On Saturday, we visited Napa and Sonoma, California’s wine country. Our first stop was to Sterling Vineyard in Napa, a large, glossy, commercial operation in a beautiful location that was, essentially, soulless. I chose this vineyard because it has a cable car up the hill, with gorgeous views across endless fields of grapes (and I thought the children might be amused by the cable car – let’s face it, touring wine country isn’t really a child-friendly expedition). The wine sucked.
Then we went to Benziger Family Winery in Sonoma. This was a completely different kettle of fish. It’s a small, family-run winery with eight members of the same generation of one family working on it. Most of their wines don’t make it to restaurants or supermarkets because there’s so little of it. And it tasted really, really good.
But what I liked most about Benziger was that it’s a biodynamic winery. There are three defined levels of eco-conscious farming in America: sustainable, organic and biodynamic. “Sustainable” means that the farm will try to avoid using pesticides except when it think’s that it’s unavoidable. “Organic” means no growth hormones and only organic-approved pesticides. And “biodynamic” means that the farm is not only organic, but also espouses the principles of crop rotation and the re-cycling of any by-products from the production of its goods.
Examples of this are that they let sheep run through the vines during the winter to keep the grass short (they prefer not to let them wander through the vines during the summer while the workers are harvesting the grapes, because they’re prone to depositing unwanted gifts at the back end of their munching). The Benzigers also grow legumes between the rows of vines, to encourage different nutrients in the soil.
But most fascinatingly, they have six insectaries on their farm, areas where specific trees and shrubs are planted to attract the types of insect predators that feed on potential vine pests. I love this idea. And it clearly works, because they haven’t had any pest problems for three years straight. And as a side-effect of this strategy, the plants in the insectaries also produce a type of tea that can be used as a pesticide. Genius.
Visiting wine country often has a major downside: someone has to be sacrificed for the sake of road safety. Ian was our designated driver. Hic hic hurray for Ian!