Voodoo Vintners: Oregon’s Astonishing Biodynamic Winegrowers

Voodoo-Vintners copy

Katherine Cole

2011 Oregon State University Press, Corvallis      Paperback $18.95

Review by Ellen Ireland

I admit that I began reading this book with prejudice. I expected to dislike the biodynamic system as goofy, holier-than-organic hokum and to dismiss the people who produce wines using this system as part of the arrogant environmental bourgeoisie. This well-balanced book neither supported nor contradicted my assumptions. Biodynamics is one of those things that adherents can be quite intense about, like veganism or the paleo-diet. Author Katherine Cole came into this research from her background as a wine reviewer, not as a follower of the biodynamic philosophy and I think that is the saving grace of what could otherwise have been a tribute to (or dismissal of) biodynamic fanatics. In the end, what really matters, and what Cole can evaluate, is the quality of the wine, regardless of how it was produced.

Biodynamics is a system developed in the 1920’s by German philosopher and social reformer (among other things) Rudolf Steiner. It is similar to organic farming, but with a spiritual and ritual bent. Biodynamics embraces traditional planting cycles oriented around the lunar calendar, pit-composting cow manure, and using specific homeopathic sprays on crops. These special crop treatments have names like “Preparation 500” and include various procedures such as stuffing a deer bladder with yarrow, hanging it up in summer, then taking it down 6 months later. Next the contents would be ground up, a spoonful added to a barrel of water, and stirred for an hour until the water is…er, activated? It is easy to see how this kind of well-beyond-normal-organic-farming activity, with its unusual, ritualistic bent would be both off-putting and admirable.

Cole was able to sell me on one thing however – that the process of digging things up, poking at the vines, and generally getting spiritually involved with a vineyard, keeps the winegrower in touch with the health of their fruit. If you are curious about Oregon viniculture or biodynamic systems, this thin tome offers a wealth of information and even inspiration; half way through I compulsively went outside and worked on my garden. Yet that is not why I recommend it.

As I mentioned before, Cole is a wine taster. The sometimes confusing and redundant dropping of vineyard names was a little off-putting, but the author is an insider and her perspective is that of an insider, a connoisseur. She occasionally describes the surprising freshness and cleanness of a wine, or how delighted she has been by the flavor, and her voice is one of authority. Yes, of course the “T” word, terroir, comes up. This elusive concept, known as the ability for the geography, geology, and climate (among others) of a place to express itself through its agricultural products, is en vogue among many foodies, though often meaningless. But here Cole simply mentions it as the vineyard’s goal rather than using it as an incomprehensible abstraction. And she is honest, admitting that sometimes the most intensively farmed biodynamic wine is amazing, and sometimes, it is banal. So it goes with all wines, but particularly with the notoriously fickle pinot noirs that apparently dominate the Willamette valley vineyards- or at least the discussion thereof.

A handful of producers are interviewed and discussed in detail. I thought I would go ahead and look them up to see how much a bottle runs. Some of these are made from Demeter certified biodynamic grapes; some go a step further and are certified biodynamic wines (in order to be a biodynamic wine no yeast or acid modifiers can be added- making for a more risky outcome.) Most are in Oregon, a few examples are from California. The book is short, so if you want a wine accompaniment two bottles would probably do it- but I’m not going to judge you. Because the author used her experiences, interactions and interviews compiled over the course of a decade to put together this book, it was both interesting and sad to check the websites of the vineyards she discusses and find that some of these passionate vintners didn’t survive. Overall, Cole gives us a pleasant read that is not very academic in tone. I would recommend it to individuals with an interest in wine or just a passion for gardening and agriculture.

Where are they now? Some of the wines from Voodoo Vintners and their prices:

Brick House Vineyard $28-$60/bottle

Raptor Ridge                $20-$119/bottle ($38-$45 on average)

Beacon Hill Estate     Sold in 2011 to new owners, it is no longer biodynamic. Four wines are now produced there, running $20-$33. I believe the 2011 Eisold Smith “Viani” El Dorado County Barbera may have been produced with Beacon Hill grapes, mixed with California grapes.

Cowhorn Vineyard    $22-$45

Resonance Vineyard (no longer producing wines) Their 2011 Pinot Noir is available from http://www.sineann.com/buy.html for $48

Eyrie Vineyard (Not biodynamic, but “Deep Roots” and non-irrigated; this large estate was the first producer of pinot gris in the USA) $15-$90

Bonny Doon (CA, not OR. Extra points for having a charming website.) $24-$50

Cayuse Vineyards     Wines sold a year in advance to a mailing list, so who knows?

Cooper Mountain (Also produces balsamic vinegar!)       $15-$50

J. Christopher            $15-$75

Montinore Estate      $11-$27 (must be purchased through WineChateau.com, MadeInOregon.com, or other distributor)

Beaux Freres             $50-$90

Trisaetum (experimental, not biodynamic) $24-$75, $55 on average

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