Our first day of tasting, my family and I were lucky enough to go on the partner’s tour at the Benziger Family Winery, an 85-acre, certified Biodynamic Sonoma Mountain estate. I can easily say it made our trip to Sonoma and gave me a new appreciation of what growers can do if they’re committed to working in concert with the earth.
The Benzigers hail from White Plains, NY so I can relate to their trans-coastal move. Today, more than two-dozen Benzigers live on and around the estate winery in Sonoma County.
What is biodynamic? Beyond sustainable, beyond organic. From the Web site:
“It goes beyond the elimination of all chemical inputs. It incorporates the environment in and around the vineyard and works with nature to apply the knowledge of life forces to bring about balance and healing in the soil.”
It’s hard to get a grasp on the concept without specifics so here’s some examples of what they do on the Benziger property:
- They house sheep (which they breed, not buy) that walk between the rows of grapes in the off season to turn the soil with their hooves instead of using tractors.
- Instead of chemical fertilizers, they plant different types of grasses between the grape rows that will give the soil the elements it needs. The sheep then eat these grasses and they can change them out depending on the grape, soil elements, etc.
- They have an “insectarium” where they grow plants that will attract the “good bugs”so those insects can eat the “bad bugs” instead of using pesticides.
- All of their grape vines are grafted to indigenous vines that are resilient against a certain pest that wiped out the crops years before the Benzigers came around. Instead of introducing new species or using chemicals to repel the pest, the winery makes use of the naturally growing plant.
All that and their wine tastes delicious! Forgive this photo as I was obviously still suffering from overdoing it the night before.
We were given a full tour on an electric tram (of course) of the grounds including where they make the wine, then went down into the caves to do some tastings including the 2006 Tribute right from the cask. We even ran into one of the Benzigers on our way into the cave! I wanted to take a picture but was a little star struck.
The Benzigers paid $4 million to have their cave carved into their mountain and it runs below their grape vines. I didn’t know this, but if you don’t have your own cave you have to pay for air conditioned warehouse space. Not only is it not as sustainable or energy efficient, but your wine evaporates at a much higher rate without the natural humidity and you end up losing cases of wine due to evaporation.
The casks are all white oak from France, Eastern Europe, and from Minnesota down to the Ozarks, Missouri, Western Kentucky. They cost anywhere from $400-$1,000 each and you can only use them up to 10 years. Whisky, Bourbon and Scotch makers will purchase the already seasoned casks and it gives the alcohol its dark color.
So that’s the virtual tour! We also visited their sister winery, Imagery. The curator at Imagery gallery chooses artists based on their portfolio and commissions them to design a work of art just for the label. Once the pieces are done and the season’s wines are harvested, Joe Benziger sits in a room with his top partner, tastes all the wine and matches them up with the labels. The winning artists get 60 bottles free and they don’t know which wine their art is on until they arrive. Fun, huh?
Other stops along the way included Ravenswood, Roche Winery and Batholomew Park. I had my first Port (and second, and third) and surprisingly enjoyed it. All in all it was a great first trip to wine country – can’t wait to go back!