Voodoo Vintners

There has been a recent spike in books about organic and real wine making. I was intrigued to read about Katherine Cole’s Voodoo Vintners: Oregon’s Astonishing Biodynamic Winegrowers because it does not just aim to provide the story of the peculiar world of (Oregon) biodynamic winemakers, but I also hoped it would enable me to get a better grip on who is doing natural wine making in Oregon.

Like the author, I have mixed feelings about the “black magic” that is biodynamics. To the degree that it refers to a form of mixed agriculture that emphasizes biodiversity, self-nourishment, interdependency of organisms, and health of the soil, I find little to object to. But when Rudolf Steiner informs us that “a cow has horns in order to send the formative astral-etheric forces back into its digestive system” it is hard to remain serious. What becomes quite evident in Katherine Cole’s book is that many biodynamic wine makers (which include some of the most prestigious wine makers in France) who practice biodynamics are simply common-sense business people who just get better and more sustainable results from this approach. Another factor is that some of its methods go back a long time in the history of human agriculture, which creates a sense of historical continuity, something that is important to many Old World wine makers, and those who are inspired by them.

The chapter ‘Science..or Sci-Fi’ has some amusing observations about the attempts of some biodynamic practitioners to square their approach with quantum mechanics. As the author correctly observes, quantum mechanisms has become the ‘go-to’ branch of physics to explain mysterious things and grandiose ideas (other examples are the fields of consciousness research and religion). But this produces an odd situation for biodynamics. Writes Cole, “They tell us that modern science can’t calibrate their style of farming. At the same time, they draw from one of the most youthful and arcane branches of science, quantum mechanics, to claim that praying for their plants is a valid way to go about running a farm.”

Of most interest to me was the chapter ‘The Neo-Nateralists,’ where she draws some useful distinctions between organic wine making, biodynamic wine making, and natural wine making. Both biodynamic and natural wine making go “beyond organic” but biodynamics does not necessarily exclude irrigation or manipulation of the end product (acid adjustment, micro-oxygenation, etc.) provided that the label simply confines itself to saying that the wine is “made with biodynamic grapes” instead of using the stronger certification “biodynamic wine” (which still permits irrigation). It strikes me that most, if not all, that is good in biodynamic wine making is also practiced in natural wine making and to the extent that the two approaches differ, natural wine making is more explicitly aimed at capturing the expression of terroir.

Quite characteristically, organic wine making is so common in Oregon that it is often not even mentioned on the bottle. Similarly, there are a non-trivial number of biodynamic wine makers in the state, some who have chosen not to be certified by Demeter, the official biodynamics certification organization. And there is the Deep Roots Coalition, an advocacy group for the production of wine sourced exclusively from non-irrigated vineyards.

Organic wine making in Oregon is more prevalent than organic beer making, which seems quite typical for the rest of the world. Aside from demographics, wine makers are directly exposed to the effects of their farming methods whereas beer making has mostly disappeared as a farm-associated source of income, even among lambic brewers.

Voodoo Vinters is a witty little book about Oregon’s burgeoning biodynamic and natural wine movement. I personally would have preferred more emphasis on “plain” natural wine making but it would have been only half the fun without the hilarious, but not disrespectful, treatment of the mysterious biodynamic “preparations” and the role of the moon. It is not a guide to Oregon wines, but following the leads in the book will allow the reader to identify some great local wines. And — big plus (!) — when the writer ventures beyond the topic of wine, she is quite modest and level-headed, too.