A little over a week ago, Benziger Family Winery hosted a blogger event at their estate. A dozen bloggers were in attendance as the folks at Benziger rolled out the dog-and-pony show. And what a show it was.
Benziger Family Winery was established as an 85-acre family estate in Glen Ellen, California. That’s in Sonoma Valley, for those that don’t know. The family made it’s fortune on the Glen Ellen wine brand, which it sold to Heublein in 1993. But, they kept their family estate in Glen Ellen and continued to make wine under the Benziger label.
Long before that though, the family began to realize that the farming practices they had been using for years were slowly but surely degrading the vineyard. As Mike Benziger, Executive Winemaker, put it, “one day we walked out to the vineyard and it was just dead. You couldn’t hear anything. No birds, no bugs, nothing.” So, in 1987 they began a program of rehabilitating the vineyard by implementing Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques. In 1996, they began converting the property to a Biodynamic farm and became the first Demeter-certified Biodynamic vineyard in Sonoma County in 2000. The family now farms four certified-Biodynamic Sonoma County vineyard estates on a total of 168 acres. The estate vineyard is segmented into 30 different blocks, each farmed individually.
Biodynamics is based on the work of Rudolf Steiner, an early 20th Century, Austrian philosopher, social thinker, architect and esotericist. He gained initial recognition as a literary critic and cultural philosopher, but later helped develop Waldorf education, biodynamic agriculture, anthroposophical medicine. Biodynamic agriculture is a method of organic farming that treats farms (or vineyards) as unified and individual organisms, emphasizing the balance and interrelationship of soil, plants, and animals as a closed and self-nourishing system with limited external inputs. Biodynamic farming has much in common with other organic approaches, such as emphasizing the use of manures and composts and excluding of the use of artificial chemicals on soil and plants. Methods unique to the biodynamic approach include the use of fermented herbal and mineral preparations as compost additives and field sprays and the use of an astronomical sowing and planting calendar. The general idea is that a plant grows in its natural cycle and is therefore less susceptible to disease, mold, etc.We were shown around the estate by Mike Benziger himself, along with Kathy Benziger, Rodrigo Soto (Director of Winemaking), and Colby Eierman (Director of Gardens). First stop: a hill overlooking the property and a brief explanation of biodynamics and the principles they use at Benziger. The estate is nestled in a very bowl-like natural volcanic valley. The site was once sacred to the native peoples who revered it for the hills of obsidian. With the coming of Europeans, it belonged the King of Spain and was managed by General Mariano Vallejo until the annexation of California by the United States. It then passed to German family who owned it for 110 years before the Benziger family purchased it. From the hillside we had a clear view of Sonoma Mountain, which is a dormant volcano which formed most of the property at Benziger. Second stop: the Insectary. They have about half a dozen insectaries around their property. It’s valuable land they could be growing grapes on, but grow other plants instead. It is that important. The idea of introducing insectary plants to the vineyard is to increase pollen resources and nectar resources required by the natural enemies of harmful or unwanted insect pests. In other words, to attract good bugs to get rid of the bad ones. In the off-season, they plant special ground cover between the vines that lead to the insectaries. It acts sort of like a highway for beneficial insects to get out into the vineyard. Oh, they also grow fruits and vegetables on the property which they use for their hospitality guests and sell some to local restaurants.
We all enjoyed the 2008 Estate Sauvignon Blanc Paradiso de Maria, Sonoma Mountain while listening to the presentation.Next stop: the Compost. A closed nutrient system is an important component to biodynamics. Benziger recycles all of its organic winery and vineyard waste back into the land through composting. This results in a unique soil ecology of microorganisms indigenous to the property. There are more microbes in a handful of compost than there are people on the planet. According to Mike, Microbes are like little “chefs” that assimilate minerals and nutrients that help nourish the soils. Compost also encourages the development of native yeasts. (All Benziger Biodynamic wines are made with native yeast fermentation.)
Next stop: the treatment ponds. All of the waste water from the winery is filtered through a series of ponds which each have microorganisms and plants that help break down organic compounds. the plants in the ponds act as oxygen pumps to aerate the water. At the very end, the water is clean enough to use for landscaping (you could probably drink it, but people have hang ups about stuff like that). From here, you could also see the sheep pens. They raise sheeps, chickens, and cattle on the property. They add bio diversity to the land, help with weed abatement, and provide natural fertilizer. And are damn tasty. Next stop: the crush pad. This day, they had about four workers on the destemmer and the sorting table. They destem but do not crush their berries, which leas to some whole berry fermentation. They hand sort all their grapes to remove any MOG (Material Other then Grapes) and under-ripe berries, and then most of their reds ferment in open top tanks before moving to barrels.
Final stop: the wine caves. Benziger has dug caves into the mountainside where they cellar and age all their wines. In the caves, we were greeted by Director of Winemaking Rodrigo Soto who gave his take on biodynamic farming and introduced us to the new Signaterra line. The Signaterra philosophy is to reflect three factors: Earth, Nature and Man. We tasted the 2008 Signaterra Sauvignon Blanc, Shone Farm Vineyard; 2007 Signaterra Pinot Noir, Bella Luna Vineyard; and 2006 Signaterra Three Blocks, Sonoma Valley. All were distinctive and seemed to reflect where they were from. We also tried their flagship 2006 Tribute, Sonoma Mountain. Very, very good.
We finished the day with a fantastic lunch prepared by their resident chef whose name escapes me at the moment. Each course was made from the produce and meat grown on the estate, keeping with the biodynamic theme.
The decision by Benziger to move to Biodynamics was good not only for the health of their vineyards and the health of their future business, but also for setting themselves apart. It was a business decision. Bio-dynamics was a way for them to differentiate themselves from the competition. As Mike puts it, “we can’t compete with the big boys in terms of sheer volume and marketing dollars. We needed something that set us apart.” Their overall goal is to make wines that are authentic — wines with a sense of place.
I congratulate the Benziger team for doing this right. They pulled out all the stops and treated the bloggers like VIPs. In doing so, they showed us that they understand the impact that bloggers are having on wine appreciate and criticism. Other wineries would do well to pay attention, because the bar has been set very high.