Mike Benziger | Water Wizard

vommag July 31, 2015 Vol.1 Issue 2

Mike Benziger

Story: David Bolling
Photos: Steven Krause

Winemaking is a kind of alchemy because, at a fundamental level, it involves turning water into wine. A lot of water.

UC Davis professor Larry Williams studied a test plot of chardonnay grapes in Carneros and calculated that irrigated vines required a little over 15 gallons of water to produce a four-ounce pour of wine, although just 6.5 gallons from irrigation. Dry-farmed grapes (no irrigation) required slightly over 14 gallons of water, all of it drawn from the soil. Which leads us to Mike Benziger, the wizard of winery water.

Farming 50 acres of wine grapes on the side of Sonoma Mountain, Mike Benziger saved 1 million gallons of water between 2012 and 2013.

That amounts to 2,740 gallons a day, every day, for a year.

In 2014, he saved another 400,000 gallons.

How did he do that?

A typical vineyard, says Benziger, will consume about 100 gallons of water per vine per season. That could be as much as 300,000 gallons per acre. Mike got his vineyards below 50 gallons per vine, and 31 percent of his vines are dry-farmed, meaning they get no irrigation.

Again, how did he do it?

Some people call Mike Benziger a visionary. Others go a little further and call him a prophet. Occasionally you’ll hear the wizard word creep into a conversation about the man who twice orchestrated the Benziger family’s remarkable rise into the firmament of Sonoma County winemaking.

That vineyard, those vines and grapes, no longer belong to the Benziger family. In a June announcement that rocked the California wine world, Mike announced the sale of Benziger Family Winery, along with sister winery Imagery, to The Wine Group, the third largest wine company in the world. Mike insists it was a careful decision made in part because he was confident that Wine Group executives would build on the extraordinary sustainable, biodynamic farming practices for which Benziger has become a poster child.

And selling the wineries hasn’t eroded his enthusiasm for the technologies and strategies he employed to get so green. He remains filled with passion, conviction and more than 30 years of winemaking wisdom. And his success in reducing water use is a legacy virtually any vineyard can draw on. So, again, how did he do it?

Mike Benziger’s water conservation strategy is part and parcel of his overall farming philosophy which, he says, only evolved after he practically destroyed the farm. “First,” he says, “we did it the conventional way. In 12 years of conventional farming we completely killed the property. No birds, no insects, the soil was dead. It was an oh-my-God epiphany, the grapes are subsisting on artificial, piped-in elements.”

Conventional farming practices, Benziger says, seek to control all the variables. To restore his land, Benziger decided, he had give up control and give the land a chance to recover. “In our system, giving up control provides some interesting surprises,” he says.

The first step of an incremental revolution in his vineyard practices was the discovery that cover crops make a big difference, adding organic matter, anchoring the soil, increasing water absorption while providing habitat for micro-organisms and beneficial insects.

From cover crops Benziger dipped into organics, but he says he wasn’t sold. The principle made sense but it wasn’t a comprehensive enough solution for his depleted land.

That led him to a conference on biodynamics and somehow the complex, almost ritualistic teachings of Rudolph Steiner, the 19th-Century Austrian mystic, educator, philosopher and agricultural pioneer made perfect sense.

“Biodynamics was like homeopathic agriculture, it was designed to heal the Earth, and our land needed to be healed.”

Benziger says that, as his understanding grew about the mysteries of soil, wind, water and heat, so did his ability to heal what was ailing in the vineyard, which occupies something over half the 84 acres on the Sonoma Mountain property.

Soil, wind, earth, fire—the four essential elements—are the driving forces and the strategic factors in his farming philosophy. They’re also the symbols tattooed on the inside of his left forearm. Airy fairy, New Age mumbo jumbo? Maybe. But let’s talk about those 1 million gallons again.

Growing grapes and making wine uses a lot of water. So how do you use less? There’s no single solution, but here’s what Mike Benziger did.

First, he reached the conclusion that, to properly manage farmland—any kind of farmland—you need “three tools in the tool box.”

Those tools, he says, are appropriate technology and an understanding of living systems, along with the consciousness and intuition to apply the first two.

By 1995 the Benziger vineyard property was running out of water. So Mike took the first big step toward efficiency and brought in a UC Davis PhD student named Heather Shepherd who designed a constructed-pond recycling system that cleans the winery’s wastewater to tertiary levels while removing all pollutants and heavy metals.

Shepherd has demonstrated that creation of artificial wetlands can be a low-tech way to deal with the thousands of gallons of water contaminated with wine sediments produced at wineries. Shepherd’s system uses large-scale constructed wetlands planted with cattails, bulrushes and arrowhead plants to simulate natural water flow conditions and purify winery wastewater. The processed water can then be re-used for irrigation.

Benziger Family Winery is now recycling 2 million gallons a year that way, and the system is so successful the winery developed a water surplus. But that solution was not enough, especially after Benziger hired a climatologist to provide a long-term look at future weather patterns.

“He told us a major drought was going to hit the West Coast after 2012. So back in 2005 and 2006 we looked for ways to make our plants more efficient.”

To find the best farming techniques and the right technology, he says, “one of the most important things to do is travel. Get out of the Valley. Get out of California. Get out of the country and go see how others do it.”

So, in South Africa the Benzigers learned about soil probes and the accompanying telemetry that can measure soil temperature, moisture, and moisture draw down, then transmit it to a waiting database to aid in irrigation decisions.

Another tool Benziger learned about was the emerging, complicated and slightly arcane science of electrical conductivity mapping.

Soil it turns out, has a wide variety of properties measurable by electrical conductivity, and information gathered by mapping the conductivity of large tracts of land provides data on soil type, soil moisture, soil evaporation, temperature variables and other details that determine how much water plants need to survive and thrive.

The lesson from this technology, says Mike, is that you need to understand a farm based on its geology, not on its topography.

To do the mapping you drag a computerized box over the ground that sends electrical impulses six feet into the soil, and than transmits the resulting data to a satellite. What you end up with is a perfect map of your soil geology.

Mike says he had all the Sonoma Mountain property mapped along with the vineyards of some of his off-site growers.

Yet another technology that Benziger found to improve both efficiency and productivity is use of a leaf porometer and pressure chamber, which measure transpiration from leaves and indicate the health and vitality of vine leaves and whether enough or too much water is being taken up by the vine.

Benziger says all this technology has been expensive, “and not too many consultants know how to use it.” But, he adds, “the technology is getting cheaper all the time, and it really works.”

Water, of course, isn’t the only element in the efficiency equation. Soil health, says Benziger, is foundational to healthy crops of any kind, and healthy soil is high in organic matter, which absorbs and retains water, encourages deeper root growth, sequesters carbon, increases porosity, allows other nutrients to enter the soil and helps resist both erosion and compaction. Since soil organic matter acts like a sponge, it can absorb six times its weight in water.

“Most Valley soils have between 1 percent and 1.5 percent organic matter,” says Benziger. “After 15 years, most of our soils are up to 3 percent organic matter. That’s interest in the bank account … we get deep root growth, higher quality grapes, higher quantity, the best we’ve ever had.”

One of the best ways to increase soil organic matter, Benziger adds, is with animals. “There is 30-to-40 percent more microbiology in soil when animals are on the property,” he says. “That’s why we move sheep through the vineyards. It’s why we keep cows—for the manure. Really healthy soil is glued together by the microorganisms.”

Then there’s the third tool in the Benziger farming arsenal. “Intuition is the trained ability to see into plants, not just at them. The best growers are trained as horticulturists first, viticulturists second. You have to go out in the vineyard, see how the vines are doing, check the heat in the leaf, feel the soil.”

Benziger waxes almost religious when he talks about communing with the vines.

“The ability to look at grapevines is important because they stand in place for 20 or 30 years. The plant is the mirror of the environment … It’s like a musical instrument, it can record what is going on around it. A grape cluster is a CPU.”

Tie all this together and you have a strategy for living lightly on the land, the opposite of “high-tech, high-touch” farming that Benziger disparages. His model, he says, is all about “harnessing natural systems that are free. That’s first. Then comes the tuning of the human instrument. You start with the plant, than it’s the property, then it’s the Valley, then the state, the country, the planet, the solar system.”

Wow. In one sentence, Mike Benziger has teleported from a hillside in Glen Ellen to out beyond Pluto.

No one said it was easy making wine sustainably. It has taken Mike Benziger decades to know what he knows, to do what he does. In 1993, the family sold its Glen Ellen Winery brand to Heublein, turned around and launched the Benziger brand. Will he do it again? That’s doubtful. He’s 63, there are no successors in the wings, and he’s been around the block before.

But whatever follows in the life of Mike Benziger, he has left an imprint on his industry, and he has modeled for anyone willing to follow a formula for turning a sustainable amount of water into wine.