The Benziger Dilemma

Benziger is the last family winery of its size left in California. Located in Glen Ellen, it has, as the Europeans say, a “beautiful position.” With its verdant rolling hills, constant blue skies, and the warm Sonoma earth, I can see why Mike Benziger staked his claim to the wine country here. The operation is first-rate, the tasting rooms are inviting, the staff is friendly, and the energy level is high.

Mike farms the 85-acre estate completely biodynamically. He was the first to release a Demeter-certified wine in either Napa or Sonoma. This is a serious commitment. At a recent tasting in New York, Mike demonstrated that he is passionate about biodynamics for all the right reasons: healing the earth, passing on lustrous land to his children, and producing terrific-tasting terroir-saturated wine. For these efforts, Benziger received Sunset Magazine’s first-ever Green Award last year.

The main wine made from the estate-grown grapes is called Tribute. Since the first release in 2001, it’s earned ratings from the low to mid 90’s in the point-system world, and many rave reviews. The brochure for Tribute is a rare mix of biodynamic-speak (talk of fire, air, water, earth, and spirit) next to quotes from conventional wine staples Robert Parker and Wine Spectator Magazine. I can imagine these men scratching their collective heads at the ethereal side of what Mike is advocating. At $50 a bottle, however, this is a collector’s wine, and it’s showing the Cigar Aficionado set that biodynamics does not mean crazy.

So, with high praise for taste and awards for green practices, what is the Benziger Dilemma? Well, only 1% of the wine sold under the Benziger label is biodynamic. The rest is conventional, not even organic. This 99% majority of their grapes are grown off the estate by contract farmers who control their own growing methods. Mike told me that he has issued strict new guidelines, and that the farmers are all working to achieve “sustainable” ratings in the next few years or he will no longer buy their fruit. Every year these rules are tightened, and he believes that by working with his growers he will move them closer to organic practices, leveraging Benziger’s annual grape-buying influence.


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