Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Benziger: Farming for Flavor

Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of touring and staying at Benziger Winery in Glen Ellen, California. Located on the side of and just below Sonoma Mountain, an ancient volcano, Benziger Winery has seen a tremendous transformation over the past 10 years. Moving from what most would consider to be a larger, mid-range (price and quality) producer to a focused (single-vineyard in many cases) quality oriented producer that has sustainability as one of its main focuses.

The Benziger family moved to Sonoma in the late 1970s and quickly established themselves as a leading wine producer at multiple levels. Since selling their Glen Ellen brand in the early 1990s, the winery has been on a long-term track towards several defined goals: mainly sustainability and higher quality. The Benzigers feel that these goals go hand in hand with each other, and it’s a simple formula: by maintaining a healthier environment, you get a healthier (and balanced) ecosystems, which promote healthier soils, which producers healthier grapes, which makes tastier wine. This commitment is played out at their estate just above the town of Glen Ellen. A biodynamic ranch that features gardens and livestock, bug-highways, composting mounds and water recycling ponds and many other facets of what would have been (more-or-less) found on a typical pre-industrial farm. The idea is to create an environment that is self sustaining with no impact on the greater environment. They have basically succeeded.

The estate in Glen Ellen is certified Biodynamic, a certification that is re-verified every year, and fully functional as a self-sustaining farm. Gardens are planted with edible and ornamental plants, fruits to supply the needs of the composting and fertilization preparations, as well as guests needs. And at their Imagery Estate, which is just down Highway 12 a mile or so from Glen Ellen, the Benzigers have established large vegetable gardens to supply local restaurants interested in biodynamically grown produce.

From a quality stand-point the Benzigers have been on a long-term move away from high volume (and less-expressive wines) to lower yields, but wines with more character and flavor, with better expression of their terroir and more intensity. We tasted a number of wine the Benzigers produce (a number of which are only found at the winery tasting room) and were quite impressed with the new direction. One of these new wine categories that is now available here in CT is the Signaterra range, which consists of the Benziger Signaterra 3-Blocks Red, 2006 (64% Cab Sauv, 36% Merlot), Benziger Signaterra Pinot Noir Bella Luna, 2007 (Russian River Valley), and the Benziger Signaterra Sauvignon Blanc Shone Farm, 2008 (Russian River Valley). The concept with Signaterra is that is combines the three critical variables for making great wine (Earth, Nature, Man) and uses them in harmony with each other to produce the best possible expression from these vineyards. Expressive and intensely flavored these are tremendous wines and probably a departure from what many consider to be the Benziger style.

Overall, the Benzigers are on a path to reduce their volume output significantly, but at the same time raise the quality levels considerably. If the Signaterra range and the other wines I tasted at the winery (such as the deCoele Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast) are any indication of what is to come, then we can all look forward to the new vintages from this family.

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