It Takes a Lot of Cow Skulls to Make Good Wine


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It Takes a Lot of Cow Skulls to Make Good Wine

Summerhill Winery is known for its world-renowned wines that rely upon the biodynamic method of holistic agriculture. The techniques—which include fermenting flowers inside animal viscera—adhere to an astrological calendar.

The neighbors were upset. The people of Kelowna, a pastoral community in British Columbia's southern interior, are a notoriously God-fearing lot. So, when the recently relocated New York real-estate-developer-turned-vintner Stephen Cipes erected the eponymous edifice of his Summerhill Pyramid Winery in 1992, folks thought the Devil himself had come to town. "This is the Bible Belt," explains Stephen's son Gabe who leads the biodynamic operations of the vineyard, which overlooks Lake Okanagan. "Kelowna has changed a lot but it was fairly isolated and close-minded at the time. I would find swastikas on my desk in school. They totally thought we were worshiping Satan up here."


There's no demon in these wines, though. Summerhill relies not on the machinations of Old Scratch, but on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, the anthroposophical philosopher who created the biodynamic method of holistic agriculture in 1924. The technique requires adherence to an astrological calendar and centers around nine "preparations" used to charge compost with mystical properties to support plant growth—all without the use of pesticides or chemical fertilizers. These preparations include flowers fermented inside various bits of animal viscera, and manure from a lactating cow mashed into a horn and left to age underground.

While easy to immediately dismiss this approach as standard-issue hippie piffle—or outright meddling with dark forces—it's worth noting that Summerhill's wines, especially the sparkling, are consistently ranked in the global top 20, and it is the only Canadian producer with that distinction. Who needs Satan when you've got those kind of accolades?

500 lactating cow manure _ cow horn

Preparation 500: Manure from a lactating cow in cow horns. After a four month burial, the manure changes to a dry, "sweet"-smelling product that replenishes spent soil.


Preparation 500 after fermentation.

501 silica _ cow's horn also 508 Horsetail tea

Preparations 501 (silica and cow's horn) and 508 (horsetail tea).

502 in Ash Tree

Preparation 502—yarrow flowers fermented in a stag's bladder–aerates in a tree. "The bladder is so tiny, I literally crush handfuls of flowers in there with a stick but it can take it," says Gabe. "The bladder is meant to expand and contract. So here we are drying it in its contracted form, which has to do with the process of the universe that we are trying to emulate."

502 yarrow stagg's bladder

Yarrow flowers, pre-bladder.

503 chamomile intestine

Preparation 503: To make, stuff dried chamomile into cow intestine using a funnel and stick. Bury in a clay pot from autumn to spring. Assists soil in processing calcium and nitrogen. "The intestine basically dissolves during the process, it's just the casing," says Gabe.

505 Gabe_Oak bark in skull

Preparation 505: "The skull is stuffed with white oak bark, wrapped with leaves and buried underwater so the preparation digests anaerobically–without air. When you take it out of the skull it has a crazy aroma and has turned this wild pink color. This preparation raises the pH level of the soil without lime."


Preparation 505 in an ash tree.

506 Chamomile _ mesentery

Preparation 506: Chamomile wrapped in mesentery. "That's the lining of the cows stomach–it holds everything in," Gabe says. "So we make a 'football' of dandelion flowers and wrap it in mesentery." Attracts forces from the planet Jupiter and provides potassium.


Elise, a Summerhill Pyramid Winery volunteer, makes preparations in the garden for a burial site. "My parents run a winery outside of Bordeaux where there is very little organic wine," she says, "so I am here to learn to take this knowledge back to France."


Cow horns, waiting to be filled.

Pinot Noir_Sparkle

Pinot noir grapes for sparkling wine.

preparations on leaf

"To inoculate the manure," says Gabe, "I'll scrape out about a gram of preparation and put it every four yards—just push it in with a stick."


The winery's namesake pyramid. "In its form, the structure creates a vortex that matter reacts to when encased in–especially fluids," says Gabe. "It's the same sacred geometry in Roman archways that you find in old French cellars, the golden 1.618 ratio. The spiral, it's what we are. This is a stillness chamber that allows the wines to become centered, themselves."


The pyramid's ceiling.


Preparation 504: nettle tea. "The way we stir in biodynamics–clockwise, then counter clockwise–creating order then chaos with the spiral, all these fractals emerge. Entrophy born of order, it spirals out into infinity."


Silica soaking in the sun.


Preparation 508: horsetail tea. "I harvested horsetail and let it boil for 20 minutes, then it sits for four days," Gabe says. "It is a very potent brew that we spray on the ground and on trunks of trees to keep mildew down. It suppresses it. A lot of farmers swear by it–not just in biodynamics."


A teepee at the vineyard.


"I don't know when the world is going to catch on to the kinds of work that we a doing here," says Gabe, "but I like to think we are setting a good example of how to reach your potential in all sorts of ways. Not just making great wine but showing that when you work with the natural order of things, magical things can happen."


A view of the lake from Summerhill's property.


"Biodynamics represented what we were aligned with as a family," says Gabe. "We traveled and visited biodynamic wineries and saw the attention to detail and the ecosystem benefits and the wild spaces. It'll take a while for people to get it. We were organic for 25 years, and no one knew what then meant until just recently."

This story was originally published on August 21, 2014.