Thursday, February 28, 9:30-11:30am

Recap by John Schreiner

In 1994, Benzinger Family Vineyards, in the words of vice-president Chris Benziger, “went cold turkey” by completely changing its vineyard practices.

The Sonoma winery was a pioneer of organic and biodynamic practices. Today, many producers are following suit, driving California winemaking down the path of sustainability. The sea change in viticulture was a major theme during a panel discussion of California producers at the Vancouver International Wine Festival.

“There is a great quote from Gandhi,” Chris said during the panel discussion at the festival. “It is ‘First, they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.’ That was our arc into sustainability and biodynamics.”

The Benziger family came from New York to settle in Sonoma in the 1860s. They bought a vineyard property where grape growing had stopped with the start of Prohibition in 1919. The Benzigers eventually acquired the property about 70 years later and began growing grapes again.

“Sustainable farming was not common,” Chris said. “We put up a deer fence and essentially pushed nature out. In the late 1980s, early 1990s, you would not hear the buzz of insects anymore. The only sound you heard coming through the vineyard was wind. We started to get erosion issues because the vineyard floor was damaged. Every time it rained, we would get runoff and erosion. We got phylloxera back, and had some other problems. Worst of all, our wine quality wasn’t getting any better.”

The family was looking for a change. Mike Benziger, Chris’s older brother, decided to “go all the way,” Chris said. We embarked on this adventure of biodynamics. In 1994, we went cold turkey. We got off the chemicals and converted our vineyards. Instead of pushing nature out, we invited nature back in.”

To replace the chemical inputs, the Benzigers put cows and sheep into their vineyards to produce some natural organics.

“The sheep, in one step, are tilling the soil with their cloven hoofs,” Chris says. “They are eating the grass to reduce the weed pressure. And they are dropping that golden turd out the back end, fertilizing as they go.”

One of the objectives of switching from conventional farming to these sustainable methods was to force the vines to put the roots down well below the top soil and thus deliver grapes with much more flavour.

“We are on the side of this old volcano,” Chris said. “It is like geological lasagna. We want to get the roots down into those soils, by getting rid of the chemical inputs. What this is all about, it’s a management system for authenticity. We are trying to make the most authentic wines we can.”

He noted that many wineries have not gone as far as biodynamic farming. But there is a major swing to organic and sustainable farming among other wineries, for reasons similar to the move the Benzigers made.

“Certified sustainable is the big trend right now,” Chris said. “Napa and Sonoma are both trying to make their entire counties certified sustainable.”

California, he added, is an “amazing place to grow grapes” because its soils and climate. “Our challenge is going to be weather and water for sure. By growing the vines without chemical inputs and getting the vines to integrate naturally is how we are going to do it.”

Fellow panelists reinforced his message.

Bob Blue, the winemaker for Mendocino’s Bonterra Organic Vineyards, is another pioneer of organic production. In the 1980s, Bonterra hired an expert on biodynamic farming from Britain for its garden.

“He opened our eyes,” Bob says. “That was the start of our move to organic viticulture in 1987. We have reached a point now where we sold half a million cases of wine last year, and the wines get good reviews.”

Bonterra also has sheep in its vineyards. “We have been working since 2012 with a family that is third generation sheep ranchers. We run 3,000 to 5,000 head of sheep through our vineyards. We use cover crops. We try to touch our vineyards three times with the flocks of sheep. It saves us three passes with a tractor. The practise is quite useful and provides an energy to the farm.”

“You can’t be sustainable if you don’t understand organic and if you don’t understand biodynamic,” says Gina Gallo, the winemaker for E&J Gallo Winery. “As for our family in the future, we are definitely into sustainability. It is also about the winery. How we are conserving the water? We have to be innovative in the vineyard. Right now, we are using 25% less water.”

“I am an enormous believer in biodynamics and organic farming,” said Jean-Charles Boisset, the French-born owner of Napa’s Raymond Vineyards. “We started back in Burgundy decades ago and have seen results that are unique.” Boisset bought Raymond in 2010. All the Raymond vineyards are now organic and biodynamic.

Russ Weis is a veteran California winemaker and president of Silverado Vineyards in Napa’s Stags Leap District.

“The world is making unbelievably great wine everywhere,” he says. “It puts a real imperative on all of us to be even more focussed about the sites we are working with.”

Rowen Wine Company of Sonoma is an offshoot of Rodney Strong Winery, created to developed a rugged 200-acre vineyard site and take sustainability to its limit. Winemaker Justin Seidenfeld described it: “It is one of the most rugged sites you will ever see in your life. There is no power at Cooley Ranch. Everything has to be run with solar power or with generators.”

Rowen developed the vineyard with advice from leading experts. “We embraced technology, starting in the vineyard, to see how we could conserve water and put as little impact on the vineyard as possible. We are not a certified organic vineyard or winery, but we are carbon neutral.”

He says that a conventional vineyard uses, on average, 40 gallons of water per vine. Technology that monitors water content in the soil has allowed Rowen to use less than 12 gallons per vine annually. “We are hoping to drop that even further as we learn to use this technology more effectively. We are learning to conserve.”