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Benziger Chardonnay and Biodynamic Farming

Benziger Family Winery takes Earth Day seriously. How seriously does Benziger take Earth Day? I’m glad you asked. Benziger takes Earth Day so seriously, their Earth Day shipment of promotional samples to the press includes not only an affordable, sippable spring wine release accompanied by some niceties about protecting the planet, but also one mason jar containing approximately 400ml of some of their “best dirt and compost.”

They sent me dirt? Yes, and a packet of flower seeds—but that’s some sweet swag, coming from one of Sonoma County’s leading Biodynamic farming practitioners.

Full disclosure: Although I did sprinkle Benziger’s rust-tinted dirt and compost—the color likely comes from their volcanic soils on Sonoma Mountain—on my just-planted potato bed, I swear that the gift did not influence my critical evaluation of their wines in any way.

Swear it. Just to prove it, I’ll hold their feet to the fire—or “Earth, Air, Fire, Water,” as it says on the wine label—for a spell:

The Benzigers made a big splash with their switch to Biodynamic farming, 20 years ago. And even after the winery’s sale to a wine group, they continue to emphasize their commitment to this purportedly earth-friendly, chemical-free practice. But this only applies to their estate-owned vineyards: notice that the Benziger 2013 Sonoma County Chardonnay ($16) is “sustainably certified” by a third party, not Biodynamically farmed. If it’s not bait and switch—what’s the difference?

I got Chris Benziger, vice president of trade relations, on the horn to explain. Talk about serious about Earth Day—he was just that moment, pulling up weeds and doing other work at Jack London State Park as part of the company’s annual “team building” Earth Day community event (well, mandatory event, but still).

Benziger affirmed that only 10 to 15 percent of their wines are certified organic and Biodynamic. “The lion’s share is in the certified sustainable, Sonoma County program,” says Benziger. But the role that the Biodynamic, organic estate plays is much more than symbolic, according to Jeffery Landolt, Benziger’s estate vineyard manager.

“The biodynamic program is kind of our laboratory, where we do our research and development,” says Landolt. “I don’t know too many people who share their trade secrets with the growers— Mike’s [founder Mike Benziger’s] mentality was always to share as much as you can, because it’s going to make the planet better.”

Benziger’s sustainably-certified growers end up trying out some of their methods, and learn as they go.

“I would bet in another 20 year, a lot of people will be doing this,” Landolt believes. “We’re just lucky because our founder met the right person who turned him on to this—and the rest is history.”

Benziger’s 2013 Sonoma County Chardonnay ($16) pops out of the glass in bright, tropical aromas of mango and papaya. Yet it’s not overripe on the palate: Fuji apple flavors dominate here, with just a hint of sweet-sour Meyer lemon. Butterscotch candy rounds out the palate, making a late showing, as the aromatics aren’t particularly “buttery,” toasty or oaky, and there’s just a bit of dry grip on the finish.

I like this as a bright, spring and summertime sipper for events and entertaining, where you want to talk about something else beside the wine—not that there isn’t, as you see, plenty to talk about.

I just hope that compost grows some good potatoes, too.

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