Read an Excerpt
Excerpt from Sonoma/Napa/Mendocino Wine Country
Name: Chris Benziger
Game: Benziger Family Winery’s youngest sibling, National Sales Manager and self-proclaimed “wine geek.”
Why You Should Know Benziger: The Benziger Family Winery is one of the oldest, largest and best-known independent wineries in Sonoma County. They are on the forefront of the biodynamic farming movement in California. Across all five estate vineyards and more than forty partner growers, the Benzigers are striving to set the standard for “green,” “sustainable” business.
Why You Should Know Chris: He is the kind of guy who calls you up on Friday afternoon after two glasses of wine, and gives you an in-depth tutorial on what the heck “green” and all those other words actually mean.
Why You Should Care: You’re seeing these buzzwords all over the place lately, especially if you’re visiting Northern Cal wine countrydon’t you want to know what you’re buying?
Green is when you think of a product’s true cost on the environment and societyover the long term, instead of the short-term dollar savings it allows you.
“Green wraps up a whole philosophy. If you’re green, you’re thinking about what kind of water your employees are drinking, your corporate philosophy, whether your consumption of a product is cutting down trees, etc.”
Unfortunately, since there’s no governmental or third-party standard for “green,” just about anyone can slap a “green” sticker on their product. That’s why really eco-savvy people look for the labels below:
Organic wine is a label that came from the government. It means the winemaker hasn’t added sulfites. “The first year that organic wine was released, it was inconsistent and often spoiled--because you need sulfites if you’re going to transport or store it,” he explains.
Organically grown means there’s been no chemical input. The real benefit to growing organically is that the crops evoke the flavor of the place. When you use synthetic fertilizers, the roots are fed at the surface of the soil. If you don’t, they have to reach further, prompting deep root growth. Grapes grown organically reflect the terroir much more distinctly, and that carries over into the wine. “It’s amazing: we can make a wine that tastes exactly like Sonoma Mountain is,” Chris tells me. “The earthiness, the chocolate, the red fruit, coming down to the black fruit . . . It tastes like Sonoma.”
Biodynamic encompasses organic farming’s chemical-free principals, and also dictates that the entire eco-system of a farm (or vineyard) be self-sustaining and a “closed circle.” In a biodynamic vineyard, every shrub, plant and animal is there for a reason. All four of the Benziger’s specialty estates are biodynamic, and large chunks of the Benziger Family estate in Glen Ellen are as well.
“We’ve been around for 28 years, and for 15 years we made wines that were correct,” remembers Chris. “They were always good, fun--always what they were supposed to be--but not interesting. But since we started farming these ways we make wines with personality and character. If these wines were people, you’d want to hang out with them.”
Sustainability (in any business) hinges on three principles. It’s actually a pyramid.
The bottom of the pyramid is that you try to do the most environmentally sensitive thing you can. Everyone’s vineyard is different, so what applies for one doesn’t apply for another. Products that are sustainably grown won’t necessarily be organic, and vice-versa.
“It’s basically being a smart person, and minimizing chemical input.”
The middle bit is, you have to be socially responsible. It’s not just the way you treat your employees and resources. You have to travel up the supply chain and make sure your suppliers also treat their people and resources correctly.
The top of the pyramid is economic viability.
“You do no good if you go out of business. You have to stay in business, and be as good as you can.”
Three biodynamic Benziger Family wines you must buy while in Sonoma:
2004 Sunny Slope Cabernet. “It’s killer. Grapes grown on the slopes of the Mayacamas mountain range.”
2006 Sauvignon Blanc Estate Paraiso de Maria “I absolutely love it. A wine we made to emulate a Sancerre. I’d drink it on my Coco Puffs. Well, no, that wouldn’t work I’d make a bellini out of it from the white peaches I wish I grew.”
2004 Tribute (named in honor of the Benzigers’ parents). “I’d put that wine up to anybody, and even the most jaded freakin’ Frenchman would go, WOW.”
Chris’ Pick List The Best Sonoma/Glen Ellen Venues Not Found in Other Guidebooks
Tour: Benziger Family Estate, or Imagery
Okay, those are both in guidebooks. But they’re the two Benziger estates open to the public, and you can’t get a better up-close look at biodynamic farming.
At Benziger, you ride a tram powered by French fry oil all around the hilly vineyards, herb gardens and insectories. At Imagery, sample reserve Cabs not available at any retailer.
Make-Out Spot: “The Acropolis,” a Greek-style gazebo built on the Benziger ranch by the hippies who owned the property before them.
“Pull in at 4:30. The tours shut down, but the winery doesn’t shut down for another hour. Take your girl and walk up to the Acropolis. Nobody’s up there, and we don’t bother anybody. Just you, your girlfriend and a bottle of wine . It’s the most romantic spot in wine country. During that one hour, people propose, have impromptu weddings, do the dirty It’s awesome.”
Power Lunch: Kenwood Restaurant. “Where all the winemakers hold court.”
Kick-Back Dinner: Vineyard’s Inn. “A good piece of fish, but the best margaritas.”
Best Dive Bar in Town: The London Lodge. “Drunks are at the bar doing shooters, kids are playing pool. Great jukebox. A good piece of wood, as my father used to say.”
Chips n’ Salsa Hangout: Hacienda. “A fair combination of gringos and Mexicans, but great food. It’s where the locals hang. You’ll have a great time.”
Highway 101 Stopover: Ernie’s Tin Barn. “If you’re driving to Sonoma from the SF airport, there’s this little roadside stop in Lakeville. It’s a garage, but it serves Eye of the Hawk beer (really strong!) and pistachio nuts in a bowl. AND they have a CSA organic farm on-property, so you can pick up your vegetables too. It’s a treasure, and nobody knows about it.”
Hangover Breakfast: Garden Court. “Best eggs Benny in the world.”
To-Die-For Brunch: The Fig Café. “Bryan is the chef. Killer fries, breakfast pizza, French toast. They have bellinis, mimosas and for two months at harvest, they blend champagne with fresh grape juice, and it’s amazing.”
Skip: Steiners. “It’s redneck locals and touriststhere are fights all the time. You will see local color. And the color is red, as in, they’re bleeding.”
Stay: A winery guesthouse. “Here’s the insider thing. Almost every winery has a guesthouse. If you know somebody in the wine business, that’s where you stay. Now that the whole experiential travel thing is taking off, winemakers are having dinner with VIP guests, letting them stay on the property. Money can’t exactly buy it, but . . .
“Go to your local wine club, meet the distributor. Make friends, and say, ‘Hey can you set me up?’ Or go to your local wine retailerNOT Safewayand say, ‘I’m going to Sonoma, do you have any contacts?’ Somebody’s got the connections. Somebody’s getting the guest house. It happens every single day.”