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Published: Monday, 1/17/2011

Troubling trend of biodynamic winemaking

There is no elegant way to put this: Part of the newest fad in winemaking involves placing German chamomile flowers in a cow's intestine, hanging the intestine from a tree in the summer, burying it in the ground over the winter, digging it back up again in the spring, discarding the intestine (thankfully), and adding its contents to the compost that is then spread on the soil.

But that is only a small part of biodynamic winemaking. It is a whole, long, involved system of organic farming that refrains from bringing anything foreign into the vineyard environment and works with the earth, the plants, and even microbes to create what its proponents call the best-tasting, most productive grapes.

Another part involves placing yarrow flowers in a stag's bladder, hanging the bladder from a tree in the summer, burying it in the ground over the winter, digging it back up again in the spring, discarding the bladder (thankfully) and adding its contents to the compost.

More than 450 wineries around the world are certified biodynamic, including some that are well known and respected. They seek to think of their vineyards as an organic whole, where every part is connected to every other part and where all the parts are connected to the sun, the moon, and the stars.

And each of these wineries makes certain to fill a cow horn with manure, bury it at the autumn equinox, dig it up at the spring equinox, put a small amount of it in a large amount of water, stir it for exactly one hour — first clockwise, then counterclockwise, then clockwise, then counterclockwise — and then spray it on the soil, but only in the afternoon.

Biodynamic agriculture is based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian who, one year before his death in 1925, gave a series of eight lectures about the best ways to farm.

Steiner was not a farmer. He was more of a Renaissance man — a philosopher, primarily, and an educator, an artist, an architect, a playwright, and a social activist. And not to put too fine a point on it, he was also a lunatic.

A shocking racist and anti-Semite (though, to his credit, he was denounced by Hitler for being not racist and anti-Semitic enough), Steiner wrote that the Aryan race was descended from the people of the Lost Continent of Atlantis. He wrote an entire book about Atlantis, claiming among other things that the clairvoyant people of that ancient land motored about in vehicles that floated above the ground and encountered “gigantic flying lizards with a lantern on their heads.”

The great scientist and agriculturalist also stated that “the heart has nothing to do with pumping blood” and “it is actually due to the fact that potatoes have come to be widely eaten in recent times that materialism has developed.”

History is full of charlatans and nut jobs, of side-show hucksters and snake-oil salesmen. Usually they have their day in the sun and are quickly forgotten. The problem is that Steiner is being rediscovered, and that his ideas are being put into practice.

It is true that his less-bizarre theories about organic farming are completely applicable today, and predate the current organic trend by several decades. But the insistence on his followers burying flowers in dead cow parts and deer bladders only reminds us that they were divined by a man who believed in gnomes and said that the souls of the dead are surrounded by demonic creatures, half bird and half mammal, with webbed feet and bodies that look like kangaroos.

Even today, a debate about his agricultural theories rages among what appears to be a very small number of people. His adherents have faith, not borne out by credible science, that his ideas will produce incomparable wines. His skeptics say that's all just a steaming pile of compost.

Contact Daniel Neman at dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.



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