Q&A with Mike Benziger of Sonoma’s Benziger Family Winery

Mike Benziger leads one of the most prominent and one of the last in-tact families in the wine industry. Based in Sonoma, the 30-year old Benziger Family Winery is widely known for their pioneering exploration and practice of Biodynamic, organic and sustainable agriculture and grape growing. Though they did not start out this way, as time evolved, they began to embrace a different way of farming. The validation of this, is high scoring wines in the national press and medals at wine competitions.

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The Benziger name is still associated with a family-run winery. What are the inherent difficulties in running a family business as opposed to operating within a corporate structure?

Have you ever tried to work with six brothers and sisters before? It’s a good thing we can start drinking at 7 a.m. and call it “research.” As a family we have always played hard and fought hard, avoided grudges and over the years we have worked with family business consultants that have shown us how to develop a shared vision, navigate conflict and work as a team. All of us are involved in the business everyday along with an awesome group of employees. We’re passionate and after 30 years still feel privileged to do what we do. Now we have nieces and nephews interested in joining the business. One major advantage to being a family business is being able to have a generational outlook versus a corporate quarterly outlook. In other words, we’re able to make decisions and investments that will reap rewards in the long term that are in synch with nature instead of focusing on short term financials and exploiting natural resources. Biodynamic farming and nurturing the long term health of a vineyards fits perfectly into this approach.

What was the impetus to move into organic, then biodynamic farming?

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.

We’re fortunate enough to manage some incredible pieces of property. As land managers we have two choices, we can manage in a way that exploits the earth or manage in a way that nurtures it. We feel that there is an obligation to farm our properties in a way that re-generates the land. We pushed beyond the idea of sustainability and embraced a style of farming that rejuvenates, resonates and builds biological capital year after year. Our kids deserve this. 

Though Rudolph Steiner pioneered the philosophy of biodynamic farming in his 1924 lectures in Austria, much of what he stated has been implemented for centuries around the world. Is biodynamic really anything new, or is it fundamentally a return to ‘old school’ farming methods?

In our farming practices we look at Biodynamics as one of the tools in our toolbox. With our farming and winemaking activities we concentrate in three areas: classic, highly detailed viticulture and winemaking, scientific research and data collection in order to identify patterns in nature, and an overarching holistic farming approach (i.e. Biodynamics and organics) in other words: Details, Data and Diversity. Steiner, when he conceived of Biodynamics, took the practices of ancient peasant cultures, people that we really connected to the land, and put them into a more modern form of farming called Biodynamics. His intent was that each farmer would understand the basic principles of Biodynamics but continue to experiment and evolve and eventually customize the practices to meet his own unique property.  Biodynamics, if practiced correctly, is always evolving in order to heal the earth.

Your portfolio of wines is pretty standard (Merlot, Cab, Chard, Pinot Noir). Are there unique varieties you would love to someday produce? What are they and why would you like to make them?

My goal is to connect with a piece of property on a deeper and deeper basis in order to push the envelope of what’s true and authentic in a bottle of wine, olive oil or honey. If enjoyment of this wine creates or provokes a higher appreciation and a connection to nature, then we feel we are doing our job.

As someone who grew up in New York, then migrated to California, how did that transition shape your view of farming the land with respect?

As a New Yorkers, when we first got here we thought we could control nature but that was an illusion. We thought we had more control than we did but we soon found out who the boss was. You know what they say, Nature always bats last and she bats a thousand. What we have found is that the highest quality and the highest level of distinction in a wine is always reached in cooperation with nature. In the practice of Biodynamics we are trying to identify as many patterns in nature as possible. Instead of trying to control or change them, we choose to move with them. The more patterns we identify and support the more honest, true and authentic the wine is.

Had you not entered the family wine business, where would you be working right now?

No matter what I would have been a wino!

A lot has been written about the 100 point rating scale. Some believe it has empowered consumers, others think it has distorted wine prices, while still others say it has actually changed the quality of wines being produced. What do you see as being the long term impact, if any, of the 100 point rating system?

Great critics are incredibly important to the advancement of art, music, wine etc. Good critique puts the product in the context of culture, trends and meaning for the consumer. But if analysis is reduced only to the numbers than it becomes a competition or a beauty contest and the critic misses an opportunity to elevate the consumers’ understanding of what quality really means or doesn’t.

Rising alcohol levels in U.S. and foreign wines are much debated. What are your thoughts on the subject?

Sun, for the most part, drives alcohol, so less sunny places, like Tuscany, Mosel, Champagne, etc., the natural balance and bias is for lower alcohols. Summer climates like California, Spain and Chile (especially with larger diurnal temperature swings), the natural balance and bias is for higher alcohols. The key word here is balance. You can have a 15% Cabernet that is excellent when the alcohol, acid and sweetness are in balance. If one of the components is out of tune, you will feel it. That said, I think it’s worth looking at as a grower and winemaker to keep alcohols in check.  Alcohol is sweet and slippery, so if too high, it can smooth over very interesting textures in a wine. If the alcohol is right it supports an impression of richness and fullness in the entry, but does not camouflage silky tannin and interesting contours in a wine. I like to work with the concepts of satisfaction (rich entry/alcohol) and refreshment (levity in finish/acid). The goal is to make you want to take another sip.

Tribute is your flagship biodynamic wine, a Bordeaux blend. Why is this wine unique and how do you convince people to drop $80 for a biodynamic wine?

$80, that’s a lot of scratch. It better be good, it better be inspiring because expectations are pretty high. If you have ever been to our property you will no doubt sense an unusual energy and beauty. You can almost taste it. If the sensations of our estate property weren’t captured in a bottle of Tribute, you’re right, it wouldn’t be worth it.

What do see as the future of the organic/biodynamic wine movement?

The future of Biodynamics lies mostly in the next generation. Anyone bringing children into this world now has to be concerned about the health of the planet and their quality of life. This generation will demand products that don’t sacrifice quality, are priced fairly, but go beyond sustainability to regeneration of the environment. They will be enlightened consumers with a lot of product information at hand. These are time tested systems that preserve our natural capital and don’t borrow from the future to increase production today.

 Biodynamics and organics is more like back to the future. “We don’t inherit the earth from our parents, we borrow it from our children.”  Chief Seattle