It's a Monday afternoon in the Willamette Valley and I'm standing over a bucket of shit. Cow shit, to be precise. It has been sourced from a nearby biodynamic farm, and today that bucket will draw the attention of about a dozen or so farmhands, interns and wine tasters, all gathered on this perch high atop the Eola-Amity Hills.
I visited Brooks winery in Amity to take part in one of the central activities of biodynamics, a holistic approach to agronomy first preached in the early 20th century by an Austrian philosopher, architect and woo-woo true believer named Rudolf Steiner.
Among Steiner's many recommended agronomy practices—including planting, weeding and harvesting during the moon cycle—is what's known as "Preparation 500." This involves stuffing a cow horn full of dung, burying it in the ground for six months and digging it up months later to create a kind of earth-charged natural fertilizer.
Burying a cow horn full of poop might seem ridiculous, were it not for the fact that biodynamic methods are practiced by some of the most revered winemakers in the world.
This is especially true in France's Burgundy region, a major seat of wine knowledge, inspiration and quality, where several of the world's great wines—producers like Dujac, Lafarge, Guyot, and even rich-guy fave Romanée-Conti—are made in accordance with Steiner's principles of biodynamics. It would be a gross simplification to say these rituals all result in delicious wine, but the proof is in the vineyards' soil, which teems with bug life and remains untethered to the big-agro sins of the 20th century.
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This makes biodynamics a perfect fit for Oregon, where the idea of cultivating healthy soil by harvesting in the moon's glow and spraying crops with nettle tea doesn't sound that weird. Some of the state's best wineries now follow these practices, including Maysara, Johan, Belle Pente, Brick House and several more in the Willamette Valley, as well as Cowhorn down in Jacksonville.
But this stuff takes knowledge. It's not enough to read Steiner's Wikipedia page (a fascinating click, I assure you) or Katherine Cole's book on biodynamic winemaking in Oregon, Voodoo Vintners (which you should also read). That's where Clay Wesson comes in. Wesson, who looks like David Foster Wallace, is the director of biodynamics at Brooks, and he'll be overseeing our cow-poop efforts today.
He's probably the first full-time biodynamics director in Oregon wine, and one of only a few in the world, managing an approach to land stewardship at Brooks that has been in practice since 2002. Since 2012, the winery has been certified biodynamic by Demeter International, the largest certification organization for biodynamic agriculture.
Wesson taught me more about Preparation 500, one of eight preparations Steiner described in a series of lectures forming the basis of biodynamics. "The numbers are arbitrary and believed to be random," Wesson wrote in a later email.
Some web sleuthing revealed that Preparation 500 has shrouded origins, and was perhaps a slang term used when the Nazis forced biodynamics underground following Steiner's death in 1925. Nobody really knows for sure; it's just another part of a wider mysticism surrounding biodynamic farming.
Wesson also explained that a curious, questioning approach to biodynamics was fine—it's about intent and observation in the field, not a rigid dogma. After all, it's thought that the cow horn was first selected for this practice because the observant bull—meditative, ruminative—was deemed by Steiner to be the perfect source instead of, say, the flighty buck or aggro ox.
Back to the poop. There were about a dozen of us gathered around the bucket, and under Wesson's watchful eye, I grabbed a horn and a stuffing stick, and got to it. Like so much childhood classroom paste, the cow shit wobbled and globbed on the tip of my utensil, which was sturdy enough to make it from the bucket to the horn without getting poop on my shoes. I got in there deep, trying to fill the horn in a manner that would seem thorough, respectful even. No use wasting a horn with my admittedly amateur shit-stuffing skills.
Stick, bucket, horn, repeat. Air pockets burbled as I stuffed more poop. Filling up the vessel took tapping, packing and more tapping, until as much of the fragrant, grass-studded dung had filled the horn as possible. A kind of happy buzz overtook the group as we kneeled over our pile of shit-horns.
"This is kind of fun," someone said, and before long we were joking about how the shit-horns looked like ice cream cones—next month's savory special at Salt & Straw, perhaps. The ensuing laughter felt deep, even primal.
I grabbed another horn and started stuffing. The first one was because I felt required to participate. But this second one? I can't explain it; something compelled me to go back for more. In the way that tasks like gardening or burping a baby tap into some innate part of our lizard brains, so too was this job oddly comforting in its raw, earthly force, as though I'd done it a thousand times before.
Our shit-horns chock-a-block, we headed off to the burial. Walking across the vineyard, I spoke with a few of my fellow stuffers, most of whom turned out to be traveling sommeliers, part of Brooks' paid-internship program that provides housing and a paycheck to farm workers during harvest. Folks hailed from Chicago, Aspen, Colo., and Grand Rapids, Mich. They all seemed thrilled with the intimacy of this experience with Oregon wine, and excited to bring that knowledge and love back to their restaurant guests.
In a little clearing in the vineyard below us, Wesson and his team had dug us a small pit, maybe 3 feet deep. He wheeled the barrow beside the pit and asked us to gather around. "It's OK to be skeptical," he told us, "but not cynical. Part of biodynamics is the suspension of disbelief."
Then he asked us to pause and reflect, and to give thanks for what was going into the ground, and what might come out of it. As rain fell a little harder, we arranged the horns in a star shape at the bottom of the pit and began covering them with soil, one shovelful at a time. Come May, Wesson said, around the vernal equinox, he'd excavate the hole and unearth enough Preparation 500 to spray hundreds of acres of vineyard for the coming grow.
It was the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah, a day rich with its own horned symbolism, and I reflected on how this ritual—preparing the earth in fall to bloom in spring—tapped into something bigger than all of us. Just then, as I furiously tried to thumb the moment into something cogent in my notes, a raindrop hit my iPhone and it shut off completely. It was just us, then—with a half-filled pit of horns next to a big pile of dirt, under a drizzly Oregon sky, the endless valley panorama stretching out before us to the fuzzy grayscale limits of vision.
Someone handed me a shovel, and I dug in.