Would You Like Some Woo-Woo With Your Wine?

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It’s easy to make fun of biodynamic wine growers: After all, they bury manure in cow horns to absorb “life forces” from the earth, plant and harvest their grapes according to astrological charts, and concoct potion-like preparations according to highly prescribed rules that seem almost like religious ritual.

Wine writer Katherine Cole chooses not to mock but to try to understand these starry-eyed farmers in her new book Voodoo Vintners: Oregon’s Astonishing Biodynamic Winegrowers, recently published by Oregon State University Press. Cole is an able and level-headed guide to the biodynamic world, bringing a healthy skepticism to practices that carry more than a hint of woo-woo, yet keeping an open enough mind that she can approach her subjects with respect and inquisitiveness–even when she visits a vintner who uses a “radionic field broadcaster” made of PVC pipe and copper wire to spread “energetic essences” across his vineyard like some sort of magic New Age cannon.

As to the issue of quality, Cole pulls no critical punches: “Biodynamically farmed grapes make for fascinating wines,” she writes. “They also make banal wines.”

She even tackles “head-on” the difficult subject of Rudolf Steiner, the guru-like founder of biodynamics who also developed Waldorf schools, the eurhythmy dance method, and the supernaturally charged school of philosophy known as anthroposophy. Cole acknowledges some of Steiner’s more out-there ideas–that gnomes and Atlantis are real, for instance–but out in the vineyards, she finds “you won’t hear much talk about the spirituality of biodynamics among most practicing vignerons.”

In many of its basic practices, Cole notes, biodynamic is a lot like organic: It allows weeds and wildlife to flourish, it doesn’t use artificial pesticides, fungicides, or fertilizers, and it takes a holistic approach to land management. This can’t be all bad, right? I’d certainly rather live downstream or downwind from a biodynamic vineyard than a conventional one.

Writes Cole: “For my part, I like to compare biodynamics to yoga. It’s a way to strengthen and fortify the whole body, to ward off illness and to maintain health.”

Still, she’s not totally drinking the Steiner Kool-Aid–or should I say pinot noir?:

There is value to a traditional foundation of knowledge. … But biodynamic farmers don’t merely rely on a foundation of traditional knowledge; they swear off most modern advances altogether. Or, as one Oregon winegrower so succinctly put it to me, “You really have to know what you’re doing. It’s like bringing a knife to a gunfight.”

Whatever you think of about practitioners of biodynamic agriculture, you’ve got to admit that they’ve got guts. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t even show up at a gunfight with a gun. Biodynamic farming is like a health regimen of yoga, herbs, and nutrition. Nothing else. … It may be laudable, but it also may be foolhardy.

Source: Voodoo Vintners

Image by _foam, licensed under Creative Commons.

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