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an uncommon consultant Print
Written by Nikitas Magel   

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.