You are what you drink
In a town that has recently hired an executive to reduce our contribution to global warming, the concept of sustainability resonates strongly. As a community, “going green” may be a part of the legacy we leave behind.So what’s that have to do with wine?Well, Wine Spectator’s current cover story announces, in a very green typeface, that “Wine Goes Green.” It is a confirmation that the wine industry, which has had problems in the past being good stewards of the land from which it makes its living, is spawning a movement to change that. The mere fact that the esteemed Spectator has devoted 22 pages to the topic is significant.
The cover photo shows biodynamic consultant Alan York and winemaker Mike Benziger in a very Lewis and Clark-like pose at the prow of a canoe on a water-reclamation pond at Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen, Calif. Many Aspen locals are aware of the Benziger Family Winery’s commitment to sustainability, as family member Kathy Benziger has been a longtime local. Although she maintains her local cell-phone number, Kathy has moved to Connecticut where she is heading up the East Coast sales operations for the winery.While they bottle a number of wines from vineyards that use sustainable and organic growing practices, Benziger Family Winery’s flagship wine is a Bordeaux blend called “Tribute” that is sourced from their own 85-acre Demeter-certified biodynamic winery in Sonoma County.”Wines are about what’s in the vineyard,” Kathy Benziger implored in a phone conversation this week while traveling to Aspen to pour at the Food & Wine Classic. “While farming biodynamically is good for the environment, it is really all about bringing out the flavors in the wine.”Biodynamic farming is a holistic practice that was originally espoused in the 1920s by an Austrian philosopher named Rudolf Steiner. A disciple of Goethe, Steiner was also a founder of the Waldorf education system. He believed that a farm, a field, a crop should be seen as a whole, a self-nourishing system in which all things are taken care of by the elements of that system. That means no pesticides should be introduced, fertilizers should be generated organically on the premises, and bugs, pests and weeds should be controlled through soil management.
There are spiritual elements of the biodynamic practice as well that reference the use of animal blood and planting and harvesting in concert with the cycles of the moon, but suffice it to say that the process of biodynamic farming is designed to maintain the precise rhythm and nature of the land and the crops that grow on it. Today the Demeter Association is an independent organization that monitors and certifies growers for compliance with biodynamic principles.”We try to put four fingerprints on our wines,” says Kathy. “The first is we want to be able to taste the true nature of the varietals; we want the essence of the grape to be upfront. Next we want the character of the vineyard to be there, ‘a sense of place,’ my brother calls it. Then we want each vintage, the time in which that grape was grown, to be present. A hot summer, a wet winter, those things go in the wine and in the bottle. And finally we want the winemaker to be a component of the wine.”While “Tribute” is certified biodynamic, the winery has a number of releases that fall under less stringent categories. Many of their wines are certified organic and the Benzigers have created their own designation, called “Farming for Flavors,” which encourages suppliers and growers to meet certain verifiable standards in areas like canopy management, management of water and irrigation, fertility, vineyard floor management, pest management, site selection and landscape ecology.Kathy is as proud of her family’s winery for the stand it has taken on the environment as she is of the wines they produce. “We have 11 Benzigers who work for the company, and there are 16 nieces and nephews coming up,” she says. “We want our vineyards to be the best that they be can for them.”
And, like a great wine, that is a legacy worth leaving.Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and their black Lab Vino. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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Katie Fox said the work required to earn the certification was equal to that of earning a second master’s degree, all while holding down a full-time teaching position.