COSMIC FLAVOUR, SPIRITUAL NUTRITION?: THE BIODYNAMIC
AGRICULTURAL METHOD AND THE LEGACY OF RUDOLF STEINER’S
ANTHROPOSOPHY IN WINE
Arguably one of Western esotericism’s most ambitious and widely influential thinkers,
Rudolf Steiner has left an astonishing legacy of cultural products that continue to have
influence beyond the institutional reach of Anthroposophy, the new religious movement
he founded. One such legacy is his system of agriculture, known today as Biodynamic
agriculture, or Biodynamics. This method, combining a distrust of modern argo-chemical
applications and a desire to spiritually, as well as physically, nourish the individual, is now
disseminated in a range of industries, and is often applied in ways that have little to do
with Anthroposophy or Steiner. The current fascination in the wine industry for
Biodynamic methods serves as a useful example for exploring what Steiner believed and
set out for farmers, as well as for highlighting how these techniques are used today.
Lorand’s (1996) paradigm for understanding Biodynamic Agriculture is here used to
frame a discussion utilising a production of culture perspective that looks at elements of
culture as shaped by the system within which they created, promoted, taught, and
appraised (Peterson 1976). In order to understand how and why an esoteric agricultural
method is today flourishing, their origins must first be examined.
To begin, Steiner’s teachings on agriculture will be summarised so as to move the
discussion forward. This summary is, by necessity, a generalisation of Steiner’s thoughts
as his output was astounding; consisting of some forty published books, 6,000 lectures (for
which there are notes), and volumes of selected letters. As such, only those issues
highlighted by Steiner in his 1924 Agricultural Course are examined here. Following this,
for the purposes of discussion this chapter focuses on the application of Biodynamic
methods in the modern wine industry. Material drawn from wine makers and growers,
wine critics, and from scholarly sources is used to show that the small but popular
methods have become solidly embedded within some winemaking, and wine consuming
circles. These features also provide the content with which to fill-out theories of cultural
production. The discussion of the practices (and their associated beliefs) of Biodynamic
Agriculture as a cultural product proves somewhat difficult. As Hirsch (Hirsch 1972) has
defined them, cultural products – non-material goods that serve aesthetic and expressive
functions – typically reside in the artistic realm. The non-material and expressive aspects
of Biodynamics makes it a ‘product’ that may be ‘consumed.’
Steiner’s Agricultural Methods and Biodynamic Agriculture
Biodynamic Agriculture is a farming system that emphasises food quality through soil
health. Its current popularity in some sections of the wine-making industry is not without
controversy, stemming mostly from the scientifically unproven claims Steiner made in
support of the techniques, and their underpinning philosophies. The methods are drawn
from a series of eight lectures Steiner gave in 1924 called the Agriculture Course.1 One of
the basic principles of the Biodynamic system is the conception of the farm as an
organism, or an “agricultural individuality” as Steiner (Lecture 2, Steiner 1958) termed it.
Emphasis is placed upon a holistic management of this individuality, of which the farmer
is a part, including the integration of livestock, crops, soil maintenance, and the recycling
of soil nutrients (such as through manure). In addition, this outlook also addresses the
local environment in which the farm is located, as well as its financial and social
components and impacts of the farm unit. Convinced that the use of chemical fertilisers in
modern agriculture was causing the degeneration of food to the point at which it would be
no longer suitable for humans (Lecture 1, Steiner 1958), Steiner proposed a change in
agriculture that would give up pesticides and inorganic chemicals in favour of utilising
‘cosmic forces.’ These forces would act upon nature’s own material and be used as
organic fertilisers, while pests would be managed by making the farm into a harmonious
1 The lectures, eight in all, will henceforth be referenced as ‘Lecture 1’, ‘Lecture 2,’ and so on. In each case
they refer to the lecture transcriptions found on the Rudolf Steiner Archive, which are copyrighted 1958.
agricultural system. The techniques Steiner set out, he argued, would also give the farmer
control over the influence of both terrestrial and cosmic forces as they related to their farm.
Demeter, the Biodynamic Agriculture certification program, was established in 1928,
making it the first formalised label for ecological, or more commonly today, ‘green’,
produce. At its heart, however, the Agricultural Course that birthed Biodynamics was an
expression of the spiritual beliefs of a New Religious Movement in which Steiner talked
about “the basic new way of thinking about the relationship of earth and soil to the
formative forces of the etheric, astral, and ego activity of nature” (Pfeiffer 1958). The
health of soil, plants and animals, Steiner argued, was dependant on being connected with
cosmic creative and shaping forces. Steiner’s philosophy of agriculture was thus directed
at reanimating the natural forces, which he saw as waning in the face of modern
agricultural practices. Lorand (1996: 15) characterises the cosmic aspect to Biodynamics
as a system that sees the universe as a “spiritual-physical matrix” in which the celestial
rhythms effect plant and animal life on Earth, and the substances of the Earth (such as
minerals in soil) are the carriers for cosmic forces. Steiner argued that Anthroposophical
Science must investigate the interrelatedness of the whole cosmos (Lecture 1, Steiner
1958). Indeed, the first lecture of the Agriculture Course signals the tone of the worldview
that underpins Biodynamics; “we shall never understand plant life unless we bear in mind
that everything which happens on the Earth is but a reflection of what is taking place in
the Cosmos” (Lecture 1, Steiner 1958). The intangible, invisible, and qualitatively elusive
elements and forces at work are seen as different to those of the material or physical realm
that is the focus of modern science.
Biodynamic agriculture is distinguished from other ‘alternative’ and organic practices by
its use of nine ‘preparations’ that are believed to enhance soil health and stimulate plant
growth. These preparations are divided into ‘field preparations’ and ‘compost
preparations’, and while not explicitly regarded as fertilisers themselves, they are regarded
by Biodynamic organisations as assisting the fertilising process (Biodynamic Agriculture
Australia 2004). The preparations are used in conjunction with practices such as crop
rotation, composting, manuring, and the integration of livestock with crops. Weeds and
pests are seen as indicators of imbalances in soil composition, poor plant health, or poor
health in animals, each of which are related back to cosmic imbalance in their
management. These are then controlled through the reuse of the weeds and pests to make
specific products for their control. Interestingly, those attending Steiner’s lectures were
experienced farmers. It seems likely that Steiner was not intending to ‘teach farming’ as
some critics have contested, but rather to supplement established farming practices
(Steiner 1993: ix).
The preparations themselves are a mix of mineral, plant, and animal manure extracts.
Typically these are ‘fermented’2 and applied at high dilutions to composts, manures, the
soil, or directly to the foliage of the plants themselves, after a process of stirring called
‘dynamization,’ whereby the water is stirred or agitated for a long period, ideally creating
a whirlpool which is then broken by reversing the direction of the stirrer repeatedly for up
to an hour. Numbered 500-508, each was developed by Steiner and described in the
Agriculture Course, though it is curious to note that Biodynamic Agriculture Australia, for
example, says that they “were developed out of indications given by… Steiner”
(Biodynamic Agriculture Australia 2004 author's emphasis); a subtle but quite important
use of words that appears to distance Steiner from the modern movement, as Steiner’s
instructions are quite clear. The Horse Manure Preparation (500) is employed as a spray to
enliven root growth and humus formation. It is made from cow manure that has been
placed in a cow horn and buried in the autumn to ferment underground and be dug up in
the spring. The cow horns act, according to Steiner (Lecture 4, Steiner 1958), as antennae
for concentrating cosmic forces into the humus and silica (Kirchmann 1994: 176). Horn
Silica Preparation (501), which is said to enhance “the light and warmth assimilation of
the plant” (Biodynamic Agriculture Australia 2004) is made from powdered quartz, again
packed inside a cow horn, though here buried in the soil for the six months through spring
and summer. It then applied as a foliar spray to stimulate growth. In his opening lecture
for the course Steiner spoke of silica as functioning to mediate cosmic forces, and its
centrality in Biodynamic philosophy speaks to this.
The other preparations, BD 502-507, are used for the preparation of composts to “help the
dynamic cycles of the macro- and micro-nutrients” in the soil (Biodynamic Agriculture
Australia 2004). These are added in what Diver termed “homeopathic quantities” (Diver
1999), with applications as small as five millilitres per ten tonnes of compost. The
2 This is a problematic term in some cases. For example the fermentation of silica is simply not possible. See
compost preparations are made of a range of plant materials; No. 502 consists of yarrow
flowers pressed into a red deer stag’s urine bladder to dry in the summer sun, be buried in
soil during the winter, and dug up for use in the spring. Similarly, for No. 503, chamomile
flowers are placed into the small intestine of a cow and then buried in the autumn and dug
up in spring. For No. 504, stinging nettles are stuffed into peat and buried for a year. For
No. 505, small pieces of oak tree bark are put into the skull of a domesticated animal
which is surrounded by peat and buried in the soil near a water course. Dandelion flowers
are used to prepare No. 506. These are pressed together and placed in a cow’s peritoneum,
and again buried over the winter to be dug up in spring. Finally, No. 507 is an extraction
of valerian flowers into water.
Each of these preparations is intended to assist in the regulation and control of biological
and astral formes on the farm (Diver 1999). The yarrow is used to control sulphur and
potassium reactions so as to facilitate the absorption of cosmic radiation. Camomile is
thought to affect the relationship of potassium and calcium, and mediate the health of soil.
Stinging nettle removes “iron effect”, and when mixed with manure makes it “inwardly
sensitive… we might say almost intelligent” (Lecture 5, Steiner 1958). The other compost
preparations are similarly believed to affect calcium levels, silicic acid take-up, and
“phosophoric substance.”3 While not used for composting, a ninth preparation, No. 508, is
a decoction of horsetail (equisetum) or casuarina plants is used to combat the effects of
In addition to the preparations that are sprayed over fields, cops, and manures, the
Biodynamic Agricultural method also promotes the idea that the plant world comes under
astronomical influences. Soil and plant development is believed to be under the influence
of astronomical bodies, with the sun and moon given as easily observable and measurable
examples. However, the other planets are also taken into consideration, with the timing of
Biodynamic practices including the making of preparations and planting and harvesting
times made to coincide with certain lunar, and astronomical and astrological cycles.
Steiner posited that plant reproduction is related/connected to the forces of the Moon,
Venus, and Mercury, and that plant growth and flowering are connected with Mars, Jupiter,
and Saturn, oddly stating that “no doubt this appears as a simple piece of information”
3 Steiner does not explain what this is.
(Lecture 1, Steiner 1958). Woven in to the Biodynamic ontology is the belief that plant
growth is affected by the subtle forces of celestial bodies. Steiner proposed that formative,
or etheric forces imbued the essentially lifeless physical substances of the Earth (like rocks)
with life and form. This imbued form he variously termed “life-body,” “formative body”
or the “etheric body,” and it is this aspect of plant life that is understood to be most highly
influenced by the rhythms of the cosmos.
The life force and life body that make up all living things Steiner understood as responsive
to cosmic rhythms, even if such rhythms might not register with modern science.
Biodynamic agriculture, as such, is concerned with the cosmic life of plants and animals.
As a system of ‘agricultural science,’ it maintains that it accepts biological facts, but
applies a ‘dynamic spiritual understanding’ to them. In particular, Biodynamics
understands plant and animal life on Earth as having profound and intimate connection
with cosmic forces generated by the sun and the planets of our solar system. As a result,
the Biodynamic technique also involves the use of an astronomical calendar with which
farmers can determine planting and harvesting times. For example, the opposition of the
moon to Saturn is understood to be a ‘fruit day’ and conducive to fleshy ‘expressive’ and
spiritually nourishing fruit (Lecture 6, Steiner 1958). Similarly, the lunar cycle is thought
to affect the formation of fruit on plants, while forces from Venus affected animal
reproduction (Kirchmann 1994). The lunar cycle is also used to time the planting of crops
and the growth phases of plants (Reganold 1995). However, despite their prominence in
the current literature, only scant, passing references are made to the use of astronomical
calendars for planting and harvesting in Steiner’s lectures. Nor is any mention made of
Ahriman, the spiritual being Steiner saw as responsible for spreading chaos and obscuring
the spiritual sight of human beings (Lachman 2007: 178), though there are some sections
of the early lectures where Steiner seems to hinting towards such ideas (see Lecture 1,
Philosophical Underpinnings of Biodynamics
In order to grasp the underlying principles of Biodynamics it is necessary to approach the
concept of spiritual science that Steiner promoted. The controversy over Biodynamics
practices and their alleged efficacy stems from both the content of the instructions, as set
out by Steiner, and less obviously from the underlying Anthroposophical beliefs that
underpin the system as a whole. For Kirchmann the reasons a farmer might take up
Biodynamic Agriculture remain baffling unless a connection can be made with the
Anthroposophy beneath them (Kirchmann 1994), yet it seems that for may farmers in the
wine industry this is simply not important. Lorand (1996), who has represented
Biodynamic associations to the European Union, argued in his doctoral thesis that
comprehension the Biodynamic system involved gaining a threefold paradigmatic
understanding of the ontology, epistemology, and methodology that lies behind it. The
agricultural method was, for Steiner, ‘spiritually based’ and thus also essential for proper,
holistic nutrition. In food, Steiner saw a resource for building a bridge between will and
action, supplying “the strength necessary for manifesting the spirit in physical life”
(Steiner 1984: 411). The lectures of the Agricultural Course are filled with the stuff of
Antroposophy, in particular Steiner’s central thesis of a connection between the physical
and the spiritual, the latter of which he felt was ignored by both modern science and
After returning to Dornach, in Switzerland (the home of Anthroposophy), following the
lectures, Steiner gave a report to members of the Society, remarking on;
The real possibility of bringing something originating in Anthroposophy
right into practical life. It shows that it is possible for Anthroposophy to
work from both the most highly spiritual side and from the most practical.
In actuality we are only working in the right way when those two sides are
woven together in complete harmony…
In the course of this materialistic age of ours, we’ve lost the knowledge of
what it takes to continue to care for the natural world… People fertilize
scientifically now; and the grains and potatoes and everything else become
ever worse. People know this… yet today there is only resistance to
practical measures that derive from what can be gained in spiritual vision
(Steiner 1993: 10).
His excitement at having a cultural product capable of broad deployment well outside the
expressionistic walls of Anthroposophia, is evident. The above quotation also highlights,
as Lorand points out (1996: 44), his opposition to ‘natural scientific’ methods, favouring
instead his own ‘spiritual scientific’ ones.
Anthroposophy was, for Steiner, a method of research into the super-sensible. This
‘spiritual science’ was (and is) conceived as the necessary compliment to ‘natural science’
such as famously championed in Steiner’s time by Charles Darwin. The study of the
super-sensible in human beings, and thus of spiritual beings, ultimately seeking scientific
answers to questions such as, ‘who was and is Jesus Christ?’ (Fränkel-Lundbourg 1979).
Washington described Steiner as “one who never lost the sense that there is beyond – and
yet somehow immanent in – the visible world a celestial realm accessible to the spiritual
eye” (Washington 1995: 146-147). This sentiment was indeed the character of Steiner’s
endeavours; to find the spiritual that was at work within the physical. Anthroposophy as a
movement in and of itself, however, is somewhat amorphous; described by Lorand as a
“philosophy and cultural movement known by a common name” (Lorand 1996: 33).
Steiner himself was at times quite ambiguous about what Anthroposophy was;
Above all one must know what the true standard and content of
Anthroposophy should be. It does not consist of a sum of opinions which
must be entertained by ‘anthroposophists’. It ought never to be said
amongst anthroposophists, “We believe this”, “We reject that.” Such
agreement may arise naturally as the result of out anthroposophical study,
but it can never be put forward as an anthroposophical ‘programme’. The
right attitude can only be: “Anthroposophy is there. It has been acquired by
persistent effort. I am here to represent it, so that what has thus been
acquired may be made known in the world” (Steiner 1963: 52).
Similarly, on the Anthroposophical Society itself, his emphasis seems to have been as
much on what it was not, as on what it was;
The General Anthroposophical Society is in no sense a secret society, but
an entirely public organization. Without distinction of nationality, social
standing, religion, scientific or artistic conviction, any person who
considers the existence of such an institution as the Goetheanum in
Dornach – School for Spiritual Activity in Science and Art – to be justified,
can become a member of the Society. The Anthroposophical Society is
averse to any kind of sectarian tendency. Politics it does not consider to be
among its tasks (Steiner 1963: 5).
Nonetheless, in Anthroposophy Steiner did have both a set of aims and a purpose driving
his incredible cultural output that ranged from the agricultural methods discussed here to
art, music, dance, the formation of society, and as discussed in other chapters in this
volume, schooling and architecture. In its original form, biodynamic agriculture forms a
part of the comprehensive way of life set out by Steiner in the Anthroposophical
movement. One of the core claims is that biodynamic food has a higher nutritional value,
is more nutritionally complex (spiritually, more on this below), and will in fact taste better.
Steiner discussed his own dissatisfaction with the flavour of potatoes in his time, when
compared to the potatoes he had eaten as a child as an example of how degraded food
produce had become (others might call this nostalgia). As Diver (1999) notes, this claim is
not unique to Biodynamic agriculture, with many other systems similarly asserting the
sapid superiority of their produce over that of the ‘industrialised’ or ‘conventional’
methods. However, what sets biodynamic agriculture apart from most other ‘alternative’
farming systems is, firstly, the worldview it was developed to operate within, and
secondly, the notion that the nutritional value gained is not only physical, but spiritual also.
The formative, etheric forces Steiner understood as working on plant growth has its roots
in Goethe’s notion of the Urpflanze; the archetypal or primal plant (Lachman 2007: 218),
a concept Goethe used to describe the “dynamic correlation between permanence and
change” (Larson 1967: 596) in and between all plant life.
The plant, as we saw, has a physical body and an ether-body, while up
above it is hovered-around, more or less, by a kind of astral cloud. The plant
itself does not reach up to the astral, but the astral – so to speak – hovers
around it. Wherever it enters into definite connection with the astral (as
happens in the fruit-formation), something available as foodstuff is
produced – that is to say, something which will support the astral in the
animal and human body (Lecture 8, Steiner 1958).
With this quote it is plain to see that Steiner saw food as spiritual nourishment as well as
physical. This is, perhaps, the best explanation for what the intent of the Biodynamic
agricultural method was, for Steiner. It was more than a nostalgic response to the
industrialisation of the agricultural industries (see his potato ramblings); it was, in fact, a
consistent extension of his philosophy of humanity, and one that has been
disproportionately influential since its development, as evidenced by its prominence in the
wine industry as discussed below.
The Sacred as Terroir: Biodynamic Wine Case Study
It may be that the wine industry was first alerted to Biodynamics by Steiner’s mention of
the difficulties facing the industry. In Lecture Six of the Agriculture Course, Steiner talked
specifically about problems facing grape growers at the time, particularly phylloxera.
Since Steiner’s lectures (the only time he gave any public information on the techniques)
the practices he set out have been formalised and codified into what is now known as
Biodynamic Agriculture. It was pursued with relative enthusiasm in a number of locations
around the world, though interestingly remained largely unknown in the U.S.A. until
recently (Diver 1999). In the past 50 years it has gained increasing popularity and usage,
particularly as global environmental concerns have captured public imaginations. Since
the late 1990s Biodynamic practices have gained a notable amount of press in the wine
industry. The small scale level of fascination with biodynamic wines around the world
serves to illustrate the covert popularity of Steiner’s ideas within wider society and
consumer culture, as well as how this cultural product has been disseminated.
For lovers of wine the important thing to understand is, first of all, the Dionysian nature of the vine,
and secondly the need to respect this so that is can connect as well as possible with subtleties of soil
and climate – so that, in other words, it can best marry its innate authenticity with the quality of the
place where it grows (Joly 2007: 22).
In the above quote, Nicholas Joly speaks of wine as if it were made for Biodynamic
methodology, which for him goes without saying; he is an outspoken promoter of
Biodynamic methods. However, in Joly’s words there is an expression of a familiar theme
in ‘wine.’ When we refer here to ‘wine’ we are not simply referring to the product of
fermented grape juice but to something much larger. It is a term that is used as a shorthand
for a culture of consumption, both conspicuous and cerebral, that encompasses ideals
concerning modes of production, gastronomy, class mobility, and sensory pleasure. It
typically also refers to the product and its associated culture as something steeped in
historical significance, a human endeavour that somehow carries a fascination with place
and people, that is the muse of uncounted numbers of poets, and even concerns matters
such as the aesthetics of glassware. Wine also engages with tourism, with ideals of style
and sophistication, and, let us not forget, the eminently social effects of alcohol enjoyed in
the company of others with food. ‘Wine’ is a thing that can be drunk, engaged with as a
hobby, given as a gift, tasted on holiday, and that can act as a portal to local cultures
because of its close association with cuisine and with customs of leisure. Indeed, it is, to
some (e.g. Scruton 2010), the distinction between the civilised and the uncivilised. It is
curious, then, for the purposes of the present chapter, that Biodynamic techniques have
found some popularity within the modern wine industry. This compels us to search for
answers as to why this cultural product of Steiner’s fits into this complex and diverse
For some winemakers, the Biodynamic method is the ultimate way to ‘connect’ with their
grapes and express the unique character of the vineyard. Steiner’s emphasis on
sustainability, soil and plant health, and on ‘individuality’ all lend themselves to the
fraught and fragile wine grape. Cullen Wines, for example, states that their philosophy of
winemaking is “to search for the best quality expression of the vineyard in the wine”
(Cullen Wines n.d. a) and to “interfere as little as possible in the winemaking process and
thus essentially let the wines make themselves” (Cullen Wines n.d. b). The winery’s
website states that the techniques are concerned firstly with soil health and sustainability,
and secondly with aligning with cosmic forces. In so doing, the company claims that “this
approach has resulted in the production of high quality and individual wines” (Cullen
Wines n.d. b). This view is shared by many notable winemakers, Joly the most outspoken
of them; “In biodynamie we are connecting the vine to the frequencies it needs—like
tuning a radio, we are tuning the plant to the frequencies that bring it life. Organics
permits nature to do its job; biodynamie permits it to do its job more. It is very simple”
(Joly quoted in Goode n.d.).
This belief is not without controversy, however. Some critics, and other winemakers,
challenge the merits and the results of the Biodynamic method. Californian grower Stuart
Smith maintains a blog, Biodynamics is a Hoax, and remarks that Steiner was “a complete
nutcase, a flimflam man with a tremendous imagination, a combination if you will, of an
LSD-dropping Timothy Leary with the showmanship of a P.T. Barnum” (Smith 2010).
Recently the Wall Street Journal weighed in to the perennial debate about Biodynamic
Agriculture and wine with an article that looked briefly at the question of whether
Biodynamics is simply organic agriculture under a fancy name (McInerney 2010); an
exercise in branding more than anything else. What is more, the difficult and elusive
concept of terroir – the expression of place, environment, and climate in a wine – makes
for excellent advertising copy. It also makes for a useful form of brand (place) loyalty; “If
a wine is valued for its expression of a specific place, it can’t be supplanted by another
wine from the other side of the globe” (Reilly 2004a).
What makes the case of Biodynamic practices in the wine industry unique is the question
of results. One article in the magazine Selector, quoted grower Rob Bryans on just this
issue; “I find a lot of the spiritual side of it a bit frustrating. But look at that soil: as a
means to an end, all I can say is that the Biodynamic methods work” (Allen 2007a). In an
industry whose appeal ranges from quaffing plonk to wines that move drinkers and critics
alike to torrents of whimsy and descriptive, the issue of flavour and yield is a constant
paramount. Renowned wine writer Jancis Robinson noted of Biodynamic methodology
that, “On paper it sounds completely crazy, or at least a wholemeal sandwich short of a
picnic, but when you see the health of the grapes that result and, perhaps even more
importantly, the vibrancy of the wines typically produced, it is increasingly convincing”
(Robinson 2006). For higher valued wines in particular, the issue of unique flavour, that
esoteric quality of terroir, becomes a much sought after quality. It is, coincidentally,
precisely this that Biodynamics aims at, with its focus on the ‘agricultural individuality’
and soil health. But all this would be for nothing if the results simply were not there, and,
at least to some, they are:
most of the certified biodynamic practitioners I have spoken to over the years, none of
whom were obviously certifiable, started with organic farming and moved on to
biodynamics. And all of them profess to have seen superior results and healthier vineyards
under the latter regime (McInerney 2010).
Indeed, a blind tasting of Biodynamic wines against ‘normal’ wines, organised by Fortune
Magazine, resulted in a resounding success for Steiner’s methods. Nine out of ten of the
pairs tasted were judged in favour of the Biodynamic wine, which, “were found to have
better expressions of terroir, the way in which a wine can represent its specific place of
origin in its aroma, flavor, and texture” (Reilly 2004b). Tellingly, however, article also
mentions several of the panellists belief that Biodynamic winemakers tend to be artistic,
intensely focussed craftspeople; just the type to create wines of uncompromising character.
The level of passion among some followers the phenomenon prompted wine critic Alan
Meadows, to state that “It has cult-like aspects; it reminds me of Jimmy Swaggart”
(quoted in Reilly 2004a). Yet perhaps the greatest argument for Biodynamic practices in
wine is made by the list of names that use them. Indeed, some of the names associated
with Biodynamics in the wine industry are amongst the most revered of the great French
labels, including Chapoutier, Coulée de Serrant, and Zind Humbrecht, and a group of
grand cru producers in Burgundy including Domaine Leflaive, and, in the much exalted
Vosne-Romanée commune, Domaine Leroy and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. So lofty
are these names in the world of wine that one can forgive the reference to ‘cult-like
aspects’, as many of the wines from these producers truly could be said to be
‘worshipped.’ Similarly, in New World wineries Biodynamics has also found some
converts, with North American wineries such as Beaux Frères, the New Zealand Felton
Road, and Australian Bindi Wine Growers and Cullen Wines to name just a handful. It
also seems to have convinced some high profile critics. Doug Frost MW stated that; “The
biodynamic movement seems like latent ‘60s acid-trip-inspired lunacy; until you taste the
wines” (quoted in Reilly 2004b). This scepticism of the methods and love of results is not
uncommon. Australian wine critic Max Allen, a keen Biodynamic wine devotee, enthuses
I noticed that, more often than not, well-made biodynamic wines were sending a chill down my
spine with their intensity and complexity of flavour. They not only tasted better than most
‘conventional’ – even organic – wines. They tasted different (Allen 2007b).
Whatever the truth of the matter, many wine makers and wine critics alike see value,
however that may be measured, in following, and being seen to follow, Biodynamic
viticultural practices. This popularity, however, is not an accurate measure of
Anthroposophical beliefs in the wine industry. As some of the comments noted above
indicate, many winemakers are keen to dismiss the spiritual side of Biodynamics and
focus instead on the quality of the grape. A complete and literal belief in Steiner’s
worldview would mean ignoring significant scientific facts and methodologies. Indeed,
Kirchmann has argued that, “In contrast to other alternative forms of farming, biodynamic
agriculture is based on unscientific methods, misleading measures and unprovable
assumptions about natural” (Kirchmann 1994: 184). A piece by Max Allen in the
magazine Gourmet Traveller perhaps best sums up the way in which Steiner’s spirituality
has been placed aside in the quest for good wine; “Emphasising the spiritual side of
biodynamic viticulture is, perhaps, not the best way to see it widely accepted here. Our
grape-growers are a no-bullshit bunch, mostly, and glaze over when people talk about
cosmic forces” (Allen n.d.: 65). Similarly, Robinson has commented that,
The biodynamic producers I most respect have adapted biodynamic methods to their own
particular environment and are deeply embarrassed by some of the wilder claims associated with
the theory. And many – perhaps most – of them don’t even use biodynamics to sell their wines
Nonetheless, Steiner’s agricultural method retains a level of popularity – what might be
called a ‘cult status’ – among wine makers and wine lovers around the world. The
Anthroposophy behind it, it seems, does not.
Biodynamics as a Cultural Product of Steiner and Anthroposophy
When Paul Hirsch penned his seminal article on cultural products in 1972, he likely had
little idea what an important work it would become.4 Hirsch argued that cultural products
were non-material goods that generally served expressive and/or aesthetic purposes, rather
than clearly utilitarian ones (Hirsch 1972: 641-642). While Hirsch classified foods as
‘utilitarian’ products, rather than cultural ones, it is the contention of this chapter that the
non-material and expressive aspects of Biodynamics makes it a ‘product’ that may be
‘consumed’. As a cultural product, thus, Biodynamics can also be said to be shaped by the
various systems within which it was created, and is now distributed, evaluated, taught, and
maintained (Peterson and Anand 2004). This includes, for the present study, a range of
‘gatekeepers’ as Hirsch (1972) called them; the various formal Biodynamic organisations
(such as Biodynamic Agriculture Australia) that are responsible for education and the
dissemination of information; the winemaking industry; individual winemakers (as the
producers of the ingestible product to which the appellation ‘biodynamic’ is attached); and
the growing industry of wine criticism which, as noted above (e.g. Goode n.d.; Robinson
2006), tends to focus on the final product, though clearly likes the emphasis of ‘place’ that
Biodynamics champions. However, as a cultural product today, Biodynamics calls upon
Steiner’s initial teachings only insofar as they prove useful for the cultural industry as a
Steiner felt that art, architecture, music, and, of course, food were all wound up in
Anthroposophy’s aims and purpose; to bring the spiritual more fully into people’s lives.
As Cusack’s chapter in this volume discusses, the Goetheanum, the building Steiner
himself designed, was intended as a centrepiece in this project. Just as that building was to
be an ‘organic form’ that would provide the space for people to understand the
“connection in the human form between thinking, feeling, and willing” (Lachman 2007:
179), food produced Biodynamically would help strengthen those connections. In
particular, it was the latter – ‘willing’ – that Steiner understood was to most benefit from a
Biodynamic diet. Willing, he argued, was linked to our metabolic system (the other two
representing the neural and the circulatory systems respectively) (Lachman 2007: 188). To
these Steiner also linked the idea of society, promoting a concept of the “threefold order,”
which the ideals of the French Revolution – liberty, equality, fraternity – expressed. In
4 Indeed, a later article he acknowledged that he submitted the “Processing Fads and Fashions” article as a
graduate student on a dare from a roommate (Hirsch 2000: 356).
other words, Steiner argued that thinking, the world of culture and creativity should be
governed by the freedom of the individual. The political sphere, that of feeling and the
circulatory system, demanded recognition of equality, while the social metabolism,
economy, needed to operate in such a way that wealth was created not for individual gain,
but for communal good. 5 It is into this understanding of society that Biodynamics is
inserted within Anthroposophical spheres. The case is different, however, when the
agricultural methods are examined as a cultural product in the wider social world.
What the current level of popularity of Biodynamics evidenced by the wine industry can
demonstrate, is a movement both towards individuated forms of the sacred (and by
extension traditional religiosity), and a gathering interest in modes of consumption that are
other than ‘industrial.’ In the confluence of these two seemingly separate social milieus –
ideas of the sacred and alternative food choices – Biodynamics (and a suite of other
alternate forms of production not here covered) finds an audience neatly attuned to its
ideas of ‘individuality’ and environmental sustainability. As currently practiced by most
vignerons and consumers of wine, however, Biodynamics could not conventionally be
described as ‘religious practice’; nor even religious belief in many cases. There are,
however, strong indications from both that the practice is located within the social
boundaries of ‘environmentalism’ and ‘being green,’ and to locators of personal identity
and meaning in terms of everyday life (e.g. Cullen Wines n.d.; Allen 2007b; Joly 2007).
The latter, in particular, has been linked to modern, secular notions of the sacred
(Demerath 2000), with many authors now asserting the religiously functional elements to
be found in social life (e.g. Lyon 2000). Nor should the assertions of Erving Goffman
(1959) about the performance of the everyday self be forgotten here. The choice to
produce or to consume a Biodynamic product thus carries multidimensional meanings for
the individual, and forms part of an individual’s expression of identity.
Of course, while some Durkheimian treatments may find the concept of ‘individual
religion’ oxymoronic, it is important to acknowledge here the steadily growing body
literature that looks to describe these types of phenomena. It may seem a trepidatious leap
to describe Biodynamics – practiced, as it is, largely without reference to Steiner’s
5 Steiner published this theory in “The Threefold Social Order” (published in Steiner 1999) which for a time
gained some popularity around the world, and, according to Lachman (2007: 189), sold some eighty
thousand copies in its first year of publication.
metaphysical elements – in such a way, but doing so gives a much finer understanding of
the gradations of meaning that may become attached to such personally significant actions
as eating and drinking. In particular, the idea of things ‘not religious, but like them’ are
important here, such as discussed Bromley and Shupe’s treatment of quasi-religious
corporations like Amway and Herbalife (1990), or Jindra’s examination of Star Trek fans
(1994). At the same time, ideas such Luckman’s ‘invisible religion’ (1967), and the ever
problematic ‘implicit religion,’ originally floated by Bailey (1998), but which now has a
journal in its 12th volume dedicated to its study, evidence the problematic nature of
approaching the category ‘religion’ with a rigid Christo-centric model in mind. What this
(albeit limited) collection of studies illustrates is the growing recognition of the
importance of looking at amorphous, religiously functional elements of society as part of a
project of charting the meaning the things with which people fill their everyday lives.
It is with meaning, and what is meaningful, that we can best begin to understand the
phenomena of Biodynamics as a cultural product within the contemporary, Westernised
social world. Here the writings of Demerath help to unravel meaning as something
associated with conceptions of the sacred; particularly his argument that ‘religion’ is not
synonymous with ‘sacred’ (Demerath 2000). Further, the preference for this-worldliness,
dehierarchization, and pragmatism that Lambert (1999) argued was characteristic of new
religious formations, means that any activity that reflects functional, individually
affirming meaning to the individual can be considered ‘sacred’. While this too may seem a
treacherous path, the point of these theoretical musings is to highlight the importance of
meaning in the choices of food consumers. Food (and here I include wine as a ‘food’) is
central to identity. Food, food choices, and eating all form part of individual and
communal constructions of self and other, as in addition to providing nourishment food
also signifies for individuals and communities alike (Fischler 1988). To this end, the
Biodynamic appellation carries with it significance. Because of historical associations (see
Kirchmann et al. 2008) the label ‘Biodynamic’ freights with it the notion of ‘organic,’
which in turn carries ideas of sustainability, environmental concern, and ethical farming.
One of the core arguments of this movement has been a structural critique of the various
conventional methods of Western society over the past fifty years; in this case an assertion
of inequity and un-sustainability in conventional agricultural systems (Vos 2000). This
argument, however, is often linked with discourses of personal health and well-being,
particularly in marketing material (Jones et al. 2001), thus tying the broader social
argument back to the immediately personal and individual. For many, it seems, the issue is
one of choice, or more precisely the amount of thought one puts into one’s food choices.
Commentators, such as Sandor Elix Katz (2006), note that many individuals are now
looking for what we might call ‘soul food,’ as much as they are for nutrition. That is, food
that makes individuals feel good cognitively as well as gastronomically. Here it appears
that modern gastronomy is taking an intellectual and, dare one say it, spiritual turn that
looks to food as a source of the sacred in the everyday. That is, a source of meaning and
The importance of Biodynamics to this movement can not be underestimated, and has
some significant parallels to new religious formations of the previous one hundred years.
It is worth noting that Sutcliffe points to the interwar years in Europe (1918-1939) as “a
key period in explaining the roots of 1960s developments in ‘new age’, and 1980s
developments in ‘holistic’ religion,” and that it is therefore “historically determinative of
powerful currents in recent Anglophone religious history” (Sutcliffe, 2008: 51). Much the
same can be said of Biodynamics. Not only did it emerge in the same period, its
underlying philosophies form part of Sutcliffe’s taxonomy, with Steiner’s
Anthroposophical beliefs along with related elements (such as the Theosophical Society
for example) becoming significant contributors to such ideals. Further, Kirchman et al
(2008) note that the organic agriculture movement can be traced back to the early 20th
century, and particularly to Steiner himself, as the first to set out a distinct farming
methodology that was a complete enough alternative to accepted forms as to be considered
viable. Indeed, it appears that the organic food movement and alternative religious practice
often go hand-in-hand (e.g. Rosen 2004; Dubisch 2004), and papers need to be written on
just what the nature of this relationship is, and how important Steiner’s methods were in
demonstrating their possibilities of such practices. Koepf stated that the Biodynamic
movement was the pioneer of certification processes for food produced without chemical
fertilizers (what today amounts to ‘organic’ certification) (Koepf 1989: 17). Similar forms
of agricultural and dietary practice, such as the Macrobiotic movement formalised by
George Oshawa, were developed around the same time (Ohsawa was living in Europe
during this period). What makes Biodynamics unique, however, is its explicit beginnings
as part of Steiner’s holistic plan for human spiritual evolution. While it seems that for
most producers and consumers this has little relevance in its modern forms, it nonetheless
makes Biodynamics a compelling cultural product.
Discussions concerning the value of food must engage with cultural, cognitive, and nonrational
elements in order to fully situate it as more than simply nutrition, but as a human
experience (Delind 2006). It is, finally, with this in mind that we can construct a
framework with which to understand Biodynamics as it presents through the wine industry
circa 2011. From their food choices modern individuals contribute to the ongoing projects
of their identity. Moreover, when wine lovers speak of wine, when they enthuse about the
characteristics of a particular wine, and when they cast about for terms with which to
describe their experiences of taste and smell, they are speaking the language of the sacred.
That is, they are searching for the content with which to articulate what is experienced as
meaningful, at least to some degree. In this context, Biodynamics becomes a vehicle for
the experiencing and explanation of the esoteric quality of wine. That the methods appear
to produce results despite its unscientific nature simply adds to the mysterious nature of
wine. As for its Anthroposophical premises, these are, for the most part, simply ignored;
what matters is good wine.
To this end, Biodynamic wine typifies the cultural product model put forward by Hirsch as
non-material goods that generally serve an expressive and/or aesthetic purposes, rather
than clearly utilitarian ones (Hirsch 1972). The extent to which the symbolic elements of
Biodynamics are shaped by the systems within which they operate should also be noted.
As ‘gatekeepers’ of the cultural product (see Peterson 1994), wine makers and wine critics,
as the ‘publishers’ of the ‘artistic material’, evidently think that the consuming public is
either not concerned with, or would adversely react to Steiner’s original intent for his
agricultural methods. The ‘no bullshit’ position of the winemakers noted above should
serve to indicate why the Anthroposophical underpinnings of Biodynamics are being
downplayed in favour of the results. Interestingly, however, a recent study found that
Biodynamically produced winegrapes had significantly higher brix levels (a measurement
of the sugars in the grape juice), and higher total phenols and anthocyanins (contributors
to aroma, flavour, and mouthfeel) than non-Biodynamic control groups (Reeve et al. 2005).
Positive results such as these will probably do little to dent the status of Biodynamic
methods as cultural products of Steiner and Anthroposophy, albeit with much of their
cosmic and esoteric content attenuated.
Steiner wrote exhaustively on the methods he believed could enable the individual to
perceive spiritual phenomena. Biodynamic agriculture, as it has come to be known, was a
part of that quest. Steiner proposed to the audience present at that now famous series of
lectures that humanity needed a change in agriculture methods that would involve ceasing
the use of pesticides and inorganic chemicals in favour of utilising ‘cosmic forces.’ These
forces, so he argued, would act upon the natural world’s own material to thus be used as
organic fertilisers. The celestial rhythms that Steiner saw as affecting plant and animal life
on earth were, he argued, key to the spiritual progress of the individual. However, the lack
of scientific evidence to support Steiner’s claims concerning etheric forces and spiritual
science has seen these aspects of Biodynamic theory be either downplayed or simply
dropped by some institutions and producers who apply them. It has also led to sometimes
aggressive accusations of fraud and trickery by those unconvinced by the theories.
Frustratingly, however, much of the scholarly material on Biodynamic agriculture has
been limited to the biological sciences, with little input from humanities and the social
sciences as to why people would want to grow and/or consume the produce the methods
yield. Future studies that look into the social aspects of Biodynamics will no doubt benefit
from applying the production of culture perspective (e.g. Peterson 1994), and particularly
frameworks that understand the processes of ‘fads and fashions’ (e.g. Hirsch 1972).
However, as a cultural product, the practice of Biodynamic methods and the consumption
of its products will best be understood by looking at its situation as an expressive locator
of meaning and identity.
Biodynamic agriculture, as it is practiced in the modern wine industry, takes
Anthroposophical ideas as its starting point. However, in practice these are not clearly
carried through, resulting in an agricultural practice that for all intents and purposes looks
like a quaint homage to a tradition proved outdated by modern science; a form of magic or
divination. Indeed, Kirchmann asserted that “bio-dynamic farming must be considered as
an occult-religious movement” (Kirchmann 1994: 184), which, of course, would place the
practice of the techniques in quite a different frame from that discussed here. Rather, this
chapter has taken the position that Steiner’s initial teachings now form the basis for a
method of agricultural production that, in the case of the wine industry, is mostly
concerned with the expression of terroir, rather than the spiritual betterment of wine
drinkers. Biodynamic agriculture can thus be said to have been ‘secularised,’ and it is in
this guise that it has gained significant popularity in wine industries around the world.
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Research publications concerning biodynamics