Good wine: A family affair -- Benziger family winery
You may not know the name Benziger. You may not recognize Glen Ellen, the family's first wine label. But odds are strong you know chardonnay, the grape that the Benziger family introduced to countless wine lovers at home and abroad.
Today, chardonnay is America's top-selling grape. During the early rumblings of California's wine boom, however, the chardonnay buzzword was "Burgundian," an homage to the famed chardonnays of France, which California's new winemakers translated badly as overpriced and over-oaked, "Chateau Two-by-Four," jokes Chris Benziger, the family's vice president of trade relations.
Between pricey "fine" wine and simple jug wines, there was a hole in our national wine scene. Bruno Benziger decided to fill it. In 1981, Benziger and eldest son Mike created Glen Ellen "Proprietor's Reserve" Chardonnay, an easy-drinking and well-made quaff that ebullient retailers stacked high and watched fly for under-$5.
Twelve years later, with annual production topping 3.5- million cases, the Benzigers sold the Glen Ellen label to invest in Benziger Family Winery, its 85-acre Sonoma Mountain Estate and, according to Chris Benziger "authentic winegrowing."
To boost grape growth for Glen Ellen, the Benzigers -- like most American farmers since the 1950s -- relied on artificial pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. "We were nuking the North Forty with agrochemicals," explains Chris, "We needed to heal our property, not only for ourselves and our kids, but also to make distinctive, delicious wines that we can be really proud of."
A family meeting was called. (With patriarch Bruno, matriarch Helen, five siblings and spouses, that's a lot of chairs!) A new direction was plotted.
By 2006, the Benzigers were world-leaders in earth-first farming, with every estate vineyard and every contracted grower certified sustainable, organic or Biodynamic, the nth degree of organic farming. (See "Ross's Choice" for Tribute, the family's dynamic and Biodynamic red.)
To control vineyard pests, for instance, the Benzigers now employ natural predators not chemicals. "We don't call the pesticide company," jokes Chris. "We call the bug guy."
Do earth-friendly wines taste better? To this palate, wines farmed naturally express purer aroma, flavor and texture than those grown with agrochemicals.
Also, costs are dramatically reduced as Mother Nature steps in for synthetics. As Alan York, Benziger consultant and leading voice in Biodynamics once said, "We used to pay a lot of attention to irrigation. Now we pay attention to rain."
Today, Benziger Family Winery offers deeply satisfying, reasonably-priced, food-friendly wines, employing holistic farming to express the unique flavors of Sonoma County's finest vineyards, including:
Sauvignon Blanc "North Coast", 2013: Supple and ripe, with soft acidity to pair with rich finger foods (delicious with summer sausage!) and lighter entrees including seafood, poultry and salads. In California's golden sunshine, sauvignon blanc can over-ripen to resemble canned fruit cocktail flavors. Benziger sources fruit from Sonoma's coolest regions, including Russian River, to express natural flavors of mango, apple and herbs. Says Chris, "Just because we can have the ripest grapes in the world, doesn't mean we should." (Under-$15)
Chardonnay "Sonoma County", 2013: Creamy (but not oaky), with alluring apple blossom aromas and fresh appley flavors. Serve with medium-weight dishes, especially prepared with butter or cream, including the pommes frites with aioli dipping sauce served at Hopleaf/ Chicago. (Under-$15)
Cabernet Sauvignon "Sonoma County", 2013: Luxurious aromas and juicy black cherry/ berry flavors with cigar box accents and comfortable tannic grip, to pair with red meats and the richest poultry. (Under-$20)
• Write to Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross at food@daily herald.com.
Ross' choiceName: "Tribute"
Region: Sonoma Valley, California
Producer: Benziger Family Winery
Availability: At major wine & spirits shops, about $85
(Distributed by: Southern Wines & Spirits of Illinois, Bolingbrook)
Deeply ripened fruit, complex accents and plump tannin in a rich harmony of power (that emulates the great estates of France's Bordeaux) and California succulence. Benziger's 85-acre, certified Biodynamic estate, rising into Sonoma Mountain, is farmed to Cabernet and other Bordeaux varieties in 29 blocks, picked in the cool dawn, with each lot vinified separately and each terrain's unique flavor adding to a spice rack of complexity. Winemaking is hands-off, relying on native yeasts, free-run juice, natural malo-lactic fermentation and Biodynamic techniques including racking wine when a full moon adds its gravitational pull to clarify wine. The wine is in tribute to Helen and Bruno Benziger and consultant Alan York, who each nurtured the Benziger family's land and spirit.