Voodoo Vintners

Whether you’re a biodynamic wine enthusiast or a skeptic who thinks it’s something only dirty hippies and Sting are into, you’ll learn something new from Voodoo Vintners: Oregon’s Astonishing Biodynamic Winegrowers (Oregon State University Press/Corvallis). Renowned wine writer Katherine Cole paints a picture of biodynamicism as a spiritual, “beyond organic” style of farming, practiced by “off-the-wall characters making wines in an unconventional way.”

Beginning with an in-depth look at the history of biodynamic winemaking and Rudolf Steiner, the so-called father of biodynamics (BD) Cole unpacks its origins, weaving the tale of a practice that can be traced from Paleolithic times to modern-day vineyards.

Though she leaves room for skepticism, she admits, “As someone who drives a stick shift when she’s not getting around on foot or by bike, I feel camaraderie with anyone who prefers to take the more arduous path to arrive at his or her destination. It may not be the most efficient way to get there, but it is, in my experience, always the most pleasurable.”

While the final, drinkable product may turn out beautifully (though sometimes not), the process of creating biodynamic wine can be a little, well, unusual, by most people’s standards. Take, for example, the various preparations using in BD winemaking—or preps, as they’re commonly called. First introduced by Austrian scholar Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s, preps are used as homeopathic treatments for the plants.

Prep 500, to name one, is a cow horn packed with the manure of lactating bovines and buried two-and-a-half to five feet underground for the winter and dug up in the spring. Tiny portions of the manure are then added to half-buckets of water that is stirred ritualistically and then prayed on the soil in late spring and autumn to encourage root growth. Prep 501 entails burying a cow horn packed with ground quartz for the summer. It’s dug up in late autumn and saved until spring, when a small amount of the quartz is stirred into a whole bucket of water that is sprayed over the plants to promote photosynthesis and ripening.

As she goes throughout the book, Cole describes the various other preps and their place in biodynamic winemaking. There’s also the moon to take into consideration. The lunar cycle, not to mention the movements of the stars and planets, is one of the pillars of biodynamic farming. There is also an emphasis on using raw materials from your property and protecting the environment, understanding that when you protect nature, it will protect your crops. Many winemakers do, in fact, report healthier vines after switching to biodynamic methods.

One such winegrower is Doug Tunnell, of Brick House Vineyards in Newberg, OR, which he runs with his wife, Melissa Mills. After purchasing the property two decades ago and converting it from a hazelnut and walnut orchard to a pinot noir, chardonnay, and gamay noir vineyard, he decided to transition to organic agriculture. He also began collecting a “chemical history” of the land, interviewing sprayers who had applied substances that sounded “like a chapter out of Silent Spring.” He decided to try biodynamic farming in 2000, after noticing the plants start to droop and lose character. He was drawn to the holistic, nourishing biodynamic approach, and found that it improved the health of his vineyard. “If you have healthy soil, you will have healthy plants. And if you have healthy plants, you will have better fruit. And if you have better fruit, you will have better wine. And if you have better wine, you will have better customers and happier people.” Brick House Vineyards has been a Demeter-certified biodynamic property since 2005.

Ultimately, Cole leaves it up to the reader to decide how they feel about biodynamic winemaking. Through careful research and meaningful recollections of time spent on various Oregon vineyards, Cole dispels the notion that BD is merely a trend. The winemakers she interacts with, both those who vineyards are Demeter-certified, organic, or neither, are deeply committed to this style of winemaking. Still others who either dabble in biodynamics or remain skeptical insist that the only thing that matters is a good wine, and they’ll do what it takes to make that possible.

By Jess Cording

is a food and nutrition writer living in New York City, where she is also studying to become a registered dietitian. Visit her blog keepingitrealfood.com for health news, recipes and more.