Editor's Note: Kathy Benziger will be at K&L Hollywood pouring Benziger's current line-up on Thursday, October 7th and at our San Francisco store on Thursday, November 4th. Visit our local events page for more details.
When was the last time you tried a wine from Benziger Family Winery? Think back? Was it five years ago? Ten? If it was, or if it's been so long you can't remember, I think it's time you took another look.
I was invited up the the Benziger property in Glen Ellen over the summer, and since we sell a fair number of their wines and I hadn't tried any since my college days, I thought it would be a good chance to check them out.
There are more than two dozen Benzigers living on or around the family's original 85-acre estate in Glen Ellen. Kathy Benziger-Threlkeld, the most energetic ambassador to any winery I've ever been to, was the first to greet me with a warm, sisterly hug. As she led me around the property flanked by verdant hillsides, bees buzzed about, especially in the organic orchard and vegetable garden. We stopped and pulled a ripe summer peach off a tree, and through bites, Kathy began talking frankly about the changes at Benziger over the past 10 years.
The high yield intensive farming that was more or less the rule on most California vineyards in the 1970s and 1980s had left the land sick and dying, she told me (and later Mike, her brother, reiterated). And the "case race" mentality of the late-1980s and early 1990s, which emphasized quantity over quality and had Benziger making nearly 250,000 cases of wine per year, wasn't something this family-owned winery could sustain. Not if they wanted there to be anything left for the next generation of Benzigers. So, when in the mid-1990s Mike Benziger, who oversaw the winegrowing operation, met biodynamic consultant Alan York, the entire family started to reevaluate the whole operation.
"We had to relearn how to make wine," Kathy said. "From crush pad to cave 'less is more' became our philosophy." They began transitioning their different properties to biodynamics and organics, and became involved in helping make all of the growers they bought fruit from more sustainable. And they began making less wine. About 100,000 cases less, actually, focusing much more on quality. They began picking the grapes when they were physiologically ripe but not overripe and became much more judicious in their use of oak. And as balance returned to the Benziger properties, so it has to the wines. As I tasted through the line-up of Signaterra, Estate, Imagery and Tribute wines, I was surprised again and again by the restraint and freshness. These were still distinctly California wines, of course, but the elements were much more integrated than a lot of wines at each of the labels' price points.
Later Kathy and I joined Mike, estate vineyard manager Joaquin Corona, winemaker Rodrigo Soto, terroir consultant Pedro Parra and biodynamic consultant Alan York (and a few others) who were walking the property evaluating the soils in different pits they had dug based on electromagnetic readings of the vineyard. From row to row you could see the changes in the soils -- this one had more water-retaining clay, this one was dry and dusty. The knowledge they gained from the exercise, Mike said, would refine the way they farmed each row of grapes and, in turn, the wines made from them. In other words, the Benizgers were upping the ante on themselves, once again.
2007 Benziger "Sangiacomo Vineyard" Carneros Chardonnay ($15.99) A staff favorite, the Sangiacomo Chardonnay comes from a Stellar certified sustainable vineyard in Carneros, and it has all of the cooler-climate character you'd expect from the appellation. With a richer and fuller texture, green apple and citrus notes on the nose, as well as hints of vanilla and spice that aren't overbearing, this is classic California Chardonnay at its best. And at under $20 for a single vineyard wine, it's a steal.
2009 Benziger Sonoma & Lake Counties Sauvignon Blanc ($11.99) Done entirely in stainless, this SB is fresh and vibrant with plenty of lime and grapefruit tang and an undercurrent of minerality.
2006 Benizger Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon ($15.99) One of the top California Cabs at this price point, the Benziger Sonoma Cab has higher-toned cherry, raspberry and currant fruit, with hints of black pepper and spice. The fruit carries through from start to finish, framed by a good soft texture, a touch of minerals and acidic lift.
2009 Benziger "Signaterra" Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($23.99) Benziger's Signaterra wines don't come from their estate, but instead from very special partners. This one comes from the certified organic Shone Farm in the Russian River Valley and has all of the citrus and herbaceous elements you'd expect from the area. On the palate it's a showstopper, with melon, apple and grapefruit freshness, good texture and great acidity.
2006 Benziger Estate "Tribute" Sonoma County Bordeaux Blend ($59.99) This is the top tier Benziger wine, a tribute to Mike and Kathy's folks Helen and Bruno, is made with Cabernet Sauvignon (55%), Cabernet Franc (13%), Merlot (7%) and Petite Verdot (3%) from the best sites on the Benziger estate. Plum, chocolate, violet and espresso dominate the nose, with black cherry, currant and plum filling out the palate. Firm but integrated tannins and good acidity make this enjoyable now and over the next 10 years.
Want to learn more about Benziger? Check out our interview with Mike Benizger in this month's Wine News or here, on the blog, later this week.