“Voodoo on the Vine” — S.F. Weekly

Images and captions from SF Weekly

Here are some excerpts from a recent story in the San Francisco Weekly Dining section about Biodynamic farming as it applies to grape growing and wine making.

Explaining Biodynamics to journalists is always fraught with the potential for misunderstanding, and it’s no surprise that the writer of this piece, Joe Eskenazi fails to grasp the underlying philosophy, and many of the subtle underlying concepts and hasn’t undertaken the necessary research to be able  to credit biodynamics with much in the way of scientific backing.

Still, what’s interesting here is that biodynamics in grape growing is increasing in popularity, and that this writer is willing to explore biodynamic practices, unusual as they may seem, in considerable detail.

“…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.”

Images and captions from SF Weekly

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….”

“….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.”…”

Read the whole story on the SF Weekly website.

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