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The Inimitable Wines of Mike Benziger

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The Holy Grail of fine winemaking is terroir. Terroir is a French word that means the taste of a place. A wine showing terroir tastes like where it comes from.

Imagine if someone poured you a glass of red wine and you tasted it and immediately said, “This is Heitz cabernet sauvignon from the winery’s ‘Martha’s Vineyard’ site.” And you were correct because you’d tasted wines from that vineyard before and they all had the unique and distinctive “Martha’s” taste. That’s terroir.

The concept doesn’t apply to makers of inexpensive wines produced on a massive scale, because there the idea is to have them taste the same, year after year, so that customers who like the wines can rest assured their taste won’t vary.

But with fine winemaking, which typically means estate wines where the fruit all comes from the label’s property, that unique taste of the place gives the wine distinction that can’t be imitated.

I’ve known Mike Benziger, who runs Benziger winery in Glen Ellen, California, with the help of many family members, for about 25 years at least. I watched with interest as he went organic and my interest picked up further when he went Biodynamic. In Biodynamics, the farm is looked on as a living organism with many parts, kind of like a beehive. The idea is to get the nutrient cycles spinning through recycling. Carbon, nitrogen, calcium, and all the other building blocks of the living creatures on the farm come from and return to the compost pile, which recycles their nutrients by fertilizing the soil, which grows the plants that we eat and the animals that participate in the farm’s ecology.

The ideal is to bring as few inputs into the farm as possible, throwing away very little, recycling everything.

It was maybe 15 years ago that Mike Benziger said something very profound about his wine farm. I’ll paraphrase because I don’t remember his exact words, but he said that by following Biodynamic principles and recycling everything back on itself, the vines, the trees, the plants, the animals, the yeasts and microbes will all become a system unique to that place, and would ultimately result in the wines showing terroir.

In other words, a climax biodiverse ecosystem would gradually come into being and give the wines a flavor and aroma all their own. A climax ecosystem is one that has achieved stability and will continue in perpetuity without changing significantly—such as the virgin forests that Europeans found when they first arrived in North America. If you cut down virgin forest, virgin forest doesn’t grow back. First the cleared land will grow tough weeds. Then a mix of weeds, then shrubs, then pass through many stages over a very long time growing a series of trees until—finally—after thousands of years, a climax forest may again be achieved. Climax ecosystems are characterized by great biodiversity. Many and varied are its inhabitants, both plant and animal. If there is a food source, there will be a creature to take advantage of it. Climax ecosystems define health. The ecosystem becomes like a knitted sweater. Pull out just one string—shoot the wolves, for instance—and the whole thing comes apart.

This is what organic culture and Biodynamic culture lead to.

So, Benziger winery had an Earth Day celebration this year and guests had the Benziger wines to sample. What I found astonished me. There was a distinctive thread that ran through all the estate wines. It was partially a taste, a flavor, but even more importantly, there was a style of classic leanness and grip that told me the wines would be great with food. No giant fruit bombs. Just elegance, refinement, and terroir. Mike Benziger and those involved had done it. Yes, it took a while, but dedication to the organic and Biodynamic principles had turned what once were good wines into present-day great wines.

And, as we know, the Holy Grail was the cup that held the wine at the Last Supper.



The Minnesota Court of Appeals recently ruled that a large organic farm can seek damages for lost crops and profits when pesticides and herbicides from surrounding conventional farms drifts onto its property.

Oluf and Debra Johnson’s 1,500-acre organic farm in Stearns County, MN, has repeatedly been contaminated by nearby conventional and GMO farms since the couple started it in the 1990s. A local pesticide cooperative known as Paynesville Farmers Union (PFU), which is near the farm, has been cited at least four times for violating pesticide laws, and inadvertently causing damage to the Johnson’s farm.

The Johnson’s let the first incident slide. But after the second, third, and fourth times, they decided that enough was enough. Following the second pesticide drift in 2002, the Johnson’s filed a complaint with the Minnesota Agriculture Department, which eventually ruled that PFU had illegally sprayed chemicals on windy days, which led to contamination of the Johnson’s organic crops.

PFU settled with the Johnson’s out of court, and the Johnson’s agreed to sell their tainted products as non-organics for a lower price, and pull the fields from production for three years in order to bring them back up to organic standards. But PFU’s inconsiderate spraying habits continued, with numerous additional incidents occurring in 2005, 2007, and 2008, according to the Star Tribune.

Precedent has now been set for organic farmers to sue biotechnology companies whose GMOs contaminate their crops.



Back in October, EPA approved a new double-whammy herbicide for use in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin. The herbicide, called Enlist Duo, combines Roundup with another powerful weed killer called 2,4-D.

Now Sylvia Fallon, writing on the website of the Natural Resources Defense Council, reports that NRDC has filed a lawsuit challenging EPA’s approval of Enlist Duo because it will wreak further destruction on monarch butterfly populations already devastated by agricultural chemicals and because the pesticide poses risks to human health.

Rather than acknowledge the shortcomings of its approval of Enlist Duo, the EPA recently expanded its approval to an additional nine states: Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma and North Dakota. NRDC is challenging that decision as well.

Enlist Duo is designed to be used in conjunction with genetically modified corn and soy crops that have been engineered to withstand the application of the powerful herbicide, much like how its predecessor Roundup was designed to be used on genetically modified Roundup Ready crops. However, the widespread use of Roundup over the years has led to the widespread destruction of milkweed, a native wildflower that monarch caterpillars depend on. The monarch population that famously migrates across the US each year has dropped by 90 percent since the late 1990s when Roundup Ready crops were adopted.

The US Department of Agriculture predicts Enlist Duo could result in as much as a six-fold increase in the use of 2,4-D, a herbicide developed in the 1940s that has been linked to health impacts in humans, including decreased fertility, birth defects and thyroid problems. Additionally, glyphosate, the chief ingredient in Roundup and the other ingredient in Enlist Duo, was recently classified as a “probable carcinogen” by the World Health Organization.



The following is from The Cornucopia Institute, the nation’s preeminent organic industry watchdog.

The Cornucopia Institute has sent a letter to the White House and to USDA Secretary Thomas J. Vilsack requesting a change in leadership at the regulator’s National Organic Program (NOP).

A radical shift in the governance in the organic sector, established by Congress in 1990, has created deep fissures within the organic community and, more recently, resulted in 15 organic stakeholders, including Cornucopia, suing the USDA.

Previous administrations faced plenty of criticism from organic advocates. However, during the Clinton and Bush years, USDA officials were universally viewed as respecting the purview of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). This 15-member, multi-stakeholder body was established by Congress to review all synthetic/non-organic ingredients and materials used in organic farming and food production.

Congress also mandated that the USDA Secretary seek the counsel of the NOSB on all aspects of implementing the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA). “Although the USDA ignored some of the NOSB recommendations in the past, until recently they never went 180 degrees in the opposite direction in deference to the preferences of powerful corporate interests,” said Kevin Engelbert, a former NOSB member from Nichols, New York. “And they never reversed the 23-year tradition of allowing the NOSB the autonomy to create their own procedure manual, set their own agenda and create their own workplan.”

The problem seems to be that huge agribusiness corporations, looking to cash in on the booming market for organic food, are exerting their enormous power on government agencies like the USDA. The NOSB was supposed to represent actual organic farmers and regulatory officials, but the panels that set organic policy are now riddled with corporate agribusiness employees. That’s against the law that established the organic program within USDA, but where agribusiness is concerned, such laws are often ignored.

The Cornucopia Institute’s recommendation—that President Obama dismiss the perpetrators of this radical shift—should be supported by all who value real organic food. Let the White House know you support it. You can email the President at https://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/submit-questions-and-comments%20.