“How allergic are you to poison oak?” Chris Benziger asked me as we both hunched over, trudging slowly, ankle deep, in a muddy forest on his family’s winery property. “I don’t know if I am, and I don’t plan on finding out,” I responded, as I shuffled away from a grouping of poison oak, all for the sake of finding a mushroom. After a few minutes of searching to shroom avail, we joined the group of 20 who had registered to attend the first foraging and Pinot Noir party at Benziger Family Winery. On the way back, we saw something: a beautiful creamy mushroom sitting happily next to a log. The only downside: it was surrounded by poison oak. We’ll let that mushroom stay put.
Over the course of an hour and a half, we toured the Benziger’s biodynamic vineyards in search for edible plants: mushrooms, mustard flowers, miner’s lettuce, peas, and more. Led by Jeffrey Landolt, Viticulturist, and Chris Benziger, partner and National Sales Manager for his family’s namesake winery, we experienced an “off the beaten path” tour of the property. They showed us a rare vernal spring, that was something out of a Jack London novel, and led us on a path through torn up grape vines that “didn’t quite make it,” but were surrounded by miner’s lettuce, a little green with quarter sized round leaves and dainty flowers. It would make a great salad base.
In the midst of vineyard blocks, Landolt pulled a daikon radish out of the ground, showing it in its baby phase – about an inch in diameter and 4 inches long. Landolt’s crew plants these special daikons in the vineyard rows, where they grow to be over a foot long and 4 inches or more in diameter. They don’t harvest them – they leave them in the ground where they rot and help the soil naturally aerate. The daikons also help reduce soil compaction, help save moisture, and ensure that less tilling is needed of the delicate soil around the vines. Thanks to these daikons, and other plants like mustard and peas, Benziger Family Winery’s vineyards have used 50% less water than other vineyards in the area, putting them ahead of the water game in our drought-ridden county. By being biodynamic, the environment benefits, the business benefits, and the public benefits with tasty and delicious ethically made wine. We headed to the patio near the tasting room, where an outdoor kitchen was buzzing with energy with farm-to-table dishes prepared by Chef John Gerber and Chef Karen Homick.
We succeeded at finding tasty greens and flowers for a salad, however, our mushroom discoveries were paltry. If it had rained, we would have had plenty of mushrooms to forage, but, the dry winter has made it slim pickings. Luckily, Patrick Hamilton, a mycologist (aka a mushroom specialist), was on hand to give us a crash course on mushrooms (i.e. what you can eat, what you shouldn’t eat) and take a look at the mushrooms we foraged. Everyone was excited about our findings, but, Hamilton delivered news we did not want to hear: “You don’t want to eat any of these, they’re just bad.” Luckily for us, Hamilton brought mushrooms that he had foraged in the days leading up to the party: hedgehogs, yellowfoots, chanterelles, candy caps and more.
As lunch time neared, we dumped our foraged greens into bowls for washing. We made salad dressing and salads were dished up, topped off with asparagus that we picked in the Benziger garden about 20 minutes prior: literally farm to table. The salad was fresh, sweet, and had no bitterness to it, something I generally fear as one who isn’t a fan of bitter greens. The highlights of the salad included the asparagus, and the delicious, beautiful, purple flowers of the pea shoot plant, which had a light airyness and sweet taste to them. The salad was followed by samplings of yellowfoots and hedgehog mushrooms cooked by Hamilton. The highlight for me were the hedgehogs, which were prepared with cream and were melt in your mouth delicious. Chef Gerber brought out porcini egg custards: delicately served in hollowed eggs, they were sweet, velvety, and one of the most delicious things that I had ever eaten.
Wine was plentiful and glasses were never empty. Chris Benziger shared the history and makings of each wine poured. We enjoyed three Pinot Noirs: the 2012 Dragonsleaf Sonoma Mountain Pinot Noir and two selections from the coastal de Coelo vineyards: the 2012 Terra Neuma and 2012 Arbore Sacre. I’m a big fan of the Dragonsleaf, a medium body Pinot that can be paired with anything, and is sadly no longer being produced, and the Arbore Sacre, which is weightier than the Dragonsleaf and has some nice fruitiness (plum, black cherry) without suffering from dreaded “fruit forward” claims. Paired with Pinot, additional menu highlights included light and airy handmade gnocchi with black truffle mushrooms and Périgord truffles, and perfectly grilled Kurobuta pork chops with wild mushroom madeira sauce. Dessert was bread pudding made with candy cap mushroom. Yes, dessert with a mushroom – a mushroom that tastes a lot like maple syrup.
This event was a combination of all the right things: education, the outdoors, great wine, excellent food, and a fascinating group of people, including Benziger and Landolt, who joined us for lunch and stayed until the end, chatting with everyone. Benziger staff wrapped up leftovers for us, passing out foil wrapped pork chops and salad as requested. The entire experience made me feel like a part of the Benziger family, a family who has created their own, unique, biodynamic heritage in the hills of Sonoma Valley. I look forward to the next foraging party, and still avoiding that poison oak.
—Sarah Stierch, Food + Drink Editor