Serious Reads: 'Voodoo Vintners: Oregon's Astonishing Biodynamic Winegrowers' by Katherine Cole

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[Photographs: OSUPress ]

The first time I ever heard the word biodynamic applied to wine I was walking through a famed Oregon vineyard. The winemaker led me up and down the rows, a rifle slung casually over his shoulder and his eyes watchful for the birds that plucked ripening grapes straight from the vines. As we walked, my eyes watched the rifle and I listened to his mutterings. There was a lot of talk about manure, the cycle of the moon, and something about a buried cow horn.

In the years since, I've learned a little more about biodynamic winemaking—enough to know what it means, but not enough to explain it with any authority to anyone else. But that's all changed thanks to Katherine Cole's new book, Voodoo Vintners: Oregon's Astonishing Biodynamic Winegrowers.

The book charts the rise of biodynamic wine growing practices in Oregon, a place where some vintners believe that a spiritual approach to farming results in the truest translation of terroir and the purest expression of the pinot noir grape.

How to define biodynamic? Here's a simplified, summary definition from Doug Tunnell of Brick House Vineyards. Tunnell describes biodynamics as a holistic approach to winemaking:

If you have healthy soil you will have healthy plants. And if you have healthy plants, you will have better fruit. And if you have better fruit, you will have better wine. And if you have better wine, you will have better customers and happier people."

Biodynamic farming stresses the importance of biodiversity and soil health—and health of the entire farm. But biodynamics is a lot more than the idea that happy soil equals happy grapes and good wine. Biodynamic vintners are dedicated to timing their agricultural practices according to the movement of the moon and the stars. Practitioners are also devoted to biodynamic "preparations," that are essentially homeopathic treatments for plants developed by Austrian scholar (and founder of the Weleda skincare line) Rudolf Steiner.

Perhaps the best part of Voodoo Vintners is Cole's voice. She does a great job of distilling potentially complicated information into something that's both understandable and interesting. This heady combination makes Voodoo Vintners a literary oenophile's dream: a slightly nerdy, slightly gossipy, always engaging romp through Oregon's biodynamic wine scene.

Cole became interested in biodynamics when she moved to Oregon and tasted a mind-bending white wine that she later learned was biodynamic. Curious, she dug into the minimal scholarship and discovered that not only were famed Burgundy wineries practicing biodynamics, Oregon wineries were too. Soon she was making regular jaunts to wine country to visit biodynamic vineyards. What she found was a cadre of winemakers and vineyard managers who were passionate about an alternate way of viewing vineyards and making wine.

It's the stories of these people, backed up by Cole's great storytelling, that makes Voodoo Vintners shine. Without the personal stories, Voodoo Vintners might have been an exceedingly dry book. Instead we get an informed snapshot of a region that's always done things just a little differently.

People like Mike Etzel of Beaux Freres, Leigh Bartholomew and Patrick Reuter of Dominio IV, and Sam Tannahill of A to Z, Rex Hill, and Francis-Tannahill are vibrant characters. We learn how they discovered biodynamics, and why they're committed to making biodynamics work for their vineyards. We trust them not just because they're intelligent and thoughtful, but because they're making some of the best wines in the state.

Voodoo Vintners is a rare thing: a book that mixes science, magic, and great storytelling in such an intoxicating fashion its hard to put down. It's a superb read, perfect for anyone interested in biodynamics, winemaking, or simply stories of people willing to color outside the lines.