in our current issue
Issue: November 2007
Middle-Earth by Way of Sonoma

by: Anthony Dias Blue

A visit to Benziger Family Winery is like dropping in on Middle-Earth. The winery, nestled in the hills behind the town of Glen Ellen, is a world unto itself. The only difference is: there are no hobbits around, just Benzigers—quite a few of them.

What sets the Benziger Family Winery apart from most other wineries is the fact that it is a completely biodynamic estate. This means that the ranch is an entirely closed system that utilizes its own natural resources in cultivation. There are no pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, or other non-natural ingredients used on the property. Events during the growing season are tied to phases of the moon and such exotica as fermented cow manure and silica are part of the viticultural system.

Prior to becoming the most avant-garde wine estate in California, the Benziger family lived in New York. The patriarch of the family, Bruno, was president of Park Benziger, a Manhattan importer of Scotch whisky. Mike Benziger, now the president of the winery, is one of seven offspring of Bruno—five boys and two girls.

Mike came to California after college and worked for the Beltramo family in Menlo Park in retail and then at Stony Ridge. He and his wife, Mary, liked the idea of getting their own place in California and in 1980 they bought a rundown ranch in Sonoma. “The whole property was 85 acres,” Mike remembers, “but the place was a junkpile—only 4 acres of vines. We bought it from a crazy old guy.” Once the purchase was complete all the Benzigers started moving to California.

The first harvest was 1981. “It was a very warm year,” Mike remembers. “It became evident that we weren’t going to have tanks or a winery in place by the time the grapes rolled in. So we went down to the Sonoma dumps and rented two old milk trucks. They couldn’t even be driven up here; they had to be towed up. We put Sauvignon Blanc in one and Chardonnay in the other. My mom went down to the store three times a day to get dry ice. Somehow we got through. We got the wine into barrels. The next year we were kind of tricked into entering these wines into the Sonoma Harvest Fair judging. We didn’t even go because we didn’t want to be embarrassed. Later we found out that the milk truck Sauvignon Blanc won the sweepstakes and the Chardonnay was runner-up. It was dumb beginner’s luck.”

Bruno Benziger knew nothing about wine and wanted the boys to bottle the 1982 vintage immediately so he could sell it. “We were trying to develop our Glen Ellen label, so we said, ‘Okay, Bruno, we will buy you a batch of wine, you sell it and stay out of our hair.’ We bought a couple thousand gallons of Cabernet and bottled it under the Glen Ellen Proprietor’s Reserve label. In one month he sold the whole lot, just like that. So every year we would go out and buy a bit more and price it at $4.99 or so. Our first year we bottled 235 cases and the year we sold it—1993—we were at 3.9 million cases.”

The Benzigers sold the Glen Ellen label to British conglomerate Grand Metropolitan (which eventually became Diageo) for $140 million. The brand is now marketed by The Wine Group, the third largest wine company in world.

The sale of Glen Ellen allowed the Benzigers to concentrate on the Benziger brand. They also built another winery nearby dedicated to the Imagery label, the entire production of which is sold almost entirely at the winery and online. Brother Joe Benziger is in charge of Imagery, which has a sizeable gallery of art commissioned for the brand’s striking labels.

“In 1995 we started to research this whole idea of organics and sustainability,” Mike told me. “In 1996 we made our commitment to biodynamics on this ranch.” This meant a complete, top-to-bottom overhaul of all farming practices. “After exploiting this property during the Glen Ellen days, we needed to do something to help heal it. What I saw in biodynamics was the ability to heal a property faster than any other form of agriculture. Biodynamics is homeopathic agriculture.”
 

“Biodynamics is homeopathic agriculture.”
 
The Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association defines biodynamics “a science of life-forces, a recognition of the basic principles at work in nature, and an approach to agriculture which takes these principles into account to bring about balance and healing.”
Outlined in the 1920s by Austrian esoteric thinker Rudolf Steiner, biodynamics was ignored for decades. After World War II chemicals were regarded as the best modern tools for commercial agriculture. Slowly, however, over the past few decades the idea of organics and then biodynamics has become more and more mainstream. More than four-hundred wineries—some of the world’s finest—have embraced biodynamic methods.

A tour around the Benziger property is the best way to convince yourself that biodynamism works. The vineyards are opulent and healthy, as are the supporting plantings of flowers and vegetables. There’s the hum and aroma of nature in its purest form. A taste of Benziger Family wines is another strong indication of the power of biodynamics. “We are very proud of what we have accomplished here,” Mike Benziger says. Justly so.

 

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