The founder of biodynamic agriculture, Rudolf Steiner, believed in fire spirits, ghosts and gnomes. Oregon winemakers following Steiner's biodynamic practices often overlook the gnomes—they're quite short, after all.
The organizations at the front lines of American biodynamic agriculture—ground quartz buried in cow horns, stinging nettles mixed into compost—are based in Oregon. Katherine Cole's new book, Voodoo Vintners: Oregon's Astonishing Biodynamic Winegrowers, published by Oregon State University Press, explores their beliefs and the quaffable product thereof.
Cole, 38, has been writing about wine since moving to Portland in 2000. Voodoo Vintners is a well-written account of local winegrowers and winemakers doing things the hard way (definition of "the hard way:" putting the excrement of lactating cows into cow horns and burying it for several months before spraying it on their fields). The book is packed with weird and funny biodynamic wine tales, but it's also an engaging and heartfelt look into Oregon's salt-of-the-earth farmers and winemakers.
WW: What's something that didn't make it into the book that you wish did?
Katherine Cole: Everyone had a story to tell about a personal epiphany. Doug Tunnell of Brick House Vineyards was traveling in Mexico a few years ago and inquired about the palm-frond roofs of the huts in the village he was staying in. He was told that, to make a sound roof, only palm fronds harvested under a full moon should be used. This, of course, resonated with him because biodynamic practitioners time their agricultural activities to the moon cycle. We're having a moment of resurgent atavism, of returning to the old ways of doing things.
Funny memory from the writing of Voodoo Vintners?
I think there's a little side note in the book about John Paul of Cameron Winery sneaking into Doug Tunnell's vineyard in the middle of the night and hiding garden gnomes everywhere so when Doug hopped on his tractor early the next morning, he was confronted with the sight of gnomes. Steiner actually wrote that gnomes were actively involved in plant growth. And no, Steiner didn't drink or use drugs. I think he was on sort of a natural high for his entire life.
What's the one thing you want wine consumers to learn about biodynamic winemaking from your book?
That it's a very traditional and environmentally sensitive way of farming grapes and making wine. I'm not saying it's the best way. But I appreciate the fact that biodynamic farmers are focused on soil health and environmental sustainability. And in my own experience, the vignerons who are focused on these things tend to make the most terroir-driven wines.