Biodynamics and Pushing Boundaries with Phillip Hart, AmByth Estate
AmByth Estate is a magical place and sometimes I think l might taste what Phillip Hart calls its “nature spirits” in the wines. You could say this is the power of suggestion, but given my skepticism of anything that can’t be scientifically proven, I find what the Hart family has been doing at the top of the Templeton Gap since they put the first vines in the ground in 2003 especially intriguing.
I went down to the winery in Paso Robles a few days ago to help pick grapes as well as Phillip’s mind about amphora for the October Vinguard newsletter. As has always been the case since I met Phillip and Mary, his wife, in 2014, there is no such thing as small talk when we get together; the conversations veer off track and down rabbit holes. They are unafraid to discuss their honest, thoughtful opinions and could care less if you or anyone else agree, or not. This could be said of others yet they are also consistent, inquisitive, listen, hear what you say and push the boundaries of the conversation to another level. There is no such thing as banality in their sphere and this in conjunction with the magnificent home and winery they built for themselves creates a very life affirming atmosphere.
When I arrived on Friday, I met an entourage of about a dozen people that included Phillip’s 92-year-old mother, Marjorie. She has a passion for beets that seems as deep as her son’s for wine. She actually wrote a book about it, Beet Your Way to Health, and is thinking about writing another though she concedes she might need to broaden the topic to other vegetation.
The temperature at that point was about 100 degrees, down from hitting somewhere above 110 a few hours earlier. After supper, Joey, an intern from Hamburg, took me to the winery where I saw the fruit of that day’s labor. I got my hands somewhat less than dirty punching down an amphora vessel of fermenting Marsanne. By the time I was done with it, it resembled a giant cappuccino and I was ready for my union break, so I mostly watched while Joey punched down the Sangiovese, which had been picked that morning. At that point, Gelert, Phillip’s son and self-described apprentice, appeared to check on the fermentations.
Not too long afterward, we returned to the house and Joey, who is a viticulture student at Hochschule Geisenheim University, and I began to discuss the term, “winemaker.” I asked Phillip, who was sitting nearby, what he thought of it, and here is most of the conversation that ensued over glasses of the 2016 Shacksbury Petnat.
PSB: What do you think of the term winemaker?
PH: That’s a loaded question. My answer is obvious. I spoke to Steve Beckman (Beckman Vineyards). They have Purisima, which is perfect, and the rest of the property is not. By itself, it’s weird. I asked him, “What are you making?” And, his take is very simple, if you’re a winemaker you have to make the best wine you can. From that perspective, the best wine you can is the best man-made wine you can. There is not interest in the best grape-made wine you can. And there’s the difference. It’s simple; I understand it and I disagree. Why have that beautiful Purisima Mountain and then screw up the grapes because you think you can do better than nature? It doesn’t make sense to me.
PSB: Then what do you call yourself?
PH: All right, so we do make wine because we, of course, keep things clean. And because we do, if necessary, rack if there’s some odors coming through. Then you do give it some oxygen. Also, we may say, “Oops, we screwed up on picking.” We may want to make a blend because that’s too high in sugar, that’s too low in sugar. That’s all naturalistic things that people can do. So yes, we’re winemakers, we still make wines. You can get fancy and call yourself a wine caretaker but that’s ridiculous. We’re winemakers but we’re natural winemakers. If you don’t understand the term you don’t understand what’s real. People say there’s no definition of the term natural. Well, of course, there’s a definition. You can deviate the term as much as you like but then you’re not being true.
PSB: Ok, your winery is temperature controlled. People could say that’s not being natural.
PH: Absolutely, and if you were having a scoring system you could give me a negative mark. However, we’re in Paso Robles. I can’t afford to dig 20 feet underground. But they’re people who would say that’s a negative mark, I would agree with them. I just don’t happen to be in France with a chalk cave in the mountain. Yes, I agree, one check mark against. I tried it the other way when we first started. We had no air, we just opened up the door. This particular moment in time right now is classical. Open up the doors and it’s 70 degrees. It’s not worth it. We’d probably end up with off wine. We’d probably end up with wine that all these people say these natural winemakers make that’s not good and they’re probably right. We have AC in the winery.
We also store our wine in the winery, we don’t store it off premises and that’s a choice. Therefore, our stored wine must be kept at a certain temperature.
When we’re making our wine in the winery, if things are moving slowly we’ll move it outside, we’ll move it to the garage, which is warmer. In January we take the wines outside to cold stabilize.
PSB: That’s a natural means of temperature control.
PH: I guess if you’re making wines somewhere where it wouldn’t cold stabilize you have to do something else because you don’t have minus degrees and winds going through, but in our case we do. So could somebody do something or use a jacketed tank to cold stabilize? Those are points. Cold stabilizing your wine with a jacketed tank is not as bad as adding acid or tannins. There are degrees. But if you don’t need to use a jacketed tank and you’re just lazy and don’t move it outside when you have the weather that could do it, that’s an error. That is what separates it. They have no faith.
And you may have to wait. Remember, I told you earlier the difference between us and a lot of young natural winemakers that I respect and like? The difference is time. So if we don’t get a breeze in the winter that cold stabilizes our wine we will wait until next year until it does freeze. In checking cold stabilization you don’t need to go to the lab. You just put it in a bottle and put it in the fridge. You’ll find out if it clouds up or not. We’re not going to sell a wine that clouds up when you put it in the fridge. I don’t want to do that – even though it’s ok if I buy a wine that does, it doesn’t bother me. But I don’t think AmByth should do that.
If you really care about wine you keep experimenting and find your heart and soul.
PSB: What made you decide to go down the biodynamic road?
PH: I have no idea. Accident. Mary and I both come from natural farms. Her mother was a Rodale organic small farmer on her property.[i] I came from north Wales where my father started using an ox. Monsanto didn’t exist and nobody could afford it if it did. The rug business that we’re in is all natural.[ii] We use natural dies, sheep’s wool. It all falls into place. As everything in life, it’s accidental.
PSB: What are the benefits to working biodynamically as opposed to organically?
PH: I think there is absolutely nothing wrong at all with doing it organically if you’re using extreme organics. The trouble with organics is there are so many shortcuts you can use. You can add organic this, you can apply organic that. It’s right, left and center. It’s all over the place. But if you choose to be a superb organic farmer I have no problem with it whatsoever. But there are too many loopholes.
PSB: There are the loopholes if you are certified organic and then people say they are practicing…
PH: That’s a bit of a shitty thing. I think people should be certified. For instance, Coturri is not certified but he doesn’t need to be, he’s grandfathered in. He proved himself, his father proved himself. He doesn’t need to be certified. But, little old AmByth Estate known to nobody or any other winery you care to mention, we should be because we need to prove our credentials. Do we need to stay that way? In ten years if we decertify when everybody knows we do everything right, that’s fine by me.
PSB: When did you get certification?
PH: Right in the beginning. We started in ‘03 and we got full certification in ’06 from Demeter and organic. That’s the reason why we did it because so many people say they are and they’re not. If they say they are and they are like Coturri, I have no problem. But to say they are and they’re not, sucks. All those that run the peripheral, “Yeah, we’re mostly organic.” What the hell does that mean? Usually, people say they don’t certify because they say it’s a hassle. They don’t want to deal with the government. They use all these little buzzwords but the reason they typically don’t certify is because they couldn’t. That’s what we have seen.
PSB: What are the hurdles to becoming absolutely organic?
PH: There’s no hurdles. Stop using chemicals. Remember what I said about organic? It’s a hell of a lot better than conventional but there’s still a lot of cop-out in organic.
PBS: In both organics and biodynamics you can use copper and sulfur in farming.
PH: You can but we don’t.
PSB: You don’t use any elemental sulfur?
PH: No. But that’s a choice because I don’t like dealing with it. It hurts your throat. It’s disgusting but I don’t have a problem with someone that does. Powdery mildew is the biggest problem a natural farmer has.
PSB: Do you have much of that here?
PH: We have it. We had powdery mildew on our Marsanne this year. It will actually add some interest but it could wipe your crop out.
PSB: What do you do?
PH: We do an awful lot of biodynamic sprays and we do use, if necessary, a product that uses bicarbonate soda.
PSB: But that’s a natural product.
PH: Well so, there’s a lot of things that are natural. So there’s another trade. You can say well that’s another half point off because you will use a certain product that will kill powdery mildew when it comes to it, yes.
PSB: But it’s permissible under Demeter.
PH: Yes, we won’t use anything that’s not permissible under Demeter. But that isn’t that great either because you always want to push the boundaries. A lot of biodynamic farms will just cruise using the permissible items, but of course, if you’re truly biodynamic or, I keep using the word biodynamic, “natural,” you want to keep pushing the boundary. You don’t want to use those items. You want to keep pushing the boundary to where you don’t have to use them; to where you use whey, to where you use garlic, that’s the goal. That should be the goal always.
PSB: What does garlic do?
PH: We fermented garlic and whey and sprayed it. Why? Because other people have done it and found it’s worked.
PSB: Against mildew?
PH: Against mildew. We made a tincture of rosemary with a double distilled grappa that we add six drops to the acre. Because if you read that natural wine book by Isabelle there was an Italian guy who did it and said it works, so we said, “We’ll do it.” [iii] I ’d love to use six drops per acre of a tincture of grappa distilled with rosemary versus bicarbonate soda. That’s what you should be doing. You’re not looking to solve the problem just with a short-term solution. You’re looking to solve the problem in the most natural manner utilizing what you have on your own property. That’s the ultimate goal, for me.
PSB: That’s the ideal.
PH: And you’re not going to achieve it tomorrow because that’s life. But you keep looking. And you keep talking to other people that are doing it like in Isabelle’s book and you get ideas you try. But, I also happen to believe there probably isn’t a single solution. As we discussed earlier, every year is different, everything happens differently. So one year that tincture of distilled rosemary works, one year it won’t because the atmosphere is different. So you have to keep thinking, working, understanding, trying…no, I used the wrong word. I said “understanding” – that suggests for a moment we understand, we do not. Trying to understand. That’s what you’ve got to do.
PSB: Do you think Steiner understood?[iv]
PH: No, Steiner was great. He has his ideas and this is of paramount importance, he says, “Go out there, try it and talk between yourselves. Don’t talk to other people.” For some reason, he didn’t want to do that and I kind of get it because other people think you’re nuts. Go out there, try it and talk within yourselves and use what works. So Steiner was a pragmatist.
PSB: Would you say he worked within certain parameters? When he was doing this it was a different time, 100 years ago.
PH: But he was basing it on his studying of Goethe and previous philosophers. His big, big deal was, “Go out there, try it, see what works. Talk to each other and change.” And I think that’s vital. When I read that about Steiner, that’s what hooked me. It wasn’t the dogma. People love to say that biodynamic farming is dogma. It’s actually not a dogma. You’re supposed to keep learning and change.
PSB: Isn’t that true of everything?
PH: Yes indeed. I agree 100%.
PSB: You can see in a number of fields that people get intellectually lazy. You can see that in winemaking, too. Some wines, at a certain point, stop getting better.
PH: I don’t know how much a winery can get better and better. We have a long way to go. We’re brand new. Our first commercial vintage was ’06. Just to get to ’11 to stop using sulfites was a huge leap for us. That was six, seven years ago. So there’s a long way to go. There’s a long way to go to understand the amphora question. Right now Gelert’s taking the flag and he obviously really enjoys it too because what I’m seeing him doing in the winery right now is mirroring what we were doing and I don’t think that’s going to change, necessarily. It’s certainly not going to change by using additions.
This year’s Sangiovese is going to be 12 months on the skins in amphora. We did that with a little bit of Cab last year to add to our Cab blend and we were truly happy with it. Those are the kinds of changes but again you can’t be dogmatic. In ten years, you’re going to find that worked those two years but it didn’t work that one year. You look at your figures, you try to understand. You might, you might not understand.
PSB: How much do you really rely on the numbers?
PH: We don’t rely at all. We use numbers as a basis to try to understand. So as things happen, every day you punch down, you taste the wines, every day you take numbers, you taste the wines, every time you top the wines, you taste the wines. If something goes wrong you can perhaps go to those numbers and say, “Was this an unusual thing? Did the numbers tell us something?”
I’m a numbers person. I like numbers. Numbers mean lots of things. I think numbers are important from the point of view of reference. Gelert brought three Syrahs up here the other day, three different years, they were all AmByth so we knew the alcohol levels, but he’d actually gone one step further and gone back to our notes of the pH from when we bottled them. So our conversation swung from just taste and alcohol to how did the pH affect that. Of course, you can also throw VA into that discussion. And so, it’s just a continual learning.
We don’t make Syrah. We don’t make 1,000 bottles of Syrah. In 2010, I made 23 different wines, so the convoluted combinations never stop – which is the fun part. But that doesn’t mean to say you stop. You stop talking about pH and then say, “Maybe we should have thrown VA in that model as well or alcohol into that number to try to continue to understand why a wine evolves the way it does, why a wine tastes better to you. That’s very important.
Not to the public at large because when you make wine naturally you don’t care about the public at large. You care about yourself. I went to a seminar where somebody said, “How many of you winemakers make wine for you vs. how many make wine for your public.” It was about a 50/50 split. Actually, most people made wine for the public. Obviously, I stuck my hand up, I make wine for me and I hope there’s enough people who find interest. Are you in the wine business or do you truly love wine? If you’re in the wine business that is a different deal and I get it. You make wine for the public. You make wine that fits Australian wine tastes at a certain price point, whatever, but if you really care about wine you keep experimenting and find your heart and soul.
PSB: There’s a difference if you are looking at wine as a commodity, as a drug or as an art.
PH: I happen to think we might be moving towards the point where those of us who consider wine an art that we love, maybe we can make a living. There’s a big question.
PSB: Another loaded one.
PH: Absolutely. You’re never going to answer that question. I feel very proud that we have advanced natural wine in our small way from AmByth estate. That we have natural-made wine that is clean, that is pure. Whether you love it or not that’s your call, but we don’t make wine with faults. We’re completely see-through, we don’t cheat. I feel very proud of about that, I do. I feel it’s been an accomplishment.
PSB: To change the subject, I don’t fully understand the spiritual aspect of biodynamics. I try to explain it to people; there’s the farming, where a lot of it is about working with your natural ecosystem and what you’re taking away you’re putting back. But there is also this spiritual level, and because I’m not a spiritual person, I feel woefully inept to explain that to people.
PH: I’m a very spiritual person. I don’t talk about it with other people because what’s the point. If they ask I’m happy to answer. I do think it’s spiritual but that doesn’t make it mystical or weird. But I do believe there are spirits. Steiner talked about nature spirits. I’ve read an awful lot of books about it. I am very happy with the fact that there are nature spirits out there that we work with. When we spray, we spray on the Epiphany, the 6th of January, the Three Kings Spray, and we spray it outward to protect the nature spirits that are on our property. I feel very good about that. Does that make me a nut? Entirely possibly. Who cares?
PSB: Does that make you more of a nut than other people who follow rituals in other religions?
PH: Biodynamics is not a religion, it’s a choice.
PSB: Ok, that’s true. But I was born Jewish and I have a choice to practice it or not.
PH: And I’m Catholic. And perhaps because I was brought up a Catholic, actually I was brought up a fairly staunch Catholic, I was an altar boy my whole childhood, that may help me to understand or feel nature spirits. Because we talk about angels and life and have the father, the son and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is very important. It’s kind of imbued in me. Got the spirit. I enjoyed that part because it is completely ephemeral. It is absolutely nothing you can ever get your hand around – isn’t that wonderful? It’s wild, it’s out there. Isn’t that great?
PSB: When you talk about any sort of spirituality, it is something that is not easy to explain – you take a leap of faith, literally. It’s almost like being in love. If you’re not in love with someone, you’re not and if you are in love with someone, you are, and you’re the only one who can explain what that is. And with faith, there are people who have it and people who don’t.
PH: I never equated that particular sentiment, that’s very good.
PSB: I’ve never had that sort of thing but I can’t say it doesn’t exist. I think there are lots of things we can’t explain. There may very well be a scientific explanation that we’re incapable of explaining at this point in our progression but where that boils down to with wine, with biodynamics, people don’t understand certain aspects of it and think some of it is hocus pocus.
PH: Alright, it’s hocus pocus but it works. It makes very interesting wine. Even for those folks who just follow the criteria of just applying preps and don’t believe in nature’s spirits but so long as they make natural wine following up on that, they make interesting wine. So hocus pocus, well great, it still works.
I’m going to interject because we haven’t said it. It’s not just biodynamic farming. It needs to go further. So, when you talk about biodynamic farming you must couple that with either using the term “biodynamic winemaking” or “natural winemaking” because biodynamic farming by itself doesn’t produce great wine. It’s going to make healthier wine than conventional farming but you must follow through. It doesn’t make sense. You farm in this nth degree, you bring in these superb grapes and then you don’t treat them with respect. It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. Why would you do that?
PSB: What is the spiritual aspect to the winemaking side of biodynamics.
PH: Emotion, feeling vs. knee jerk and then action. I know lots of people, people I respect, who will immediately do something to fix the wine. They don’t have respect for what they’ve grown. Maybe the people I’m thinking of don’t grow what they make, they’re dealing with grapes that come in from somebody else so there’s perhaps a fear factor. Here at AmByth, we respect the grapes that come in, 100%. We allow them to do what they need to do and so far the return is magnificent.
PSB: People say you’ll probably never work as hard for another person as you will for yourself when it’s your own business.
PH: I’ve always worked for myself so I have no idea.
PSB: I’ve mostly worked for myself as well but, having worked for myself, when I’ve gone and worked for other people, I’ve really put in my all because I know what it’s like to have your own business. I’m not going to do something half-assed.
PH: I had a new employee at my business down south who said that to me the other day. He said, “I’m a company man.” He’s 61 years old and he said if I’m going to work for somebody I’m going to put everything I’ve got into it. So, people can.
PSB: People can but the parallel I was going to use is that if it’s your own grapes, it’s your own vines, and even if you haven’t grown them, it’s coming from your land as opposed to buying it from someone else, so there might be a difference in that connection.
PH: Very much difference. I planted these vines, I nurtured them from day one. It’s why I wanted Gelert, he gave me grief a couple years ago about having to go out there and prune and what not, and I wanted him to spend some years pruning. You’ve got to know each vine. That’s Henry, that’s Frank, that’s Daphne.
PSB: They have names?
PH: No (laugh) but you get the idea. What you learn is all the vines are different. Syrah is not Syrah. Syrah is 880 different individuals under the auspices of the name Syrah.
At this point, our glasses were empty and it was time to keep the petnat theme going so Phillip opened a bottle of a 2013 Petnat he made from Grenache Blanc. You can see the operation in the video here and the scuffle at the end, which I like to refer to as my Blair Witch Project moment, a result of losing my balance. No harm done, just a bit of embarrassment.
[i] Rodale is a form of organic farming. Mary’s mother farmed on a small scale, non-commercially.
[ii] In 1978, Phillip and his brother, Marc, started a company that imports high-end rugs and carpets. Phillip’s second son, Morgan, is now managing it while Gelert, his eldest, works with Phillip at AmByth.
[iii] Natural Wine, An Introduction to Organic and Biodynamic Wines Made Naturally by Isabelle Legeron, MW
[iv] While many aspects of biodynamic viticulture and winemaking go back centuries, Rudolf Steiner is credited as the founder or father of biodynamic agriculture. He formulated his ideas in the 1920’s. https://www.biodynamics.com/steiner.html