By Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr
In our wine education programs, we often get asked about sulfites and whether they are to blame for your wine-induced headaches. As winemakers navigate their way through a byzantine network of biodynamic farming methods, the ugly word “sulfites” hangs over their heads like the Sword of Damocles.
We brought it up during a virtual tasting we enjoyed with Chris Benziger, whose family created a certified biodynamic winery in Sonoma County from the ground up – literally. In 1978, Chris’ brother, Mike, stumbled upon an abandoned ranch once planted to grapes and even marijuana. Up on Sonoma Mountain in the town of Glen Ellen, the rehabilitation of the property would fall to the entire family, Chris included.
The vineyards were literally ravaged by the heavy use of weed killers and chemical fertilizers. To restore it, the Benzigers had no choice but to rid the land of chemicals and initiate green farming. It wasn’t long before the roots of the existing vineyard were diving deeper for the valuable nutrients that feed healthy vines and create delicious wines.
The family had to be resourceful. They were desperate for fermentation tanks and turned to a colorful junk dealer who re-appropriated an old milk truck from a non-paying customer.
“Milk was literally dripping out of it when it arrived,” Chris recalled.
They thoroughly rinsed it and fermented their first sauvignon blanc in that tank within hours of its delivery. It won the Harvest Sweepstakes at the 1982 Sonoma County Harvest Fair.
Today, the hard scrabble the Benzigers bought is alive with plant life, pollinating bees, wildlife, and healthy vines. Valerian, chamomile, and other herbs grow between the vines. Scottish Highlander cattle and sheep roam the vineyards, eat the vegetation, and drop fertilizer. Owls, wild turkeys, and hummingbirds have all returned.
While some wine producers have made biodynamic farming a philosophical decision, the Benzigers turned to green farming to make better wine. Given what they inherited in the land, they didn’t have a choice, Chris admitted, although he said there was some resistance to taking some vineyards temporarily out of production. Instead of farming 65 acres, they now farm 35 just to give the overtaxed land a break.
The terms biodynamic, organic, sustainable are confusing to consumers, and Chris admitted government definition is needed. Only “organic wine” is defined by regulation, and it excludes the use of supplemental sulfites. “Made from organic grapes,” however, allows for the use of sulfites.
“I couldn’t sleep at night if I didn’t add sulfites,” Chris said.
Sulfites are natural to grapes, just as they are to raisins, nuts, coconut, pickles, soy sauce, and more. Most producers add sulfites – sulfur dioxide – to preserve the wine. It has antioxidants and anti-bacterial properties. Without it, your wine could be oxidized by the time it reaches store shelves.
Despite its practical application, the government forced wine producers to put the dreaded “contains sulfites” on the label in 1985 because severe asthmatics were threatened. If you aren’t in this group, sulfites should have no impact on you. If you have headaches from drinking wine, most likely you drank too much and dehydrated. The natural histamines in wine are also a likely culprit – red wine has more histamines than white wine.
Consumers have become more attuned to what they eat and drink. Not only are sustainable vineyards and biodynamic farming good for the environment, but these practices are also good for the wine.
We loved Benziger’s 2016 de Coelo Quintus ($55), a lovely wine with red berry flavors, an earthy character and a hint of mineral. The vineyard is perched on a rugged hilltop on the Sonoma Coast. Morning fog from the Bodega Bay hovers over the vineyard and cools down the grapes – the best circumstance for pinot noir. The grapes are picked at night to preserve their freshness. Chris called the 2016 vintage their best.
The 2017 Benziger Family Winery Reserve Chardonnay ($24) has great purity of fruit – a common characteristic of the producer’s biodynamic practices. The chardonnay, made from grapes chosen from a block of the organically certified Sangiacomo Vineyard, has fresh pear and apple flavors.
Another good deal is the 2016 Benziger Family Winery Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon ($16). Medium-bodied, it has juicy flavors with a hint of spice and round tannins.
The estate’s 2016 Signaterra Cabernet Sauvignon from the Sunny Slope Vineyard ($47) is more full-bodied with concentrated dark cherry and plum flavors and hints of chocolate and spice.
Chris lost his home to the fires that tore through California last year. He had little notice to flee. “My house burned down in 10 minutes,” he recalled. “And we have full-time generators because of the frequent black outs. Now, it’s the pandemic. It makes you appreciate when things go right. Appreciate every day you have.”
We’re planning a virtual tour and live interview with Chris Benziger soon. If you would like a Zoom invitation to participate, send an email to Tom at firstname.lastname@example.org.
·Coppola Director’s Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County 2016 ($23). This is a delightful mouth-filling cabernet sauvignon exhibiting delicious cherry, cassis, and a bit of refined oak. Good structure in a great package.
·Chateau St. Jean Pinot Noir California 2016 ($12-15). You get a lot of bang for a few dollars with this terrific pinot noir offering from Chateau St. Jean. Unabashedly Californian in style with bold ripe cherry and raspberry elements, this pinot noir will match up with most meat dishes, including barbecued meats. If you want an easy drinking, under-priced red wine for summer gatherings, buy this by the case for as low as $10 a bottle with case discounts.
·St. Supery Elu Estate Red Blend Napa Valley2015 ($75). This is amazingly deep and rich blend made from all five red Bordeaux varietals. Cabernet sauvignon dominates with 74 percent of the total. Intense cassis nose with cassis and cherry flavors in an elegant French oak robe. Although on the expensive side this delicious wine is worth the money.