Wine — Red, White, and Green

Vineyards shift their focus to organic, sustainable, and biodynamic practices

Benziger Family Winery offers a tram tour that includes a look at its biodynamic farming methods.

Ken Hanson

About the time you think you understand what is (or, more to the point, what is not) involved in organic agriculture, you start hearing about biodynamic and sustainable growing. Good luck if you’re looking for an abridged definition for either.

Biodynamic has been around for decades, but it’s not addressed by the USDA and a cadre of certifiers, as is the organic designation. Although its roots date back to 1924, biodynamic farming has only had a certifying body — Demeter — since 1997.

“Sustainable is a newer concept,” says Allison Jordan of the Wine Institute, which in conjunction with the California Association of Winegrape Growers is developing a statewide Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices. “We are hoping to compile it as early as spring,” she says. “We will have some vineyards piloting the guidelines. [Then] we would fine-tune the program.”

Meanwhile, more and more wineries and grape growers are transitioning from traditional farming practices to organic, biodynamic, and sustainable approaches. Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen encompasses all three disciplines on its estate vineyards and with its 50 growers.

“Green is the new gold,” Chris Benziger says. The problem is that some people are simply “jumping on the bandwagon because it’s popular,” he adds. “This is not something you do overnight.”

The Sonoma County winery has been practicing biodynamic farming for 20 years and became Demeter certified in 2000. “Biodynamic is extremely complex and a difficult certification,” Benziger says. “It doesn’t work on all pieces of property.

“Biodynamics is holistic — talking about all the other parts of that property: wetlands, orchard, livestock. Organics is just the elimination of chemicals. Sustainable is more of an a la carte method of farming. … With sustainable, you are allowed some chemicals. Biodynamics is much more involved because you are taking in cycles of nature.”

Jeff Kunde of Kunde Estate Vineyards, also in Sonoma County and a practitioner of sustainable growing, sees it as less of a hierarchy.

“What sustainable is about is not so much the end product. What sustainable is about is the environment around it: riparian corridors, watershed, soil, erosion, how we treat our people,” Kunde says. He describes sustainable farming with three basic criteria: Is it socially equitable? Is it environmentally sound? Is it economically feasible?

Kunde, whose sustainable practices won Gov. Schwarzeneggar’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award in November, weighs the use of Roundup against having workers “tearing down the hillside” to control weeds. But the winery also uses cover crops, mustard seeds to aerate the soil, and owl boxes to attract natural predators to pests and educates local schoolchildren and visitors on sustainability.

Oregon wineries can be certified for sustainable wines through the state’s Low Input Viticulture & Enology (LIVE) program, certified by the International Organization for Biological and Integrated Control of Noxious Animals and Plants. In California, the Lodi wine region has established The Lodi Rules of Sustainable Winegrowing, certified by Protected Harvest, which also certifies other agricultural products.

Since the mid-1980s, Benziger has been offering its growers educational workshops on environmentally sound growing methods and has trademarked its own sustainable farming program: Farming for the Future.

“We would love to have the Wine Institute come up with a certification agent, Benziger says. “But they don’t have one yet, so we had to go out to Stellar [Certification Services]. You have to have third-party certification because you have to have a form of transparency.”

At the end of the day, Benziger says, the idea is to grow better-quality grapes. “Overall, with certified wines, we see an increase in quality and better expression of the fruit. We found it brings the authenticity of that vine, the terroir, the sense of place into focus. The grapevine has a chance to fully integrate with its natural environment.” In part, that’s because with chemical fertilizers, the food is at the surface, whereas in biodynamic vineyards, roots must reach deeper for nutrients.

“In a great vintage, everybody does well,” Benziger says. “In a marginal year, that’s where you really see the quality come through because the vines are more healthy. When the chips are down, our vines seem to do much better than those not farmed to [sustainable/biodynamic] level.” The winery’s 2007 vintage bore out the proof. “Our 2007 sauvignon blanc is the best sauvignon blanc we have ever made,” Benziger notes. “And our [2007] pinot noirs have more finesse.”

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