Voodoo Vintners: Oregon’s Astonishing Biodynamic Winegrowers
Oregon State University Press, 182 pp.
Reviewer: Peter Musolf
Voodoo Vintners presents the history and farming techniques of a group of biodynamic viniculturists and winemakers in the Willamette Valley, Oregon, in America’s Pacific Northwest. The region is considered excellent for Pinot Noir. Biodynamics is an occasionally ridiculed organic farming method based on the ideas of Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), the Austrian philosopher, mystic, and founder of anthroposophy. “Voodoo” refers to the method’s occult origin. As biodynamics has gained popularity with winegrowers, it has entered the awareness of consumers keen on organic food and wine, alternative lifestyles, and holism. It surprises me that this awareness extends to wine drinkers who just twist and pour. Nevertheless, Voodoo Vintners aims to be “a simple, readable, enjoyable book on biodynamic viticulture for the everyday wine lover to flip through and enjoy” (ix). (If “enjoying an enjoyable book” is not your idea of readable, you will find much in this book to inspire rapid flipping.) Cole gaily blends journalese, research, and conversations with offbeat Oregon wine people and succeeds in keeping things snappy. Unfortunately, her casual approach underplays biodynamics and the richness of Steiner’s thought.
Cole marks the turning point in Oregon biodynamic winegrowing with the appearance of Burgundian biodynamics pioneer Lalou Bize-Leroy at the 2001 International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville. In Cole’s reconstruction of the event, Bize-Leroy presented three of her Domaine Leroy wines, which are among Burgundy’s most prestigious. The wines (Corton-Renardes, Clos de la Roche, and Latricières-Chambertin, all from the great 1999 vintage) deeply impressed the tasters, including several local winegrowers, who studied them as Bize-Leroy spoke on Steiner. (According to Cole, Bize-Leroy’s speech was incomprehensible for linguistic reasons.) Non-biodynamic wines from these vineyards would also have impressed, but it does not appear that comparisons were made. Bize-Leroy’s strict control of yields, which is not a biodynamic technique, and her exceptional tasting, blending, and winemaking skills, attested by her non-biodynamic negociant line Maison Leroy, go unmentioned. Nevertheless, Cole notes a significant increase in the local interest in biodynamics following the tasting and attributes the change to the event. At the same time, she concedes that of the four winegrowers present who later converted to biodynamics, none confirms that the tasting or speech influenced the decision to convert. To me, the Bize-Leroy tasting seems more a convenient benchmark in a diffusely triggered trend than a watershed.
In a chapter entitled “The Green Factor” and elsewhere in the book, Cole presents environmentalism as another important reason for the spread of biodynamics. In Oregon, the green movement has a long tradition and sets the tone in the urban consumer milieu. Organizations devoted to conservation are numerous. Among them is the American chapter of Demeter, the biodynamic certification society. For the state’s eco-conscious consumers, an affiliation with one of these groups is a sign of a winery’s environmental awareness and commitment to sustainability. Most Oregon wine is sold in the local market. Therefore, biodynamics possesses a promotional cachet that may be an incentive to winegrowers. Nevertheless, Cole concludes that the voodoo vintners have embraced the method not as a marketing tool but as a means to produce good wine while remaining faithful to environmentalist values, which is almost the same thing but not quite. Some of the wine is not good: “Biodynamically farmed grapes make fascinating wines. They also make banal wines” (x), says Cole. (All the same, bad biodynamic wine that does not sell would be evidence of sincerity.) Beyond a Pinot Gris that Cole found “crisp and clean” and “pure” (vii), whether biodynamic wine has a concretely distinctive taste is unstated, and Cole doubts that biodynamics has much to do with expressing terroir. Of the biodynamic wines I have tasted, most have been almost startlingly vibrant and fresh and had a subtle seawater tang, something a professional winemaking acquaintance described as the “goût biodynamique” and which may simply be unadulterated umami. The vagueness of this terminology notwithstanding, it would be interesting to know whether biodynamic wine is equally popular in places where the green movement is weak. Such a comparison might reveal whether consumers buy (and winegrowers produce) biodynamic wine for the flavor or the idea.
As explained in the chapter “Big Biodynamics,” saving money is also a reason to adopt Steinerian farming. The method relies chiefly on small quantities of natural, often homemade field sprays and the precise zodiacal timing of vineyard work and winemaking. The main piece of special equipment required is a simple machine for stirring the sprays. Once established, biodynamics may reduce vine-tending and grape-processing costs by improving a vineyard’s disease and pest resistance, vigor, and fruit, Cole writes. The cost of farming at 230-acre Montinore Estates in Forest Grove is $3,200 per acre, which is $1,300 per acre less than at nearby non-biodynamic Willamette Valley Vineyards, Cole reports. Montinore Riesling is available at a “ridiculously affordable” $10 per bottle (113). Cole notes similar success at other West Coast biodynamic wineries of a comparable scale.
The book does not clarify whether biodynamic winegrowing is economical for all estates, however. Cole cites one winegrower’s estimate that biodynamic vineyards cost approximately 10 to 15 percent more to manage than other sustainably farmed vineyards. Cole attributes these added costs to the demands of proper composting; field-spray mixing; encouraging biodiversity, which can include farm animals; paperwork; and, amusingly, studying books on biodynamics. Demeter certification costs $480. Annual renewals cost $380 plus 0.5 percent of gross sales. A consultant receives approximately $1,000 per visit, according to Cole. Where economies of scale are limited, these expenses must be passed on to the customer. Therefore, despite the attractive prices of certain wines and the abundance of receptive consumers, some biodynamic Oregon Pinot Noir remains a difficult sell.
Josh Bergström of 84-acre Bergström Wines comments: “Price is funny when it comes to Oregon. We are making efforts here that are world-class. We have some of the lowest yields in the state, and we implement a very expensive farming system. We pay our team very well. We have great packaging, and we buy nothing but the best French barrels. If we followed the lead of Napa, Burgundy, or Bordeaux, our wine would be $200. Our most expensive wine is $85, and that’s still a tough pill for people to swallow” (134). Those words are either the death rattle of a voodoo vintner on the verge of bankruptcy or a rehearsal for a chat with a loan officer about buying more land. Biodynamic Riesling specialist Jay Somers sympathizes: “It’s more about surviving than making money” (106). Bergström Pinot Noir is apparently not hard to swallow. The company’s world-class website can boast more accolades than Matt Kramer’s mother, and Somers recently bought a 40-acre vineyard and built a winery in partnership with Ernst Loosen, the Mosel Valley producer. One gets the impression that voodoo vintnering might involve a bit of voodoo financing too. In all, 1,274 acres of vineyard are farmed biodynamically in Oregon, which is approximately 6.5 percent of the state’s total 19,300 vineyard acres, according to Cole.
Despite an enthusiastic consensus that “it’s spiritual” (83), the underpinnings of biodynamics in Steiner’s revelations make Cole and the voodoo vintners uncomfortable. To provide some context, in 1924, in response to an increasing concern among European farmers about environmental degradation, Steiner gave a series of lectures that became the basis of practical biodynamics. Known in English as the Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture, the lectures pose many challenges to readers accustomed to keeping their feet on the ground. To say the least, Steiner’s view of agriculture was unconventional. For Steiner, a farm extends past the boundaries of perceived reality, and his approach to farming draws on his acquaintance with supernatural forces and beings that influence plant growth. When Steiner said that agriculture is about healing the earth, he was speaking of curing imbalances in the physical realm by nourishing the connection to a universe beyond the senses. Yields, quality, profitability, environmental impact — the concerns of the modern winegrower — are not the primary focus of Steiner’s ideas. If anything, the recipe for superior Pinot Noir is a coincidental reward for cleansing one’s soul of delusions and opening oneself to a reality that is not centered on the ego. Steiner is “out there” in the best Zen sense of detachment, yet not contemplative. Biodynamic agriculture is a farm for active self-transcendence.
Voodoo Vintners dedicates one chapter to a summary of Steiner’s life and thought. Given the book’s humble ambitions, this sketch might be sufficient. Readers with an appetite for a thorough treatment of Steiner’s interests and achievements, which lead far and wide into questions of science, philosophy, and spirituality, may prefer Colin Wilson’s helpful Rudolf Steiner: The Man and his Vision. Wilson says little about biodynamics, but he succeeds where Cole does not in communicating the attraction and earnestness of Steiner’s work. I optimistically took up Cole’s book expecting guidance in the obscurities of biodynamics and Steiner-mind. I finished it with the feeling I had just misspent two hours channel-surfing.
For her part, Coles expresses a desire to address Steiner’s unusual ideas directly (28). Nevertheless, she avoids discussing the lectures, retreating instead to the skepticism she establishes in her introduction. Biodynamics, she writes, is accompanied by “a lot of extraneous spiritual baggage that I can’t help but view cynically” (x). Cole is a journalist and schooled in incredulity. However, she is not alone in her hardheadedness. Regarding Steiner’s visions, Demeter USA executive director Jim Fullmer says, “We are pragmatic, practical people. We don’t take a lot of bullshit” (8). Even the voodoo vintners find it difficult to go further than Sam Tannahill, who underlines the importance of thoughts and feelings to farming practices, or Robert Gross, whose website mentions gravity and magnetism but says nothing about the immaterial beings who for Steiner play an indispensable role in farming. “Astonishing” turns out to mean noncommittal, and to commune as Steiner did with sylphs, undines, gnomes, and salamanders is not a reason for any winegrower portrayed in the book to pursue the agricultural epiphany of a superb bottle of wine. I find this general halfheartedness disappointing.
Cole develops her aversion to mysticism by historicizing biodynamics and questioning Steiner’s character. She provides anecdotal evidence that the herbs used in the biodynamic field sprays are part of the agricultural tradition of Iran. Admittedly, certain aspects of Steiner’s theology were Zoroastrian. However, the value of Cole’s suggestion that biodynamics is just another term for Middle Eastern natural farming is difficult to judge without a comparison of Steiner’s explanation of the sprays with the corresponding Zoroastrian accounts. Cole also implies that biodynamics is the result of plagiarism and faddism, which is trivialization and unfair to an original and insightful thinker. In addition, Cole writes that Steiner was “lonely,” “schizophrenic,” “a budding homosexual” in youth and unable to consummate “his later marriages to women [sic]”(31–32). For Cole, allegations like these disqualify Steiner (not to mention many of my favorite writers), although we are encouraged to patronize him: “It can’t have been easy to grow up in the environment that bred the First World War and then Nazism. Steiner dealt with the instability around him by believing that he possessed supernatural powers that would help him to rise above the chaos” (30). That statement is the most ingenuous summary of the great Austro-Hungarian cultural convulsion that you will find and delivers on the promise of “simple.”
Fleeing the chance for some one-on-one with Big Weird, Cole takes cover behind Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, Maria Thun, and Lynn Carpenter-Boggs, who have worked to transform Steiner’s agro-esotericism into how-to farming techniques. Pfeiffer (1899– 1961), a German soil scientist, promulgated Steiner’s ideas in the U.S. after immigrating in 1940. Cole writes that Pfeiffer “should rightfully be deemed the genius behind biodynamics” (39). Warranted or not, Cole’s elevation of Pfeiffer is part of a strategy of discrediting Steiner, in which the practitioners presented in the book share to differing degrees. Scattered attributions of a protobiodynamics to Goethe, an uncompromising anti-reductionist who inspired Steiner but whose supreme literary gift and canonical status protect him from attack, also contribute to the pattern of isolating Steiner, divorcing biodynamics from its cryptic origins, and emphasizing the method’s practical, testable aspects.
Such diversionary tactics are understandable. If the intellectual environment of Cole and the voodoo vintners is anything like mine, they inhabit an embattled realm in which mechanistic, strictly quantitative thinking has more generous modes of thought on the defensive. Even in a culture as open-minded as Oregon’s, these circumstances make it nearly impossible to take Steiner at his word much less adopt the down-to-earth approach to interpreting him that Cole touches on in a paragraph about phenomenology (34). Although Cole does not follow up on her idea, Steiner, who saw himself as a spiritual scientist, might have welcomed a view of his thought that equated subjectivity and objectivity, as absurd as that balance may appear to a rationalist. In any case, to fully digest Steiner and the expanded existence he saw, the solid nutrients of reason should be supplemented with the enzymes of intuition; inner, somatic, and qualitative experience; imagination; the arts; and myth. In groping for the truth of our unruly reality, we should avail ourselves confidently of all the means of knowing. If biodynamics cannot be contained by the Tetra Pak of the scientific method, it is not Steiner’s fault.