Unconventional theories spawn believers - and critics

Austrian philosopher's century-old ‘life force' teachings live on in Sonoma County though Waldorf schools, biodynamic grape growing

The Press-Democrat, California/October 10, 2009

An unconventional Austrian philosopher's influence has stretched across a century to specialty vineyards and inventive classrooms in Sonoma County that share his vision for bringing a "life force" to the tilling of soil and cultivating of young minds.

With its trademark affection for liberal politics and alternative practices, this suburban-to-rural county has become fertile ground for the ideas hatched in the early 20th century by quirky, controversial Rudolf Steiner.

Nowhere else in the nation are so many Waldorf-inspired public charter schools close together, six within a 35-mile radius, including four in Sonoma County and two more in Napa and Marin counties.

And nowhere else is there such a concentration of wineries and vineyards that are certified practitioners of biodynamic farming, a blend of botanical common sense with pagan-like animism that began taking hold in North Coast vineyards in the mid-1990s.

Both Waldorf education and biodynamics are rooted in anthroposophy, Steiner's overarching philosophy in his compendium of 40 books and more than 6,000 lectures that imputes a spiritual-material harmony to the universe.

"The life forces here are tremendous," said Roland Baril, lower school director at the 389-student Summerfield Waldorf School in Santa Rosa.

"We look at the farm as a living organism," said Mike Benziger, head of the Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen that began converting to biodynamic practices in 1995. "When you look at something that's alive you manage it differently."

It's unconventional, and to some, outlandish thinking.

Despite the involvement of figures like Benziger, Paul Dolan in Mendocino County and Jim Fetzer in Lake County, biodynamic wine remains "an obscure part of the business," wine industry analyst Jon Fredrikson said.

Somewhat like a religion, he said, "it requires a good deal of faith."

Dan Dugan, a San Francisco sound engineer who is part of a group that filed a lawsuit challenging the non-sectarian status of Waldorf charter schools, contends that anthroposophy is thinly veiled religion that has no place in public schools. "It's deceptive," he said.

To devotees, it's a fit for Sonoma County's close-to-the-earth inclinations as Steiner-informed schools and vineyards carve growing footholds in their respective fields.

"Sonoma County is a bit of a bubble in relation to the outside world," Benziger said.

"We're at the epicenter of the public Waldorf movement," said Sheila Riley, administrator at Woodland Star Charter School in Sonoma, one of the four local charter schools offering an "arts-infused" Waldorf-style curriculum.

Summerfield Waldorf School, founded in Santa Rosa during the 1970s revival of Waldorf education, occupies a bucolic, 38-campus with an enrollment that is rising while many expensive, private academies lose students.

Enrollment at the four Waldorf charter schools - two in Sebastopol, and one each in Petaluma and Sonoma - is 886 this year, up 41 percent from five years ago. With more than 1,000 schools worldwide, Waldorf is said to be the largest non-parochial private school system in the world.

Benziger, who grows 250 acres of grapes at six sites, is one of a dozen certified biodynamic wineries or vineyards in Sonoma County. Mendocino County has nine and Lake County has three biodynamic wine operations, according to Demeter, the international organization that certifies biodynamic products.

Of the 51 Demeter-certified wine operations in the United States, all but two are on the West Coast and 38 are in California.

The parents who can spend up to $170,000 to send their kids through Summerfield Waldorf's kindergarten-through-12th grade and winemakers who spend millions converting their operations to biodynamics are true believers.

And they say it's a perfect fit in Sonoma County, a land of ideas for saving open space, buying hybrid cars and organic foods, embracing sustainable technology and choosing alternative medicine.

The word anthroposophy means "wisdom of man." Steiner, who believed in clairvoyance and close observation of the natural world, defined it as "a path of knowledge aiming to guide the spiritual element in the human being to the spiritual in the universe."

Savant or svengali, depending on one's point of view, Steiner designed an educational system - at the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1919 - attuned to his theories of child development.

The progression of lessons and methods is precise, even rigid, starting with two years of play-oriented kindergarten using beeswax block crayons, with which kids draw in colorful swaths.

Stick crayons and pencils are introduced in grades one to three, with fountain pens in fourth grade. "It's an education which appreciates how a person grows and develops," said Maria Onorato, a high school junior who's been in Waldorf since fourth grade.

Haley Westcott, who came to Waldorf from public schools as a ninth grader this fall, said there's a difference. "We always learned things out of the book," she said. "Here it's more creative."

"Everything is really art," classmmate Sydney Hollinger said.

Mainstream schools teach fractions in third grade, but at Woodland Star third-graders engage in cooking, carpentry and other physical skills, learning to measure a half-cup of flour and to pound a quarter-inch nail, Riley said.

Fractions are introduced as a concept in fourth-grade math class. "It's a way of making learning relevant to the child," Riley said.

Test scores verify Waldorf's unique pace. Only 32 percent of Sebastopol Independent Charter School's second graders scored proficient or advanced in English on last year's STAR tests. But 100 percent of the eighth-graders scored at that level, ranking the Waldorf charter first among 44 Sonoma County schools in that category.

Summerfield Waldorf's SAT scores for the 2007-08 school year beat the countywide averages in reading (586 to 530), math (555 to 542) and writing (557 to 529) tests.

Waldorf charter schools must adhere to state curriculum standards, but retain Steiner's commitment to the arts and music. "If you strip that out, you wouldn't have a Waldorf school," Riley said.

Because public school budgets don't cover art and music, Woodland Star asks parents to pledge $50 per month per student, netting the school $120,000 a year.

Tuition at Summerfield Waldorf ranges from $3,400 for preschool to $15,500 a year for high school. But the school achieves diversity, Baril said, by earmarking 10 percent of its annual $4 million budget to a tuition assistance program.

Waldorf critics abound.

Dugan, a formerly enthusiastic Waldorf parent, is part of a group called PLANS - People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools - that filed a federal lawsuit in 1998 alleging that anthroposophy is a "religious sect" and that taxpayer-funded Waldorf charter schools are unconstitutional.

There's a lot to like about Waldorf education, Dugan said, but it conceals the spiritual elements of anthroposophy, including belief in supernatural beings and reincarnation.

Anthroposophy is a "spiritual science," Baril said, which explores the nature of human wisdom. It is not limited to the "material aspects of science."

What's "true" or not about biodynamic farming also seems to depend on one's frame of reference. Roger Boulton, a professor of enology at UC Davis, said he's not aware of any scientific evaluation of biodynamics.

"No, that does not dismiss it," he said.

Phases of the moon and old-fashioned farmer's almanacs guided agricultural practices long before Steiner's era, Boulton said. Believers in such systems don't necessarily want scientific verification and "may not be convinced even if no effect was found," he said.

Benziger turned to biodynamics in 1995, after 15 years of conventional farming at the Glen Ellen ranch had yielded fine wines but "destroyed the natural biodiversity" of the place. "It was a desert," he said.

It took five years and a cost of $2,000 to $3,000 an acre to make the conversion to biodynamics.

Wine broker Brian Clements said he appreciates the motives of biodynamic growers, but the marketplace does not reward their investment. "You're not going to get that back," he said.

"Those who do it have a passion for it," he said.

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