On Biodynamics, Voodoo Vintners and the Learning Imperative

When The Oregonian wine columnist and first-time author Katherine Cole says in the preface of her book (Voodoo Vintners: Oregon’s Astonishing Biodynamic Winegrowers) that its, “An examination of an inscrutable topic” I wondered if that was a caveat that she bolted on after the fact, a veiled warning to readers that she felt incomplete in her examination of the nascent, controversial and woefully misunderstood viticultural practice that is Biodynamics (BioD).

To the contrary, Cole has largely triumphed in surveying the origins of BioD while providing a sweeping and balanced perspective of its practice in the decidedly progressive cultural environment of Oregon. And, in my opinion, the introduction and first two chapters of Voodoo Vintners provides more coherency on the underpinnings of Biodynamics and its ideological leader, Rudolf Steiner, than most of what has been published to date.  In and of itself, that is worth the price of the book because Voodoo Vintners is not a tidy, self-contained opinion piece for those looking for an easy treatise that jives positively or negatively with existing opinion.  Instead, it gives the reader plenty of food for thought and enough well-researched background to lead an individual in exploration in what is ultimately a very complex subject. 

Consider it a jumping off point.


When it comes to Biodynamics, grappling with the inherent complexity and pursuing independent exploration is a particularly important point: While it’s easy to latch onto opinions that validate our potentially narrow viewpoint, it’s much more challenging to understand the origin of BioD and form a fully realized opinion that rationalizes a 360 degree perspective with sympathy towards the unknown.

At the risk of injecting my own bias when author Cole doesn’t, I lean sympathetic to BioD and its esotericism.  I’m comfortable with ambiguity.  I’ve repeatedly experienced déjà vu, I don’t dismiss ghost stories, and as a now aged amateur athlete I’ve experienced a heightened state of consciousness on occasion, what is called being in, “The Zone.”  Most can relate to these things, even if none of them are fully understood.

Spiritually, I’m a lapsed Catholic married to a reformed Jew with an “All God’s Creatures” sensibility.  We underscore that mélange with an Eastern philosophical bent.  Suffice to say, the ritualistic spiritual aspects of BioD combined with the fuzziness of sensory perception and energy forces isn’t something I dismiss out of hand.

As Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, the research lead for the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University is quoted as saying in the book, “There are many ways of knowing.  There is logic, there is intuition, there are dreams, there is conversation, there is observation.  All of these should be respected and developed.”

I agree.

However, there is much in the historical melting pot of BioD that borders on forbiddingly complex for the layperson – Goethe, an obscure Persian religion called Zoroastrianism, Steiner’s own philosophy of Anthroposophy, the over-arching philosophy of Theosophy, and the power of intent via quantum mechanics (to name a few) that can be linked to BioD and Steiner’s seminal lectures that make up the foundation of the movement.  These are all skillfully referenced and examined with varying degrees of depth in Voodoo Vintners, available to the reader for further exploration.

Yet, where Cole’s writing picks up its own energy is when she switches from the thesis-style aspects of her research and writes first person about the personalities in the Biodynamic and sustainable Oregon wine scene.  Despite the book not being contiguously linked chapter by chapter, this area of the book provides cohesion and context to the subject matter, along with a warm writing style that best suits the author.

When writing about the late Jimi Brooks or Alex Sokol Blosser, the book takes on a vitality that is relatable, especially when Sokol Blosser says of some of the infamous manure-based BioD soil amendments, “I don’t want the vineyard guys to do anything I wouldn’t do.  And I don’t shovel shit”

Ultimately, the book leaves the reader with a broader sense of Biodynamics, but willfully, no answers.  When consultant Dominique Lafon says of Biodynamics, “It’s as simple as it is complicated” I nodded in agreement intrigued to understand this subject on deeper terms after Cole artfully laid out the case that what is known is only equaled by what is unknown and because of that, ultimately, Biodynamics boils down to belief.

If you like your news to hew closely to your political belief system, there’s no amount of persuasion that will get you to cross the proverbial aisle – in politics or Biodynamics.  However, if you approach life with an open mind and an open heart, you’re likely to find something in this book that will make you a little smarter, intrigued to learn more and, ultimately, better equipped to make your own judgment on a subject that is still early in its adoption cycle.