Recycling plant? This idyllic setting at the Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen is actually part of the recycling process   water used in winemaking is recycled through constructed wetlands.
Recycling plant? This idyllic setting at the Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen is actually part of the recycling process water used in winemaking is recycled through constructed wetlands. (Jay Solmonson - Staff)
MIKE BENZIGER'S DAY is packed, no time to spare, but as he kicks through the dirt at his family's biodynamic vineyard he can't resist stopping to grab a handful of the rich soil.

"Smell that," he says. "Doesn't it smell like beets? This is great soil. It's alive. This is what it's all about."

Soil this healthy, Mike says, doesn't just happen. It has been just more than a decade since the Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen decided it was tired of growing mediocre grapes, tired of working a chunk of pesticide-laden land so sterile that even the birds didn't come near.

The solution? In 1996, the family became one of the first U.S. wineries to chuck commercial farming techniques in favor of what has now become a buzz phrase with the environmentally conscious — biodynamic farming.

Going biodynamic, they say, meant embracing an entirely different — entirely holistic — approach to growing grapes and making wine.

"In commercial farming, you push nature out to the borders," Mike says. "Here, we have invited it in to set up shop; to integrate with everything that we do here."

The techniques, gathered from the 1924 teachings of Austrian author and theorist Rudolf Steiner are, in a sense, organic and sustainable kicked up a notch.

Besides not using artificial fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides as per organic farming guidelines and protecting the land as per sustainability, going biodyamic means relying on nature to solve any and all farming problems.


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If there are too many ladybugs, vineyard workers provide habitats for bluebirds who can eat their weight in bugs in a single day. Too many gophers? Install an owl box. Soil out of whack? Grow nitrogen-rich plants that can be composted and worked back in to the soil.

"Our goal is to blur the lines between the farmed land and nature to such a point thatwhat we have is a unique natural environment that is entirely self-sustaining, just as it was thousands of years ago," he says.

Many of the practices of biodynamic farming are simply good farming techniques. Organic matter is mulched and worked back into the land. Water from the winemaking process is recycled through constructed wetlands. Cows are kept to provide fertilizer. Animal habitats are protected.

But a few elements of the farming method are so bizarre that they are often referred to as voodoo. For example: Cow's horns are filled with manure and buried at the end of each row of vines at the fall equinox. Six months later, they are dug up, emptied and turned into a tea that is sprayed over the vineyard.

Plantings are done according to solar and lunar rhythms, and sick or infested vines are treated with teas and tinctures. Before harvest, vines are sprinkled with ground silica to increase photosynthesis.

Although plenty of people roll their eyes at these facets of biodynamic farming — including viticulturists at the University of California, Davis — respect for biodynamics is growing.

Today there are about 50 biodynamic vineyards in the United States, nearly half of which are in California. Local biodynamic wineries certified by the Demeter Association include DeLoach, Frey, Quivira, Novus Vinum, Frog's Leap, Joseph Phelps, Araujo, Ceago, Robert Sinsky and Au Bon Climat.

The reason so many vintners are going biodynamic, Benziger says, is that it is a way of farming that produces incredibly enjoyable results.

"Healthy soil," Chris Benziger explains, "means healthy plants, which translates into wine that bears the thumbprint of the land; wine that is as unique as the piece of land that hosted the vines."

Chris openly admits that until three years ago, the wine his family made was ho-hum.

"The grapes just weren't good enough," he says. "We were selling them off instead of making wine."

But as soon as the vineyard was 100 percent biodynamic, the Benzigers noticed a huge difference. Their 2001 Tribute, made with cabernet and petit verdot grapes grown according to strict biodynamic guidelines, was stellar, scoring in the mid- to high-90 scores in every taste-test. 

"It was the first time we made a wine that tasted like the land here, and we didn't get it through manipulation," Mike says. "We didn't use any tricks. It was just the flavor of the land."

Subsequent vintages also hit the bar. This year's release, 2004, is just as promising. The wine is complex with lingering black fruit flavors that promise to age well. It's selling for $80 per bottle.

Master Sommelier Randall Bertao of the Los Gatos Golf & Country Club says that while not every wine made according to biodynamic tenets will be a great wine, he does support the efforts.

"I think that it is always good to take better care of the environment, and I like to support and encourage that," he says. "In the end, is it translated into the glass?

"I would have to say that in as much as biodynamic farming employs better vineyard techniques, and enhances the overall process of growing grapes and making wine, it can definitely have a positive effect on the wine."

That, says Steven Canter, the winemaker at Quivira in Sonoma, is exactly the way he views the farming philosophy that his vineyard has been practicing since 2002. Quivira was Demeter certified in 2005. Its first certified wine was just released last week.

"I would say that biodynamically farmed grapes tend to deliver more authentic flavor, but there are a lot of factors that influence the quality of wine," Canter says.

Biodynamic farming may not make sense to everyone, he says, "but the vines themselves are incapable of thriving in a vacuum unless they have a healthy symbiotic relationship with the soil. When your soil is a living entity, it allows the plants to thrive."

He says that even if quality can't be measured, wines made with biodynamically farmed grapes seem to be growing in popularity.

"I think that it is a subconscious thing. Our ability to communicate with nature is dismal. Most of what we ingest on a daily basis has nothing to do with nature or food. But biodynamic wine resonates with people because it represents something that is so lacking in our daily lives."

Wine that reflects nature, the Benzigers say, is the result of radical changes in how they handle every detail on their estate. To start, at Benziger only 42 of the 85 acres on the estate are devoted to grapes.

"Going biodynamic means allowing the space to bring biodiversity in," Mike says, stepping into an oasis-like garden in the middle of the vineyard. The garden, he explains, is an "insectory" that has been purposefully planted with an array of fruit trees, vegetables and flowers.

Mike leads the way through the garden that is edged with a stand of lavender so crowded with bees that it sounds like an idling engine.

"They won't hurt you," Mike assures. "They're busy." More bugs fly overhead. A lizard darts across the path.

"What we have here is a healthy balance that keeps insect invasions at bay," he says. "When everything is balanced, what you have is a closed system — it's self-sustaining, which leaves no space for invaders."

The Benzigers admit that the first years of going biodynamic were difficult. They had insect invasions, mildew issues and sunburned grapes.

"The problem is that we had no model, and our vines were suffering through detox and withdrawals as we made the change ... There were times that a lot of us were ready to give up."

Instead, Mike says, 10 members of the Benziger team got on an airplane.

"We headed for the Sistine Chapel of biodynamics," he says, referring to three biodynamic vineyards in France.

What they learned there is that biodynamic farming doesn't mean allowing nature to have its way entirely. It means using natural means to combat problems.

"We learned about homeopathic remedies we could use in the vineyard. In reality, there is no difference between what we are doing to the land and how a homeopath would care for the human body," Mike says.

He points out healthy patches of stinging nettle, yarrow and chamomile, all grown to make teas and preparations for the soil and vines on the property. Later, he supplies a handwritten pie chart that explains exactly what benefits each herb supplies.

For example: Valerian provides phosphorus. Dandelion stimulates silicon and potassium. Oak bark helps plants fight off diseases.

In addition to the insectories that dot the hillsides of the vineyard, the estate includes wetland areas, some woodlands, and wildlife sanctuaries.

Erosion is controlled by growing cover crops such as mustard, rye grass, fescue, clover, peas or other beneficial grasses.

They have also planted a selection of trees — most of them are olive trees which are then harvested for oil each year. The deep roots of the trees act as retaining walls, helping to prevent erosion.

"The difference between being a commercial farmer and a biodynamic farmer is that we have to be more pro-active. The commercial farmer can get results in 24 hours. We have to wait for things to grow and change and respond.

"This kind of farming is also more hand-intensive," Mike says, adding that his workers seem to know the quirks and strengths of every vine on the property.

The extra expense it takes to adhere to biodynamic guidelines is real, but the Benzigers think of it as insurance that they will be able to continue to grow quality grapes to make wine with character and complexity.

"Every vineyard manager has a choice," Chris says. "You either pay now, or you pay later. We decided to pay now."

Reach Jolene Thym at (510) 353-7008 or jthym@angnewspapers.com.