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In 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.