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Take a Biodynamic Vineyard Tram Tour at Benziger Family Winery

Benziger Family Winery offers fun and fascinating Biodynamic vineyard tram tours daily.

Benziger Family Winery offers fun and fascinating Biodynamic vineyard tram tours (powered by bio-diesel fueled tractors) on a daily basis on their extensive property in Glen Ellen, in eastern Sonoma County.

After receiving Demeter-certified Biodynamic status in 2000, the Benziger site became Sonoma County’s showpiece and testing ground for environmental vineyard practices. So when I received an invitation to an event there on April 22, 2017, I thought it was the perfect place to spend Earth Day.

The Colorful History of a Green Property

The Earth Day evening event began with a welcome glass — handy GoVino plastic, actually — of Benziger 2016 Rosé of Syrah, which was so welcomely toothsome it was hard to put down. Then we were split into tour groups.

Leading us toward one of the winery’s trams, our tour guide apologized for not being as experienced as some of the other guides, but that he, Chris Benziger, would try and do his best.

Having met some of the other Benziger brothers a few years back, I once guessed that surely Chris, who recently had the very serious title of vice president of trade relations, must be the “serious” one. Heck no, he’s just as convivial and full of colorful stories as the rest of the bunch, with the stories told in the same New York accent circa 1980, when the family moved en masse from White Plains, New York to a run-down ranch in Glen Ellen.

Stopping for a view of terraced vineyards, Benziger reviewed some of the better- and lesser-known details of the property’s history. Native Americans occupied an area that still turns up obsidian spear points — one was found that very day — before the forest was logged and a series of farming, resort, and other activities passed through the years.

Author Jack London stopped by and bought wine here (“even paid,” the proprietor’s diary notes). Decades 

later, author Hunter S. Thompson may have partied here with motorcycle gangs. Wine grapes were only a sideline when the Benzigers bought the property from an eccentric doctor.

“He was ahead of his time,” Benziger says. “He made a wine called Cannabis Sauvignon.” (These days in California, after the passage of Prop 64, one cannot escape talk of pairing “wine and weed”).

But when the Benzigers sold their then-red-hot Glen Ellen brand and looked around the estate, they found the vines declining and the soil in poor shape. They’d been farming the conventional way, ignoring not only the needs but also the services of nature. In the 1990s they brought in a Biodynamic consultant and got to work restoring and enhancing the land — even tearing out sections of vineyard, where needed.

The Wine Group owns the winery today, with several family members participating in operations and brand support.

Of Hooves and Horns

After descending to the wastewater recycling ponds to get the stats on how much water the winery’s innovative, natural system is saving for irrigation — I’d have the exact figures for you, but that rosé was so hard to put down — we paid a visit to the flock of Dorper sheep. These relatively docile, lower-maintenance sheep (they shed wool and don’t need shearing) mow the property in the winter and early spring, leaving fertilizer as they go.

Last year, says Benziger, a few sheep were lost, but although a mountain lion and two cubs have been observed hanging out on the property lately, the sheep have been safe this year — at least from the local wildlife. Estate vineyard manager Jeff Landolt admits to having eaten some of the spring lamb they sold to El Molino Central, a popular Boyes Hot Springs taqueria, in a taco earlier in the day.

Of Bugs and Veggies

On a walking tour of the insectary gardens, Landolt’s offers more stories of eating and being eaten. According to Landolt, ladybugs are fine as the iconic “good bugs” of the organic agriculture movement, but they can only eat dainty portions of pest species at a time. By contrast, “Spiders are cool,” he says “because they go on a killing rampage.”

Parasitoid wasps, meanwhile, lay eggs in a pest insect, “and it blows up,” says Landolt. Before dinner is served, he covers the more palatable subject of the farm’s Biodynamic vegetable gardens, which benefit Sonoma’s La Luz Center for vocational training and financial support.

Proof in the Glass?

While I eschew the easy kind of talk about Biodynamic wines that claims they feel more “alive” or “natural,” the 2013 Tribute Estate Blend ($85) is certainly the most vibrant vintage of this Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated Bordeaux-style wine that I’ve sampled yet … or maybe it was just the optimal day on the complex Biodynamic calendar of “earth days” and “fruit days” to enjoy this liqueur-perfumed, lively, and supple wine.

An estate wine need not originate from one single piece of land: Benziger’s 2014 de Coelo Quintus Pinot Noir ($75) hails from a property they farm just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean, and it is also Biodynamic. Here, the cool breezes contribute to a piquant, lean Pinot that refreshes the palate with red-fruited, cranberry, pomegranate, and lingonberry flavors.

It’s also important to note that while only a fraction of Benziger’s wines are made from Biodynamic grapes, the balance are sourced from certified sustainable vineyards. An economical, sustainably grown example from this tier that zips from tropical fruit to citrus zest, the 2015 North Coast Sauvignon Blanc ($15) seems an ideal summer sipper with which to kick back in the insectary and watch the bugs.

The winery offers Biodynamic vineyard tram tours daily, from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. ($30 per guest). And Chris Benziger leads an intimate tour and lunch for small groups on the first Friday and second Sunday of the “better weather” months, starting in March ($100 per guest).

Benziger Family Winery, 1883 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen, 888-490-2739; open daily, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; tasting fee $20, other tours and tastings $25–$50. 

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