Yarrow flower to be buried a stag's bladder… oak bark must be sheathed in a farm animal’s skull…. chamomile sheathed in a cow’s intestine and hung out over the summer…
These might not the first thoughts that spring to mind when you crack open a bottle of wine and ponder how it was made. But this Shakespearean witches brew is what over 450 wineries throughout the world would have us believe. They, and many other farmers and agricultural businesses, subscribe to the mysterious and esoteric agricultural method of biodynamics.
Biodynamics can possibly best be described as “uber-organic”, taking one's value and love for the soil to a whole new level.
The fusion of spiritualism and agriculture, which views a plot of land as a complete living organism, and through our burying a bulls horn in the center of a field, we can concentrate the mystical powers of the cosmos on this one spot.
Believers of this feel that it can profoundly effect the overall experience of wine, making a significant (and costly) improvement in comparison to the alternatives. A mystical approach without a doubt, yet surprisingly enough, it finds its origins in modern times.
The year was 1924. A group of farmers, concerned about the future of a pesticide and herbicide heavy agricultural society, sought out the help of the famous Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. This culminated in Steiner giving a series of 8 lectures that encapsulated he’s “expert” take on how agriculture should be performed. This became the basis of biodynamic winemaking.
Rudolf Steiner, is famously remembered today for being the developer of the Waldorf style of education, anthroposophical medicine, and even developing a theory for out of body transportation. But his origins were not nearly so esoteric. In 1879, the young Steiner attended the Vienna Institute of Technology, where he studied mathematics, philosophy, chemistry, physics, botany, and literature as part of a scholarship program for four years. He departed the Institute in 1884, but would eventually gain a Doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Rostock.
Steiner was surrounded by a philosophical world where people were beginning to question the “hard truths” of the predecessors. Philosophers like Immanuel Kant, Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, were turning the world upside down with their writings that questioned things like the existence of god, the nature of the human soul and what makes our world what it is. It was the time of extremes to be legitimately examined by the scientific community.
Steiner would take this one step further by attempting to bridge the gap between science and spiritualism; and he developed numerous methodologies to achieve this.
The series of lectures that spawned biodynamic agriculture was held in the town of Silesia, Germany in November 1924. In attendance were 111 people, only half of whom were actually farmers. Although some people describe this as being the first lecture advocating for organic farming, the “suggestions” Steiner promoted are extreme to say the least.
According to Steiner, a plot of ground is a living, breathing organism that can sustain itself without outside influences. Pesticides and other farming techniques can only hinder, or even harm the soil. The farm is one, and there is a balance that must be struck. Though subtle acts, one can focus the cosmic energies of the universe onto this plot to improve its conditions. Plants can absorb the life force of the cosmos during certain phases of the moon.
Steiner claimed to have come to these revelations in agricultural methodology through deep meditation and clairvoyance. This mystical approach, Steiner claimed, put biodynamics above scientific inquiry. The methodology doesn’t need to come under scientific scrutiny because they are “true and correct” unto themselves. So take that science!
Instructions for biodynamic farming included packing cow manure into a cows horn, burying it for six months, digging it up, stirring it in water (the direction of the stirring is important), and spraying it across your land. The cow horn is seen as an amplifier of the cosmic forces… The list goes on. Herbal remedies, alignments with Venus and Mars, deer bladders…
Despite the unconventional nature of biodynamics, the methodology developed by Steiner has spread throughout the globe. Finding large popularity in Germany, France, Australia, New Zealand and Oregon. Biodynamics has numerous certifying boards, publications and educational institutes. Post-Steiner “advances” include chanting, nutritional “visualization”, and letting your wine ferment in large concrete eggs.
Proponents of biodynamic wine say that the wines are more pure, have a lower alcohol content, better fruit flavors, and less likely to give you headaches. They highlight the benefits of the holistic approach to agriculture, claiming to be the highest and purest form of the “organic” movement.
Critics look at biodynamics as a dangerous extreme of organic ideology. Few of the methods described are testable scientifically, and no evidence exists that a cow’s horn is anything other than a cow’s horn. Many contend that it is merely a marketing ploy. Pandering to the people who believe in such things, and who (coincidentally) are willing to dish out the bucks for their beliefs. Still more cite that the recent linking of biodynamic practices with legitimate organic practices, muddy the waters, causing unsuspecting people to give credence to alchemy.
Whether a cleaver marketing ploy, witchcraft, or an advancement in agriculture, the one thing that scientists and believers can both agree on is: it’s wine…and wine is awesome!
Chalker-Scott, Linda (2004). "The Myth of Biodynamic Agriculture" (PDF). Horticultural Myths. Washington State University Puyallup Research & Extension Center. Retrieved 2014-10-014.
Paull, John (2011). "Attending the First Organic Agriculture Course: Rudolf Steiner's Agriculture Course at Koberwitz, 1924". European Journal of Social Sciences, 2011, 21(1):64-70.
Hunter, Derek. "The Alchemy of Biodynamic Wines - Long Live Luxury." Long Live Luxury. Long Live Luxury, 31 Mar. 2014. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.