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