The Benziger Family Biodynamic Bible

by Drew Stofflet, Time Out Wine Columnist
I drove through the quaint, historical Sonoma winemaking outpost of Glen Ellen, turning right at the Jack London Lodge, and wove on up the mountain road.

My destination was the Benziger Family Estate, nestled in the hills above, cupped in an old volcanic caldera. The greeting party waiting there was made up of friends old and new, practically all related. I received a warm hug from Kathy, who many of you met while she lived here in Aspen. Her brother Chris was on hand, as was her brother Mike, the clan's apparent leader and guru. You may remember his Wine Spectator cover shot touting “WINE GOES GREEN.”

Nowhere is that theme more apparent than at this lush, vibrant and naturally ordered wine nirvana. It is also a paradise for song birds, insects, flowering plants, tourists and Benziger family members. In fact, as many as 11 are employed in the family business. And for those who choose to, there is no nepotism. “Nepotism would kill this business,”  Mike says. “We make them jump through hoops of fire.” He points to his daughter Erinn, along with us on the tour, as an example. Each family member must graduate from college and then go and work off-site for the family winery before being allowed a sacred spot in this wine paradise. Erinn ran the east coast sales team for several years before returning to Sonoma.

The Benziger net extends beyond kinfolk and includes people like Alan York, Mike's right-hand man. One of the world's leading biodynamic consultants, York has helped the artist Sting with his own winery project.

Mike clarifies the use of biodynamic preps and the negative reaction people often give to these methods, e.g. the fermenting manure in a buried cow's horn or animal bladders stuffed with herbs and flowers. “People didn't always have plastic containers or bags, so they used what they had to store things,” he states. As a result, people like Austrian Rudolph Steiner — the father of biodynamics — came up with results. In this case, flowers stored in bladders and manure fermented in cow's horns creates potent fertilizers, “which feed the soil, not the plants.” This point sends him on a Biblical journey to the heart of the debate between conventional and organic biodynamic farming.

Conventional farming uses chemical or artificial inputs and creates a “stimulus/response” set, a term Mike uses often. Natural farming uses natural inputs, and biodynamic farming uses natural systems. “Plants stand in one place and become the expert of that area. When you remove the inputs and the stimulus/response set, plants become intelligent again and begin to order energy and nature around them,” he says. For example: throwing a bunch of fertilizer on your tomatoes (think steroid use). They will grow big fast, but in years to come, the soil will dry, erode and the plants will lose that natural intelligence. Biodynamics heals sick soil.
  Mike introduces Pedro Parra at this point, to pick up with the theme of terroir and the Benziger's spot-on approach at defining it in action, once and for all, romantically growing down into granite stones in France, piles of barnyard doo or dirty socks. Parra is considered the leading expert in vineyard soil science the world over and is visiting the winery during "Soil Summit Week." The Concepción, Chile native quickly gets beyond the climatic factors, to the geology, the soil and the slopes. “Terroir is in slopes,” he says with an air of confidence.

This brings us back to biodynamics. Parra notes, “Most of the vegetables and grapes in the world are grown from roots that inhabit the upper few feet of topsoil. When that topsoil is essentially the same, through conventional farming, everything tastes that same.” I add, “varietally correct,” which is a term thrown around in wine sales too often. But for pure sense of place, a root system must need to go beyond this artificially stimulated soil zone to seek deeper earth, where true terroir is determined and passed on. In biodynamically charged soil, intelligent plants possess frond-like micro-roots which whisper deeper and deeper into the earth.

To illustrate this, Parra and the Benzigers load up onto trams and we tour around the stunning, hilly property to view vineyard “pits.” These tell-all trenches show exactly what is going on at root level. Anyone who has properly ventured into the Aspen backcountry will be familiar with snow pits. These are no different. Each one is about six feet deep and shows the various thickness of the roots at varius soil depths. You can go down in them and see the soil layers and types. Pits must be dug all over the vineyard, creating a “zonage,” much like we must dig many pits when assessing the safety of our mountain travels. One shows clay, which is often thought of as a bane to wine growers. If it has cracks in the soil, however, there are “roads for the roots,” in Para's words. Another pit is limestone and loamy, from which Para pulled a frondy, fern-like micro-root and handed it to me. I delicately placed it in my hand and it all made sense to me. This is language of terroir.

And according to Mike Benziger, “The winemaker's ego is loud.”  “Sense of place in grapes,” on the other hand “is  very quiet.”

After wrapping up the tour and tasting, dinner in the medieval caves proved the quiet wines are phenomenal. In fact, they may well be the best in class for their entry/mouthfeel, taste, finish and food accompaniment versus any in their price point. The Benzigers, well, they are not so quiet! And that is a good thing. Cheers! Remember, wine reveals truth.

Drew Stofflet lives in Carbondale. Correspond with him at drew.stofflet@gmail.com