Benziger: '60s Pot Farm Becomes Sonoma's First Certified Biodynamic Winery

Photos by Jaymi Heimbuch

Mike Benziger and his wife Mary first discovered what was originally the Glen Ellen estate at Sonoma Mountain back in 1980. Immediately, Mike had a premonition that this is where he and his family belonged. He notes feeling that "our family was going to be successful and happy here." While the original property was already peppered with wine grapes, it's rumored they were just a cover, literally. During the '60s the vines were supposedly used as a cover crop for marijuana growing on the property. Most of that crop has been eradicated from the property, but some plants still pop up every now and then.
Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch

One of the biggest contributions Benziger has made to the wine growing process is their efforts in water conservation. So much that they earned NRDC's Green Growing Award for Water Stewardship. The vineyard recycles a mind-blowing 2 million gallons of water every year through home-spun wetlands and recycling ponds. Too put that in perspective, their conventional wine growing methods used about 24 gallons of water per barrel and they now use just 5!

Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch

If at first you don't succeed...


Mike first came to California back in 1973 where he was living in his Jeep in San Francisco's Marina District--something you wouldn't get away with today. After saving enough money, he traveled to Europe to learn about wine. He then purchased the Sonoma Mountain estate in 1981 where his parents and his six siblings joined them in what was to become Napa's first certified biodynamic winery. In fact, it is one of the few California wineries that is still owned and operated the founding family--about 24 total family members.

Benziger is located in Glen Ellen, CA at Sonoma Mountain. The 85-acre estate, which almost forms a perfect bowl, has 29 unique micro-climates around the property. As a result, the Benzigers were extremely interested in preserving this unique location. But their initial trials did not start out with stellar results. Like everyone else around them they began farming conventionally. "Only vines should be in vineyards," they were taught. Using machines and pesticides, the heavy handed method took its toll on the land. There were no birds or insects, the silence was deafening for the property eventually became an ecological desert.

So they started to investigate other farming methods while slowly correcting what abuses had been done to the land. Chemical inputs were removed along with some of the vines. Many of the thirstier plants were replaced with olive trees and insectaries. The estate, which was on the brink of exhaustion, now has over 40 acres of these land-saving techniques.

Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch

But the land was not the only thing suffering. They were running out of water. The property's water wells became sluggish and unable to keep up with convention. So they redesigned the vineyard by not planting in areas with excessive water needs and by matching plant and root structure with the ground's water base. These methods paid off. In 2000, Benziger became the first certified biodynamic winemaker in Napa and Sonoma counties to receive this strict certification.

Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch

Easy reading


Biodynamic farming techniques were developed in the 1920s by Rudolph Steiner. They are a form of organic farming that take both the farmer and the farm into consideration with the addition of holistic practices. So along with Scottish Highlander cows and 75 sheep to tend the land, tea preparations are used to treat both the grapes and the terrior. The teas are made from everything from cow manure which has been aged underground to chamomile. These practices and the 29 different blocks that make up the Benziger estate add to amazing, complex and accessible wines.

Luckily, you can easily try them yourselves. While some of the wines can only be purchased at the tucked away estate, a lot of them can be bought at your local Safeway store or online at benziger.com. The wines are moderately priced with the cheapest running around $20 but you could easily spend $200 if you wanted. The tasting notes of Benziger wines are not limited to a single beat, the 29 different lots provide a roller coaster of varieties and notes. That said, the Obsidian brand is especially noteworthy. Named after the volcanic earth provided by Sonoma Mountain, the Obsidian label is smoky and deep yet surprisingly flexible.

Oddly enough, back in 1974, Mike had received a book on biodynamics from a guy he met in the wine industry. The book had remained on his bookshelf for years, unread. To think how the organic wine industry could have been today if he had only read it sooner.

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Benziger Wine Pairing Recipes
Winter Salad with Roasted Root Vegetables and a Balsamic Reduction
Risotto with a Portabella Duxelle
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