Benziger: The Winery That Came Back to Life

02 Dec, 2012

“We woke up one day and we heard no birds; there were no insects: the property was dead,” Mike Benziger, founder of Benziger Family Winery, told Organic Connections. “It was at that point that we knew we needed to do something to heal the property. This is one of the most beautiful properties in California, and we had killed it. We felt terrible about it, and felt we had an obligation to bring it back to life.”

Benziger would embark on the journey of a lifetime to revive his property—and the results would bring the complex flavors of his living systems into every bottle of wine his family winery would produce.

The Conventional Path

Benziger had certainly not started off with the death of his land in mind. Shortly after college, he had come to California from New York. It was not long before he fell in love with wine and winemaking, and in 1979 he founded his family winery.

“When we first started growing, I had a little bit of experience making wine but didn’t know a lot about grape growing,” Benziger said. “So we hired the best consultants that we could hire out of Napa Valley. Their philosophy was that when you grow grapevines, you grow them in an environment where there is no competition whatsoever. So we did what everybody else was doing at that time: we grew perfect grapevines in an environment that was completely sterilized of the natural environment around it. So through spraying and the use of chemicals and other agents we systematically pushed nature to the other side of the fence.

“Our vines looked beautiful; there wasn’t a weed you could see. But over a period of years we saw that, first of all, the soil started to die. Every time it rained, our parking lot would fill up with soil and silt. Also the wines that we were making, quite frankly, were kind of mediocre. Our fermentations were weak.”

The Transformation

Very fortunately, Benziger realized what conventional methods had done to his farm, and he knew he had to change. “We began to look at different farming methods,” he said. “We looked at permaculture and organic farming. But when we came across biodynamics, it immediately grabbed us because of this whole part of it that has to do with healing the earth. That was what we really needed to do at the time. That’s when we started, in 1994, to change the property over, to farm biodynamically, and it was almost immediate that we saw the impact on wine quality.”

Biodynamics is a series of sustainable farming methods developed by scientist and philosopher Rudolph Steiner after the First World War. It involves every stage of growing—from the soil, to planting times, to harvesting and processing produce.

It took a while to get everyone on board. “When we first started converting over to biodynamics, just within my family there was a huge amount of skepticism,” Benziger recalled. “With all farming transitions, you get to a point where you’re in this ‘yuck zone’—you’re moving away from artificial chemicals and moving toward natural systems. There’s a point there where the natural systems aren’t mature enough, but you’re already weaning from the chemicals. It’s kind of like jumping into a lake and swimming to the other side; you get to the middle and you can’t see the shore that you left, but you can’t see the other side where you’re going.

“We were really at a stage where we were wondering if we should quit or continue on. What we did was we all got in an airplane and went to Europe. For two weeks we saw properties that had punched through to the other side, so to speak. We got a vision of what beauty and success looked like and then went back home and recommitted ourselves to it.”

Natural Interaction Is Key

The difference today is quite remarkable. “Our ripening is much more uniform,” said Benziger. “The net result is flavors that are connected, or attributes of the surrounding environment that are reflected in flavors of the products we make. The impacts on wine quality that I see in general are, first, more authenticity of flavor—in other words, flavor and taste are associated with the environment around us—and second, wines that are more interesting in the glass and last longer in the bottle.”

Benziger has found that the interaction of the grapevines with nature—which was purposefully absent before he converted his methods—is the main reason for the difference in flavor. “Biodynamics regenerates the land,” Benziger explained. “It builds biological capital. It does that by being a closed system of agriculture—we build into the soil and into the plant our own biology, which only exists on our property. It’s that biology—the microorganisms that live in the soil, the yeast that lives in the other flora and fauna living on top of the land—that really helps create a unique environment that is then reflected in the flavor of the grape and in the flavor of the wine.

“The final thing that is really important is to have an instrument that is highly tuned and highly sensitive—i.e., the grapevine. Through farming and staying within the rhythms of nature, you create a very high-level recording device. The vine itself is able to memorize what happens in its environment for that particular year, and lock that memory in the little CPU or the little central processing unit that we call the grape.”

“Chemicals tend to cut off a vine’s integration from the natural environment,” Benziger concluded. “It’s like dirt on the windshield of your car. So once you are able to move away from using artificial inputs, the plant itself integrates with nature because nature is free to come in. If a plant is working within the cycles of the natural environment, it becomes sensitive and those sensitivities are recorded in the grape juice itself. Of all plants, grapevines just happen to be one of the most sensitive of all. That’s why winemaking has such a long tradition.

“In biodynamics, we think of plants as the sense organs of the world; we look to animals to bring movement and beauty to the environment, and as the character personality of the world; and we look at man as the organizing force.”

Benziger has certainly brought his farm back to vibrant life—which will be sustained for endless years to come.

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  • future graphics

    Loved reading this story! So great to hear how they were able to bring their land and wines back to life.