Unlike the Napa Valley with its crowded highway 29, which runs through the heart of the wineries, Sonoma County offers a more pastoral scene of narrow winding roads leading to small family owned wineries off the beaten path. At one turn, you might be surprised by a winery in an abandoned brick Hops Kiln; at another, by having to stop to let traffic through on a narrow one-way bridge over Dry Creek.
As in Napa valley, many of Sonoma’s wineries are making remarkable progress on the path to sustainability. Benziger Winery is one of the leaders; it took an early lead in biodynamic farming and tells its story in a remarkably detailed vineyard tour.
The light on Sonoma Mountain in October is golden. Sitting at a table on the patio at Benziger Winery, there is electricity in the air. You hear the steady drone of insects and the distant mechanical whine of harvesting. The sounds of de-stemmers and sorting tables tell you that this is a working farm and not just a showplace for finished wine. The beauty of this location may be what first attracted Mike Benziger and his wife Mary.
The Benzigers began farming operations in the late 1970s and quickly discovered that the wine business is capital intensive. They solved their cash flow problems by starting a high-volume, jug-wine brand called Glen Ellen Winery. In 1989, Benziger, including the Glen Ellen brand, would sell 3.2 million cases for a gross revenue of $90 million. Shortly after reaching this milestone, Mike met a man named Alan York, an expert in biodynamic farming, and everything about his winery changed.
Until this point, Mike farmed his winery conventionally. He sprayed grapes according to a calendar, one part of the year spraying pesticides, another, fertilizers. “The earth didn’t look as rich as it once had,” said Chris Benziger. “Things seemed drier and harder and quieter.” Mike and Mary, following Alan York’s lead, began to realize that maybe the conventional way wasn’t the best way to grow grapes. They stopped spraying their vines, created havens for good insects, and began composting. Slowly their vineyard came back to life.
Although the decision to become a biodynamic winery had less to do with green marketing than with keeping the 85-acre property healthy, once Benziger became biodynamic, people began asking about the wine they were producing from purchased grapes. Was that wine biodynamic as well? Since the Benziger property was the first in Sonoma County to become certified biodynamic by the Demeter Foundation, the answer was “no.” In fact, most of the wine the winery produced was still farmed conventionally. In 2001, Mark Burningham, Benziger’s VP of winegrowing, created his own certification process for sustainable grape farming called “Farming for Flavors.” As of 2007, Benziger would only buy grapes meeting the Farming for Flavors criteria.
The Sustainable Winegrowing Pyramid
At the base of the pyramid is “Personal Connection to the Land, Observation, Anticipation.” This is vigilant, involved farming. It means knowing, for example, where a plant might get mildew in certain conditions and cutting it back before the mildew spreads to the rest of the vines.
The next level is “Biodiversity and Estate Farming.” This is really the idea that the terroir of the site will speak in the wine if the farmer doesn’t try to completely destroy the natural habitat.
Next on the pyramid is “Self-Regulating Systems.” At most wineries, you might see cover crops between the rows of grapevines or a small garden at the visitor’s center; the Benzigers have taken this to the extreme by planting connecting insectaries in pockets of the vineyard to give predatory bugs an incentives to range into all parts of the vineyard, providing extra defense against disease-causing insects.
Next, because the property is certified biodynamic, it is a “Closed Nutrient System.” This means that the vineyard composts everything, and that no outside compost will be added.
The last two pyramid planks and the pyramid’s apex are where biodynamic farming really differs from organic farming. “Biodynamic Preparations” are often what people cite as the only thing they know about biodynamic farming. According to Demeter USA, the certifying organization for biodynamic farms in the United States, nine biodynamic preparations made from a variety of herbs, mineral substances, and animal manures are used in field sprays and compost inoculants applied in minute doses, much like homeopathic remedies are for humans.[ Benzigers’ website also has a widget that shows the current phase of the moon which gives reference to what they mean by the next plank, “Working with the Rhythms of Nature.” One of the tenets of biodynamic farming is that crops should be planted and harvested according to lunar cycles.]
At the tip of the Benzigers’ pyramid is “Spirit.” Although less tangible, you definitely feel Spirit on the property. The Benziger’s stamp is everywhere—in the way they do business with their employees and customers, and in the way they make their wine.
Today, Benziger really seems to care about worker happiness: “Green Teams” monitor employee morale and secret shoppers make sure that the customer experience in the tasting room is good as well.
The company also differentiates itself by its level of community activism, which at other wineries ends with donating wine and tasting room visits to auctions. Benziger goes beyond that, with its greatest philanthropic commitment being to Jack London State Park. The winery donates its tasting room profits to the Park during Earth Day weekend each year, and sends paid vineyard workers to the park for trail restoration and campground clean ups. The winery is also the signature sponsor for the Park’s Broadway Under the Stars series.
Benziger is also a leader in the area of water conservation, so much so that in 2010 the National Resources Defense Council named Mike Benziger the “Water Steward of the Year.” The Benzigers began to really look at their water use when their wells started to run dry. They did two things to conserve quickly. First, they removed underperforming grapes that need frequent irrigation; second, they built wetlands to recycle water using planted hollow reeds as a filter.
The Benzigers also water differently. Instead of using scheduled drip irrigation to water the grapevines, they watch the weather closely and use drip irrigation a few days before a hot spell to keep the temperature around the vines cool so that the grapes don’t overheat. Otherwise the grapes are dry farmed.
Today, Benziger’s priorities are to make and sell the best wine they can for as long as they can while remaining good stewards of their land so it will continue to produce great grapes long into the future.
- Excerpted from The Good Company: Sustainability in Hospitality, Tourism, and Wine by Robert Girling, Heather Gordy, and Pamela Lanier through Business Expert Press
- Chapter prepared by Rachel Kau-Taylor, MBA
After being run by the government since their creation, facing the threat of being closed down after the Great Recession, Jack London State Historic Park and Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in Sonoma County, California (USA) moved to a non-profit run management model. Now funded mainly by revenue from parking, gift shops, events, and donations, the two parks are thriving, and welcoming more visitors than ever before.
In 2011, four years after the Great Recession, the California Parks Department was still struggling. Due to budgetary changes the department was left on shaky ground: the parks remained open, but many were not maintained. The effects of scaled-back services, shorter public hours, skimpy staffing throughout the state’s parks system have been felt throughout California and in Sonoma County which is home to more than 50 state and regional parks. These issues prompted the state legislature to start looking for new sources of income to off-set state budget shortfalls and anticipated staff cuts, and keep the parks’ in all their glory.
The passage of AB42, introduced by Assemblyman Jared Huffman, allowed non-profit groups and community organizations to take over park operations. The following two parks have found a way not just to survive, but to thrive in the post-recession world, in part due to this piece legislation.
Jack London State Historic Park
In May of 2012, Jack London State Historic Park became the first to contract with a non-profit in an operating agreement with the state of California. Jack London Park Partners (JLPP), with the help of volunteers, private donations, park fees, and revenue from events hosted there, now run the park, while collaborating with the State Parks department, who continue to be responsible for park’s sewage system, natural resource protection and water treatment. Certified and highly trained state staff monitor and appropriately treat the water supply and run the sewage plant, and the state still pays for scientific experts (ecologists, archaeologists, historians, archivists, etc.), also all law enforcement is still the primary responsibility of state park peace officers.
Thanks to its historical designation, Jack London State Historic Park is a protected area, making it rich with life and biodiversity.
Flourishing there is a beautiful mixed forest of oaks, madrones, California buckeye, Douglas fir, and Coastal Redwoods, ferns, manzanita, and a wide range of other shrubs and small flowering plants such as the Indian warrior, hound's tongue, buttercups, and poppies thrive in this area along with many kinds of birds and other forms of wildlife. The Park is also home to the following endangered species: the California Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma californiense), Myrtle's Silverspot Butterfly (Speyeria zerene myrtleae), California Freshwater Shrimp (Syncaris pacifica) as well as more common but still threatened creatures including the Gray Fox, Black Bear, Deer, and Coyotes. The Park also provides critically important arboreal habitat for the Great Horned Owl, falcons and eagles, including the Peregrine Falcon, and dozens of other birds. Because the park connects with other state, local, and regional preserves and conservation areas, it provides and important corridor for the many species whose habitat is threatened by ever increasing human occupation levels.
Sugarloaf Ridge State Park
Like Jack London State Historic Park, Sugarloaf came under private management by Team Sugarloaf, a group formed by the Sonoma Ecology Center, but unlike Jack London, Sugarloaf has no big name or celebrity association to help bring in tourists. Relying primarily on its natural attributes to attract visitors, it too has proven successful. June 1, 2012 marked the date that Team Sugarloaf took over operations, and like its cousin down the valley, the park’s past five years are a success story.
By hosting events like Robert Ferguson Observatory monthly ‘Star Parties’, Brunch on Bald Mt. Fundraising Hike, 4th of July Fireworks Viewing Hike, Easter egg hunt in campground, and various nature hikes that focused on things like wildflowers, mushrooms, history, and geology they've been able to keep community involvement high, and income robust.
The community involvement has helped Sugarloaf spike in terms of visitors. The last year that the state alone ran the park, it saw 4,093 overnight campers and 5,858 day-users. Five years later, the park hosted 7,600 overnight campers and daily visitors had risen to 15,560 - a 165% increase. It should be noted that the state parks system as a whole has seen an uptick in visitation in the last five years as well.
Unfortunately, the recent fires in Sonoma County did damage the park, leading to the temporary closure of the park. As of February of 2018, the park is re-opened and will soon allow camping and overnight visitors once again. For a detailed report of the damage and recovery at Sugarloaf Ridge, follow the link to this article in the Sonoma Index-Tribune.
Team Sugarloaf has posted a before and after video on their Facebook page.
We consider both these park efforts to be an excellent and evolving model of how private and state operators can collaborate to keep parks open and accessible, and one that can be transposed in other regions to enhance both visitors to the park and the opportunity to learn from nature.
“Holding back the sea requires technology; a retreat requires the management of human expectations. That’s probably why we’ll hold back the sea in a lot of places, even where it’s not environmentally advantageous” ~ James Titus, EPA Researcher
This is an issue on a global scale, but how countries, states, counties, cities, and communities are impacted and the changes that are necessitated by it differ based on region and population.
Sonoma County is not exempt. Sea level rise will swallow up land along the San Francisco Bay and the climate will become more erratic, causing more large storms which leads to more urban runoff, and of course, the return of drought conditions, which we discuss in the next section.
Climate change is the warming of the planet as a whole, with differences in local weather and climate from the historical record observed. This means most places will become warmer and drier but with an increase in storms and the severity of storms, while a few places experience colder and/or wetter weather. California, evidenced by recent and unprecedented drought, is likely going to become warmer and drier whilst experiencing more frequent storm-level events. The same is true for Sonoma County.
In Sonoma County, one of the biggest tourism drivers is wine tourism. Sonoma's 447 wineries annually generate $1.25 billion in US dollars in tourism revenues, $13.4 billion in economic benefits, and 54,000 jobs. It perhaps goes without saying, but more drought means fewer crops, and more storm events means more storm damage. Wildfires are also fed by drought, and Sonoma County has seen quite a few in the past decade, including this past October 2017, which witnessed the deadliest fires ever seen in California. Catastrophic events on that scale are expected to grow in frequency, as the globe warms.
An increase in storm-level events is also predicted and has already been evidenced over the past few years. Storms cause property damage, but more damaging than that is flooding caused by urban runoff during rain events. Along with flooding, runoff also causes significant pollution of streams and rivers with oils and gasoline, chemicals, sediment and nutrients such as nitrogen used for agriculture. Nitrogen in particular causes toxic algal blooms which have occurred in the Russian River and caused a significant amount of problems including loss of tourism.
Climate change is also causing glacial melting to occur. This disrupts ocean currents, weather patterns, and causes sea level rise. It will be difficult to measure the first two as glacial melting is just one of many factors that contributes to them, but sea level rise had been extensively studied and scientists are now urging cities to start preparing for it. The California Ocean Protection Council paid for an extensive study of sea level rise in California, which states that as of now, the California coast is already seeing issues associated with sea level rise such as extensive coastal flooding during storms, periodic tidal flooding, and increased coastal erosion.
King tides, caused by the relative positions of the Earth, sun and moon, mimic sea level rise, backing up the Petaluma River, according to a Sonoma County planning manager. The tides also back up the Russian River, causing flooding at Duncans Mills, about 4 miles from the ocean. County officials have anticipated a 6-foot rise, which would result in flooding at Bodega Bay, Duncans Mills, Jenner and other areas.
In Sonoma County, the threat would be from two sides. The western facing coast side would see flooding up river and streams and loss of beaches, but the main point of damage would be from the San Francisco Bay, which would follow the Petaluma River upstream to the heart of Petaluma, causing devastating flooding of streets, businesses, and homes. Highways 101, 37, 121, and 12 would all be flooded in places, shutting down routes that are used daily by commuters traveling to San Francisco.
Currently, Sonoma County (along with much of California) is taking a two-tiered approach to Climate Change.
On the one hand, by doing what we can to mitigate damaging pollution and energy usage in Sonoma County, we can minimize our contribution to the issue. On the other hand, because we have past the critical carbon dioxide tipping point in our atmosphere, climate change cannot be halted, only slowed. Therefore, Sonoma County has begun looking at actions it can take to prepare and adapt to the changes we will be witnessing over the next 50-100 years.
On May 21, 2015, the Sonoma County Adaptation Workshop gathered 88 leading voices together to discuss how to respond effectively to the climate hazards facing Sonoma County.
Suggested Ideas & Actions
Innovate and Model Change. Our current ways of dealing with Climate Change is often outdated, not comprehensive, and disconnected from other efforts being made. Increasing communication between organizations, focusing on activities that make up people’s everyday lives, and applying new technology. Making use of more natural solutions like employing floodplains, using marshes and wetlands for water filtration and infiltration, containment basins for flood control, and natural fire buffers.
Foster Social Resilience.
Creating communities that are built for sustainability. Encouraging walking, biking, and public transit use. Helping vulnerable neighborhoods recover and addressing the housing affordability crisis. Creating more green spaces, more trees, and easier access to public services to connect communities.
Manage the Water Cycle as One.
Integrating water management for sustainability in each major watershed to assure plentiful water access even in drought conditions. Such management should aim to reduce water waste, support the natural water system’s many benefits, and protect sensitive species and habitats.
Earlier this year, the company long known as Clover Stornetta rebranded itself to Clover Sonoma, honoring the dairy’s deep Sonoma County roots. The name change was part of a comprehensive rebranding campaign that included becoming the first major U.S. dairy to sell non-GMO conventional milk. But the addition of the word “Sonoma” was specifically influenced by interviews with hundreds of consumers across California, particularly in Southern California, who reminded the company of its strongest branding attributes: quality, family heritage and California-made.
“We have time-honored heritage in Sonoma country, and so we wanted to respect that, as well as take advantage of the fact that Sonoma is so well known for artisanal craft. The craft of dairy has been a huge part of the community for hundreds of years; many dairy families are in the fourth and fifth generation. This is an iconic place of dairy,” said Kristel Corson, Clover’s director of marketing.
As the brand looks to Southern California for market expansion, it’s building off Sonoma’s mythology: It’s authentic, ecologically concerned, casual but a little luxurious, and unabashedly artisanal and craft-driven when it comes to food.
For a company like Clover Sonoma, place-ingredient branding is clearly worth something—but how much, and how far does that geographic equity go?
Not surprisingly, much of Sonoma’s brand cachet comes from the sum of its parts. The county includes more than 50 miles of Pacific coastline, three rivers, forests, lakes, beaches, hot springs, mountains and over 50 state and regional parks. There are more than 100 organic farms and over 425 wineries. Looking at the wine industry alone, Sonoma County has 17 American Viticultural Areas (designated wine-grape-growing regions in the United States distinguishable by geographic features) and more than 60 grape varieties are planted here. There’s deep roots in agriculture, and particularly in practicing methods that are good for the environment, animals and consumers. According to industry groups, building on that combined legacy works for driving tourism, for increasing local consumption and, sometimes, for drawing consumers in from external markets.
Sonoma has been a tourist attraction for well over 125 years, but it was just over 10 years ago that a countywide tourism campaign was launched. “A big change, and the reason for a lot of our recent success, came when the entire county came together to promote the region as a single entity, rather than just as our smaller constituent parts,” said Tim Zahner, Interim CEO and chief marketing officer for Sonoma County Tourism.
The hospitality community worked with the Sonoma County Economic Development Board and founded what is now Sonoma County Tourism, dedicated to increasing overnight stays in Sonoma County and promoting the entire region, from the vineyards and farms in eastern Sonoma County to the redwoods and the Russian River and out to the beaches and villages of the coast.
“By pooling our resources and representing the entire county we were able to get our message out to a larger audience and enjoy economies of scale,” Zahner further explained. The agency teamed up with Sonoma County Vintners and Sonoma County Winegrowers to share resources and launch a concerted branding effort, including the current Sonoma County brand and brandmark.
Through the collective efforts of those two wine-focused organizations, as of January 2014, “Conjunctive Labeling” is a legal requirement for all wine produced from grapes grown in Sonoma County. This means that the words “Sonoma County” must appear on the label, in addition to the specific AVA like Russian River Valley or Bennett Valley. According to the Sonoma County Vintners’ website, the intent of the labeling is to “Build brand equity for Sonoma County wines and preserve and strengthen Sonoma County’s position as a recognized world-class wine region; increases sales of wines produced from Sonoma County grapes; and increase recognition for every AVA within Sonoma County, both well-known and less familiar, and ensure that consumers understand where they are.”
Other agricultural and local business groups have also been organizing to leverage the Sonoma brand to connect with consumers.
Go Local Sonoma, a marketing cooperative that encourages consumers to buy local, was founded in 2009 and has since launched a Made Local magazine, its own electronic currency (Go Local Bucks) and a Go Local Rewards card.
But Terry Garrett, co-managing member of Go Local Sonoma, says that while the numbers demonstrate that local consumers want to buy from Sonoma businesses, that might not be the case for consumers outside of the area. “65% of consumers report that they are buying more from local businesses than they were five years ago. That’s the domestic market, and that survey says this is our home, this is our place, so we buy these items because we understand the economic multipliers,” he said. “But I don’t know and I can’t really say if that matters outside of here.”
Garrett says that for certain companies, where place is significant in some constitution of the product, a Sonomamade label carries weight—dairy or wine products, for example.
Garrett thought the name change was a good move for Clover Sonoma, positioning them well against large dairy companies by incorporating a sense of place, and the company will score big points at home. As for it furthering a trend? “I don’t think you can apply that willy-nilly to any other product,” he said.
To check out how flying the Sonoma flag works for a newly rooted Sonoma industry, I visited Sonoma County Distilling Co. Appropriately, the distillery’s fermenting tank is a repurposed dairy tank. Its top is open, allowing the unique flavors of Sonoma to penetrate the spirits: barnyards, which create a hotbed for yeast, and salt from the Pacific ocean, being two examples.
But it wasn’t just the airoir that drew Adam Spiegel, owner and head distiller, to plant his company in Rohnert Park seven years ago. There was more flexibility with permitting for open-fire distilling in the county, and as a San Francisco native who spent weekends in Sonoma, he understood that the Sonoma brand carried some panache. “When I go overseas, people love Sonoma. We wanted to develop a brand that had localism to it, and that is also authentic,” he said. “Sonoma has a blue collar history of actually being a place where things are made.”
The brand tries to embody the spirit of Sonoma in their production—a local company smokes their malted barley, organic waste goes to local farmers, the distillery is 100% wind powered and the grains they use are organic and sourced from California as much as possible.
“People know Sonoma as an artisan agricultural place. People know that there are smaller entities here, denoting quality, authenticity and attention to detail. So how can we align our messaging to reflect the best of the county?” muses Tanya Seibold, marketing and PR manager at Sonoma County Distilling Co. “We want to be a shining star of what Sonoma County can be, and we just happen to be doing it in whiskey.”
What the success of companies like Sonoma County Distilling Co. and Clover might illustrate is that leveraging the Sonoma brand in conjunction with upholding many of Sonoma’s dearest values—attention to quality, craft and responsibility—puts even more power behind a name.
Thank you to Edible Marin & Wine Country for permission to repost this article!
Did you know today is World Environment Day? Recognized globally, June 5 is a chance for all of us to show the world our love and support of the natural environment on which we depend.
This worldwide day reminds us that the most profound environmentalism is always local first and foremost. That’s why, in honor of World Environment Day, we’re providing the following list of 30 Things You Can Do to Keep Sonoma Valley Healthy.
May every day in Sonoma Valley be one for the environment!
Taking place in the heart of Northern California's Wine Country and featuring more than 90 hand-selected films including independent features, documentaries, world cinema, and short films. The Festival is dedicated to promoting independent film, supporting filmmakers around the world and inspiring film lovers.
A unique 5-day event that offers world-class cuisine from local artisans and exceptional wine from Sonoma vintners. Renowned filmmakers, industry leaders and celebrities such as Bruce Willis, Susan Sarandon, and the beloved Robin Williams have walked the festival red carpet and enjoyed its intimate ambiance. And every year this amazing festival develops a deeper connection to environmental films and filmmakers.
One of the favorite films this year was titled "Straws" because these days it's almost impossible to go to a beach, lake or waterfront and not find a plastic, discarded, straw. They float. Mid-ocean gyres are a maze of them and it's time to put an end to it. The film neatly sums up the issue and ended by suggesting biodegradable alternatives. We can make a sea of change, one plastic straw at a time.
Located in California (USA), the Sonoma County Sustainable Tourism Observatory is the latest member having successfully joined the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) International Network of Sustainable Tourism Observatories (INSTO). This comes in a very unique momentum as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development is being celebrated worldwide.
UNWTO has welcomed the incorporation of the Sustainable Tourism Observatory of the Sonoma County, in California, to the International Network of Tourism Observatories (INSTO). The observatory is the first of its kind under the umbrella of the Coalition to Observe and Advance Sustainable Tourism (COAST), aiming to serve as an anchor for a possible network of Pacific Coast observatories, connecting key tourism destinations along the Pacific Coast of North America, stretching from San Francisco and the Channel Islands in the south to Vancouver and Victoria BC in the north.
“We highly welcome the incorporation of the Tourism Observatory of the Sonoma County as a new member of the Network and we are sure that it will help us to achieve the mission of this platform throughout 2017 and beyond,” said UNWTO Secretary General Taleb Rifai.
The Observatory of the Sonoma County is strategically based 45 minutes North of the Golden Gate Bridge and the metropolitan areas of San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Due to its proximity to major innovation hubs and its abundant variety of culinary and scenic attractions, the area attracts millions of visitors every year.
The new member will focus on areas such as the scarcity of water, the impacts of agricultural-tourism growth in a complex and sensitive environment, climate change responsiveness and resilience, the viable regeneration of essential public places such as state parks, employment and local living opportunities, among others.
The International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development prominently features the need for evidence-driven development of tourism that is based on participatory, inclusive and timely monitoring exercises.
"We're honored to be included in the roster of INSTO Observatories. It is our aim to share the best practices which have been developed over the past 40+ years of conservation awareness in Sonoma County, which help drive the flourishing tourism industry here. Thanks to our premier position as a wine destination we have much to document but also much to learn," said Pamela Lanier, Founder of COAST and Chair of the Sonoma Sustainable Tourism Observatory
”We are delighted that Sonoma County Observatory has been approved by the UNWTO and will join the Blue Community Observatory in Florida in the International Network of Sustainable Tourism Observatories. These institutions are expected to play an important role in adding to the global body of knowledge in sustainable tourism,” commented Isabel Hill, Director of the National Travel and Tourism Office at the U.S. Department of Commerce.
About the UNWTO Network of Observatories
About the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development
UNWTO Media Officer Rut Gomez Sobrino
Tel: (+34) 91 567 81 60 / email@example.com
UNWTO Communications & Publications Programme
Tel: (+34) 91 567 8100 / Fax: +34 91 567 8218 / comm@UNWTO.org