Add "Voodoo" to Queue

By Kerry Newberry

If ever there were a time for a book to revel in the audacity and the art, the philosophy and the practice of biodynamic agriculture, that time is now. At the moment, there is an enhanced awareness of how food is produced and where food comes from. Across the nation, locavores are frequenting their farmers markets, restaurant menus spotlight farmsteads and nary an eyebrow raises at the term farm-to-table cocktails. 

“The origins and moral implications of our food have become 21st century cultural meme,” writes Katherine Cole in “Voodoo Vintners: Oregon’s Astonishing Biodynamic Winegrowers.” But this is not the only reason Cole decided to delve into the fantastical world of Rudolf Steiner and write this book.

The Oregonian and MIX Magazine wine columnist recalls being struck by a Pinot Gris she tasted in 2000 that evoked a mountain-spring purity, a sensation she encountered years later in a Riesling made by Jimi Brooks. Both wines, it turned out, were made with Biodynamic grapes — and her curiosity was piqued. 

While touring Maysara’s Momtazi Vineyard in 2003 with Brooks, the winemaker and vineyard manager at the time, Cole was shocked to find him tending stands of nettles and horsetail — often viewed as pernicious weeds in vineyards. “I thrilled to see him stirring these weeds into teas, using a witchy-like twig broom, with a mischievous grin on his face,” she writes. A portrait I also found titillating.

Thoroughly captivated by Brooks and similar charlatan winemakers, Cole began reading more about Biodynamic viticulture and discovered that many of the most respected vintners in France practiced this form of agriculture — like the legendary Lalou Bize-Leroy of Domaine d’Auvenay and Domaine Leroy – and other idols chronicled in a chapter titled “The Burgundians.”

She started defining and describing Biodynamics to fellow wine lovers; and when seeking more information, uncovered very few books written on the topic. Two noted tomes: “Biodynamic Wines” by British wine writer Monty Waldin and the “Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture,” the original transcripts or Rudolf Steiner’s 1924 lectures that provide the foundation for Biodynamic farming. While thorough, the latter was a tad enigmatic for the everyday reader.

Why, Cole wondered, wasn’t there a simple, readable, enjoyable book on Biodynamic viticulture for the average wine lover to flip through? Therein lies the intent of “Voodoo Vintners:” an examination of Biodynamic agriculture — a flourishing and fascinating trend — captured through the lens of Oregon viticulture and cast of supporting colorful characters.

The personalities in the book are, at times, reminiscent of fictitional characters from a Hollywood film, like the wild-haired guitar playing vintner who now crafts world-renowned Riesling. Or the beguiling vintner populating his colleague’s vines with gnomes. And then there’s the iconic winemaker, wind-blown hair flecked with bits of straw.

The lively portraits paired with the meaty content and melodious prose remind me of the can’t-put-this-down articles from The New Yorker. Cole weaves a compelling narrative sprinkled with eye-opening statistics and scientific studies on organic, sustainable and conventional agriculture. At the start of the book, she provides a frank and easy-to-read tutorial of Biodynamic preps — “Preparation 500 is a cow horn packed with the manure of lactating bovines — no bullshit — and buried two and a half to five feet underground for winter.”

“The Gospel of Rudolph Steiner” — a heady second chapter — is a meticulous inquiry into a man with both inscrutable and ingenious ideas. A philosopher-cum-scientist-architect-social thinker who singularly wrote 25 books and delivered more than 6,000 lectures on at least 350 different subjects during the course of his lifetime. His accomplishments are extensive and multi-disciplinary — he’s the mind behind the well-respected Waldorf schools.

Cole digs deep into the heritage and evolution of Steiner, “the most remarkable scholar you’ve never heard of,” and distills many of his cryptic theories and philosophies into digestible and accessible bites. Earlier in the book, she likens Biodynamics to yoga — both efforts to strengthen and fortify, to maintain health; both self-contained and holistic.

There are no grand conclusions or sweeping generalizations in the book; instead, the writer presents thoughtful research on a topic that often causes heated debate and warranted skepticism. Cole peppers her writing with spunky dialogue and memorable anecdotes, and encourages the reader to question before judging or jumping to conclusions.

The writing is clever, candid and heartfelt, and also really funny — Cole entertains with a quick and keen wit. A favorite line is when she confides that after watching a Biodynamic practitioner carefully apply preparation 501 to her vines one hot morning using a hand held spray device — “I couldn’t shake the image of a glamorous woman spritzing her face with Evian while flying first class.”

Which leads to “The Glam Factor,” a chapter that begins tongue-in-cheek as Cole playfully recounts the glorious lives of the Biodynamic glitterati. “Oh, to be Sting and Trudie Styler! To be a rock star and an actress/producer/yogi!” Paul de Lancellotti and Kendall Bergström — he a former globe-trotting surfer and she a former pro snowboarder — represent the local glam, along with Montalieus of Soléna and Grand Cru Estates, to name a few. 

This is an effective lead for addressing a common misconception that Biodynamics is an elitist pursuit, economically out of reach for both vintners and consumers. What the reader will find in this book is what unites the high-end Biodynamic wineries Cole profiles is not their faddishness or favor, “but rather their pursuit of perfection.”

“I think what makes people like us farm this way is questing, searching for the absolute very best way to produce a product that is true and honest and pure,” stated Mike Etzel of Beaux Frères.

A recurring question Cole poses to wineries in the book is, “why Biodynamic? When Rudy Marchesi took over Montinore Estate in 2005 he inherited rock-hard, gopher-ridden ground. The soil and the vines were unhealthy. “Do you take an aspirin or do you cure the disease?” he asked. Since transitioning to Biodynamics, Marchesi’s estate, vineyards and wine have transformed.    

For some, the question is one of integrity. “At the end of the day, Biodynamics is not what will make a wine great or not great,” said Nicolas Quillé of Pacific Rim. “It is more a question of philosophically what you want to do with your life.”

I found myself dog-earing page corners and pausing to re-read lines, swept away at times by the more intimate tales winemakers bare — specifically the harrowing, heart-string stories from the first chapter “In the Old Country” told by Moe Momtazi, of Maysara Winery, and Razvan Andreescu, of Beacon Hill Vineyard. Both fled homelands, Iran and Romania, respectively, due to political turmoil and uprising. Both their family farms were seized.

Their stories are tender, almost wistful and undeniably inspiring. The men escaped tumultuous times, then excelled in the business world; and now both are living their dreams: making wine and tending vines in the Willamette Valley. They are farming as they remember their grandfathers did before them. Cole writes that, for some, Biodynamics is a leap of faith. Then to others, like Momtazi, “Biodynamic farming was a way of returning home.”

Cole’s book is a sensual, smart study of the Oregon wine world and the future of agriculture. Savor it slowly.


Kerry Newberry is a Pinot-sipping, vineyard-hopping wine and food writer. She resides in Portland. 

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