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How the Wine Business Institute Adapted to Online Learning: Anatomy of a University Virtual Tour of Benziger Winery

by Liz Thach, MW
April 27, 2020

With the advent of COVID-19 and the corresponding shelter-in-place announcement, the 30 students in Sonoma State University’s Introduction to Wine Business class quickly adapted to online learning, but there were many moans of disappointment over the cancellation of a field trip to Benziger Winery scheduled for April 2020.

Scheduled only once a semester, the winery field trip is an opportunity for the students to see everything they have studied in the classroom in a real, practical setting, including the vineyards, the winemaking equipment, the tasting room and marketing methods, and a special chance to meet the winery owners who help bring wine business learning to life.

Fortunately, Benziger Winery was just as adaptable as the students.  Chris Benziger agreed to host a virtual field trip for all 30 students. The process was organized into four phasesto provide optimal learning and enthusiastic engagement. The following is an anatomy of how these phases were implemented.

Phase 1: Benziger Website Analysis and Selection of a Favorite Wine

The students were given an online assignment to analyze the Benziger winery website. Activities included: identifying the differences between sustainable, organic, and biodynamic farming, and explaining how each was implemented; reviewing the history of the winery, as well as identifying Chris Benziger’s role, the winemakers, and winegrowing team; analyzing the different levels of the wine club and the various types of tours offered; and  reviewing the 24 different wines listed on the website along with identification of the least to the most expensive wines.

The final activity was for the students to identify which wine they would like to try and explain why. The most popular wines were: Tribute, because it was the highest quality, highest price and biodynamic; De Coelo Pinot Noir, because nine of the 30 students “loved Pinot Noir” and it was biodynamic, and De Coelo Rose, because it was pink, came in a “pretty bottle” and was biodynamic.

The Excel spreadsheet was forwarded to Chris, along with a description of the website analysis that the students had completed. In addition, Chris and the university professor scheduled a phone conversation to discuss the timing, format, and content of the virtual field trip.

Phase 2: Zoom Virtual Field Trip with Chris Benziger

The Zoom virtual field trip of Benziger winery was scheduled during regular class time on a Monday afternoon. The faces of all 30 students, along with Chris and the professor, could be seen on the Zoom computer screen. After introductions, Chris immediately set everyone at ease by speaking in a very friendly manner, apologized that the students could not visit in person, and offered them the opportunity to participate in a complimentary tour when the winery opened again.This resulted in many smiles.

He then presented a 20-minute photo show that he narrated in a story-telling fashion. He described his family, the winery history, and then explained how, as a teenager, he was able to wander the property, encounter many wild animals, listen to wild birds and insects, and enjoy nature.

However, as the years progressed and the family continued to tend the vineyards in the conventional farming method of applying agrochemicals - as most wineries did at the time – they noticed that nature slowly started to fade away. Chris then showed a photo of a bare dusty vineyard, with no grass and skinny weak-looking grape vines.

“There came a day,” he said, “when I walked in the vineyards, and instead of hearing birds and insects, and seeing lots of wildlife, the only thing I could hear was the lonely whistling of the wind.”

He explained that was the point when he and his brothers decided they wanted to farm in a new way. Therefore, they started doing research on different farming methods and discovered the work of Rudolph Steiner and biodynamics. Then, through years of trial, they slowly began to transform their ranch into blocks of sustainable, organic and biodynamic vineyards.

Next Chris showed photos of all of the animals, birds and insects living on the ranch today. He explained how wasps can be useful in eating the larva of leaf hoppers, which can hurt grapevines. Sheep eat the weeds under the vines in the springtime and help till the earth with their hoofs. Big shaggy Scottish Highlander cows provide natural fertilizer with their manure.

He told funny stories about the animals, such as the time they left the sheep in the vineyard too long and they started eating the grape leaves, so they realized they needed to pull them out before budbreak and put them in a special pastor. Another time the cows got their horns tangled up in the trellis system and had to be rescued. A very poignant story was when Chris had to help deliver a baby lamb, and after it was born, the lamb followed him around for three days, believing Chris was his mother. “That’s when people started calling me, The Sheppard,” laughed Chris.

There were two extremely impactful photos in the slide show. The first was of the Biodynamic Pyramid, which explains the process of starting with an awareness of the land and moving through various levels to reach a point of spiritualty connection to a place. The second photo showed employees burying the cow horns, filled with herbs and manure to create one of the biodynamic preps. Chris explained the whole process of when and how the preps are applied, as well as creating the compost.

Phase 3: Live Question and Answer Session on Zoom

The third phase of the virtual tour was a 30-minute question and answer session. Each student had prepared a question in advance, based on their website analysis, but could also ask Chris questions about his presentation. Many of questions centered around the process of caring for the animals; whereas others focused on winemaking and marketing topics. Examples included:

  • Why don’t all wineries use biodynamic farming? Answer: “It is cost-prohibitive for large commercial vineyards to use these methods, plus you need many more people to care for the animals. However, sustainably certified farming is a good option for large commercial vineyards.”
     
  • How do consumers respond to the biodynamic story? Answer: “In the beginning we made the mistake of starting the conversation with biodynamics. Now we lead with wine quality first and green practices second. When the consumer asks why the wine tastes so good, that is when we explain biodynamic, organic and sustainable farming.”
     
  • What is the most difficult part of farming this way? Answer: “You need people who know how to take care of animals, as well as tend vineyards, make wine and sell it. Therefore, we are really a ranching operation, which is more complex. However, the extra work is worth the benefit of creating a healthy system here, which is more like a family.”

At the end of the Q&A portion of the virtual tour, all the students raised their hands over their heads to give Chris a huge round of applause and thanks.

Phase 4: Online Documentation of Lessons Learned and Applications

It is important to close the loop on any type of learning experience with an attempt to determine key learnings and application to work or life. Therefore, the last phase of the virtual field trip included an online assignment for the students to reflect on the session and describe what they learned. Following are a few examples that are inspirational, and illustrate the fact that, even though visiting the winery setting and tasting the wine in person would have been preferable, a virtual field trip can still be a very educational and moving experience.

“I was surprised to see how much work and processes go into a biodynamic wine. There are a lot of things that people don’t think about. For one, how easy chemicals make solving issues like pests and bugs, but they don’t think about how it will affect the outcome of the wine. And that you should always be aware of what you are using because we only have so much to use on our planet. With everything you use, you should be able to give back so that further generations get a chance to do the same.”

“One of the key learnings I gained from the field trip was to not be afraid of trying out new ideas. During the field trip, Chris mentioned that in the beginning he received mixed responses and criticisms from other wineries about using biodynamics. But no matter what response he gained from others, his brand was receiving attention for exploring a different way to grow and improve vineyard growth.”

“One thing that really inspired me, and I'm sure inspired many others in the class, was when Chris said to follow our heart and try new things in the wine industry; and that he is so excited we are the next generation of the wine industry.”

by Liz Thach, MW  

Dr. Liz Thach, MW is the Distinguished Professor of Wine & Management at Sonoma State University in the Wine Business Institute. She has been teaching wine business at SSU for the past 20 years, and is very proud of her students and grateful for all of the generous and inspirational people in the wine industry, such as Chris Benziger. Liz can be contacted at Liz@lizthach.com


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