Philippe Armenier pleaded, “Please don’t write a hocus-pocus article.” I gave him my word. But when I recently wrote about him for Time magazine I had to fight my editor who, yes, wanted an article about magic. When he found out that Armenier, the biodynamic wine consultant, guides his clients in the fine art of burying dung-filled horns on the autumnal equinox, teaches them to unearth them at the vernal, it was hard for him to resist the hank-panky bait.
As biodynamics catches on in the States, Armenier is a busier man. He sold off Domaine Marcoux in Chateauneuf de Pape (which is biodynamic) to his sister. He moved to California four years ago. He had one client—get this—Jess Jackson (of Kendall-Jackson) in Biodynamics. That deal fell apart but others (big names—Randall Grahm, Archery Summit, Beaux Freres, Grace Family Vineyards, Beckmen and Grgich Hills) signed on.
Armenier not just a farmer but a winemaker. This sets him apart from Alan York, the other consultant in town.
Forget about “hocus-pocus,” with Philippe you won’t get any hanky-panky—no intervention like yeast, enzyme, too much oak, tannin or any other modern winemaking tricks. His is biodynamic and real winemaking. Be careful, they don’t always go together.
But the practice of biodynamic winemaking is much more than its magical trappings. It gets results. Many of the world’s greatest domains (like Burgundy’s Leroy and Leflaive) swear it healed their soil and vines after years of chemical mistreatment. And if some treatments with some strange sounding ingredients helps? So what. Whatever works.
Biodynamics was the invention of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), who founded the Anthroposophical Society and the Waldorf schools. Some people mumble that Steiner was too cozy with the Nazi party. Last summer I was in Germany and visited and tasted with the wonderfully eccentric Reinhard Lowenstein of Heymann-Löwenstein in his upper Mosel winery (Reinhard plays music to his fermenting wine, that sort of thing). I asked him why he doesn’t go biodynamic as many of his practices has a spiritual dimension. He answered with a scowl, “I don’t want anything to do with Steiner, that Nazi.” Hmm. This from a German? I took it to heart. Nevertheless, whatever the truth is about Steiner’s alliances (most do agree, at least, that Steiner really did sound like a nutcase), more and more, I find that the wines I like are farmed and made biodynamically.
It’s sort of like how I got to Armenier in the first place. As you all know, I have little tolerance for American wines in their current sappy, soda-like, sugary, oaky, obviously floozy form. Wells Guthrie’s, under the Copain label, however, are good. In fact, I really liked a syrah he makes from the Cailloux and Coccinelle vineyards in Walla Walla, Washington. After tasting the wine, I knew I wanted to meet the man who grew the grapes.
So, I go to Walla Walla and meet with Christophe Baron, a French guy (big bouncy personality, a little like a frisky puppy) who moved to Washington, fell in love with soil with rocks the size of softballs and started to make wines under the Cayuse label.
He planted his grape vines from cuttings, not from clonal selection. His wines are really delicious. Yeah, they’re American—big wines with lots of fruit but there’s also mineral in there. There’s interest. There’s complexity. These are not one trick pony wines.
Now, last week, the New York Times came out saying that Christophe is the only winemaker in the state of Washington who can make syrah. This may or may not be true (in any case, it is almost true), but don’t you think it’s important to have included that Christophe’s is the only biodynamic, naturally made wine in the state? And he uses Armenier as a consultant. I think it is not only important but a real disservice as an omission. On the other hand, maybe they just didn’t know. So, I, in my new role of the kinder, gentler wine writer, forgive Eric his omission.