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There 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" 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.