Gregarious Mike Benziger fills up a room despite his lithe, athletic physical profile. His natural energy, perhaps stereotypical of a native New Yorker, combined with his passion for farming and affable disposition makes a lasting impression. Youngest sister Kathy is equally genial and animated. Is the whole clan like that? I haven’t met them all but their stamp is indelibly imprinted on the Heart of Sonoma Valley. In addition to the well-established, biodynamic Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen, run by a passel of Benzigers, there is the hot newcomer, Glen Ellen Star Restaurant, started by Erinn Benziger and her husband, chef Ari Weiswasser, and Imagery Winery, started by Joe Benziger to showcase special lots of vineyard grapes in artisan wine. Eight Benziger siblings participate in various aspects of Benziger Winery, headed by visionary winemaker Mike, with over two dozen Benzigers living on and around the Glen Ellen property.
Can wine be green?
When Mike found the parcel in Sonoma in 1980 and convinced his parents to invest the clan started migrating from New York to learn about growing grapes. They fell in behind other local farmers and absorbed the accepted techniques of the time, clearing the land, applying pesticides to get rid of creepy-crawlies and spreading fertilizers to stimulate growth. They got the hang of it and found success making wine. So far so good. According to Mike, when he first set foot on the property he “felt an incredible connection with this place.” But after a few years he noticed that bird weren’t singing, frogs weren’t croaking and bugs weren’t buzzing around. The land was drier, harder and less productive. Searching for answers he discovered the work of philosopher and father of biodynamics, Rudolf Steiner, and befriended Alan York, a leading expert in biodynamics that was to forever change Mike’s approach to farming. Sustainable and organic were intriguing but biodynamics resonated with Mike as a balanced approach to co-existing with the rhythms of nature in a way that would improve, rather than deplete, the land. Benziger Family Winery was the first in Sonoma or Napa winery to be certified as biodynamic by Demeter (named after the Greek goddess of harvest), the only biodynamic certifier, which requires an annual audit to maintain the certification.
Mike now applies biodynamic techniques to his vineyards and insists on the same level of commitment from his grower partners, some of whom were resistant at first but came to see the benefits. “The goal is not perfection,” he says, “it’s to produce a wine that is true and authentic.” Biodynamics is the most extreme form of green farming, going beyond the tenets of organic to work with nature to create a healthy, balanced environment. This is accomplished in part by devoting more than 10 percent of the property to biodiversity through established wetlands, an insectary, six Scottish Highlander cattle that provide manure for fertilizer and sheep who function as woolly weed-eaters.
All this doesn’t just go on behind closed doors or out in far flung vineyards. The Benziger family has engaged in a high degree of outreach and education to the public and grape growers alike. Daily tram tours on biodiesel tractors take visitors out into the vineyards to see biodynamics in action and growers come to the viticultural classroom that is their estate.
Mike is equally passionate about his nearest neighbor, the only other address on the lane, Jack London State Historic Park, where he sits on the board to help ensure that the park stays viable no matter what the stumbling blocks. He bikes or hikes there almost every day, breathing the fresh Sonoma air and absorbing the essence of another prescient farmer, Jack London, who brought exhausted land back to life, financed through his popular books and stories. Mike must also be absorbing some of his way with words as he muses about what the park means to Sonoma when he said to the Kenwood Press, “It is the heart of Sonoma Valley – and also its lungs. The vast natural landscape, ecologically vital to the Sonoma County watershed, serves as an environmental buffer protecting the surrounding areas. The Valley of the Moon breathes more clearly with Jack London State Historic Park at its center.”
Does biodynamicfarming make a difference?
Kathy Benziger says you can taste the difference biodynamic farming makes in every bottle of Benziger wine and, indeed, the wines are clean tasting with an undeniable complex intensity. At a recent tasting we first sampled the Signaterra West Rows Chardonnay ($32), harvested in the unusually cool 2011 that allowed for a long hang time for allow the flavors of summer peaches and apricots to develop. Originating in a protected area of Carneros the wine was aged beautifully in French oak to give it creamy overtones but with a Burgundian style with relatively low sugar at harvest. We tasted two different Pinot Noirs, including the 2010 Signaterra Bella Luna Pinot Noir ($50) from the cool climate of the Russian River, rich with spice and soft tannins that got a two-thumbs-up from half of our party. The very different 2011 de Coelo Quintas Pinot Noir ($75), made with grapes from a rugged hilltop near the misty waters of Bodega Bay expressed tea flavors and bright acidity that appealed greatly to the other half of the table with a split decision—different flavors for different palates. We all agreed, however, that the elegant 2009 Tribute ($80), a Bordeaux blend of primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, was stunning, with balanced velvety tannins and multifaceted flavors of graphite, minerals, berries and pepper.
The Benziger kin are plowing success into their fields while spreading the seed of biodynamics, thriving as a family-run business in an era of consolidation that is seeing the rapid rise of mega-conglomerates. The resulting wines are the most effective way to demonstrate that being green is compatible with fine winemaking.
Benziger Family Winery
883 London Ranch Rd
Glen Ellen, CA 95442
To reach Benziger Family Winery from San Francisco by car (approximately 1 – 1.5 hours, depending on traffic and other conditions):
- Cross the Golden Gate Bridge and follow US 101 North
- Take exit #460A/Napa/Vallejo onto CA-37 East
- Bear left on CA-121 North (Arnold Drive) toward Sonoma
- Continue on 116 West (Arnold Drive)
- Continue on Arnold Drive to Glen Ellen
- Turn left on London Ranch Road until you reach the winery