In the early nineties, Mike Benziger had an epiphany. Standing in his impeccably groomed, successful family-operated vineyard on Sonoma Mountain, he heard utter and total silence. No chirping birds, no fluttering butterflies, no buzzing honeybees. The earth between the rows was hard and dry. The productive, conventionally farmed vineyard was “sterile.” It was then that he knew he had to make a change; his thoroughly modern California vineyard was not the answer, and it was time to look back to find his future.
Mike had always been one to look forward. The day after he finished college in the early seventies, this kid from the Bronx, who had never travelled outside of his region, hopped in his jeep and drove up to Canada with his new girlfriend. They headed from the east coast due west over many weeks, camping and portaging as needed to make it to British Columbia. By the time they reached Vancouver Island, Mike and Mary were engaged. The duo continued into the United States, where they lived for a time in their jeep in San Francisco’s Marina District. Mike, needing a job, answered an advert for a job in wine sales, and roots were planted that would see this humble beginning bloom into one of the leading biodynamic and organic wineries in the world.
Mike, along with the help of his supportive parents Bruno and Helen, purchased an 85-acre site in the town of Glen Ellen in Sonoma Valley, California. Soon the rest of the family, Mike’s six siblings and assorted spouses, moved from New York to support the project. As was the practice at the time, the expansive site and its 29 unique microclimates were farmed chemically, a method that our wine industry refers to now as “conventional”. Yields were high, output was abundant and the wines were, according to Mike’s sister Kathy, “average, boring.”
After Mike’s moment of silence in the vineyard, big changes happened. Looking for answers, he befriended Alan York, one of the leading international experts on biodynamic farming. As Mike describes it, “biodynamic is the highest form of organic farming, and is entirely holistic.” It is farming as people did hundreds of years ago. Chemicals and artificial inputs were eliminated and natural balances were reintroduced to the site. Flowers were planted to attract the good bugs required for pest control, and insect highways were installed crisscrossing the vineyards to encourage movement. Olive trees were planted, as were cover crops between the vines. Habitats were created for birds and owls, and frogs, cows, sheep, and chickens were welcomed to the property.
The results, according to Mike, were miraculous. The birds and the bees returned. The soils teemed with life. Mother nature got her balance back.
And the wines? Brighter, fresher, more vibrant and—like the soils and air—alive.
Benziger became the first winery in Sonoma and Napa to be certified as biodynamic in 2000, and is widely recognized as one of the most advanced biodynamic vineyards on the planet. It remains family-owned and operated to this day and the public is welcome to taste, walk, and learn with them.