Benziger Family Winery grows more than just grapes on its 85-acre estate in Glen Ellen, CA.
Visitors to the property are likely to see bees buzzing about, and plenty of egg wasps, too – a natural predator of leafhoppers. Benziger has planted some 40 acres of gardens designed specifically to attract beneficial insects like the egg wasp.
“There is sort of a pushing nature out [approach] with conventional farming,” says Benziger Family Winery’s Chris Benziger. “Instead we invite nature back in.”
By growing gardens that attract predatory insects, Benziger coaxes bugs in that might normally not visit the property. The egg wasps are a perfect example.
“You find a flower that attracts the egg wasp, they come in and lay eggs, and voila! No more leafhoppers,” Benziger says. “They go out and eat the bad bugs.”
The insectary gardens, situated strategically throughout the vineyard, contain about 40 to 50 different plants that attract a whole host of helpful bugs. Benziger thinks of it as the “E-Harmony” of the bug dating world – connecting beneficial insects with plants they love.
The vineyard also employs bluebird and owl boxes. Benziger says the owl boxes are especially helpful, because owls prey on rodents like gophers.
In the past, poison would be used to keep gophers under control, which created its own set of problems. Benziger says foxes would sometimes find the dead gophers, eat them, and then die from ingesting the poisoned gopher. Then one of the vineyard dogs would find a dead fox, chew on it, and get sick or even die.
“You’d have this train wreck of dead animals just from trying to kill a gopher,” he says. “Now you have an owl box out there, owls are out at night, they’re going to be flying around, they’ll eat two or three gophers a night, and you eliminate your gopher problem in a very benign way with a healthy owl population. It’s very, very cool.”
More than a dozen owl boxes are located on the property, and about two-thirds of them are occupied at any given time by barn owls and even great-horned owls, Benziger says.
These approaches to insect and rodent control have done more than just made the family business more sustainable.
“We’re in awe of nature, which helps us develop better wines, because we’re more in touch with what we’re doing,” Benziger says. “And when your vineyards are healthy, you want to be out in them.”
Read more about Benziger Family Winery and its employment of sheep for weed control.