Sunday, May 2, 2010

Benziger Wines Served at the 2010 “Green” Annual White House Correspondents Dinner

Picture: President Obama and the First Lady, Matt Winkler, Bloomberg

Annual White House Correspondents Dinner

Yesterday evening, the White House Correspondents Dinner took place in Washington DC, in the Capital Hilton Hotel. The President and his wife, the White House correspondents and a lot of prominence from Hollywood were among the 2600 guests. The annual White House Correspondents' Association Dinner is the premiere black tie event in the nation's capital.

The Obama Foodorama Blog provides an excellent overview of the event, including the President's speech.

A Green Event

This year's dinner had an eco-friendly theme. The White House Correspondents Association partnered with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental organization about green initiatives. Everything from the napkins, to the organic wine, to the menu. General Motors displayed its Chevy Volt electric car. It is the only one in the District. It was also Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's ride to the dinner.

"This will be the most eco-friendly dinner ever hosted by the association,'' said White House Correspondents' Association president Ed Chen of Bloomberg News. "And we encourage our members and guests to join in that effort, such as by car-pooling, using hybrid vehicles and, for long-distance travelers to Washington, buying carbon-offsets."

The Green Menu

Picture: The Menu, courtesy of Christina Wilkie through

For the meal, the association made an effort to obtain locally produced and organic food and wine and uneaten meals were distributed to the Washington D.C. Central Kitchen. For the wines, Benzinger wines were served.

Organic Wheat Berry Terrine and pea tendrils
Corn, Brussels sprouts, shaved fennel
Jonal crab claws
Lemon verbena and opal basil iced tea vinaigrette

Herb crusted petite filet
Paired with roasted Halibut
Corn and Dauphinoise, seasonal baby vegetables
Pomegranite demi and basil Gremolata

Amaretto chocolate truffle
Green tea crème brulee
Basil cheesecake

Benzinger Merlot (Sonoma County, CA-no year noted)
Benzinger Sauvignon Blanc (Sonoma County, CA-no year noted)

What is Green Wine?

Picture: Benzinger Reserve 2005

Before discussing the Benzinger wines, let me just dwell a bit on the various wine terms that are out there…organic, sustainable, carbon–neutral and so on.


Organic generally means the use of natural as opposed to chemical fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides. The key is: no chemicals.

Organic wines are changing the look of vineyards, literally. Whereas vineyards of the past commanded neat rows rid of all insects, rodents and weeds, organic vineyards are now replacing costly and damaging chemical sprays with environmental partnerships. Pesticides are giving way to introducing low-growing plants between vine rows that host beneficial insects that keep the pest insects in check.

Unfortunately, there is no agreement on what organic wine making as opposed to organic wine growing means. The main issue is the use of sulfur in the fermentation process. In the US, organic winemakers are not allowed to add sulfites during winemaking; an organic wine is a wine with basically zero sulfur. In Europe, sulfites are allowed to be added during fermentation and an organic wine typically contains a modest amount of sulfur.

Biological or Bio

This appears to be just another word for organic, used in Europe.


Biodynamic is similar to organic farming in that both take place without chemicals, but biodynamic farming incorporates ideas about a vineyard as an ecosystem, and also accounting for things such as astrological influences and lunar cycles. Biodynamic is an approach following the rules and ideas of Austrian philosopher-scientist Rudolph Steiner. In his 1924 lectures, he viewed the farm as an entire living ecosystem starting with the soil which is treated as a living organism and receives special applications to enhance its health.


Sustainability refers to a range of practices that are not only ecologically sound, but also economically viable and socially responsible. Sustainable farmers may farm largely organically or biodynamically but have flexibility to choose what works best for their individual property; they may also focus on energy and water conservation, use of renewable resources and other issues.


The idea behind natural wine is non-intervention and a respect for nature. For example, only natural yeasts are used, the fermentation is slow, there is little or no use of new oak barrels; and there are no filtrations or cold stabilization. Natural wines are minimalist wines produced with as little intervention as possible.


Vegan refers to the process of "finning" the wine. Proteins, spent yeasts and small organic matter in wines are sometimes eliminated from wines with fining agents made from animal products. Fish bladders, egg whites, milk proteins and even bull’s blood (not allowed in the US or France) are all used as fining agents. As an alternative, Bentonite, a specific type of clay, is used for clarification in vegan wines. It’s important to note that vegan or vegetarian wines may or may not be made from organic grapes.

Fair trade

Fair trade wines first came onto the market the US in 2007, following trends in coffee, tea and produce. Fair trade refers to the conditions and wages paid to employees of the winery; it guarantees employees a fair and "livable" wage for their product. Fair Trade certification of wine has been around since 2003 in Europe. The certification means that wineries met certain standards for living wages, environmental sustainability and community improvement. Oakland's TransFair USA just announced that it has begun certifying Fair Trade wines from Argentina, Chile and South Africa for the American market.

Carbon neutral

The carbon neutral label comes from a different angle: global warming. All economic activites have a carbon footprint, including wine making. Carbon neutral wineries are trying to make a contribution to the general efforts of reducing the emission of carbon dioxide.

A major aspect of carbon neutrality however is outside the control of wineries. It is the transport of the wine from the winery to the consumer. For example, the carbon dioxide emission would have been less if the guests at the White House Correspondents Dinner had decided to drink wine from Europe that came over to the US via ship rather than wine from California that was transported on the road. In Washington DC, the carbon footprint of the Benzinger wine was not negligible, though Benzinger wines are among the leaders in the green wine movement in the US.

Benzinger Family Winery

The Benziger Family Winery was established in 1980 on an 85-acre estate in Glen Ellen, California, purchased by Mike and Mary Benziger. Soon after, Mike’s parents, Bruno and Helen, and brothers Bob, Joe and Jerry joined the group to help start the winery. As early as 1981, they produced their first wines.

Picture: Benzinger

Since 2007, Benziger has succeeded in producing all wine from grapes grown on farms that were certified biodynamic, organic or sustainable. Because of Benziger’s commitment to natural farming and their tendency to treat employees as family, the winery was named one of the best places to work in the North Bay by the North Bay Business Journal in 2006.


Benziger buys certified organic grapes from several growers to produce the following organically-grown wines: Muscat Canelli (Bartolucci Vineyard), Zinfandel (Bruschera Vineyard) and Merlot (Feingold Vineyard). Regular audits are performed by the California Certified Organic Farmers, a sub-group of the USDA. Currently, 20 percent of Benziger’s total wine production is made with organic grapes. All other Benziger wines, as of the 2007 vintage, are certified sustainable.

To achieve the certified organic status, growers employ natural methods, such as crop rotation, tillage and composting to control weeds and other pests, instead of using synthetic chemicals.

On the Benziger estate, elimination of chemicals and pesticides is achieved through a balanced system of predator and prey relationships, encouraged by the creation of three wildlife sanctuaries to attract beneficial insects and small animals that prey on pests.


In 1996, Benziger began converting their property to a biodynamic farm, and in 2000, became the first in Napa or Sonoma County to achieve Demeter certification. Benziger now owns four biodynamic vineyard estates on 168 acres in Sonoma County, with all wines produced from these estates being certified biodynamic.

In keeping with biodynamic principals, Benziger pays close attention to the forces of nature that influence the vine, and maintain a closed nutrient and self-sustaining ecosystem.


Although there is no official certification for sustainable farming, individuals and groups have devised their own programs and certifications. Once Benziger achieved biodynamic certification, the family wanted to go even further to achieve self-sustainability, and spread this philosophy and practice to all of their almost 50 growers.

In 2005, Benziger approached Stellar Certification Services (an official organic certifier and branch of the Demeter Association) to help create a comprehensive, certified sustainable program, and required their growers to learn and implement the program’s precepts. Growers were asked to assess their vineyards referencing the Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices, then demonstrate adherence in eight areas: canopy management, soil fertility, disease and pest management, irrigation management, natural resource management, employees and neighbors, continuing education and wine quality.

Cover Crops

Revitalization of soil is achieved by planting the following cover crops: mustard, annual rye grass, zorro fescue, blando brome, rose and crimson clover, Austrian winter peas and bell beans, oats and wildlife sanctuary plants. Aspects of each of these combats erosion, controls weeds and manages vine strength.


Benziger practices deficit irrigation for reduced berry size, increasing the skin-to-juice ratio, which ultimately intensifies the wine. Growers are encouraged to maintain baseline standards for managing irrigation to maximize ripening, ultimately conveying the distinctiveness of the terroir and varietal.

Benziger has set up an impressive water reclamation process on their estate, reusing over a million gallons of wastewater from winemaking to recycle through estate wetlands and irrigate vineyards and landscaping. Water from the collection pond flows into the wetlands, where it becomes purified. Purification is accomplished as the water flows through the complex root systems of countless plants on the property.


To encourage wildlife, property sanctuaries provide habitats for over 50 plant types, songbird populations, Watusi cows and organic sheep. Benziger added numerous owl boxes for rodent control and bat houses for insect control. The insectory attracts various beneficial insects to the vineyards. For instance the verbascum attracts butterflies, great for pollinating cover crops.

Wesley, the Watusi bull, and two cows, Lucy and Baby Poppy, not only add to the biodiversity, but contribute their manure to the soil.

The organic sheep farm contributes to cover crop tillage. Several times a year, the sheep are permitted to graze among the vines of Benziger’s de Coelo estate.

Farming for Flavors

Farming for Flavors™ is a Benziger-trademarked winegrowing philosophy dating back to 1985 and was the impetus for their certified sustainable program. By focusing on specific vineyards, viticulturists realized what techniques were necessary to produce positive flavors particular to each site. Professionals cultivated vineyard blocks with respect to exposure, elevation, soil profiles, rootstocks and clones. The Farming for Flavors™ process was then implemented by their numerous growers, and today, Benziger maintains more than 300 separate lots in the creation of about 20 wines a year.

Biodynamic Teas and Sprays

Benziger utilizes teas and sprays “. . . to restore and heal the land after a season of farming”, says Mike Benziger, and is one of the only wineries to produce its own such amendments. Production is completed at the Sonoma Mountain estate preparation facility, which includes areas for drying the ingredients, assembling the recipes, and underground storage.

Benzinger Wines in my Cellar, McLean, Virginia

I bought a case of the 2005 Benzinger Reserve, 55% Cabernet Sauvignon and 45% Merlot, Sonoma County, a few years ago. I have not yet touched the wine, but I will open a bottle tonight.

Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller with 2005 Benzinger Reserve

Benzinger Family Winery

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1 comment:

  1. Benzinger Family WineryMay 3, 2010 at 12:27 PM

    Wow, Christian! What an honor; thank you for sharing with us. We hope you (and the President) enjoyed the wine selection! Cheers!