.Don’t Treat the Earth Like Dirt

Benziger Winery and the tough work of horns and manure


When my homeopathically inclined friend makes a tincture for my allergies by placing small vials on one side of a nondescript little machine, and a tincture bottle filled with Grand Marnier on the other, and then turns on a magic switch for 30 seconds, my rational mind tells me that what exists in the tincture bottle has not changed. It was and still is Grand Marnier. My body, however, feels differently, and within 15 minutes of taking my tincture, I can breathe again. Biodynamic farming is sort of like this. Founded on a holistic and spiritual understanding of nature and humanity, biodynamics is difficult to explain and at the same time, undeniably effective.

Considering the fact that biodynamic farming was invented in 1924 by Rudolph Steiner, the father of Waldorf education, one should expect the unexpected. Steiner was anything but conventional, and he believed that we need to have the same holistic approach in our farming methods as we do in educating our children. There are obvious aspects to this method of farming that are hard to contest: biodiversity; no artificial fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides; working with the cycles of nature; and composting. Then there are the less easily explained phenomena. Like the cow horn.

When Mimi Gatens, director of sustainability at the Benziger Winery in Glen Ellen, tells me about the cow horn, I have a hard time containing my enthusiasm. I first encountered the cow horn when doing a story on Steve Rose, of Rose Ranch, who supplies Benziger with some of its biodynamic grapes. Now, here I am, perched atop a small hillock, surrounded by a biodynamic vineyard and farm, overlooking one of the “insectaries”—an elaborate garden space that attracts the good bugs into the vineyard—and I get to see a real cow horn burial ground!

This is the perfect example, Gatens tells me, of how biodynamics can freak some people out while enthralling others. The cow has the most advanced digestive system of any living animal. Somehow, Steiner figured out that the cow’s digestive juices interact with the horn in order to form the ideal vessel—not too thick, not too thin—for turning manure into compost. Filled with manure and planted in the ground at fall equinox, the horns come out of the ground containing the richest soil imaginable, which is then used on the farm before sowing and planting.

Biodynamic farming is labor-intensive. It involves a committed staff, close attention to the biodynamic sowing and planting calendar following the lunar cycles, elaborate herb-based preparations made from herbs grown here on the farm and a strong belief that by working with the cycles of nature one can produce a better wine. The 85-acre Sonoma Mountain estate, which I toured on a lovely tram, is situated in a perfect 360-degree bowl. The vineyard houses sheep that roam the vineyard in the winter, tilling the soil and eating the weeds, as well as Scottish Highland cows, which are kind enough to provide the farm with manure. The goal of a biodynamic farm is to be self-sufficient, keeping external inputs at an absolute minimum. And of course, the work is never done. Despite being certified by the Demeter Association, founded in Europe in 1928, there is always something to be improved upon.

After a sweeping ride around the farm’s extensive water-filtration system—in which the vineyard’s wastewater flows down into a series of ponds, where it is filtered of impurities by carefully constructed wetlands and used for irrigation—our tour ends at the tasting room. Rodrigo Soto, director of winemaking, meets us here and proceeds to tell me all sorts of wonderful things about the different wines, how they are made, whether they come from biodynamic grapes, organic grapes or sustainably grown grapes, why sulfites are necessary for stabilizing the flavor in a quality wine and about the delicate relationship that exists between growers and vintners.

As I struggle to swirl this very good wine in my glass, Soto tells me something that resonates. Conventional farming is like mining the land, he says. In 10 to 15 years, a piece of property can be virtually destroyed. Living as we do in a county drowning in vineyards, I can only hope that the growers out there believe in this message. Poor farming practices affect not just the food we eat, but the water we drink and bathe in, and the air we breathe. Steiner may have been a far-out dude, but he knew a thing or two about true sustainability. Perhaps it would behoove us to listen.

For more information about Benziger Winery, go to [ http://www.benziger.com ]www.benziger.com.

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