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Benziger 2011 Tribute Sonoma Valley Red Blend

In Sonoma County grape farming, beyond organic and sustainable stands Biodynamic® farming practices. A visit to Benziger Winery illuminates the part-magic, part-practical aspects of Biodynamic® principles.

The horns, you’re looking at the horns. No doubt about it, the cow horns used in Biodynamic farming are a potent symbol. Brandished by advocates, they signify the practice’s connection to ancient, earthy ways — perhaps, with a wee whiff of exoticism — and when taken up by skeptics, they can also be wielded for a “poke in the eye” effect.

People pour all kinds of hopes, dreams, and scorn into the horns, but their main purpose is really just a vessels for the powders and preparations required for Biodynamic certification. As these include herbs, manure, and specific organs of animals both wild and domestic, one might be tempted to joke that the brew must also call for “eye of newt.”

In fact, a newt is the first thing I saw when I peeked into Benziger’s Biodynamics® preparations cellar.

On a tour of Benziger Winery last fall, which was organized by Demeter USA, winegrower Mike Benziger showed us the bug garden, or insectary, that helps to protect the vines, and talked about the mix of high-tech satellite mapping and low-tech composting that they employ on the Benziger estate.

We saw the sheep barn and the Scottish Highland cattle, which are adorable. And then we stopped at a secluded little shack where the secret sauce is made out of raw crystals, compost, and herbs.

Looking very much like something you’d see in the Shire, this hobbit-scaled shack is tucked away in the hillside behind the winery. Dried yarrow hangs from the walls, 10-pound rocks and crystals line the shelves, and there are hammers for pounding and extracting and pots for stirring.

Inside the dank cellar where Benziger’s preparations age, I spied a glistening newt atop a bucket of compost. The little guy had just found a nice, cool place to take a nap, and isn’t really a part of the recipe.

After grinding and mixing, the preparations are aged in cow horns and later sprayed on the vineyards, enhancing the radiation of light and jump-starting biological activity in the soil — according to Biodynamic® practitioners like Benziger.

You’ll notice I’m using a registered trademark with the word Biodynamics®. Demeter USA prefers it that way, especially when used in reference to wineries certified by their organization. Benziger is certified two ways: Both for growing Certified Biodynamic® wine grapes and for winemaking practices — an extra step that many wineries do not take. That they print the certification logo right on their label says something, I think, about their dedication to these efforts.

If you think it’s still all for show, well, it’s a real good show. Here’s the estate-grown Tribute, Bordeaux-style blend. They’re on to 2012 in the tasting room now, but wine club members can still pick up the 2011.

Benziger 2011 Tribute Red Blend ($80)
Tasting from bottle, this Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated blend from an infamously cool vintage is a fairly limpid, bright ruby red. Red earth dusts an aroma that hints of raspberry tea — there’s a light iron note, but no “pencil lead.” The oak aroma is like crumbled graham cracker, dunked in a palate of creamy raspberry.

Tasting from a decanter, a pleasant, Herbes de Provence aroma shows up. Otherwise, the profile is similar, with perhaps a sweeter fruit character; there’s cassis now, deepening the raspberry notes, and the fruit is well-melded with fine-grained tannins on a lingering finish.

This reminds me of some of the better 2011 wines from a Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting last year. I’d be happy having this with a steak and red wine reduction.

Here’s a likely pairing, courtesy of Benziger Winery and chef Justin Everett, formerly of Sonoma’s El Dorado Kitchen

Recipe: Pappardelle with Braised Short Rib and Horseradish

Serves 4

Red Wine Marinade:           

  • 1 bottle of inexpensive red wine (750 ml)
  • 1 large carrot – peeled and coarsely chopped
  • 1 onion – coarsely chopped
  • 1 leek
  • 4 cloves of garlic - coarsely chopped
  • 3 sprigs of thyme - whole
  • 1 bay leaf - whole
  • 5 black peppercorns - lightly crushed

Short ribs:

  • 1 beef short rib (2 lbs)
  • 3 tsp canola oil
  • salt & pepper
  • 3 qts of veal stock

Pasta:

  • 1 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 12 oz pappardelle
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 1/4 cup cream
  • 2 cups short ribs braising liquid
  • grated fresh horseradish

THE DAY BEFORE:
Preparing the Marinade: Mix red wine, carrot, onion, leek, garlic, thyme, bay leaf, and black pepper into a large bowl. Add short ribs, cover with cling wrap, and place in the refrigerator overnight.

THE DAY OF:
Preheat oven to 375 F, remove rib from marinade and set on kitchen towel. Pat dry and season with salt and pepper. Lightly sear each side of the short rib in the canola oil. Place the seared short rib in large roasting pan. Add the vegetable from the marinade. Cover with 3 parts veal stock to 1 part red wine marinade. Cover with foil. Braise for 3.5 hours. Let cool for 1 hour. Remove short rib from liquid. Strain braising liquid, discarding vegetables, and place liquid over medium heat. Reduce sauce by half. Boil the papperdelle in salted water for approximately 8 minutes. Careful not to over cook. Pasta should hold its shape and be firm to the touch. Add two cups of the braising liquid in a pan and reduce for 3 minutes on medium heat. Add the ¼ cup of cream and the short rib back to the pan. Toss in butter, cheese and parsley. Season with salt and pepper. Distribute evenly into four bowls. Finish by grating the horseradish over each serving.

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