Two million earthworms wriggled through the damp, mahogany-hued dirt, oblivious to their larger impact. Alfred Grand, founder of vermicomposting farm Vermi Grand in the Austrian town of Absdorf, shoved both hands deep into a waist-high bin of soil to demonstrate the tenacity of those industrious annelids under the day’s flawless skies.
A handful of observing journalists also milled about under those June skies as part of the 2023 Koch.Campus Soil workshop. Founded in 2013, Koch.Campus is a nonprofit association of Austrian chefs and agricultural producers formed to provide a contemporary interpretation and communication of Austrian cuisine through events, experiences and exchange.
Alfred’s earthworms dug with purpose, converting organic waste into valuable fertilizer. The worms’ epidermis hosts microorganisms that bring nutrients to the soil. As they digest food scraps and other organic matter, their waste is expelled as nutrient-dense fertilizer. Earthworm humus can then be applied to virtually any crop, including, of course, grapevines.
I envied the worms their determination, drive, and most importantly, shade as I withered under the brutal sun in what would be recorded as the world’s hottest year.
Most wine professionals now understand that healthy soil is integral to successful farming. Without it, the rest topples like a poorly constructed Jenga tower. Potatoes that don’t cook properly and onions with unusable layers can be attributed to soil imbalances. If even one element in a microbiome is thrown off, the crop can be affected. The actions of a single earthworm, in other words, can indeed lead to large-scale environmental change.
While not entirely dogmatic about the wines I drink, I lean towards biodynamically farmed, low-intervention bottles. The ethos of these wines, produced with the understanding that the farm is a living organism, appeals to me.
Biodynamic farming reflects a holistic approach to agriculture that aims to establish a symbiotic relationship between soil and farmer. To practice it is to make a commitment to the earth and signal the desire to make a difference. Compounded, these actions benefit the system in such forms as increased biodiversity and cleaner air and water. And those who stand by biodynamic principles have the responsibility to carry that practice over to tasks and topics that aren’t so convenient.
Why is it so easy to drill down on the impact of worms, but so difficult to discuss the impact of social issues? Why is “wine and politics don’t belong together” a perfectly acceptable way to shut down any conversation of how diversity (and its lack thereof) impacts the wine world?
There’s a missed opportunity for biodynamic farming advocates to live by its founder’s credo that agriculture touches every part of society. By extension those same advocates miss their chance to engage in a holistic interaction with the greater politics and identity within the wine industry. In an intersection that’s impossible — and irresponsible — to ignore, racism does as well. I explored this theme, as well as founder, Rudolph Steiner’s views on race in 2021 (Reconciling the Racism of Rudolf Steiner) and still feel disheartened when recalling the number of winemakers and wine professionals I reached out to who either failed to voice an opinion or felt uncomfortable going on record.
In their thoughtful study “The Elephant in the Room – Environmental Racism in Germany,” Imeh Ituen and Lisa Tatu Hey explore the ties between migration status and geographical proximity pollution. Their findings reveal that a person who has migrated to Germany has a higher likelihood of living near sources of toxic emissions and environmental hazards.
Evidence of environmental racism is no less common elsewhere: U.S. car battery dumping in Northern Mexico has infected villages of people with a related illness; electronic dump sites in Ghana result in burns and inhalation of infectious gasses. And with the wine industry reckoning with the lasting impact of glass and wine production, we can’t overlook how harmful environmental racism is, and how the impacts of drinkers and producers trickle down to other communities.
Siloing wine and politics is an easy way for the wine world to distance itself from wrongdoing. The ask is not for winemakers and wine professionals to meet a quota or talk about diversity issues but to consider that for every conversation that’s being sidestepped out of discomfort, there’s a real and lasting impact, even if, like those earthworms, we can’t see at work.
So when we limit the discussion to just the people who produce wine and drink it, we completely ignore the impact of our actions. Biodynamic wine’s blinders are damaging. They shut down the opportunity to discuss solutions about how we can move the industry forward. There’s something about advocating for wine based on a holistic philosophy, while blindly ignoring the unsavory that has left a bad taste in my mouth.
In the U.S., marginalized communities have called for significant reform in the wine industry. And while it’s difficult to quantify the number of marginalized individuals in the European wine industry, I can anecdotally remark that it’s far less than in the U.S., which means fewer opportunities to be challenged and even fewer voices to advocate for real change. By sidestepping hard conversations — and giving in to diversity, equality, and inclusion (DEI) fatigue — we are closing ourselves off to the chance for real social sustainability. The wine industry is making strides toward a more sustainable future, but protecting the earth is futile when we show little regard for the people who inhabit it.
Those who stand by biodynamic principles have the responsibility to carry
that practice over to tasks and topics that aren’t so convenient.
So while I’m hopeful that meaningful discussions are on the horizon, here’s a concrete suggestion: Biodynamic organizations and producers should consider including an easy-to-find statement denouncing the racist statements of Steiner on their websites. Much in the same way that many Australian producers actively acknowledge that they are on what was once indigenous land, a movement from biodynamic wine producers to distance themselves from the racist statements of Steiner could be a fruitful starting point.
Finding Common Ground
Back in Absdorf, the heat had become unbearable and, unlike the earthworms I was fading fast. Still, attending Koch.Campus while pregnant was the reminder I needed that now I’m advocating for two.
Here I was battling stomach issues, enhanced perception of (and aversions to) common smells, evening sickness, and crushing fatigue. The only thing greater than my desire to sleep for hours on end was an urgent desire to dig deeper. I was growing life and in turn, growing a new sense of self. This was my chance to be more outspoken about what I believe.
If my child wants to work in wine someday, I want it to be an industry worth getting involved in. I want there to be an industry worth getting involved in, with open discussions about diversity and inclusion. And practitioners and fans of biodynamic farming could be the perfect conductors for these conversations.
In 2021, my priority was to do my part to more fully open the wine world. Today, the weight of responsibility I carry is even greater. To be pregnant and passionate about a topic is to feel its fire burning at all times. I bear the urgency of seeking out change and driving it forward, so that those who come both from me, and after me have something to strive toward. Much like the earthworms who tunnel through the dirt, influencing an impact they may never see, I choose to blindly believe that my actions today will feed the future.
Back at Grand Farm, the garden and greenhouse-laden branch of VermiGrand, it was time to roll up our sleeves and test the soil sample we had each brought from our home cities. We scooped a sample into the test plate along with a few drops of the liquid pH tester, and watched as our sample warped colors — green to indicate a neutral pH level, and red, yellow, and orange pointing to highly acidic soil.
From cities across Austria and Germany, we bore witness to the similarity of the ground beneath our feet, the foundation in a sense upon which each of us were built, in which each of us grow. Despite distances of up to 700 kilometers, the pH levels of both Berlin and Vienna were nearly identical, leaving me to ponder if we had more in common than we think.
Koch.Campus’ hands-on illustrations of agricultural principles — soil pH level, how seemingly insignificant creatures can make a big impact — provided the interactive, biodynamic program I hoped for. I’ve always been a dreamer, but because I’m dreaming for two, I choose optimism. I know that my presence in the room (or in the field) and my words on the page mean more than some would like to admit. The impact is there whether I witness it or not. This conversation has only just started. My hope is that while I’m taking time away others will pick up the threads — of activism, of forging allyship — where I have left off: digging deep, embracing discomfort, choosing action, however small.