Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Sonoma wine country and teaching.

A somewhat odd pairing, and yet as we finished our tour of the Benziger Family Winery and vineyards that is exactly where my mind went. This was our first tour of a winery, and we were looking forward to the experience.

We (my husband and I) decided on the "Partners Tour", a longer and more in depth tour of the winery - plus better tastings. Tom was our tour guide and there were only two other couples. A nice, intimate setting. Tom started the tour by telling us about the Benziger family and the history of the land, he then informed us this would be important information for later. He described the tour layout and mentioned all the places we would visit; the top of the hill, the ponds, the wine press, we'd have a sit down tasting in the caves, then finish it off with some chocolate and Port in the tasting rooms. Wow! The next two hours sound amazing.

We were off. Once we reached the top of the hill, we got off the tram and went to the overlook. Beautiful, isn't it?

Here, Tom described the volcanic rock and ash that made the land perfect for wine growing. He described how Cabernet grapes love the other side of the mountain because the obsidian rich soil heats up during the day, and then keeps the soil warm at night. Tom then went into detail about how the winery is its own ecosystem, and that the Benziger family practices biodynamic farming. They believe in farming organically and sustainably. Tom pointed out the pond that the bees, dragon flies, ladybugs, and birds love. They in turn eat the bugs that harm the grapes. He pointed out the hawk, owl, kestrel, and blue jay boxes where the birds make their nests. A hawk soared overhead.

Tom explained the predator birds eat the moles and groundhogs that would threaten the terracing during rainstorms. He pointed out the sheep barn and explained how they, along with the other animals provide fertilizer and aerate the soils. A cute story about the sheep loose in the vineyards eating the weeds and barley crop was told in such an entertaining way I could picture the sheep in the vineyard below us.

We traveled down the hill to the pond Tom had pointed out to us. Here he brought out a bottle of wine and poured us a bit. As we began walking toward the pond, we learned how the winery recycles water and uses a series of ponds to naturally clean it. The owner, Mike joined us out by the pond. His love and passion for his vineyard shown brightly as he shook our hands and added more info to Tom's story. He explained how he would know the grapes were ready- nature would tell him. We asked questions and he gladly took the time to answer us. All this, while sipping a sauvignon blanc perfect for picnics and outdoor grilling. (We bought four bottles.)

Next stop... the wine press. During the short drive, Tom recanted the story of how Mike hired him away from his previous job. (Mike can hire me away!) At the press, we saw how they cleaned the barrels, learned how they separated the grapes from the stems, and learned how the grapes are pressed. Contrary to popular movies, they do not stomp them. We also learned how red wine gets its red color. (It's not from the juice!)

We left the presses and headed into the caves. What an awesome feat! Here we learned how the barrels are labeled, rotated, and how the oak affects the wine. We had our sit down tasting here.

Four phenomenal red wines. We were instructed how to swirl our glasses to "volatile the esters." We learned what scents and flavors to expect. We learned what to pair the wines with, how they were blended, and how the owners decide on the names. Our fifth wine was a wine straight from a barrel. What a treat! We then learned Mike has plans for this barrel when it's ready. Shhhhhh. Tom explained that the Benziger family sits down and discusses each barrel batch when it's time for bottling. Since they have tasted the wines every 4 months or so, they know what each tastes like and how they want to blend them. 

The tour finished in the tasting room with four more wines and the Port and chocolate pairing we were promised at the start. 

So what does this all have to do with teaching besides the amazing lesson in wine making we experienced? Without knowing it, Tom engaged in effective teaching practices. It was seamless and effortless. He even managed to get in a few high quality sheltered instruction techniques. Without. Even. Knowing. It. (Tom was first to admit that!)

Can we, as educators say the same for our lessons? Do we as teachers flow as easily from the Introduction of our lesson to the Review to the Concept Development? Do we engage our learners as effortlessly as Tom? Do we encourage questions and involve our learners?  Is our passion for our content as evident as Mike's? Do we know where each of our students are in their learning process? Are we acutely aware of what is effecting their growth, their learning, their life? Do we take the care and time needed to cultivate the desire to learn in our students? If not, how do we get there?

Each employee of Benziger can tell you about biodynamics, how the wines are pressed, even how many carp are in the pond.  And- they all love working there. Can we say the same for the employees of our schools? Do we tie experiences to our students' learning; see, smell, taste, touch? Do we check our students learning as we go, before it's too late and we lose a whole batch? 

And what about Biodynamics? That's the title, of course.

A biodynamic farm uses only natural techniques that are available to them. They are self-contained ecosystems. They do nothing that could harm the land. No crop dusting, weed killer, or chemicals. They use what they have on the land (only occasionally restocking the ladybug population.) They listen to nature and the grapes, and find natural solutions to problems that arise. The employees understand that weather is unpredictable and they create solutions to unforeseen challenges. They put their heads together to find creative and unique ways to adapt. They do what is best for the grapes. The Benziger website puts it like this:

"There are no silver bullets in Biodynamic winegrowing. When you eliminate all the artificial crutches, you learn to trust your instincts and to trust nature’s ability and capacity to make a great wine."

Like Benziger Family Winery, each school is its own ecosystem and each class in that school a smaller system; each student and teacher interacting in different ways with their environment. Can we employ the lessons of biodynamics in our schools and classrooms?

Of course we can!

Do we listen to the needs of our students? Children are social learners. Do we employ natural methods that have the smallest negative impact when dealing with our students? Meaning, do we allow them to talk, move, and share to facilitate their learning; or are we confined by the perception that classrooms should be quiet? Do we guide and help our students on a natural path to achievement, or push them before they are ready? Do we tailor our lessons to our students or do we force them to adapt to our lessons? Do we look for silver bullets, or to our own professional knowledge and research to guide us?

Our students are 21st Century learners. They live for technology. For them, it is natural. Have we kept up with them? Do we use technology to enhance their learning or is it sporadically accessible? Do we change and improve our techniques and teaching styles, or do we do what we have always done? Do we see change as a challenge or an obstacle? As educators, do we learn from our hardships and come out better for it, or do we complain and fight it? (The instructional shift necessary for Common Core State Standards comes to mind.)

Mike Benziger summed it up the best. While standing by the beautiful pond, he stated that biodynamic farming was what was natural, not what was easy. 

Good teaching is the same. It's about looking to the students for guidance. Letting them show you how they learn, what they need, and what is best for them. It's not about doing what's easy.

I think as educators we can learn much from the biodynamic philosophy.

It's imperative that we do.

You can find information on the Benziger Family Winery on their website Like them on Facebook: Benziger Family Winery. Or better still, visit them in Glen Ellen, CA; about a mile up the hill off Arnold. Ask for Tom, and tell him Kelly and Kelly from Vegas say hello!

1 comment:

  1. Awesome post ! You speak the truth....the education system and more importantly, the educators need to move into the 21st century. School as we know it should be dead. Curiosity will lead the way and minds will expand, learn and create beyond our wildest dreams !
    Love you!
    Aunt Janet