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How One Winemaker Is Staving Off a Water Crisis and Making Delicious, Earth-Friendly Vino

Mike Benziger's family has transformed viticulture using water and earth friendly practices for growing grapes, and at the same time growing veggies and raising animals.

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Over time, we did a pretty good job of killing everything. One day, we went outside and we didn't hear a peep: we didn't see an insect, we didn't hear a bird, our soils were eroding because they were dead, and quite frankly, our wines were hit and miss. And that's when we knew we needed to look for some farming practices that maybe treated the land with a little bit more respect.

In about 1994-95, we started to look around for different farming practices. Biodynamic farming resonated with us because it did two things: it regenerated the land, meaning it built biological capital, and it individualized our product. And that was the thing that really, really attracted us. By farming this way, and by looking at biodynamics as a closed system of agriculture, we were able to individualize -- make our property more distinctive over time.

Biodynamics means recycling all the products within your property, and reducing the use of imported inputs ... including water. Over time, our philosophy came to never ever feed the vine, but to only take care of the soil. When you feed the vine, when the food for the vine is put on the surface of the soil and then dripped in with an irrigation system, the roots stay right where the food is, which is right in the first eighteen inches. If we take care of the soil, the roots go deeper to find the nutrients the plant needs -- the nutrients aren't all there at the surface. The goal is to get the roots to explore the entire soil profile and to eventually get down to where more permanent sources of water are, which in our case, tend to be down below six to eight feet. Once we can tap into that, then we can really delay our irrigations and save hundreds of thousands of gallons of water.

When the roots reach the lower depths, we can really tap into what I call the Holy Grail: and that is in being able to showcase what is called in the wine business the terroir of the property ... the sense of place, the sense that the wine came from somewhere specific.

TP: Animals are integral to biodynamic farming. What kind of animals are on your farm?

MB: In biodynamic farming, you try to eliminate the use of inputs by enabling natural systems, through use of  plants and animals. We use plants as habitat areas to bring in good insects that eat the bad bugs, which eliminate the need for pesticides, and we bring in the caretakers of soil biology and that eliminates the need for fertilizer.

So we have cows, which provide the manures for our compost, and sheep, which are out in the vineyards every day during the fall, winter, and the early part of spring. With every step, sheep do three things: they eat, they shit, and they till. They're pretty cool animals and they really invigorate the soil biology by keeping the grasses down low, that way we don't have to bring our machinery in early when compaction is a problem. They also provide the ability to turn their manures into grasses under, so that they break down and they keep the soil biology humming. They also put little dents, not too many, but little dents in the soil that act to hold water and help to recharge the soil aquifer faster. The other thing they do, which is really important, is they take care of disease protection by turning under with their paws all the litter that's left over from last year that usually has mildew and other bacteria in it; they turn it under and the soil bacteria take care of it right away.

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