While “green” has all but jumped the shark as a buzz-word, grape-growers and winemakers still have a long road ahead of them when it comes to environmental responsibility and holistic winemaking. At least, that is, in the opinion of die-hards like Mike Benziger. So is one type of certification the answer? And what do we need to know about biodynamics as consumers? I had a talk with Mike Benziger of Benziger Family Winery to sort it all out.
Maggie: Alright, we’ve got a lot of terms to wade through these days: organic, biodynamic, Napa Green, Salmon Safe… In a nutshell, what kind of “responsible” practices do you use at Benziger?
Mike: First of all, I would say that the whole idea of being responsible in your farming practices, being responsible to the environment and to the people you work with is the big picture. It’s a philosophy that runs through everything we do, not just the vineyard and the wine, but the energy we use, the products we buy, and the way we pay our employees.
As farmers, we’re responsible for a lot of natural resources: watersheds, soil health, local plants and animals. So we have a choice to either farm in a way that respects those or a way that exploits it. What we’ve seen is that when you farm in a respectful way, it’s probably the best quality control that you could institute. Everything you do for the environment around your vineyard has a direct effect on your product. It’s when the soil biology is healthy that you add the best quality of the place to the wine.
Maggie: So how much is too much for you? Is there a line you draw when it comes to biodynamic practices or are you all-in?
Mike: All of the properties we own or have long-term leases on are Demeter certified biodynamic. When you’re Demeter certified, you’re required to be in the whole program. You’re required to spray the biodynamic preparations and to improve every year. We take it seriously. To say you’re biodynamic and not be Demeter certified is illegal. There are no choices. You do what you need to do. What’s really messing it up are the people that say, “I farm biodynamically but I don’t want to be certified.” They only follow it while the weather is good. But that’s not really practicing it. We need to draw the line; it’s really confusing the consumer.
Maggie: I’m sure it’s a lot of work to make the switch. Do you find that it increases your costs and the necessary amount of manual labor?
Mike: There’s probably a slight increase in labor, but there are other costs that decrease to offset that. My farming costs are exactly the same as everyone else’s. There’s definitely a necessary infrastructure in the beginning: a place to compost, places to keep animals, et cetera. Those costs are upfront and sometimes significant, but they contribute to the overall biodiversity that regulates your system for you, so your costs go down over time. Generally people say that organic and biodynamic farming costs 10-15% more, and if you figure in the infrastructure that’s probably a safe bet. But over time, I really think it evens out.
Conventional farming borrows from the future to pay for today. You take energy and resources from the future to use them now without any plan to pay them back. With biodynamics, you put more in that bank than you take away every year.
Maggie: Since you decided to make the switch to biodynamics, have you ever reverted to conventional farming?
Mike: We’ve been practicing biodynamic on our own property since 1995 and received our first certification in 2000. We never went back, because natural, self-regulating systems work. We severed relationships with several growers that couldn’t or wouldn’t make the moves toward sustainability and biodynamics, and we’re hoping to get more and more of them certified as we move forward.
Maggie: Has going the biodynamic route ever failed or frustrated you?
Mike: I think the only frustration we’ve had is that the media always wants to sensationalize biodynamics. All they ever want to talk about is the cow horns. They don’t want to talk about what it’s like to concentrate on biodiversity; they don’t want to talk about good bugs and bad bugs. They just want to talk about whatever seems mysterious. But the proof is in the uniqueness of the wines. We’re not trying to be formulaic or consistent or perfect. We’re trying to make a wine that’s true and authentic to one place and one time. It has idiosyncrasies that give it personality and character. Those are the things that make it more interesting.
Maggie: Do you think past production of organic wine, particularly in the 70’s/80’s, and the reputation it had then has affected people’s willingness to try it now?
Mike: I think organic wine production was more philosophy than methodology at that time, so they were committed to the concept without the quality. The end product wasn’t the goal; it was all about the “journey” of being an organic producer. The technology wasn’t really there to produce a super high-quality product. But this is where biodynamics came in and made a change in methodology for producing high quality wine. That is, of course, provided your definition of quality is being different. That, combined with modern equipment and good winemaking, allows you to make good wine. Now all we need is for the consumer to learn to judge and appreciate these products. It’s kind of like learning to like good dirt-grown tomatoes over bland hothouse tomatoes again. It’s happening.
Maggie: How do you feel about advertising your certifications on the label?
Mike: My philosophy is that people have to buy the wine because it’s good, but that we also establish customer loyalty through our beliefs and philosophy in growing it. Their support of our product will help create a better environment. I can’t guarantee they won’t get a hangover from drinking our wine, but I can guarantee the environment won’t get a hangover from our making it.
Maggie: So what do you say to those who think this is just a passing trend?
Mike: I think (biodynamic wine) is a category that’s going to grow, and those who are taking the time to look into it are really benefitting. Right now these products may cost a little more money, but I think people will see they’re getting more for their money. The cost involved is way outweighed by both the quality and the healing abilities these practices have for the environment. So I’m in on it for good.