Story Jonah Raskin
Mike Benziger’s heroes don’t wear capes, use X-ray vision or fly across movie screens at breakneck speed, though some of them are memorialized in movies and books. For starters, there’s Rudolph Steiner, the legendary father of biodynamic farming and the author of the classic Fundamentals of Therapy. There’s also Alan York, the inspiration and the oracle for the 2019 documentary film The Biggest Little Farm, which has taken Sonoma County foodies and farmers by storm.
“Alan could see deeper into nature than anyone I knew,” Mike says.
Other real-life Benziger heroes include Miguel Altiere, a Chilean-born agronomist who teaches at UC Berkeley, and Isael Corona, who has worked for the Benzigers for decades.
“Isael is incredible,” says Mike. “He should own Glentucky Family Farm and I should work for him.”
Benziger himself has the makings of a hero: grit, alacrity, and humility. His own life is inseparable from the life of his family.
The name Glentucky Family Farm doesn’t need much explanation, though it’s worth pointing out that “family” is in the middle, that the name Benziger is absent and that “Glentucky” is a kind of private joke.
“Some of my relatives in New York view Glen Ellen as hillbilly country, so we called our farm Glentucky,” Mike says.
The family farm—which borders Jack London State Historic Park on the side of Sonoma Mountain—is small, regenerative, sustainable, and biodynamic. It’s built around soil, compost, and natural predators, and it’s a model of agricultural diversity. In addition to vegetables, there are cut flowers, honeybees, and chickens that lay eggs like crazy. There’s also an insectary, a kind of hotel for beneficial insects, as well as birds and bats that all play a part in the ecosystem.
“You don’t want to eliminate all pests and all diseases because, if you do, the plants won’t be strong and healthy,” Mike says. “You want the plants to develop their own immune systems.”
Over the last few years, he and his wife, Mary, have become increasingly aware of the vital links between what we humans eat and how our bodies work. Mike has battled cancer, though he doesn’t dwell on that subject or on his hospital history.
“It was from my mother that I learned it can be helpful to compartmentalize things,” he says. “Also, I don’t like to peer into the rearview mirror.”
Increasingly, the land at Glentucky has been devoted to the cultivation of medicinals. They include: savory, which smells similar to thyme and is said to slow the human body’s aging process; ashitaba, an herb native to Japan, which has been called “the poor person’s chemotherapy” because of its antioxidants; and not so ordinary dandelions—both the flowers and the roots can help digestion and manage blood pressure.
The medicinals are dehydrated and shipped to a doctor’s office where they’re turned into powders and dispensed to patients. One might call that product line “farm to pharmacopeia.”
Much of Glentucky’s produce goes directly to Glen Ellen Star restaurant, a destination for foodies, which is downhill from the farm and just minutes away by car. Mike and Mary’s daughter, Erinn, and Erinn’s husband, Ari Weiswasser—who is also the Star’s stellar chef—lead a skilled culinary team that showcases gourmet food prepared with local ingredients.
Weiswasser learned the advantages of the farm-to-table model when he worked at the French Laundry, Thomas Keller’s internationally renowned restaurant in Yountville. The French Laundry’s lush, abundant, and beautiful gardens also shaped Mike’s thinking.
“I got the idea to cultivate vegetables for restaurants when I visited Ari in Yountville,” he says. “I was stoked when I observed the produce go directly from the garden to the kitchen.”
Four or five times a week, with help from Isael Corona, and sometimes his grandchildren—Noa, Riley, Haley, and Hank— Mike wades into his own lush, abundant, and beautiful garden and picks vegetables for Star. On a recent Monday, he delivered seven boxes with squash, squash blossoms, parsley, and arugula.
“It’s a great arrangement for Ari and for the farm, though he could probably get the same produce for less elsewhere,” Mike says. “Still, Ari couldn’t find fresher and better looking lettuce than what we deliver. The leaves are perfect and there’s zero waste.”
Mike doesn’t sell at farmers markets, though he says he would if he were younger. There are only so many hours in a day. Once a week, he supplies 50 or so pounds of lettuce to Park Avenue Catering, which is based in Cotati. He also grows specialty crops, such as espelette peppers (a Basque staple) and a thin-skinned eggplant. During the growing season, the farm donates between 20 and 30 pounds of produce to Sonoma Food Runners, a local organization that helps to alleviate hunger, build community, and ensure that food doesn’t go to waste.
Glentucky provides the cornerstone for what Mike calls the “third chapter” of his life. Glen Ellen Winery, the family’s first business in California, provided the foundation for “chapter one.” In 1993, Heublein bought the Glen Ellen enterprise. Next came Benziger Family Winery, which provided the cornerstone for “chapter two” and embedded biodynamics in the Benziger DNA. Mike served as the CEO and worked to bring the family into the company. In 2015, the Benzigers sold the company to the Wine Group, one of the world’s largest producers of low- and medium-priced wines.
Thirty-five years earlier, in 1980, Mike, Mary, and Mike’s father, Bruno, purchased the Wegener Ranch on Sonoma Mountain, where the family put down roots and grew grapes. Back east, Bruno ran a successful Wine and Spirits Importing Company called “Park Benziger.” In Glen Ellen, he wanted to start a plant nursery, but the winery grew so fast that he was called on to be the general sales manager.
In 1989, he died at the age of 64. By then, his sons and daughters had moved west and joined the business. At first, grapes were cultivated conventionally. Biodynamic certification, from Demeter, came in 2000.
There’s also a kind of preamble to Mike’s story. In 1973, he drove across the country, from New York to California, with Mary Douglas, whom he had recently met, and knew nearly nothing about, except that she wanted a ride to California. The romance of the road led to a wedding and marriage. Mike and Mary have been husband and wife for 46 years. In addition to their daughter, Erinn, they have two sons, Buck and Grant. At Glentucky, Mary focuses on the cut flowers, minds the bees, and handles marketing and social media.
In the award-winning documentary, The Biggest Little Farm, John Chester—the narrator, producer, director, and co-star—explains that farming taught him the importance of “forward momentum,” and that he came to accept a “comfortable level of disharmony.” Mike has learned similar lessons. Like John Chester and Alan York, he has discovered how to co-exist with the disharmony of the natural world and the unique rhythms of Glentucky.
When he looks at the future of farming and agriculture in Sonoma Valley, he sees immense potential, if development doesn’t get out of hand and low-cost housing is available for people who work in vineyards, wineries, and the hospitality industry.
“We can be a mecca if only our political leaders would appreciate our diversity,” he says. “We have great wines, great cheeses, great olive oils, and great craft beers. We also have great cannabis. We need to integrate it into the big picture and make it possible for people to smoke the products they purchase and consume. Cannabis tourism could be big here.”
He adds, “It’s hard to make a living just growing vegetables. You’re lucky if you break even.” The opportunities that were available in the early 1970s, when Mike and Mary arrived in Glen Ellen, don’t exist for young people today.
Whenever he can, which isn’t that often, Benziger eats at Glen Ellen Star and enjoys his own vegetables, which Ari roasts in the wood oven, the restaurant’s workhorse. More often than not, he and Mary eat at home. It’s the farm that grounds them and moves them forward, with their grandchildren. “We harvest together and make a salad and eat and then go back to the garden and replenish,” he says. “It’s a good life.”
Jonah Raskin is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California.