What to Know About Sustainable, Biodynamic, and Organic Wine — Just in Time for a Summer Tasting Trip

From the vineyard itself to the wine in your glass, here's how to know you're embarking on a sustainable experience.

The vineyard and property at Benziger Family Winery
Photo: M. J. Wickham/Courtesy of Benziger Family Winery

Nothing says summer like an idyllic, sun-soaked day spent sipping wine in a vineyard. And knowing the vineyard practices sustainable and biodynamic farming techniques makes it even better.

When you drive up to a biodynamic vineyard, the first thing you notice is how beautiful it is, Chris Benziger, the vintner at Benziger Family Winery in Sonoma, California, told Travel + Leisure. It's full of "habitat highways," like olive trees and lavender bushes, as well as animals roaming, like the sheep on Benziger's land, which do everything from pushing debris into the ground to eating leaves and even fertilizing as they go.

"When you see a well-run, sustainable vineyard, you see how naturally it blends into the land," Benziger told T+L. "It's not so neat and angular. When you see a sustainable, organic vineyard, they're more in tune with the topography of the land, it looks more like an old traditional farm from 100 or so years ago than it would a big, industrial farm."

The BioD Tram Tour & Insectory at Benziger Family Winery
Courtesy of Benziger Family Winery

The wine itself also tells the story.

All of the growing conditions — from the type of soil and the climate to how the vines are cultivated — create the terroir, a French term loosely translated to mean "a sense of place."

"There's a strong belief that the terroir… creates a profile in the wine. For us, we really want wines that have a strong expression of terroir," said John Hamel, the managing director of wine growing at Hamel Family Wines, which is also located in Sonoma. "We want there to be a sense of transparency when you taste the wine back to the seasonal conditions, the type of soil that we grow our grapes in."

Benziger added it's that sense of place that makes the glass more complex and more interesting.

"You're not just getting primary fruit notes, you're getting the minerality of that site," he said. "Every bottle of wine is like a little zip code depending on where you are in the world."

This is everything travelers need to know to plan a sustainable wine trip this summer.

What makes a vineyard sustainable, organic, or biodynamic?

Benziger described it like a target: sustainability is the whole, followed by organic, and then biodynamic is the bullseye in the center where you "eliminate the chemical inputs, but also replace the biological capital during the season."

"I have to make sure the land is healthy and we do that by composting, cover cropping, using animals," he said.

Vineyard and tasting room at Hamel Family Wines
Courtesy of Hamel Family Wines

Hamel said while organic really just means using organic-certified fungicides, herbicides, and pesticides (which tend to be less harmful than conventional products), biodynamic is a holistic way of looking at farming.

"It's looking at trying to approach agriculture a little bit differently and to use these ideas from before the industrial revolution. And I think there's strength in some of those ideas," he said. "Fundamentally, it's to help create balance… It's trying to create a living farm system."

How do sustainable farming practices affect the actual grapes?

Benziger said the key is in the roots.

"When you're farming conventionally, you end up having a shallow root system — you're feeding the vine at the surface... you're kind of growing water balloons," he said. "You want to turn that on its head. You want those roots to do what they're trained to do and go deep into the soil."

A bottle of cabernet from Benziger Family Winery
Courtesy of Benziger Family Winery

Having deep, established root systems actually makes the vines more resilient against climate changes, Hamel said. And the stronger the connection of the vines to the place they're grown, the stronger the ever important terroir is.

"All of the growing conditions both above ground and below ground for the vine… create a profile in the wine," Hamel said.

How is visiting a sustainable winery different?

It's all about authenticity, Benziger said — the "dirt under your fingernails" approach.

"Usually the people who are giving you the tour or the tasting at a sustainable farm are more into it. It's a team sport when you farm this way," he said. "You want to think of that beautiful chateau-type feeling and that's what you're going to get at a sustainable farm. We're selling the whole idea of growing grapes."

Tour Terrace tasting at Benziger Family Winery
Courtesy of Benziger Family Winery

Hamel added it's not hard to see that authenticity when it's all happening right in front of visitors.

"When people visit our winery, we talk about how we farm. We can say all of the things [we do] and feel really good about all we say," he said. "For us, it's important to talk about how we're making the wines. The wine is one piece of the puzzle, and it's the most important thing, but to contextualize everything, you need to tell the whole story."

Do you need a reservation to visit?

That depends on the vineyard and the type of experience you want.

At Benziger Family Winery, people need to reserve certain tours, but walk-ins are welcome in the tasting room. Those who make a reservation can explore the vineyard on the Tribute Estate Tour & Tasting, for example, which uses an electric tram for the tour, or book a seated tasting.

The tasting room at Hamel Family Wines
Courtesy of Hamel Family Wines

For its part, Hamel Family Wines is open by appointment. Each experience is privately led by an "estate ambassador" and can include a privately guided tour through the vineyard, winery, and cave or even a multi-course menu with perfect wine pairings.

Alison Fox is a contributing writer for Travel + Leisure. When she's not in New York City, she likes to spend her time at the beach or exploring new destinations and hopes to visit every country in the world. Follow her adventures on Instagram.

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