Finally making it up to wine country (Sonoma, California), we knew we had to stop by at least one vineyard for wine tasting. Admittedly, after spending much of the last few years studying the environmental and human health consequences of monoculture, I wasn’t terribly optimistic about the health of land saturated with grape vines. I was interested to see if anyone was finding ways of mitigating the environmental effects of intensive agriculture though, and to investigate the industry’s possibilities for environmental sustainability.
My aunt and uncle live in Sonoma, so while staying with them we decided to check out the Benziger estate, one of the only certified organic and biodynamic vineyards in the country.
The family-owned-and-managed vineyard has expanded rapidly in size, production and influence since its start in the 1980s. Mike and Mary Benziger first moved from the East Coast to Northern California in 1973. In 1980, they purchased the Wegener Ranch, a beautiful property nestled up next to Sonoma Mountain. By 1995, what had become the “Benziger Sonoma Mountain Estate” had transitioned out of using conventional practices into a system of more sustainable grape production. In 2005, the Demeter Association officially certified the vineyard as a “Biodynamic” operation.
While not all of the grapes utilized in making Benziger wines are grown on the property, as of 2006 all Benziger wines had been certified sustainable, organic, and/or biodynamic, according to the level of certification achieved by the contracted farms on which each particular variety of grapes is grown. Under the guidance of the Benziger operation, the family plans to help all of their contracted farms achieve organic and biodynamic certification in the coming years (all were certified organic in 2008)—in an attempt to move more land under conscientious production.
On the Benziger property itself, the family employs a variety of practices meant to mitigate the impact of the vineyard on the surrounding land and water. For one, no toxic pesticides or herbicides are used on the grape vines. Instead, the various production plots of different grape varieties are surrounded by gardens full of plants meant to provide habitat for beneficial insects that naturally feed on grape vine pests—an example of integrated pest management. Olive trees wind in an out of the hills, planted specifically to harbor a type of parasitic wasp keen on attacking grape-destroying insects (and as an added plus, the family also now bottles and sells fresh olive oil). In fact, only about half of the Benziger property is actually planted with grape vines—the rest is made up of other plant species that aid in increasing grape yield.
To keep weeds at bay, sheep are allowed to walk between the grape vines at regular intervals throughout the year. The sheep eat down unwanted plants, and do so on delicate hooves that are far less damaging on the land than tractor tires, whose weight compacts the soil. During their time spent grazing amongst the vines, the sheep also help to fertilize the soil with their manure, providing important nutrients to hungry grape plants.
Of course, the plots are also regularly layered with organic compost, which is produced on the farm and made up of a combination of leftovers of winemaking, trimmings, sheep manure, and foliage from the gardens.
All of the water on the farm is recycled, helping to increase the sustainability of the operation in an area that continues to suffer from drought. Mature vineyards require roughly 10-30 acre-inches of rainfall on medium to heavy soils, and an even more water (36-48 acre-inches) in sandier areas.
The farm tries to remain cognizant of waste and energy usage in other ways too, and just recently spent $4 million to have a 28,000 square foot cave system dug into the mountain for the purpose of reducing fossil fuel energy use and limiting the spoilage of wine during the aging process. The cave requires no mechanical heating or cooling, as it naturally maintains a temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit year-round for storing aging wine. In comparison to traditional warehouse wine storage, the cave system also reduces the number of wine cases lost to evaporation during the aging process by keeping the surrounding air relatively humid. The wood of the oak barrels used to store wine contains natural pores, which help to soften the tannins in the wine and allow for evaporation. Unfortunately, because air conditioning creates a very dry atmosphere, most warehouses end up losing a significant quantity of wine over the aging period (usually around 5% of the cases). In contrast, in the caves (which naturally hover around 70% humidity), the farm expects to lose no more than 2% of their wine due to evaporation, or around 1,000 cases.
While Benziger does rely on significant swaths of monoculture (a system generally poor habitat, low in biodiversity, and requires significant irrigation to maintain), cultivating wine grapes in the Benziger’s more sustainable, biodynamic methods seems to counteract many of these issues, and offers a financially and more environmentally-sound way forward for the wine industry. I was amazed to see such a successful vineyard so dedicated to the long-term health of the land, and hope that their model will continue to be replicated across California and other wine-growing areas in the U.S. and abroad. This family has proven that simple designs, natural storage, permaculture ideas, and organic pest and weed management can have not only environmental rewards, but great business success as well.
And for those wondering….the wine was amazing 🙂