The Benziger family is a large and raucous group according to Chris Benziger of Benziger Family Winery. Political points of view differ, but the Benzigers are united in their dedication to sustainable, organic and biodynamic viticulture and winemaking. They were early adopters of these principles in Sonoma County and this year are celebrating 20 years of Demeter Biodynamic® certification. We recently joined that celebration with a tasting of four wines from Benziger Family Winery that are certified sustainable, organic or biodynamic. The wines were provided as tasting samples.
I was invited to attend a virtual tasting hosted by Chris Benziger during which he shared his family’s history as we sipped Benziger wine. No doubt you’ve seen many more virtual wine tastings recently than usual. In this time of COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders, virtual tastings are the only way to gather with others to taste and learn about wine. These tastings can be an effective way to learn about wine. One of the things that made this experience so colorful, and enjoyable, was Chris’ telling of his family’s story.
Benziger Family History
Of course, your family’s story is way more interesting to tell when you have interesting ancestors. Mike’s family came to Sonoma from New York. His grandfather spent a brief time as a bootlegger during Prohibition running whiskey from Canada to New York. The family owned an import business and for a brief time a winery in Brooklyn.
But Chris’ oldest brother, Mike, was more interested in making wine than selling it. He moved to the Livermore Valley in 1972 and went to work in a winery to learn the craft. By 1976 Mike could see potential developing in the California wine business. He approached his father about establishing a family winery and began looking for property.
After scouring property from Monterey to Philo, Mike found a property in Glen Ellen on the slopes of Sonoma Mountain. This property comes with an interesting story too. It was originally settled in the 1860s, but the triple threat of phylloxera, the 1906 earthquake, and Prohibition caused the property to fail. The land was revitalized in the 1970s after standing vacant for years. That owner planted grapes along with marijuana and made a marijuana-infused wine he called Cannabis Sauvignon. Sound familiar?
The entire Benziger family moved to Sonoma and took ownership of the property on Halloween 1980. They set about building their winery themselves. At the time of harvest in 1981 it was incomplete and stainless steel tanks were still in-transit to the winery. Sauvignon Blanc was ripe and the family needed fermentation tanks now. A friend of Chris’ dad, who was a local junk yard operator, arranged to “borrow” two tanker trucks used to transport milk. He delivered them via tow truck and the first vintage of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay were fermented in those tankers. That Sauvignon Blanc was an award-winner, by the way.
Transition to Biodynamic Farming
For the first ten years the Benzigers set about restoring the property. They planted vineyards, erected deer fencing and generally excluded nature from the 85-acre property according to Chris. Erosion became a problem as did phylloxera. Wine quality suffered and the family realized something had to change.
Through his interest in biodynamic farming, Mike met biodynamic consultant Alan York. York came to the Glen Ellen property and the transition to biodynamics began in 1995. The property was Demeter Biodynamic® certified in 2000 and Benziger made their first biodynamic wine the following year.
Biodynamic practices follow a holistic approach that promotes biodiversity and includes farm animals. Biodiversity is promoted through the use of insectaries located throughout the property and connected by habitat highways. Insectaries are gardens of annual and perennial flowering plants that attract and provide food for beneficial insects that aid in the biological control of pests. Insectaries also provide nectar for and attract birds. A vigilant crew of owls control the gopher, vole and mole population in the vineyards.
Soil fertility and health is an essential biodynamic goal and is managed, firstly, through the use of cows and sheep. Cow manure is used to make the biodynamic preparations that are a major distinction from organic farming. Sheep provide manure in the vineyard while controlling weeds and tilling the soil with their hooves. Secondly, cover crops are used to build soil fertility.
To allow grapevines to extract nutrients naturally from the soil they must put down deep roots. Biodynamic preparations, made with cow manure and a variety of plants and minerals, are used to prepare compost teas. The grape vines and soil are then sprayed with the teas several time a year to encourage soil organisms that feed the vines.
The Benzigers have taken their commitment to sustainable, organic and biodynamic viticulture beyond their own vineyards. They only work with vineyard partners who are at least certified sustainable (the key word here being certified). And they encourage their grower partners to move toward organic and eventually biodynamic certification.
Biodynamic farming is time and labor intensive. It’s more expensive and it’s not easy. Chris told us the first three or first years of transition were terrible. After that they saw the momentum build in the vineyard and the vines became stronger.
When asked if consumers are interested in organic and biodynamic wines, Chris told us first and foremost the wines must be delicious. If the consumer likes the wine, then they are interested in learning about the farming practices behind them. But, for most consumers, the farming methods aren’t foremost in their minds. I hope this changes, though, and consumers begin looking for organic and biodynamic wines.
2016 Benziger Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County — medium ruby in the glass with aromas and flavors or plums, blackberries, dried figs dusty earth and dried herbs. Tannins are drying and the body is medium. 14.5% abv. SRP $20
This is an approachable, enjoyable Cabernet that drinks well above its reasonable price point. Grapes are sourced from certified sustainable vineyard sites located on benchlands and mountain ranches. The blend, which varies with each vintage, is 80% Cabernet Sauvignon along with Merlot and Cabernet Franc.
2017 Benziger Reserve Chardonnay, Los Carneros — light golden in the glass with generous aromas of pineapple, ripe pears and citrus. Flavors are a complex combination of melon, yellow apple, citrus and brilliant acidity with a bit of roundness. The finish is medium in length. 14.1% abv. SRP $30
Chardonnay is farmed organically by the Sangiacomo family in Los Carneros AVA. The vineyard is planted in alluvial soils on what was once a pear farm. The Benziger family asked the Sangiacomo family to farm this vineyard organically and it has been certified organic (CCOF) for at least five years according to Chris.
Harvest takes place at night, followed by whole-cluster pressing. The wine goes through malolactic fermentation and oak aging for 10 months in 25% new Fench oak. You won’t find a buttery Chardonnay here, though. There is plenty of acidity and primarily fruit flavors. It is balanced and delicious.
2016 Benziger de Coelo Quintus Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast — nearly translucent ruby in the glass with aromas of red fruit, black pepper and dried herbs. Flavors tend toward cranberries and raspberries along with blackberries, loamy earth and dried alfalfa. Tannins are smooth and all is supported by juicy acidity. 14.1% abv. SRP $69
This vineyard site lies along a ridge only five miles from the Pacific Ocean above the community of Freestone in Sonoma County. The owner of this site was convinced it would be the perfect location for Pinot Noir, which she wanted farmed biodynamically. The Benziger family agreed and planted the site to Pinot Noir, which is now certified Biodynamic. Next to the Glen Ellen property, this site is the most dear to the Benziger family because of its special location.
A variety of Pinot Noir clones are planted in soils that were once an ancient seabed. Ten acres of the 20-acre total are planted to Pinto Noir along with just a bit of Chardonnay. One of the keys to the quality of Pinot Noir harvested from this site is the very low crop yield: 1 to 1.5 tons per acre.
Yes, this wine is a labor of love and very worth the effort. It is an elegant Pinot Noir that sits in the middle of the range between etherial and heavier in style.
2016 Benziger Signaterra Sunny Slope Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Valley — medium ruby in the glass with plums, red berries and dried herbs. The flavors follow the aromas with layers of dark and red fruit, earth and dried herbs. Drying tannins linger with the flavors on the finish in this elegant Cabernet. 14.8% abv. SRP $59
The Sunny Slope vineyard sits in what Chris called “a hot pocket” between Sonoma Mountain and the Mayacamas Mountains warm enough to ripen Bordeaux varieties. The vineyard is certified biodynamic.
Once again, this is a Cabernet Sauvignon with plenty of complexity and structure. It’s not the biggest, ripest example of Cabernet you will find, but Chris assured us that is not Benziger’s style. What you will find with Benziger Family Wines is authenticity. The wines will reflect the site, the vintage, the variety and a deft hand in the cellar.
Earth Day is just a couple of days away and it’s the perfect reminder to do something nice for our planet. How about exploring quality wines made with the greatest respect for Mother Nature? If you haven’t explored certified organic and biodynamic wines, maybe now is the time to do so.
Benziger Family Wines is temporarily closed for wine tasting due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But, once we are all free to travel again, visiting Benziger would be an excellent place to begin your exploration of biodynamic practices and their Biodynamic Vineyard Tram Tour would be the perfect introduction.