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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.

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."

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