Toward the end of his life, in 1924, the Austrian philosopher and educator Rudolf Steiner gave his famous Agriculture Course lectures. These he had written in response to a group of farmers concerned for the increasingly mechanized and agrochemical methods which were already changing the face of agriculture. Even this early, it was obvious to some people that, though industrialization in farming might maximize yields and bring big profits, it was inevitably detrimental both to taste and health, and not at all practical in the long run.
Steiner’s eight lectures laid the foundation for a practice that his followers later coined as “biodynamic,” a way of thinking that has developed over the last 75 years from something regarded as esoteric and unfavorably mystical to a recognized and respected alternative to conventional farming methods. Over three hundred vintners worldwide have either converted or are in the process of converting to biodynamic practices, and somewhere around forty of these are in California alone.
The biodynamic principle is aligned with the network of ideas that Steiner used to form the tenets of Waldorf education; both are applications of the ideas behind Anthroposophy, a philosophy that aims to investigate the non-material world using natural science. Simply translated, the word means “spiritual science,” a term inherently contradictory. Steiner, fully aware of the slippery nature of this idea, addressed its difficulty directly in a lecture that he gave in April of 1923: “But just because our primary goal is toward practical application, I can give only broad outlines, something that is very unpopular these days. Few people are sufficiently aware that anything expressed in words can, at best, be only a hint, a mere indication of what is far more complex and multifarious in actual life.”
Just as the Waldorf school is intended by Steiner to be one “living and spirit-permeated organism,” working in harmony with its various parts, so, too, is the biodynamic farm regarded as a single self-sustaining living system. Biodynamics is built on the premise that the more self-sustaining a farm is, the closer to a natural state it will be. In accordance with Steiner’s recipe for a biodynamic ecosystem, all compost and homeopathic preparations for a vineyard are provided by plants and animals which also occupy the surrounding property.
The soil is treated as a living thing unto itself, carefully fed at appropriate times in the seasons and lunar phases. Though the farm is regarded as a self-sustaining entity, its position in the context of the larger pattern of lunar and cosmic rhythms is also taken into account. The emphasis of biodynamics is on wholeness, and the complex interconnection between all things at all levels.
According to Steiner, it is only by understanding the mutual interplay in natural systems that we can begin to harness the invisible energies at work within them. Understandably, a science based on acknowledging an invisible system will always have its share of skeptics, and Steiner’s ideas were no exception. Many of his contemporaries disregarded his work as mere sorcery. His lectures on biodynamics were largely ignored by winemakers until relatively recently, but have been revived in the spreading search for alternatives to industrialized methods of viticulture.
Through his methods, winemakers are bringing balance and health back to vineyards depleted through years of modern technological techniques. As esoteric as Steiner’s ideas at once seemed, many converters to his biodynamic method have accepted it for a very practical reason: that it works as a way to make better wine. Grapes grown biodynamically consistently yield more vibrant wines, a fact that continues to influence winemakers to make the conversion to a method that makes a growing and enduring difference in our world.