1WineDude TV Episode 15: Underground Wine Road at Benziger

Vinted on July 26, 2010 binned in 1WineDude TV, California wine, on the road

Although the term terroir gets tossed around like confetti at an Italian wedding these days, there are several (mostly family-owned and –operated) wine properties in Napa and Sonoma that are taking the idea seriously.

One such property is Benziger, who biodynamically farm grapes and make wine in a beautiful section of Sonoma County.  So much so that they’ve hired self-proclaimed terroir specialist Dr. Pedro Parra to help them analyze the soils and subsoils of their vineyard locations – involving scientific analysis and the digging of deep trenches at strategic locations in the vineyards to examine the soil profiles and root growth.  You can see some of this in the video coverage below.

General Manager Mike Benziger and I sat down last week at the family winery to talk about California wine, terroir, dirt, and Dr. Parra’s unique work, but failed to discuss the strange state of my wind-blown hair.  Enjoy!






  • Josh Wade

    You don't seem to agree at the 3:50 mark – hahaha. I bet there is some more behind that but on the surface it does seem a little wrong. I mean I can walk out and look at the soil in Walla Walla and tell there is a HUGE difference than the soil in Yakima.

    Did you guys dig more into Biodynamic practices while you were there? Was he aware of the controversy that is swirling all around where some things it is voodoo mojo magic and does nothing to actually produce a better product.



    • 1WineDude

      Hey Josh – yeah, Benziger is real gung-ho about BioD.

      I actually find the debates on BioD a bit odd. I mean, the data is already in on this stuff, and you certainly don't need to believe in all of the stranger tenants to see that the soil becomes healthier using BioD, which is good for farming and therefore a bit better for the grapes. The wines are just as good as their non-BioD counterparts, so the proof is out there that it at least works, IMHO. I actually do agree for the most part that modern conventional farming practices are killing soil vitality and creating a similar top-level soil profile around the world.

      I saw no naked vineyard dancing, though!

      • An actual winemaker

        Joe, you make a bunch of leaps of faith here. I'm not aware of any data at all that points to BD practices doing anything other than what organic farming does.

        You say that you don't have to believe in the stranger tenets of BD to see the effects. Actually, that's precisely what you have to do. Otherwise, it's not BD doing it!

        If BD wines are just as good as their non-BD counterparts, then what's the point of pursuing BD? BD proponents do actually claim that it makes a better wine, more true to place, more natural, etc, etc.

        I'd urge you to develop a greater standard for "proof." You then make a broad claim that conventional farming homogenizes soil character around the world. Wow! How could you possibly know this? Are you a even a farmer?

        • 1WineDude

          Hi Winemaker – I'm not a farmer, but I've spent quite a bit of time with farmers and soil experts in France and in the U.S. In both countries, their analysis is showing that grapevine soils at upper levels are displaying two common characteristics (and your point is taken about going too broad on saying this could be impacting the whole world): 1) loss of insect life & 2) soil compaction. And in those ways, soil types *are* being homogenized due to conventional farming practices in the vineyard.

          In terms of believing the "odder" aspects of BioD, I suppose you're saying that this is similar to just going organic so why not just go organic. My understanding (and maybe I am wrong, but if so then so are several vineyard proprietors / winemakers who have told me this directly) is that organic more-or-less means "natural inputs" to counter pests, diseases, etc.; BioD more-or-less means "no inputs" – everything is handled in as closed a system as possible (insectiaries to attract and house beneficial predators, etc., etc.). Alan York, who is consulting on BioD for Benziger and others (including Sting's property in Italy) told me that BioD can and has been used as a framework and that several benefits can be obtained in terms of vineyard health without going fully BioD. He could be wrong of course but I've no reason to doubt what he is saying and he makes his living at it.

          I'm not saying that Organic is better / same / worse than BioD. I'm only saying that BioD produces some of the best wines made, based on my experience and tastings. So in that sense, the data is IN as far as I am concerned – it works, at least on some levels.

          I do hear what you're saying in terms of making too many leaps and broad-brush strokes – I am picky about others doing that so I do take the criticism seriously. Thanks!

          • An actual winemaker

            Joe, I get that your knowledge of this subject is one of a journalist. You're hearing things that proponents of BD want you to hear. But journalists simply report what they hear, they don't make interpretive claims on their own. Steiner himself said (rather ironically) that those that don't have experience with farming should not be talking about it. You've gotten a very one-sided view of BD. I'm willing to bet that you also want to believe what you hear.

            If you want to go the route of terroir, you have to understand that terroir is much more than soil. Where I am, many wines from many different wineries, soils, using different farming and wine processing methods all share a similar character. That's terroir. I'm not sure why you're putting all your BD eggs in the soil basket.

            You're repeating the rhetoric of BD, but not the reality of it. BD winegrape farmers do not follow the "no input" rule because V. vinifera is a non-indigenous species (how's that for natural?) that must be sprayed for fungal diseases. They are allowed (and most definitely do pursue) the allowed inputs of sulfur and copper sulfate. Do you know where these chemicals come from? It's not dug from the ground. It comes from big industrial factories with smokestacks.

            The idea that wealthy people associated with famous wineries sing the praises of BD should be taken with a grain of salt. Most of those wineries were making famous wine before they implemented BD. The fact that people make a living at spreading fairy tales should not be a surprise to you.

            Ask yourself honestly, do you want to believe it without rigorous evidence? We all believe in things that way, there's no shame in it. But let's call it for what it really is then – a religion.

            • 1WineDude

              @Winemaker – You might be right in some ways. However, it's not all BioD proponents telling me this stuff, so I wouldn't jump to the conclusion that I'm overly naive or regurgitating only what I've been told with no interpretation of my own, etc.

              Look at it from my point of view – I taste wines from organic and BioD producers that are amazing wines in some cases. If BioD or organic farming or whatever is better for the soil, the surrounding environment, and the resulting wine, then I personally don't really care all that much if it also means people have to run naked through the vineyards when Saturn is in the fourth quadrant or whatever. And that's what I mean by not believing in it all – if a rational person wants to follow the tenets of Jesus of Nazareth because it makes them a better person, but ignores the religious part of it, I'm of the mind that it's okay provided that they're not hurting themselves and aren't hurting anyone else. I suppose I view BioD and organic farming in a similar way.

              • An actual winemaker

                This is the inevitable stalemate that believers and non believers come to. No doubt that BD has a tremendous feel-good quality that prompts a certain amount of rationalizing. The problem I have with BD is that it is not benign. It makes claims of superiority without real evidence and presents a defense of "there are some things that science just can't reveal" as a blanket retort. It's disingenuous and bad for society in general.

                I'm not bashing organic. I'm saying there's no further benefit of BD over organic. Nobody wants chemicals in their wines or in their bodies. No conscientious person in this business want to harm the environment. There are lots of us that make rational decisions about how to do what we do in the vineyard or cellar. But BD says that it doesn't matter. That all the science that has served us well in the past, in any aspect of life, is wrong. And that rationality is wrong because there's a way of looking at the universe to reveal a truer truth. You and I cannot see it, but someone can – he's a clairvoyant named Rudolf Steiner.

                Come on, really? Can you really say now "Hey, what's the harm?"

                When people with wealth hire BD consultants that eventually sets a precedent as to how agriculture works. Over time this is accepted as truth. This is not progress. The wine industry is enough of a dinosaur already, we certainly don't need a fairy tale to impede real progress.

                BD exists only in microcosm. Excess wealth and labor usually do produce good results.

  • ChrisO

    WOW! I am with Josh on this one, there is no way that statement about the top 2-3 feet of soil being homogenous around the world can be swallowed and taken for true. All one need to do is take a trip to Carneros, Coonawarra, and Chateauneuf-du-Pape and compare the top soil. I am sure you would agree that the soils of Greece are not the same as those of Pennsylvania. Where was the Joe Roberts hard-hitting reporting? I would have expected you to challenge that statement at least a little bit! Can we expect a more in depth piece on your visit to Benziger?

  • 1WineDude

    Guys – I'm not in agreement that **all** soil types are **exactly** the same (which is why I mentioned the "contributing factors" in the vid) and I *highly doubt* that Mike B. meant that with such a broad brush (hopefully he or one of the Benziger clan can chime in here on that one).

    HOWEVER… I do agree that those soil types are becoming similar in many areas in that conventional farming practices are compacting and killing the soil – from that perspective, the concept of uniqueness in terms of winegrapes has to include more and more the subsoil layers. BioD and Organic farming practices help to bring that life back to the soil, so in that way encourage the uniqueness at higher soil levels, etc.

    I'd also challenge any notion of me being a hard-hitting reporter. I've never envisioned 1WD as being anything other than balanced and I **vastly** prefer those ideas and statements being discussed in the comments (as we are doing here) rather than in direct interviews.


    • Mike BZ

      I’m liking the lively discussion our interview sparked…But sounds like, I need to provide a little clarification in relation to my comments about the homogeneous nature of soils around the world. Joe is right – I didn’t mean that all soils worldwide are exactly alike. What I meant was:

      1)Commercially farmed soils around the world have become biologically very similar. The use of commercial fertilizers and pesticides over the last 50+ years, combined with aggressive cultivation has homogenized much of the soil life in the topsoils worldwide. Artificial inputs reduce or terminate soil microbiology and thus eliminate points of differentiation from site to site. The soils generally have become more mediums for inputs than natural support systems.

      2)Vines that grow only in the topsoil that is healthy or not, usually only express the varietal character and don’t express the sense of place that is associated with soils. When commercial fertilizers are overused, there’s no impetus for roots to stretch down deep, because the snack bar is right on top in the topsoil. To express a more complete sense of place, vines need to have deep roots that feed deep down into the regolith and parent material. That’s where wines get their minerality and a truer representation of place.

      I hope this clears things up a little bit. I’m glad everyone is so interested in the subject. It’s fascinating stuff and we look forward to digging even deeper.

      • 1WineDude

        Thanks, Mike! Digging deeper? You couldn't resist that one, could you? ;-)

      • An actual winemaker

        Sounds great. You've made the claims, now do you have the evidence? Real evidence? This is me digging deeper.

  • Rich Tanguay

    Geddy Lee!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • 1WineDude

      In the words of Geddy, "woooooo-YEEEAAAHHH!!!!"

  • Julie

    Super interesting – regardless as to whether all top soils are *exactly* the same, makes a compelling case for dry farming, where the grapes may get some extra good ol' terroir on their way to a water source.

    Hope your trip home went well!

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Julie – trip was fine, I'm still battling the stomach bug but seem to be on the mend now.

      • Julie

        Take care of yourself and feel better soon!

  • Jenny

    Love to hear different views of soil and this is definitely interesting considering he is saying all soils are equal within the first few layers. Also love the Rush reference.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Jenn – RUSH fans are in pretty good company here. :-)

  • Ed Thralls

    Much akin to the natural wine debate, comes BioD and all it's voodoo rituals. However, I agree that it has to be better for the soil and environment simply by the lack of human additions. Whether it results in higher quality grapes and wine is determined by the palate of the beholder. I have had several wines made from devout BioD farmers including Beaux Freres, of which we just enjoyed a magnum of their 2006 with some friends this weekend and it is still phenomenal. When we visited in 2008 we also did not experience any naked pagan frolicking amongst the vines, nor did we get to see any crap-filled horns being buried.

    I'm no "terroir specialist" but I find that statement about the top foot of the soil being the same a little stretch as well. I have heard that the best vines have to dig deep due to being in less fertile soil or perhaps less than optimal sites and "struggle" to some extent. Those vines will take on nutrients and ions from much deeper than that top soil anyway.

    Great video, Dude. I haven't been back to Benziger since we last visited in 2003. Thanks for the interview.

    p.s. was olive green attire necessary to step onto the premises?

    • 1WineDude

      Oh, sure, Ed – make fun of the guy who's a bit colorblind!


  • Tim

    A great thoughtful piece and I for one do not know if BioD is a solution or part of the problem. As farmers we have to subscribe to the notion of keeping the land in balance. As winemakers we have to make delicious wines that people will talk about and buy. As consumers we just want to be happy with our selection (regardless of growing policy)…If the marketing of wine was able to stay away from – we are better because…that would be ideal. There are 100s of wines out there made with low to no imput and choose to not be certified organic, bioD, sustainable, etc. How about the new word or phrase Natural winemaking…? the beat goes on.

    • 1WineDude

      Tim – maybe both!

      Of course, marketing is gonna push the BioD n/atural / organic angle because on the surface it's a great story. The truth is likely much more complex, of course!

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