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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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An April 13, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)announced the four winners of its second annual "Growing Green" awards, which honor leaders in the sustainable-food world in four categories: "thought leader," "producer," business leader," and "water steward."Mike Benziger brought home the "water steward" prize for his work at Benziger Family Winery.

When Mike Benziger and his family began growing grapes and making wine in 1970s-era Sonoma County, the prevailing agricultural style could be described as "scorched earth." Agrichemical concoctions fed the vines, killed the pests, and flattened the weeds; plentiful well water provided easy irrigation.

But such practices not only kill soil, they also deaden wine. Over time, the Benzigers began to rethink modern viticulture. One motivation was improving the product, making it stand out from the gusher of wine coming out of Sonoma. Another was the sinking water table on Sonoma Mountain, where the family keeps its vineyards. Faced with surging water costs, the family began searching for new farming methods that didn't treat water as a cheap and easy resource. Thus started an odyssey that inspired the family to convert its Sonoma property to biodynamic growing practices in the mid-1990s -- and that won Mike Benziger recognition from the NRDC as a "water steward." I caught up with Mike last week via phone.

Tom Philpott: Tell us about how Benziger saves water.

Mike Benziger: It all started because we were running out of water -- our wells were dropping. Necessity really was the mother of invention. We're located on Sonoma Mountain, and water recharge was not happening anywhere near as fast as we were using the water. The bottom line in California is there's probably not going to be enough water to go around.

So, what are we going to do to address that? You throw climate change into that mix, and the problem gets that much more critical. There's a saying in the wine business: wine is for loving, but water is for fighting. But it turns out that when you use significantly less water in the field, you can actually raise the quality of wine. There's not a tradeoff between water use and wine quality. Of course, there are economic benefits, too -- one of the biggest costs we incur at our facility is for pumping water out of the ground.

So we looked to the vineyard first. Far and away, our growing practices used the most significant quantities of water. So, by designing vineyards that needed less water, by not planting in areas that had an excess demand for water, and by planting plants that were smaller, by planting plants that were less thirsty, by planting plants that had rootstalks that went deeper and pulled water from lower soil depth, we saved a lot of water.

And we quickly found that by irrigating less and using less inputs, our grapes, olives, and other products were more concentrated in flavor, higher in quality, and had a longer shelf life to it.

TP: Benziger is well-known in the industry for being certified biodynamic. Talk about the relationship between biodynamic growing practices and water conservation.

MB: When we first moved into our property in 1980, we hired the best advisors. And they told us, "Hey, you better get rid of all of the natural things in your vineyards and push them out to the other side of the fence. We don't want any competition in your vineyards. Let's get rid of all the insects, let's get rid of all the weeds, let's get rid of all the birds. We need to have this under control. Only vines should be in a vineyard area."

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.

Virtually all farms had animals for 10,000 years. They've been pushed off most farms over the last hundred years because we decided that monocrops are more efficient. But we really didn't look hard enough to see the real reasons why our ancestors were using animals

TP: What else are you doing to reduce water use in the winemaking process?

MB: We've constructed wetlands that recycle 2-3 million gallons of water a year. All of the winery waste water and some of the grey water on our facility is captured in a pond and then, by gravity, it's recycled through this large wetlands that acts as a kidney that cleans the water to an incredibly high level -- to where it looks good enough to drink. That's the water that we then use for landscaping, and we then use for irrigation. It's used twice.

In the actual winemaking process, we recently invested in what's called "all-vibration technology." We've eliminated all belts and all screws. And that right there, eliminated, I think, 18-20 percent of the water use for harvest last year alone, just converting out of belts and screws to these very easy-to-clean, very efficient vibration tables. They clean up almost by themselves.

Then there's cleaning wine barrels. You can imagine how hard it is to clean a 60-gallon barrel and get it all clean on the inside when there's only a little hole to work through. In the past, we used up to 25 gallons per barrel. But with the new technologies that we've invested in, which is based on steam, we've been able to get that to below 5 gallons per barrel.

TP: Benziger is obviously known most for its wine -- what else is grown on your Sonoma Mountain land?

MB: Yeah, we grow about 30 different types of vegetables and we make olive oil and we make honey. We have about 100 lamb. We sell all of our olive oil in the tasting room, then we supply local restaurants with vegetables and beef. We're also trying to make on a regular basis what I call an estate meal, which is a meal made entirely off the property of the lamb or the beef or the chicken with all the vegetables that we grow, with the olive oil and the honey, tasted alongside the wines that are made right there in that system, and to see if there's an overlap or a crossover in the flavors or the profiles or the textures of the wine or the olives oil or even the veggies.

TP: Sounds like an old-school diversified Mediterranean farm -- olive groves, vineyards, vegetables, meat, all growing right on top of each other.

MB: Our property is 85 acres and less than 40 of it are in grapes. Then the other 35 or 40 are the biological support system for the grapes. The grapes are the lead character in the play. A lot of the time, [all the supporting actors] makes the lead character interesting. I don't want to give the impression we think we're perfect in terms of sustainability -- we can always do better! But it turns out that by doing things like conserving water and improving soil health, we make better wine. So we're committed.

TP: Please recommend a few relatively inexpensive examples of your wines. 

MB: First, I'd try the 2009 Benziger Sauvignon Blanc -- that's just hitting the markets right now. Then I would recommend the 2006 Benziger Sonoma Country Cabernet Sauvignon. And then we have another one called Signiterra that's a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon that is a biodynamic property in transition -- that is an awesome wine. Those would be the three that I would recommend.

Grist staff writer Tom Philpott farms and cooks at Maverick Farms, a sustainable-agriculture nonprofit and small farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.
 
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