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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.