Thomas J. Story

A winemaking family embraces earth-friendly gardening at their Sonoma vineyard

KATHLEEN N. BRENZEL,  –  January 19, 2005

The scent of lavender and sage fills the air as Bob Benziger leads the way through drifts of perennials. “Stay still and this place vibrates. It’s alive,” he says. Sure enough, bees are zipping around California poppies and Russian sage, and the warm summer air hums with a high-pitched buzz. Hummingbirds, too, dart among the flowers in a blur of beating wings.

All this vibrant motion comes naturally in an insectary garden, the engine that drives diversity in Benziger Sonoma Mountain vineyards in Glen Ellen, California. These birds and bees help ensure the health and productivity of the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, and other Bordeaux grapes whose vines embroider the hills with neat rows of green.

“Every plant blooms at a certain time and attracts a pollinator we need at that time,” explains Bob, one of seven siblings who manage the estate. Of the property’s 85 acres, 42 are planted in wine grapes. The remaining grounds include olives, citrus, and vegetables as well as woodlands, wetlands, and the insectary garden. Each of these habitats is tended as carefully as the vineyards because the family believes that maintaining diversity of plants and other organisms is key to a self-sustaining ecosystem.


“We’ve created an environmental safe house that allows the vines to spread out and develop their own personalities,” explains Mike, the winemaker and Bob’s older brother. Mike and his wife, Mary, discovered the sprawling, sunbaked old ranch in 1980, bought it, then set out to find a “different way to farm.” He credits horticulturist Alan York with introducing him to an environmentally responsible land-management system called biodynamics, which is winning acceptance among winemakers and home gardeners alike.

“Our goal is to produce wines that reflect the land and those who farm it,” says Mike. After tasting Tribute, a smooth, dark ruby Bordeaux blend with a rich berry flavor, I’m convinced they’re well on their way. Released last June, it’s the first certified biodynamic wine produced from Napa and Sonoma Counties.

But for the Benziger clan, all two dozen of them, the biggest reward is working the vineyard together, doing what they love. As Mike puts it, “The closer you are to the land, the more passionate you become [about its stewardship].”

INFO: Benziger Family Winery (1883 London Ranch Rd., Glen Ellen; or 888/490-2739 is open 10-5 daily.


Biodynamics at a glance

“Biodynamics is the highest form of organic farming,” says Mike Benziger. Like permaculture and sustainable agriculture, it emphasizes a self-sustaining ecosystem in which conditions are right for plants to practically take care of themselves. It also enhances the health of the surrounding landscape, which in turn promotes natural disease protection for the vines and contributes to wine quality. At Benziger vineyards, the goal of biodynamics is to produce wines with a sense of place. Home gardeners can ease maintenance chores by following some of its practices.

Attract pollinators. Many native and Mediterranean plants attract pollinators, including butterflies and hummingbirds. More to try: autumn sage, butterfly weed, California poppy, catmint, English lavender, Gaura lindheimeri, and Mexican hat.

Use natural controls. The Benzigers use no chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides, but rely instead on natural controls. They use compost and cover crops like crimson clover and mustard to replenish the soil. They rotate crops to keep diseases in check, and control weeds by cultivation and other mechanical means.

Recycle water and waste. Runoff from irrigation and rain is recycled through a series of ponds and wetlands that naturally cleanse it for reuse in vineyards and landscaping. All organic waste is composted, then reapplied to the soil after harvest.