's marketing director, Elizabeth Candelario, said that it's hard to keep up with the number of new wineries joining the organization every month. Without any sound evidence that Biodynamics is an improvement over organic agriculture, Fullmer and others say winemakers have simply “seen” the benefits. And while Biodynamic proponents chided SF Weekly's “Western” notions of scientific provability, Demeter has certainly adapted to Western notions of marketing — and licensing. It has actually trademarked the word “Biodynamic,” and Fullmer confirmed that the organization has gone to court to squelch unlicensed use of the term. Candelario noted that one of Demeter's board members is Tim Humphrey, a trademark attorney for Clorox.

Criticism of Biodynamics is not rippling through the wine world – winemakers move from job to job with a regularity rivaling college football assistant coaches, and several contacted by SF Weekly were not willing to burn a future bridge, despite feeling that Biodynamics is “wacky” and “a cult.”

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.

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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