Kathy's brother Mike Benziger led the family to found the winery in 1980. "We're a bunch of New Yorkers who kind of had a wild itch," said Kathy, adding that she has five brothers and a sister.
When Mike, the oldest at 57, graduated from college, he took off across the country to "find himself." He ended up working in the wine business, and, while under the owner's wing, he found his passion. Mike learned the ropes from cellar rat, and after two years he made the decision to start his own family winery.
Today, six of his siblings, a brother-in-law, and two grandkids work alongside Mike at the winery – the nine family members are among more than 50 staff members running the 85-acre compound and business, producing wines that are sold nationwide as well as exclusives available only from the winery itself.
"I like to call Mike a chef," said Kathy. "He adds a little spice, a little tobacco, and he builds each blend with a unique flavor." The vineyard's business practices differ from many of its wine-producing competitors in the region and elsewhere thanks to Mike's commitment to creating a fully sustainable winery.
He met Jim Fetzer, a leader in the local sustainable winery movement, and hired Alan York, a biodynamic consultant, who helped transform the Sonoma mountainside into a closed-loop system that works in harmony with nature. According to Kathy: "Mike read up on sustainability, and it intrigued him. It resonated with him to the point that he realized this is the way to create our wine, to give it a sense of place and a sense of expression."
Photo: Trish Riley
Kathy was sold on the concept when she visited the winery in 1996, just as the conversion from traditional farming to biodynamics began. More than 30 acres of the estate are gardens, woodlands, wetlands, and riparian areas. They create a support system for life on the mountainside, including the grapevines.
We walked through the garden, along paths dividing herb gardens flush with sage and lavender blooms, while hummingbirds hovered over the blossoms. Peach, pear, and persimmon trees arched above. Kathy reached out and plucked a ripe, fuchsia pomegranate from a limb heavy with fruit, cracked it open, and offered half to me. We nibbled the sweet burgundy seeds as we walked among the fragrant plants.
"What we do with biodynamics is invite nature back in," said Kathy.
Soon we were back on the trail and stopped at a high point overlooking terraced gardens secured by a recycling pond lit by the November sky.
Next she took us past the chardonnay tanks where white wines are processed quickly to take advantage of their fresh flavors, and we pulled to a stop before an imposing castle-like arched wooden door – entrance to the human-made cave they've drilled into the mountainside -- the barrel womb. Pulling back the heavy doors, we ventured into the cool, quiet resting place for hundreds of barrels of wines that were fermenting at various stages.