After more than 8 inches of snow fell just yesterday morning, I came in from helping to dig out our house to learn that Alan York, a California-based leader in the biodynamic viticulture movement in the United States and abroad, had died Feb. 3 at the age of 62.
I didn't know Alan that well—there are many others better able to speak about his life and accomplishments—but he's one of those people who makes such an impression that you'll never forget them and you feel their loss keenly even if it's been years since you've seen them or spoken to them.
I first met Alan in 2007 when I toured the Benziger Family Winery estate on Sonoma Mountain to learn more about biodynamic farming as part of a cover story on how West Coast wineries were moving to greener viticulture and winemaking practices. (He appears in the June 30, 2007, cover photo behind Mike Benziger in a boat on the winery's water reclamation pond.) In 1997, the Benzigers had brought on Alan, who had worked with Jim Fetzer on McNab Ranch and Ceago Vinegarden, to help transform their property, which they felt had become depleted and scarred by conventional farming, into a vibrant ecosystem where the vines could truly express the personality of the place.
Standing in the vineyards on a perfect sunny day, Alan radiated an irrepressible energy and sense of joy as he pointed out the different plants growing amid the vineyards and gardens and the various insects and birds that had come back to the property since the Benzigers had stopped using artificial fertilizers and pesticides. He was a warm, enthusiastic teacher, able to explain the seemingly arcane concepts of biodynamics in ways that were colorful and clear, mixing practicality and common sense with spirituality. Not shy with his opinions, he leavened his intensity with wit and a winning smile. He had so much to say, my hand kept cramping while rapidly taking notes.
Benziger has since certified a total of four vineyard estates, at which Alan was overseeing biodynamic farming. “For Alan, the beauty and health of the environment that surrounded the vine was as important as the vine itself," said Mike Benziger, for whom Alan was both a best friend and a mentor. “He could see deeper into nature than anyone I know and worked holistically in every way. That said, he knew very well what it took to grow grapes that were of the highest quality. Quality for him was distinctiveness. With all this knowledge, he had a hell of a sense of humor, which made the environments he worked in even brighter."
Alan inspired many others to adopt greener horticultural practices in his decades-long career as a gardener and landscape designer, international vineyard consultant and speaker, and president of the Biodynamic Association and editor of the quarterly Biodynamics journal for a stint. Along with his work in California, he consulted for international clients ranging from Emiliana and Matetic in Chile and Alto Las Hormigas in Argentina to Sting's Il Palagio estate in Tuscany.
Once Alan dived into his explanations, you couldn't help but want to listen, to follow along on the journey to see where it led. When former Fetzer president and sustainability advocate Paul Dolan was trying to convince his skeptical sons to adopt biodynamics on their Dark Horse Ranch in Mendocino instead of the organic farming with which they were comfortable, he called in Alan. "It didn't take Alan long to read my sons' body language and when he said to them that biodynamics "is less about the use of the preparations and more about the possibility of what agriculture can be," they suddenly perked up. It was like a light bulb went off for us all. They hung on every word of Alan's and enthusiastically jumped into every project Alan threw at them. They became more and more curious." But he added, "Alan never preached, never pushed ideas on you."
While acknowledging that people had reason to be doubtful about something so alien to their prior experience, one thing Alan insisted on was commitment—you can't pick and choose elements of biodynamics, it works as a whole. Everything on a farm is interrelated, he told me: "Nothing is more important than anything else, and nothing is optional."
I was thinking about these things at dawn this morning, as I shoveled the latest few inches of "wintry mix" from my walk and watched the new snowscape reveal itself in the brightening light. Where I live, everything has been white for weeks, with one storm after another. Everything colorful seems asleep or buried except for the evergreens, their boughs groaning under the weight of the snow, their needles sheathed in ice so that whole trees gleam in the sun like silver or crystals. But underneath the layers of powder and frosty crust, there is so much life, so much energy, just waiting. Alan knew how to coax vitality back into even damaged places, and he shared that knowledge with others. That's a comforting thought in this longest of winters.