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Understanding Rudolf Steiner, the Man Who Invented Biodynamics

This year, Demeter, the leading certification organization for biodynamic agriculture, marks the 100th anniversary of biodynamics. Some may know that the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher and social reformer, laid its foundations. Perhaps this is why his home country is at the leading edge of environmental stewardship today, especially when it comes to viticulture.

If you don’t know very much about Steiner himself, you are not alone. In the annals of history, few figures stand as complex and enigmatic as Rudolf Steiner. Born in 1861 in the Austrian Empire (in a town that is now part of Croatia), Steiner was a polymath whose influence extended far beyond the conventional boundaries of academia and philosophy. His insight into spirituality and connecting it with science created a legacy that continues to reverberate.

“He was very valuable, especially for our times because we have become very technical,” says Karl Schnabel, proprietor of Weingut Karl Schnabel—Ermihof in the Austrian region of Styria. “Life and nature cannot always be solved in a technical way.”

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Since childhood, an insatiable hunger for knowledge seemed to drive Steiner. He studied at the Vienna University of Technology, where he immersed himself in many different subjects, including the natural sciences, mathematics and philosophy. However, later in life he drew inspiration from the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that led him down new paths. The idea that there is no limit to human knowledge, alongside Goethe’s holistic approach to science and art, inspired Steiner to explore the synthesis of the physical and spiritual realms.

He developed his own unique system of thought, which he called Anthroposophy—a term derived from the Greek words for “human” and “wisdom.” Central to this philosophy was the belief in the inherent spiritual nature of humanity and the cosmos. This perspective formed the basis of his approach to education, medicine, agriculture and the arts, which he saw as avenues for nurturing and expressing the human spirit.

“This is the ancient knowledge that was present in the past but has been lost with industrial developments,” says Eduard Tscheppe, who runs the Gut Oggau winery in Austria’s Burgenland with his wife, Stephanie Tscheppe-Eselböck. “Before people would come into the room and analyze by energy and spirit, but nowadays they analyze by what they see.”

Andreas Roll, owner of the biodynamic winery Gustavshof
Andreas Roll, owner of the biodynamic winery Gustavshof, removes horn silica from a cow horn. On Demeter farms, cow horns are sometimes buried in the vineyard, filled with ground quartz or manure – Photography by Uwe Anspach/picture alliance via Getty Images

New Schools

Steiner’s insights led to the development of Waldorf education—a holistic approach that seeks to cultivate a child’s intellectual, emotional and spiritual dimensions. Waldorf schools, which now exist on every continent, emphasize creative, experiential learning and aim to foster a deep reverence for the natural world. One such school was founded in Austria by Meinklang, the country’s largest biodynamic farm and winery. The farm’s proprietor, Werner Michlits, sees the school as “a rich source for the future.”

Steiner’s influence extended to the field of agriculture, where he developed the principles of biodynamic farming—a method that seeks to work in harmony with the spiritual forces inherent in nature. The jubilee that Demeter celebrates this year marks 100 years since Steiner gave eight lectures at the request of farmers who were becoming wary of the increasing use of artificial fertilizers and chemical sprays in agriculture. The basis of his teachings, which involve practices such as crop rotation, composting and the use of herbal preparations, have gained traction in the last decade or two as a more sustainable alternative to conventional farming methods.

“I fell in love with his approach because he is the only one who brings the human being into the center,” says Werner Michlits. “He realized that society had developed into materialism and that humans started to lose connection with nature.”

Throughout his life, Steiner remained prolific, delivering thousands of lectures and writing hundreds of books and essays. His influence has reached all corners of the world, but it might be strongest among his highly environmentally conscious contemporary compatriots.

Karl Schnabel's biodynamically farmed vineyard in Weinland Austria
Karl Schnabel's biodynamically farmed vineyard in Weinland Austria - Image Courtesy of Aleksandar Zecevic

Whatever Works

Austria is a leader in organic and biodynamic viticulture, with more than 3% of its total vineyard area certified biodynamic and 22% certified as organic (15% of those organic vineyards are farmed biodynamically). This commitment to sustainable farming practices is further underscored by the presence of Respekt-Biodyn, another esteemed organization dedicated to certifying biodynamic viticulture, headquartered in Austria.

“Austrians are eager and open-minded, and it’s a smaller-scale wine country where many winegrowers strive for high quality,” Eduard Tscheppe explains. “I think in the future, wise growers will convert because to get the terroir expression, the biodynamic approach is the most energetic, and nobody needs to doubt that it works anymore because it’s been proven in practice, even in tricky vintages.”

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Austria is also home to one of the oldest biodynamic wineries in the world, Nikolaihof, in Wachau. The estate transitioned to biodynamic farming practices in 1971 under the guidance of its owners, the Saahs family.

“A friend of my husband was an anthroposophic doctor, and for our wedding she gifted us Maria Thun’s biodynamic calendar,” says Christine Saahs of the winery’s beginnings with biodynamics. “She spoke slowly about Steiner, and today, for us, it is very clear that everything is true, and for the future, this the only way to feed the world with healthy food.”

Steiner’s works continue to inspire and challenge readers to this day, but also raise questions and controversies about his teachings. One of the main criticisms of his claims is the lack of empirical evidence.

“He was a clairvoyant, not a scientist—and didn’t do experiments,” says Karl Schnabel. Eduard Tscheppe adds that Steiner was encouraging farmers to go out there and try for themselves. “Everything I’ve read always says that you have to adapt the system to your potential and the demand of your fields and animals,” he says.

Withered sunflowers stands on a field on the grounds of an eco-project on a gray winter day covered with snow.
Withered sunflowers stands on a field on the grounds of an eco-project on a gray winter day covered with snow. Photography by Wolfram Steinberg / picture alliance via Getty Images

Another major criticism of Steiner is allegations of racism. Some of Steiner’s writings contain passages that have been interpreted as racially discriminatory. His followers say that he would always look at the spirit behind the person; therefore, race was irrelevant for him. They would further argue that his views were taken out of context or reflect the prevailing attitudes of his time rather than explicit racism. However, critics point to statements he made about racial and ethnic characteristics and racial hierarchy, stating that certain races are more spiritually advanced, which is undoubtedly problematic.

When Rudolf Steiner passed away in 1925, he left behind a rich and diverse (and not uncomplicated) legacy. Equal parts inspiring, enigmatic and controversial, Steiner and his philosophies continue to be a subject of fascination and debate. However, in an age marked by materialism, technological advancement and increasing detachment, Steiner’s teachings offer a timely reminder of the importance of cultivating the human spirit. And when it comes to farming, they remind us to nurture the connections that bind us to nature.

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2024 of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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