an uncommon consultant Print
Written by Nikitas Magel   

An Uncommon Consultant

Former Châteauneuf-du-Pape Producer Explains the Efficacy of Biodynamic Viticulture
— An Interview with Wine Consultant Philippe Armenier

Biodynamic viticulture was something with which I'd been vaguely familiar when I first learned about the work of wine consultant Philippe Armenier.  It was during an interview I conducted some time ago with one of his clients that I began to suspect that this once-obscure approach to winegrowing was becoming increasingly practiced among premium producers.  In fact, in turns out that Armenier has provided Biodynamic services to quite a long list of prestigious clients that includes Joseph Phelps, Grgich Hills, Opus One, Peter Michael, and Cain, among a few dozen other reputable wine brands up and down the west coast of the United States.  And yet, it's all a far cry from where the former winemaker originally hails from the south of France, where he used to make wine under his own label — that is, until he sold the property, moved to California, and devoted his time entirely to consulting on Biodynamic farming.  Since then, the expatriate's success in earning a long list of devotees has been remarkable, given that the mainstream often considers the practice to be a rather unorthodox tangent of agriculture.  Skeptics notwithstanding, it appears that evidence is growing considerably in support of its efficacy, some of which I, myself, witnessed while Armenier took me on a tour to some of his clients' vineyards in the Napa Valley.  It was there among the vines that I learned the capabilities of this rather unconventional strategy in the quest to make better wines.

It wasn't too long ago that Philippe moved his family nearly halfway around the globe.  After having actualized the benefits of Biodynamic® farming with his own vineyard in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, eventually earning high accolades on the wines produced from it, he decided to answer a higher calling.  In 2002, he left Domaine Marcoux to his sisters, with the intention of bringing to winegrowers in the U.S. all that he'd mastered.  Although building a base of clientele had been slow at first, word of Armenier's work quickly spread among quality-driven producers whose interest in his services rapidly mounted.  To date, his clients number close to forty.

Biodynamic agriculture portrays the farm as a living organism rather than a food factory.

But what is it about his practice that makes Armenier increasingly more in demand among wine producers?  What exactly is Biodynamic agriculture?  "It is a spiritual science," he says.  "The feet on the earth, the head in the cosmos."  With these words, as I came to discover during the day I spent with him, Armenier describes the true essence of Biodynamics.  And what really seems to motivate him, apart from the obvious intent to grow healthier and more robust vineyards, is the promise of balance.  For Biodynamics seeks to bring into harmony the interrelationship of land with the plants and animals thriving on it as a tightly integrated and self-nourishing system.   In considering the entire plant, this system is considered among its pundits to be an 'open' one and is vastly more holistic and inclusive than conventional farming, which is self-contained or 'closed' off from the larger environment, often resulting in a loss of matter and nutrients that must then be imported back into the system.  This, in turn, results in a disconnection from the wider rhythms of the cosmos, one of numerous claims that has Biodynamics being described as a spiritual belief system.  Be that as it may, its theories are nevertheless grounded in a broader academic context: the teachings of Austrian scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925).  Back in the 1920s, on being approached by a group of European farmers who had grown concerned after noticing a rapid decline in the seed fertility and crop vitality of their land, Steiner offered guidelines for farming that was timed to the seasons of the earth and positions of the stars, ultimately portraying the farm as a living organism rather than a food factory, as it had come to be known.

Father of Biodynamics, Rudolph SteinerWhile there are some who feel that a great deal of Biodynamic principles remain not easily explained, increasingly more grape growers in the wine industry are embracing its practices.  They do so in an effort to bring better balance not only to their vineyards but also to the wines ultimately made from them.  But because of the inconveniences and complexities of Biodynamics, vineyard managers often hire the expertise of consultants like Philippe Armenier.  During my visit with him, however, he was very emphatic in claiming no credit for the actual efficacy of his methods.  Rather, he sees himself merely as a advocate of its underpinning principles, implementing practices based entirely on Steiner's academic lectures.  In fact, he likens Steiner to a composer, describing the application of his Biodynamic theory — similar to a contemporary orchestra playing a symphony written by Mozart or Brahms — as "an interpretation" of the philosopher's lectures.  And while this may indeed be the case, he was quick to remind me that such an interpretation is definitely not a loose one and that true Biodynamic practice never loses sight of Steiner's guidelines and the theory behind it.  Seeing to that is Demeter, the international body of organizations governing the Biodynamic certification of farmland through the enforcement of strict standards.

"Biodynamic preparations change the sensitivity of the soil, allowing it to open itself to the wider environment."

Among its stringent guidelines is the core of Biodynamic agriculture: the application of nine different organically-based preparations to aid fertilization of the soil.  Steiner himself believed that these preparations imparted supernatural terrestrial and cosmic "forces" into the ground to which they're applied.  But in order to harness these forces and maximize their effects, the vineyard worker must monitor the movement of the sun and phases of the moon for the precise times to add the various supplements.  Suffice to say, due to its complexity, mastering the synthesis of these preparations and their application in the right locations and correct times is not easy.  And therein lies the value of Armenier's coaching.  With the expertise of a consultant like him, the biodynamic preparations ultimately bring the vines into harmony, in line with the natural rhythms of the earth, moon, and larger universe.  In Armenier's words, they "change the sensitivity of the soil, allowing it to open itself to the wider environment, to the stream of life flowing all around it."  Using a sociological metaphor, he likens this to the difference between someone who sequesters themselves inside their home, away from contact with the outside world, versus someone who regularly interacts with it; the former will manage to sustain himself just fine, but the latter will arguably become a much more complex, sophisticated, socialized, and mentally healthy individual.  In the case of the vines, the Biodynamic preparations allow the soil to connect with the cosmos because the soil is absorbing that cosmic energy better and then transferring it to the plant.  Admittedly, it may all sound a bit far-fetched, especially to those who aren't very spiritually-minded, but the reality is that heavy hitters in wine production are investing money in this philosophy by hiring consultants like Armenier for his services.

Biodynamic Consultant Philippe ArmenierExpert guidance notwithstanding, it's not surprising that there are areas of confusion about Biodynamic practice, given its focus on the health of the whole.  While many people liken or even confound Biodynamics with Organic or sustainable viticulture, Armenier is very careful to point out their distinctions.  The conventional farmer — even one who might call his approach 'sustainable' — focuses primarily on the roots and the soil, and uses artificial fertilizers.  On the flip side is the Organic farmer, who focuses primarily on the leaf canopy, feeding the parts of the vine above the ground with compost teas sprayed on the leaves.  And though it uses nothing synthetic, per se, Organic viticulture actually neglects the very medium by which the plant takes up its nutrients: the soil.  Because while organic composts may change the soil's mechanics, its health remains unimproved.  What's more, it fails to take a truly holistic view of the farm as an organism by not acknowledging plants' connection to the cosmos.  And while Organics presumes its minimal interference in natural processes to be beneficial, Armenier questions how realistic this hands-off approach is, given how damaging our impact on the environment has been on the soil itself — something that Biodynamics seeks to heal and revitalize.  As for 'sustainable' farming, he questions the motivation of practices that fall under a title that can mean just about anything: "It's conventional farming trying to pass on the message of being green."  Interestingly, people often think of all of these practices as falling along a continuum, with Organics being closer than conventional farming to Biodynamics.  But to Armenier that's a fallacy: though it may implement healthier practices, Organic farming still focuses on only a small part of the whole plant, ignoring the rest.

Young Vine LeafThere is occasionally a lack of clarity or agreement about its principles even within the Biodynamic community.  Armenier is careful to stress that Biodynamics is not just about practice; as with any craft, it's a balance of both technique and art, both of which are necessary.  Moreover, Biodynamics doesn't guarantee good wine.  It deals only with farming and "stops at the door of the cellar," he says, pointing out that its benefits on the quality of fruit can easily be cancelled out by poor winemaking methods.  This happens to be an area where Armenier disagrees with Demeter, who honors "Biodynamic wine" as a designation.  As a purist, he argues vehemently against the monicker, stressing that Biodynamics at its core deals only with agriculture.  He does concede, however, that winemaking practice can take into account cosmic forces, much in the way that the moon influences tidal behavior.  But this, he states, is not part of Biodynamics, per se.

Semantics aside, the reality is that the effects of Biodynamics are evident.  Armenier showed me first and foremost that the most obvious indication is in the appearance of the grapevine itself.  In comparing vines grown conventionally versus Biodynamically, he pointed out how leaves from the latter, as is typically the case, are all "bright and shiny and play with the light."  Another characteristic of biodynamic vines is uprightness, or verticality, ostensibly because the shoots want to grow straight up towards the sky to connect with the heavens above.  Even while the afternoon sun was very hot on the day he demonstrated these differences, the leaves of Biodynamically-farmed vines were still very open and quite visibly stretched out far away from the canopy.  On the conventionally-farmed vines, the leaves generally point straight down to the ground, which he explained is a normal tendency due to the vine's attraction to even minute amounts of limestone/calcium in the soil.  If vines were not trained along trellis systems, they would want to crawl along the ground.  But what the Biodynamist does, through the use of the preparations used at the appropriate periods of the year, is to connect the vines more closely with unseen forces in the cosmos and in the earth, compelling its leaves to grow vertically upward and roots to grow vigorously downward.

Biodynamics doesn't guarantee good wine. It deals only with farming and "stops at the door of the cellar," says Armenier.

Another aspect wherein differences are perceived between Biodynamic and conventional farming is the fruit itself.   Upon taking me to a client of his, Sycamore Vineyard (whose grapes are sold to Freemark Abbey), Armenier had me compare the taste of nearly-ripe grapes from different parts of the same vineyard — one farmed conventionally, the other Biodynamically, separated by only a few yards of distance.  I found the Biodynamically-grown Cabernet Sauvignon grapes devoid of any green or bitter characteristics, and with a flavor profile that comes on assertively and stays on the palate.  But the same grapes conventionally-farmed only 20 feet away demonstrated a profile that came on aggressively fruit-forward and then quickly dropped off with very little of  a finish on the palate.

Sush differences are evident even before full ripening, as Armenier described the importance in his work of tasting green, unripe berries — something he readily observes that most California winemakers are completely unaccustomed to doing, oftentimes rejecting the very idea.  Yet there's important information in the taste of those green grapes.  In describing his work with L'Aventure Vineyards (Paso Robles), he recounted having a control block on the property where the vines were planted Organically, versus the rest of the vineyard that was farmed Biodyamically.  Those from the Organic vineyard had "green, bitter acidity, and a dry, tannic finish," but those from the Biodynamic vineyard had a "vivid acidity, like fresh lemons."  And these results were seen in a period of only five months, without even having gone through an entire cycle of Biodynamic farming.   What's more, during his vineyard evaluations, he often tastes the vine tendrils, which he describes as "a very good expression of the leaves" Vine Bunch Flowering and part of the entire canopy, "a big laboratory, transforming soil nutrients into something flavorful."  The point of tasting the vine's tendrils, says Armenier, is to monitor how the plant is progressing along that transformation, by getting at the sap itself.  One might easily analogize this to how a physician might test a patient's blood, which yields a plethora of information on various indicators of overall health.

Vine Bunch RipenedIn addition to evaluating by taste, Armenier also conducts objective internal measurements, in further validation of the beneficial effects of his practices.  In describing his work with Grgich Hills, he recounts having had one particular vineyard where half was farmed Biodyamically and the other half conventionally.  Upon measuring the pressure of sap in the vine petioles (leafstalk), it was found that those which were Biodyamically grown (with a pressure less than 14 bars) had lower heat stress than those which were conventionally farmed (with a pressure of 16-17 bars).  "We make the plant better able to live with the sun and atmosphere, with lower stress."

Perhaps even more significant than its efficacy at the outset of planting is Biodynamics' ability to repair and reverse damage from conventional farming, often empowering grapevines to recover from disease.  He recounted a recent experience with a vineyard of his client Beaux-Frères (Oregon), which had been suffering the effects of phylloxera (due to its use of a vulnerable rootstock) to the point of actually dying.  Without targeting the phylloxera itself, he administered the preparations over the course of four years, after which "you couldn't see the difference between the healthy and the weakened plants; Biodynamic farming brought this vineyard back to life, without ever addressing the disease."  In essence, then, a vineyard — entirely by virtue of being treated Biodynamically — can actually protect itself from the ravages from a vine disease as devastating as phylloxera, and even reverse its decline and eventual death.  Armenier admits to there being a point beyond which a vine is so ravaged and well on its way to dying that it cannot be brought back.  In this case, the vineyard hadn't yet gotten to point, though he asserts that it was sure to, had it not been for the intervention.

"Biodynamic farming brought this vineyard back to life, without ever addressing the disease."

The next logical question in my own mind was then, Would Biodynamic farming actually make it possible to plant a new vineyard entirely, from the roots, up, with European rootstock?  Surely, any viticulturalist today would be shocked and scandalized at the very suggestion.  Armenier's answer to this was simply that if it were possible, then the only way would be to use Biodynamic agriculture; conventional and even Organic farming would almost guarantee eventual attack of phylloxera on a non-resistant rootstock.  In fact, he claimed to know of a number of local vineyards that are planted with AxR1 rootstock (known to be vulnerable) that are thriving and producing commercially viable fruit, which he feels is possible only because of Biodynamic treatment.  His explanation for this, not surprisingly, was steeped in metaphor: the preparations bring the energy of light into the soil, which drives away phylloxera that rather thrives in darkness.  I reminded Armenier that his suggestion as to the efficacy of Biodynamics in treating phylloxera-affected vines is so unorthodox that droves of industry professionals would find them implausible, perhaps even absurd.  He admitted being well aware of the nonbelievers, but didn't seem particularly concerned about them.  He insists that he's not an evangelist seeking to convert people.  Only when they're open to the benefits of Biodynamic farming does he feel his involvement is appropriate.

All this aside, I felt compelled to understand opponents' rejection of these practices and the principles behind them.  The conclusion I came to is that critics of Biodynamic farming focus primarily on its means, rather than its end.  Because Biodynamics confounds conventional understanding of the world as we know it, many cannot get past its methods and therefore refuse to suspend their disbelief long enough to entertain the possibility that it might actually work.  And by 'work,' pundits mean that the practice succeeds in propagating grapevines that are healthier, more vibrant, and in closer harmony with the earth, the atmosphere, other plants and animals, and ultimately everything else in the universe.  In discussing with Armenier the skepticism toward Biodynamics, I soon recognized its parallel to another discipline that taps into unseen forces in its aim to bring better balance to a living thing: accupuncture.  As a practice, it hinges on the principle of energy flow in the body, a concept that confounds modern medicine — and yet in many communities, accupuncture is not only accepted and empirically validated, it's backed by providers.

Yet even Armenier himself wasn't always a believer.  In fact, he began his career in winemaking many years ago in the practice of conventional farming.  But when he noticed the gradual decline of his vineyard in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, by the appearance of its vines and the taste of its fruit, he began to question prior assumptions about mainstream agriculture — in spite of being an excellent viticulturist with accolades from Robert Parker.  And though the resulting wines he describes as having been powerful, masculine, and with good structure, the flavors were quickly fleeting and ultimately left little on the palate.  He ultimately sought to bring finesse and elegance to his wines and "that came with Biodynamic farming."  That, plus a bit of help from his wife Brigitte, the one to have set him on his path toward Biodynamic thinking with the gift of a book by Rudolph Steiner, the man who started it all.

To learn more about Philippe Armenier and his services to wine producers, visit his Biodynamic Consultancy online.