Swirl n' Spit
By Heather Irwin
Lowdown: Tucked in the hillside above Jack London's Valley of the Moon, Benziger Winery is in the middle of a grand experiment in preserving the land that London loved so much.
One of just a handful of wineries that has undergone a massive transformation from standard agricultural practices to biodynamic farming, Benziger is at the forefront of a new viticulture movement. The idea goes far beyond organics to a sort of whole-earth philosophy that takes into account every aspect of farming. From recycling organic material to using specialized ground covers, no chemical pesticides and minimizing the impact on soil, animals and insects, this radically earth-friendly technique is applied to all of the winery's 43 acres.
To no one's surprise, what has resulted is a stunning selection of wines gaining national attention and proving that wines grown with nontraditional farming practices compete and often outclass their competitors.
Mouth value: The tasting room at Benziger is a convivial spot, but sometimes overcrowded, especially after tours. Spend an extra $5 for a biodynamic tasting that affords a more private room with your own tasting guide and some of the wineries very best wines. The 2004 Estate Sauvignon Blanc ($27) is crisp and clear with lots of citrus overtones but much drier and less fruity than the sometimes fruit-salad-like varietal. The 2002 Sonoma Mountain Estate Red ($45) is a big Bordeaux blend with complex flavors that, despite its youth, has soft tannins and easy drinkability. The 2002 Tribute ($65), another blend of Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot, has been wowing critics. This is a very Cabby Cab‹big, bold flavors and tannins that demand to be recognized. Though pleasing, this will cellar well for at least 10 years.
A note: Biodynamic and reserve wines are only sold at the winery. Because of the complexity of the farming process, they do cost slightly more than some comparable wines. Beauty has a price.
Don't miss: There's plenty to see and enjoy at the Benziger compound, including a daily 45-minute tram ride tour of the vineyards, wildlife sanctuaries and caves. Also check out the small outdoor wine exploration area to learn more about viticulture.
Five-second snob: Biodynamics were invented in the 1920s by scientist Rudolf Steiner, who is also credited with founding the Waldorf education system. The winery began working toward biodynamics in 1993, and didn't achieve certification until 2000, attesting to the rigorous rules and processes involved in becoming fully biodynamic.
Spot: Benziger Family Winery, 1883 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen. Open daily, 10am to 5pm. Tram tours, $10. Biodynamic tasting, $10; regular tasting, $5. 888.490.2739.
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From the May 25-31, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.