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Remembering a Guru of Green: Biodynamic Consultant Alan York

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Feb 14, 2014 5:00pm ET

By Dana Nigro

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.

Jacob Fetzer
Redwood Valley —  February 14, 2014 10:35pm ET
A real, nice guy who loved to teach.
Dana Nigro
New York, NY —  February 15, 2014 5:49pm ET
Paul Dolan had a lot more to say about Alan and I thought I'd share the rest of his thoughts here:

"Alan had the ability to see the individual expression of each and every property he set foot on, but he was more interested in working with winegrowers in such a way that they could discover for themselves the unique expression of their vineyard and its terroir.

Alan never preached, never pushed ideas on you. Alan simply, clearly and articulately and in plain language spoke of the different distinctions of biodynamic agriculture. He was able to explain the insights and points of view Steiner saw and shared almost 100 years ago.

Alan was very patient and would take the time to go into great detail in his explanations because he knew we were interested.

If he found you weren't interested in exploring your property, he would find others who were. If you wanted his thoughts, he enthusiastically shared them.

Years ago, I had the honor to be asked by Alan and Mike Benziger to join a small study group, and I can remember nervously arriving early in the morning, once a month, to discuss what we had struggled to read, only to realize we all were hopeful that Alan would rescue us from embarrassing ourselves with our meager insights. Alan wouldn't let us suffer too long and would jump in with his thoughts and we hung on every word.....

Alan is the source of BD wine growing here in the US. He was and continues to be my inspiration into what the possibility can be for agriculture in the wine community and beyond. Alan laid the foundation for an expanded view of terroir. He included the importance of reintegrating the art of farming and the importance of discovering the identity of each individual vineyard site. He guided us in discovering the self-regulating components of each of our vineyards and passed on his love of plants and the pleasure and beauty they brought to our ranches.

He was a pioneer in the new emerging farming philosophy and a believer that we can find ways to regenerate the health of our soils and farms rather than operating from the old paradigm of exploitive practice.

My family and I will miss him and we will continue to carry on his passion for healing the earth."
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst, Il —  February 16, 2014 2:19pm ET
Dana, Thanks for this, and Jacob for adding your personal touch.

And what a gem of a quote. At the risk of sounding like Mike Ditka ("In football as in life. . ."--we in Chicago have a propensity to wax philosophical), it applies not just to vineyards, but to life itself. The first part, "Nothing is more important than anything else," a lesson for which we need continual reminder, and the latter, "nothing is optional", perhaps a tribute to the intensity of the man himself.

Lynn Alley
California —  February 17, 2014 1:52pm ET
Alan York was the kind of man who made me fall in love with the wine industry so many years ago. He was kind, humorous, courteous, knowledgeable and devoted to the land he tended and the life sustaining principles he championed. Always patient, always available, he held the hand of many an interested journalist (me among them) and many a committed grower. While his passing brings great sadness, I am consoled by the knowledge that he encouraged a new generation of farmers to honor and work with the forces of nature, and to look beyond the coarse and the obvious. He planted seeds, both literal and figurative, that will surely bear fruit for the wellbeing of future generations. May he walk in good company.
Mara Farrell
Beacon, New York —  February 20, 2014 11:49am ET
I am so sorry to hear of the passing of Alan York. Thank you Dana for such a wonderful tribute. His vitally important teachings and philosophy will continue to benefit the future of sustainable viticulture.

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